What is the Metaverse?

No longer the preserve of starry-eyed futurists and sci-fi writers, the metaverse is being discussed soberly in many of the world’s most prominent broadsheets, grappling with the question of what is the metaverse. Everyone from columnists and influencers to CEOs are considering how it will reshape the world in the light of how much the Internet has already done so over the last 25 years.

The term ‘metaverse’ comes from Neal Stephenson’s 1992 science fiction novel Snow Crash. It describes a three-dimensional virtual space that functions as a VR-based successor to the Internet. While Stephenson coined the term, similar concepts have existed in cyberpunk fiction as far back as 1981, from William Gibson’s Neuromancer to the novella True Names. Debate continues as to what the metaverse is and isn’t, but generally people are in agreement about the following:

  • The metaverse will be scalable, synchronous, and live: unlike environments such as the game worlds of Fortnite or World of Warcraft, instances of which are limited to a certain number of players, the metaverse will be open to all comers. When you attend a massive ‘live’ concert in the metaverse, you won’t be present with another 999 people sharing that instance of the concert, you will experience it alongside everyone else present, be that tens of thousands or more.
  • The metaverse will be persistent: the environment of the metaverse will persist indefinitely, though it will of course change as organizations build more infrastructure. You cannot pause or reset the metaverse like you can with a video game.
  • The metaverse will be an economy in its own right: both corporations and individuals will be able to develop and sell their work for its value, depending on how that work and that value is interpreted by others. Building real estate in the virtual world for other users to utilize could be valued, as could designing outfits for other users to wear.
  • The metaverse will be broad: the metaverse won’t be an experience controlled by a single Big Tech company, but available to private and public networks, open and closed platforms, and span both the digital and physical worlds (augmented reality).
  • The metaverse will be interoperable: rather than a clump of closed loops where content bought in one game cannot be applied to another, the metaverse will be built so that, for example, a car that you buy in Porsche’s metaverse store can be used in Rocket League, or brought over to work in Roblox
  • The metaverse will be full of content: while corporations will use the metaverse as a platform to release content and experiences such as games, music, and video, there will be space for informal groups and individuals to produce their own content. 

Genies intends to create a universal avatar system that can be used across an open metaverse. These avatars will be designed in Genies’ app, and outfitted from Genies’ vast and expanding array of clothes, accessories, hairstyles, and more. Genies has even started selling NFTs (non-fungible tokens) of exclusive designs to help users express themselves in a truly unique way.

Are We In the Metaverse Yet?

With all the potential of the metaverse, and the steps towards it that we make month by month, it is tempting to declare that it is already here. However, these premature declarations jump the gun by conflating one aspect of the metaverse for the whole. The metaverse is a concept greater than the sum of its parts, and the presence of one part does not indicate the presence of the whole. These aspects are parts of the metaverse that people often interpret as being the arrival of its entirety.

  • A virtual space: while digital spaces such as Second Life have some aspects in common with a metaverse space (not a game, digital avatars, near-synchronous content updates) this alone does not qualify it as a fully-realised metaverse.
  • A virtual world: Azeroth in World of Warcraft, Eos in Final Fantasy XV, even the islands of Animal Crossing: New Horizons, there are abundant virtual worlds populated with a combination of AI-driven and human characters. A lot of people even make money in the game by trading various commodities, yet a fictional universe designed for the purpose of a game is not broad enough in scope to constitute a basis for a metaverse.
  • Virtual reality: while VR technology continues to advance and impress, simply having a sense of presence in a digital world doesn’t make a virtual space into a metaverse.
  • A virtual theme park: rather than a ‘Disneyland’ of rigorously controlled and centralized virtual attractions, the metaverse will have a vast array of attractions, some of which will not be for the purpose of fun or entertainment.
  • An app store: because the metaverse is intended to be an evolution of the contemporary Internet/mobile architecture, it will not have the same approach to opening or purchasing apps in VR as we currently do. 
  • A ‘digital economy’: as mentioned prior, online economies such as EVE Online where real people trade virtual goods for real world currency, or perform virtual tasks, have existed for decades. Much of the concept of cryptocurrency is centered around paying for digital tasks to be performed.
  • A game: while Fortnite has over the years of its existence taken on several aspects of the metaverse (IP-neutral, spans multiple closed platforms with consistency, provides a basis for many varying experiences including social experiences, compensates creators for devising content) it has not, and may never, mature into a full metaverse. The metaverse will of course include games, maybe even involve gamification and have game-like goals, but it will not itself be a game.
  • A user generated content platform: the metaverse is more than a VR YouTube with millions of creators uploading and monetizing content. It may be more helpful to think of it as a theater district: there will be wealthy enterprises investing significant amounts in building their corners of the metaverse in order to lure users, gather data, and capitalize. However, there will also be the capacity for smaller organizations and even individuals to set up their own spaces and appeal to metaverse users seeking a particular experience.

Will the Metaverse Replace the Internet?

Much as social networks such as Facebook and Twitter were the catalysts for the modern iteration of the Internet, so too will the Metaverse represent the next generation of engagement with this technology: Internet 3.0. The atomization of platforms, of networks, of data, that has occurred in the wake of mainstream digital video content becoming viable as technology has advanced to permit it is unsustainable on its current trajectory. Creators and users alike are crying out for better interoperability: a unified Internet with fewer imposed constraints, fewer technical barriers to participation. At present, consumer-level computers are too weak, and networks too slow, to permit the kind of experience that the metaverse will present. That said, there are people investing significant time and energy in laying the groundwork. Mark Zuckerberg has turned his sights on building much of the infrastructure necessary for Facebook to thrive in the metaverse. He has staked his claim, declaring in a June meeting with employees that Facebook will one day be known not as a social media company, but as a metaverse company.

The Coming Battle Over the Metaverse

That being said, the hazard of Big Tech companies such as Facebook and Microsoft carving out sections of the metaverse for themselves is that they will Balkanize it, perpetuating the issues of the contemporary Internet through its next iteration. If users are restricted from experiencing the full possibilities of the metaverse by proprietary hardware (such as the Oculus headset), the entire metaverse will suffer for it. 

Genies’ goal of being a universal avatar system for metaverse users is dependent on the metaverse being open. A metaverse where your avatar can walk from Facebook Plaza to Universal Metastudios without needing to hop platforms, go through immersion and flow-breaking verification screens, or even having to hop out of your Genies avatar form entirely into one of a dozen others. A connected and uncluttered metaverse is possible: Genies hopes to be one of the driving forces making it a reality.