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What is the Metaverse?

Get up to speed on the metaverse and its incumbent virtual worlds in this explainer.

Tue Oct 04 2022

6 Minutes

what-is-the-metaverse

Key takeaways

  • The metaverse is the next generation of the Internet, offering a more immersive way of engaging with content and performing daily tasks.
  • It will be both open and closed. Open being the decentralized projects, where ownership and governance are key. The closed metaverse consists of centralized, curated projects like Roblox, Fortnite, and Horizon Worlds.
  • Activities in the metaverse will be enhanced versions of your daily experiences, from learning to playing, shopping to socializing.
  • Participation in the metaverse will require a bit of tech education and acquisition, but the barriers to entry are getting lower by the day.

Introduction

At such an early stage of development and with so many conflicting voices offering their distinct definitions, making sense of the metaverse is a tough ask. In this article, we'll break down and explain the concept's constituent parts so that you can attend your next [insert gathering of people you want to impress] and own the conversation when somebody asks you the trillion dollar question…

What is the metaverse?

Just as radio was the music and audio content delivery system, and web browsers organized data and information into web pages and platforms, the metaverse is a next-gen delivery system for content and services, probably why many refer to it as the evolution of the Internet.

Essentially, the metaverse is a spatial internet - a separate layer added to our reality that is shared, immersive, and 'always on'.

The spaces that deliver this next generation of content and services are virtual worlds, like Decentraland and The Sandbox, currently accessed from your desktop or mobile. The simple way to think of these virtual worlds is "websites you can walk into." Much like video games such as The Sims, World of Warcraft, and the like, you can perform tasks, enjoy content, make purchases, and more alongside other people.

There are also augmented reality-based projects, like OVER and SuperWorld, which allow you to view and interact with services and content in the real world. Think Pokemon GO but accessible via smart glasses that look just like ordinary glasses but are… smart. They'll take the apps and content you currently access on your smartphone and place them front and center in your field of vision. You'll interact with them through hand gestures, voice commands, and controls on the glasses themselves.

They'll make shopping and socializing, gaming, banking, choosing a restaurant, or even booking a taxi, seamless, more intimate components of our daily lives.

Got it? Now let's add a minor layer of complexity to the story…

The centralized vs. decentralized metaverse

Facebook's rebranding to Meta in October 2021 hoisted the term metaverse into the mainstream spotlight. Meta is not alone, as a flurry of technology and media organizations have plans to create their own virtual ecosystems. But Meta's version of the metaverse differs from what we've described above. Its Horizon Worlds project, like Roblox or Fortnite, is a closed experience in a "centralized metaverse."

A centralized metaverse is an ecosystem controlled by a single individual, actor, or entity. This entity is not only a single point of failure but controls the fate of that system: its economy and rules. Therefore, users of a centralized metaverse may have less ownership of the platform, let's say in governance, and less control over the in-world currency. Consider in-game items such as skins in Fortnite. Their value exists only in the context of that game's economy, created by a singular entity free to alter or halt it at their sole discretion.

In contrast, the "open" metaverse is a collection of spaces with open standards and interoperability, allowing assets and interactions to be agnostic across worlds. In a fully decentralized open metaverse, the users are the owners of their assets.

An open or decentralized system relies on an entire network of entities, or "nodes," to agree on the record book. There is no single point of failure. These nodes collectively verify and power the network worldwide, recording it on a blockchain. And since there is no owner of this decentralized network, users have complete ownership and control of their assets.

Decentralization allows for streamlined community, governance, and proof of asset ownership (think NFTs). Decentralized systems can be applied across gaming, finance, and other data-centric verticals. Unlike centralized metaverses, governance rights are held by the community in the decentralized metaverse.

Here's a handy table that a16z put together that breaks these differences down further:

What is there to do in the metaverse?

The short answer? Many of the same things we do in the physical world, and more.

For example, imagine attending a concert across the other side of the world from the comfort of your friend's living room, enjoying the NBA finals from courtside seats while never leaving your sofa, or, perhaps less fun, sitting across from your colleagues' avatars in a virtual office.

These are just some of the experiences that will be possible – and in some rudimentary cases already are – with virtual worlds in the metaverse. As the technology becomes more sophisticated, you'll even be able to:

  • Learn: Take a virtual tennis lesson with Serena Williams, or attend an art class taught by a virtual Andy Warhol
  • Play: Compete in a fully-immersive video game competition, fulfilling many people's dreams of a Ready Player One-style existence
  • Build: Design and build your dream home on your parcel of virtual land in Wilder World
  • Work: Maybe you have a sideline selling your crafts on Etsy. Wouldn't it be nice to log in and meet your virtual customers and show off your latest designs in person?
  • Socialize: Catch up with family and friends across the other side of the world whenever the mood takes you. Fully immersive Facetime!

And let's not forget the augmented reality version that we mentioned earlier.

On the way to work in the morning (the days you choose to go in, that is), you'll grab your keys, your bag, and your smart glasses as you head out the front door and enter a world of content and information, laid out before you over the existing physical environment.

Maybe we'll get to see what Siri actually looks like. Or, having directed us down a street that no longer exists, be able to tell off Google Maps to his face.

How do I enter the metaverse?

If it's the closed metaverse you're after, then Meta's Horizon Worlds, for example, is accessible via its VR headset. For the vast majority of open metaverse experiences, the quickest and easiest access is via your desktop or mobile device.

You'll also want to ensure you have a reasonably new computer running the latest software (PCs seem to cope better than Macs) and equipped with Chrome, which is typically the recommended browser.

Another crucial piece of kit to enter and make the most of the metaverse is a digital wallet. You can sign up to and log into metaverse worlds via email and, in some cases, your social media account; however, a digital wallet allows you to hold cryptocurrency, NFTs, attendance tokens, and other in-world rewards and assets.

There are a number of different wallet providers. Some of the most popular or widely used include Coinbase, MetaMask, and Trust.

Suppose you get serious about your metaverse experience and start investing in various cryptocurrencies, NFTs, and virtual real estate. In that case, it's an excellent idea to get yourself what's called a 'cold wallet.' This is hardware that's set up to hold your crypto and NFTs and isn't constantly connected to the Internet, which reduces your risk of someone relieving you of your digital possessions. Two of the major providers are Ledger and Trezor.

Conclusion

There's a common saying among Web3 and metaverse industry folks: "we're early." Now you're early too.

But it's important to do your homework and stay on top of developments, which tend to move simultaneously at lightning speed and in various directions. Here are a few top tips from the Parcel Learn team that will help you keep up with this rapidly evolving space:

Parcel Learn (of course) – analysis, insights, and the fundamentals of the metaverse. Your essential source.

Decrypt – up-to-date news, long reads, features, and tons of cool videos and podcasts.

Google Alerts – plug in your desired search teams (we recommend 'virtual real estate,' 'metaverse,' and 'Web3') and watch the latest news and views drop into your inbox. Too easy.

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