Until a couple of months ago, I would have described myself as a Luddite when it came to the metaverse. But working on the Decoded show for CNN International I had the opportunity to dive headfirst into these virtual worlds and meet some of the key players in this space.
At its most basic definition, the metaverse is the internet gone three-dimensional. The word itself it much older than you might think; it was first created in 1992 by sci-fi author Neal Stephenson, who, with alarming foresight, wrote about a dystopian future where people escaped into a virtual world, accessed with goggles.
The metaverse has been reimagined many times in the three decades since, but Stephenson gave me the best definition of what it is right now: “It’s a virtual environment where large numbers of people can get together and interact with each other, through avatars.”
Perhaps the most surprising element for me as I got to know the metaverse, was that there’s more than one, and they all look and feel very different.
If I wanted to meet friends virtually and have some fun, I might head into Somnium Space. On this platform users create incredible virtual experiences and earn real money for their efforts. This is where you can find worlds within worlds. It’s like descending into the movie “Inception.” If you want to dance in a virtual club, or race cars in a desert, this may be the metaverse for you.
However, if I want to have a meeting for work, you’ll find me in Meta’s Horizon Workrooms.
The whole Decoded team meet here, sat around a virtual desk chatting about the next episode. We can share ideas and even have a viewing of the latest episode on the big virtual screen. I live in London, the producer and cameraman live in Dubai, but this makes us feel like we are together and collaborating in a way that a video call just can’t.
If you don’t have a VR headset, then Second Life may be for you. It’s the oldest metaverse platform, created in 1999. Here I went to a virtual Paris, bought a virtual lion in a virtual pet shop and flew off with it into a virtual heart-shaped cloud.
It may have been fun but it wasn’t easy; in my effort to buy the lion my avatar somehow lost her trousers. It was embarrassing, not least as I was with the founder of Second Life, Philip Rosedale at the time, who thankfully saw the funny side.
Privacy and security
One of Rosesdale’s biggest concerns is how future metaverse platforms make money. “It has to be a business model that doesn’t include surveillance, targeting and advertisement,” he says.
It’s a shared concern for many, and a rational one given the biggest social media company in the world is staking its future on the metaverse; it’s even changed its name to Meta.
Andrew Bosworth is the CTO and our avatars met in Horizon Workrooms, where I was struck by the fact neither of us had any legs – a feature that’s isn’t yet available in this metaverse, but will be in the future, according to a recent announcement.
He joined the company formerly known as Facebook in its infancy and is adamant that Meta can be trusted to forge this new generation of the internet. “Frankly, there’s no one who’s investing more in privacy and data security. Nobody is more focused on this problem than Meta,” he said.
He admits though, it won’t be easy to convince people.
“It’s going to take a long time for consumers to see that value, to understand that, to believe that, and that’s what you expect,” said Bosworth. “Trust arrives on foot and leaves on horseback.”
Believe the hype?
In my mind there is no doubt that there is a lot of hype about the metaverse. NFTs (non-fungible tokens) spring to mind. The technology behind NFTs, which uses the blockchain to transfer ownership, is valuable – I’m just not sure about some of the use cases, like digital artwork selling for millions of dollars. I’m also not convinced about virtual real estate on metaverse platforms selling for similar figures.
Brands can interact with customers by building experiences within these worlds, but it’s unclear which platforms will be a success, and how brands should best use them. So valuing virtual real estate is a tricky business.
I entered the headquarters of a well-known alcoholic beverage brand in Decentraland. I was the only avatar there, and while there was a game and a quiz on offer, they were not fun. There’s certainly no way to sample the brand’s drinks virtually, and I left confused about what it was trying to achieve.
But according to research company Gartner, by 2026 a quarter of us will spend at least one hour a day in the metaverse for work, shopping, education or socialising. I think it’s possible, not least if you consider a game like Fortnite is effectively a metaverse using the broadest definition, and, following the pandemic years of more people working from home and using video conferencing, a better virtual work meeting experience seems like a logical next step.
The metaverse will fundamentally change the way we do things, it’s just hard to pin down the how and the what.
“This doesn’t just change individual lives, it changes society,” said Bosworth. “We have collective access to the entirety of human talent, not just human talent lucky to be born in certain places, which has been the reality.
“This technology starts with something trivial like virtual bowling, and ends with an entirely different outlook on society.”
The metaverse is still evolving – even the definition of the word is changing, and the exciting part is we can all be a part of its future. So pick a platform and explore.