What Is the Metaverse? A Brief History of the Metaverse

What is the metaverse? We explore the definition of the metaverse, and the journey so far. Where did the metaverse come from — and where are we heading?
Metaverse
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March 24, 2022
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6 Minutes
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what is the metaverse
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Amica Graber
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Key Takeaways

  • The metaverse is an online 3D immersive environment that will revolutionize the way we socialize, work, shop, and play
  • Popular sci-fi and companies like Meta have imagined the metaverse as accessible through VR — but it’s already online and you don’t need specialized hardware to access it
  • JP Morgan predicted that the value of the metaverse will eventually exceed $1 trillion in yearly revenues
  • Bill Gates predicted that our work meetings will move to the metaverse in just a few years from now

The metaverse is the buzzword of 2022, with tech companies like Meta (formerly Facebook) and Microsoft announcing their intentions to invest heavily in the infrastructure of building the metaverse. As big tech invests in a consumer-facing metaverse, Touchcast is developing the enterprise metaverse, leveraging these new technologies in a way that will help businesses bring their communication and collaboration strategies into the future.

Although you may have seen many articles, tweets, and thought leadership surrounding the metaverse, it can be confusing and ambiguous. What is the metaverse? How will it be used? Will virtual spaces ever be advanced enough to compete with the physical world? 

Just like the dot-com revolution moved us from paper to digital, the dot metaverse revolution will move us from physical experiences to immersive virtual worlds using mixed reality, augmented reality, and virtual reality. 

Most of the progress done around metaverse technologies has centered on gaming and consumer applications. But now, Touchcast is pioneering the enterprise metaverse, which helps companies move their physical activities into the digital realm, breaking down barriers of time, space, and language to bring people together, even when they’re physically apart.

Keep reading to learn more about the metaverse.

What Is the Metaverse?

MCity in the Touchcast metaverse

What is the metaverse? As this is an emerging technology, it is subject to many interpretations, but the metaverse essentially references a matrix of experiences, environments, and assets that exist in a virtual world. 

A common theme surrounding the emerging metaverse is interoperability. The current internet is siloed — you can buy an avatar skin in Minecraft but you can’t use that avatar outside of the walled gardens of the game.

Web 3.0 elements, like blockchain, non-fungible tokens (NFTs), and cryptocurrency could enable you to link your data — like your identity, purchases, possessions (think virtual real estate or 3D avatars), and wallet, to provide continuity among different platforms.

After all, the interoperable metaverse is unlikely to be a monolith — just as the internet is not Google or Facebook — but rather a constellation of massively-scaled 3D virtual worlds that exist persistently and are rendered in real-time.

This fully-fledged, decentralized, and interoperable metaverse hasn’t arrived yet, but parts of the metaverse are already in existence — and have been for many years. But although a form of the metaverse has been online since 2003, the last few years saw the hype around the metaverse reaching a fever pitch, perhaps due to the global pandemic that forced all of us to become dependent on technology almost overnight.

Proponents are heralding the new wave of metaverse technologies as the next major shift in computing, moving us from 2D screens into immersive three-dimensional environments — from Web 2.0 to Web 3.0.

Renowned metaverse expert, Matthew Ball, wrote that “the metaverse is best understood as ‘a quasi-successor state to the mobile internet’. This is because the metaverse will not fundamentally replace the internet, but instead build upon and iteratively transform it.”

This shift will see us migrate from centralized platforms and text-based websites to immersive, high-fidelity, virtual environments.

The term ‘metaverse’ first originated in the 1992 novel Snow Crash, authored by Neal Stephenson. 

This fictional idea of the metaverse permeated into how many people perceive it today: a photorealistic virtual dimension, accessible through a VR headset. Although this is a version of the metaverse (just ask Mark Zuckerberg) — it’s not the only version.

For instance, you don’t need any special hardware to access the metaverse on Touchcast; it’s available on the device you’re using right now.

A Brief History of the Metaverse

The Metaverse in Fiction

While Snow Crash coined the term ‘metaverse,’ the concept dates back to 1935, when Stanley G.Weinbaum wrote the short science fiction story Pygmalion's Spectacles. The main character encounters a professor who invents a pair of goggles that transports the user into a movie, where they can experience a multi-sensory fantasy world.

In 1992, Snow Crash envisioned the metaverse as a virtual world, (again accessible through a VR headset), where user-controlled avatars and “system daemons” engage in a massively multiplayer online game (MMOG).

Author, Ernest Cline, revisited this concept in the 2011 novel Ready Player One. In this universe, players escape a dystopian future by plugging into a virtual universe known as the OASIS; also accessible by a VR headset and optic gloves.

