Too embarrassed to ask: what is the metaverse?

The term “metaverse” sounds like something out of a science fiction novel (and it is). But what does it actually mean?

The term “metaverse” sounds like something out of a science fiction novel. There’s a good reason for that – it is.

The term was coined in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel Snow Crash.

Like the similar term “cyberspace”, it describes a three-dimensional, immersive version of the internet in which human beings do business, play games, and socialise, represented by digital avatars.

And just as the term cyberspace did, the metaverse has made the leap from comics and sci-fi films to the boardroom and the business sections.

In July, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg said that within the next five years, he expects it to be described not as a social network, but as a metaverse company.

Meanwhile video game platform Roblox, whose users can sell their creations to each other for Robux – exchangeable for real world currency – became a multibillion-dollar company when it listed in the US this year.

This is not a new vision by any means. Virtual worlds such as Second Life, where individuals can establish businesses and buy digital property for real money, have been around for a few decades. But usage has largely been limited to enthusiasts.

The key difference today – according to proponents of the metaverse – is that not only has technology advanced considerably, but the pandemic has driven new demand for remote interaction.

For example, Facebook has unveiled technology enabling workers to meet and interact in a virtual office by donning virtual reality headsets.

Some dismiss this as little more than a 3D Zoom call – others argue that it offers a more natural way to interact in the working-from-home era.

Either way, it represents a big opportunity for a company like Facebook to collect even more data on its users.

But there are plenty of competing visions for the metaverse.

Many entrepreneurs in the crypto world favour the idea of an open, decentralised metaverse built on the blockchain, as opposed to one dominated by a single company.

As with its previous incarnations, the metaverse may turn out to be more hype than reality.

But with technology advancing all the time, it’s likely that at least some aspects of it will become everyday parts of our lives.

See you in the matrix!

To learn more about emerging technology and investment, subscribe to MoneyWeek magazine.

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