What is the metaverse? A definition

I’ve recently published an article on The Conversation about the metaverse and what it means. I wanted to follow that up with a short and more accessible piece explaining “what is the metaverse?”

The metaverse is best understood through the idea of extended reality.

We all live in the physical world which we experience through our different senses. Humans have for years been able to design new experiences for humans through technologies that add things to our senses.

These designed experiences over the top of the physical world constitute extended reality and most notably includes augmented reality and virtual reality.

We can augment reality by overlaying something on top of it, and the game Pokemon Go or some fun video filters to add facial features or age you are great example of this. This is already used for purposes in the construction industry and in education.

We can also create virtual worlds of many kinds, where sci-fi visions of completely immersive virtual reality are at one end of the scale but many popular games like Fortnite or Roblox give an idea today of just how popular virtual worlds can be. There are many niche uses currently around, like in education, training, and entertainment.

The metaverse then is a vision of what our world might look like if all of these different extensions to reality were to come together into a single online world. For example:

  • Facebook gives us a model of a single persistent persona which goes into different groups and has different interactions. What might this look like if Facebook became spatial?
  • Games like Fortnite or Roblox give us an idea of how people might choose to spend large chunks of time online, to interact within virtual worlds, to overlay the virtual on the physical
  • We’re used to cryptocurrency through things like blockchain, what happens when we start having virtual markets of space, as is happening in Upland and Decentraland (and in Second Life before them)
  • We all know what it’s like to have work meetings through Zoom, what would happen if that was more like a persistent 3D virtual world? That’s what Facebook is trying to do with their Horizons project
  • Augmented reality is already creeping into our lives through things like real-time translation or augmented wayfinding.

To be clear, I’m super critical of the vision of the metaverse being promoted on the basis that:

  1. It’s a continuation of our current trend of the virtual world eating the physical world. The internet and its infrastructure are already estimated at 4% of global GHG emissions. How much would this go up if we embraced the metaverse? That’s not including the estimated 1% of worldwide GHG emissions that are created through cryptocurrency.
  2. Where we put our attention matters. There is no good end to this path of trying to make our lives more full of dopamine and convenience. An alternative path tries to think about ways that we could use these technologies to create better societies–as a part of design for social innovation
  3. It’s ontologically monotheistic (to use Andrew Pickering’s term). The metaverse is a thoroughly colonial project of creating a reality that can then be enclosed and entirely dominated. It posits a single reality within which we can live our lives–what John Law calls the One-World World. And that’s fundamentally wrong.

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