When Facebook’s founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced in the summer of 2021 that his company was changing its name to Meta and setting its course to become a metaverse, the term “metaverse” turned into a buzzword.
Soon, Zuckerberg was joined by other tech giants like Microsoft, who also claimed that they were planning to create their own metaverses. Mass media immediately caught up with the topic and boosted the hype. It feels like some large corporations want the idea of the metaverse to sound like their breakthrough in the future. But what if that breakthrough has already happened?
The Problem with the Word Metaverse
The term metaverse is confusing. A metaverse is usually defined as a virtual space where people can come together to play games, chat, or even have business meetings. It sounds like something we’ve read about in the sci-fi novel “Ready Player One” by Ernest Cline or seen in its film adaptation by the famous Steven Spielberg. It’s a vague concept of a second life in the digital space provided to humans by tech corporations via VR sets. With all this speculation, it is no wonder that the idea of the metaverse has become a meme, because tech leaders typically don’t bother to elaborate on the practicalities of it.
Zuckerberg uses the term metaverse, but he can’t explain exactly why we must all immerse ourselves in it. This is most likely because he simply uses it as a marketing tool. It’s a known fact that Facebook’s rebranding came after the company was widely criticized by the public. Now, many tech experts in media and marketing see the Meta situation as the company’s attempt to distance itself from the negative aura of Facebook.
Another problem with the current usage of the word “metaverse” is that it erases the decades of VR innovation history that came long before Meta. The truth is that metaverses already exist, while Zuckerberg’s metaverse at this point is a hazy concept-in-the-making. Technologically, the existing metaverses may not yet be ideal versions of a metaverse, but they are likely to evolve faster than Meta’s project and achieve stronger results because they’ve been devoting time to a singular goal, while Facebook was trying a variety of things.
The Metaverses We Already Have
If a metaverse is a virtual space where people can lead a second life similar to what they have in the physical world, we already have that. Take video games, for example. They are immersive digital worlds where humans can socialize. Think of the popular collaborative battle royale Fortnite from Epic Games. Its gameplay requires communication between users themselves, but there’s more to it. Fortnite has been a platform for gatherings for a few years already, even before the pandemic urged people to search for new ways to communicate online.
In February of 2019, Fortnite held the first-ever live, virtual concert on its platform with electronic dance music (EDM) star Marshmello as the headliner. In April 2021 Travis Scott successfully arranged a show inside the game’s digital world, and later Ariana Grande tried her hand at creating her own version of the same experience. In the summer of 2020, there was a series of conversations inside Fortnite devoted to the Black Lives Matter movement.
Virtual reality parks add more detail to the picture of what visiting a metaverse could be in the future. Immersing oneself in a VR attraction means utilizing more interface tools than a typical non-VR gamer would. It enables full-body interaction and provides a far more robust experience. The experience of virtual reality parks more closely resembles that of the physical world, compared to the experience of traditional video gameplay.
With video games today, you can explore virtual worlds, including fantastical ones. Can VR provide any use beyond that? Yes, it can. Other than entertainment, virtual reality allows us to make strides in education, medical training, mental health, and research.
VR is becoming more and more popular as a training tool for medical specialties. Moreover, it is showing prospects for use in medical examinations. For instance, surgeons at the George Washington University hospital use VR to inspect the lungs of patients with COVID-19.
VR is a promising educational tool, putting students in immersive learning environments that are more engaging than a regular classroom or reading a textbook. For example, students can explore architecture or historic events in digital spaces without geographical limitations. Museums have been familiarizing themselves with the possibilities of VR for a while now, hoping to make their exhibitions accessible all over the world, and there is great potential for this kind of experience going full-metaverse in the near future.
The concept of the metaverse seems fresh, but that’s mostly due to its newspeak nature. In fact, the VR and video gaming industries have been working on different metaverses for a while now. Of course, to achieve the perfect metaverse experience, we will still need better equipment, but it seems that there is a lot going on in VR and gaming that is worthy of attention.