And yes — Snow Crash, Ready Player One, and The Matrix have all imagined the metaverse as a dystopian vision of the future, where players are plugged in 24/7. But don’t let that scare you. First of all, the metaverse isn’t futuristic — it’s been around since 2003, and nobody has fully abandoned the real world for a digital replica. At least, not yet.

Second Life

In 2003, Lindon Labs released Second Life. Second Life took elements of online multiplayer games (see World of Warcraft) and fused them together with life simulation video games (like The Sims) to create a unique virtual experience. Despite the similarities, Lindon Labs refused to label Second Life as a game. “There is no manufactured conflict, no set objective,” spokesperson Catherine Smith told NBC News in 2007. “It’s an entirely open-ended experience.”

Instead, players could customize their avatar, explore the world, participate in events, and build, create, and buy within Second Life using a currency unique to the platform, known as the Lindon Dollar. 

Although Second Life failed to convert the masses and was eclipsed by the rising constellation of social media networks that accelerated to household names in the same era, it was one of the earliest examples of a functioning metaverse, and still has 750,000 monthly active users as of 2021.

The Metaverse, Today

Consumer virtual reality headsets have been around since the 1990s. Remember Virtual Boy by Nintendo? Probably not — because they just didn’t quite catch on. Fast forward to 2014.

2014 marked a flurry of activity surrounding virtual reality headsets. Facebook purchased Oculus, and Sony and Samsung announced their own versions of VR headsets. 

Almost concurrently, a network of virtual gaming worlds began to come online. Although Roblox came out only three years after Second Life in 2006, by 2014 it was available on mobile devices.

In 2015, Decentraland entered the chat. Whereas Second Life was a centralized platform, Decentraland was, eponymously, decentralized, and used Web 3.0 technologies, like NFTs and cryptocurrency (specifically Etherium), to power its economy. This made it one of the world’s first decentralized metaverse platforms — and it was accessible by desktop or mobile devices.

One of the biggest players in space came along in 2017, courtesy of Epic Games. Fortnite became a huge sensation, with over 350 million registered players by 2020. A few years later in 2022, Epic Games would look for business applications for the Unreal Engine, trying to move away from an exclusive focus on gaming and entertainment.

In 2021, Facebook rebranded itself as Meta and announced its intention to invest billions of dollars in building the metaverse. Meta already had rolled out Oculus Quest VR glasses to much fanfare and Mark Zuckerberg announced his plans to pivot Facebook from a social network to a metaverse company.

2021 also saw NVIDIA announce a major expansion of the NVIDIA Omniverse, a platform designed to build the foundation of the metaverse.

In 2022, Microsoft purchased Activision Blizzard, home to games like World of Warcraft and Call of Duty, stating that the purchase would provide “provide building blocks for the metaverse.”

Many of these advancements are geared towards gaming and consumer-driven applications, but how will companies adapt to the post-pandemic challenges of blending physical and virtual worlds together? Touchcast is pioneering the enterprise metaverse. Let’s dive in!

The Enterprise Metaverse

A virtual event in the Touchcast metaverse

As outlined above, the majority of virtual worlds have roots in gaming — and were consumer-facing in nature. A recognizable shift in this mindset became apparent during the COVID-19 pandemic.

As Plato famously wrote, “our need will be the real creator.” Almost overnight, millions of people became dependent on technology overnight to work, socialize, shop, and learn, and many businesses were forced to pivot from physical to digital as they navigated the challenges of a worldwide quarantine. Suddenly, there was a powerful need for technological solutions to marry the best of the physical and virtual spaces.

Moving into the digital world highlighted the limitations of 2D technology. “Zoom fatigue” entered the cultural lexicon, as workers found themselves enjoying the benefits of remote work but also found the constellation of devices distracting, and found it hard to form social bonds with coworkers over the tile grid of a Zoom interface.

eCommerce continued to flourish, but some missed the physical experiences of visiting a showroom or store.

The metaverse could provide a solution, converging the benefits of digital and physical into one platform, and providing new opportunities for monetization, work, learning, socializing, and much more.

JP Morgan estimated that the metaverse market opportunity is valued at over $1 trillion in yearly revenues. “The metaverse will likely infiltrate every sector in some way in the coming years”, the bank wrote in a recent report.

Stay tuned for more detailed insights to come on — we’ll be exploring applications for the metaverse across diverse industries such as commerce, education, and remote work, as well as dive into how the metaverse will utilize emerging technologies, like blockchain, NFTS, and cryptocurrency.

Visit touchcast.com/metaverse to find more content on the metaverse, and subscribe to the .metaverse podcast on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or Anchor FM.

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