What actually IS the metaverse? Good question. Is it a visionary new virtual world that will improve the lives and mental health of people globally and help the planet recover from climate change and economic uncertainty? Or is it a dystopian technofuture completely disconnected from reality?  

Let’s find out.

Okay. Who invented the metaverse?

Well, it wasn’t Mark Zuckerberg, as much as he’d love to stake that claim. Credit for the term goes to cyberpunk author Neal Stephenson in 1992. Second Life, launched in 2002, was the first notable virtual role-playing world. In the 2020s, the tech company formerly known as Facebook – Meta, Microsoft and the game devs behind Fortnite and Roblox are the big players.

Kids’ game developers? Really?

Lots of adults do play these games, but yes. Fortnite has hosted some blockbuster concerts, starring Ariana Grande and Travis Scott and are working on ultra-realistic human avatars. Roblox has high end brands like Gucci helping to create unique virtual content among its role-playing cities (and marketing themselves to very young kids in the process).

And for grown-ups?

Meta and Microsoft are working on creating a (less fantasy-based) online world of augmented/virtual reality, 3D avatars, and video calling, so we can ‘live’, work and socialise in a fully formed 3D digital world that could look and feel better than the real one.

Sounds cool, what will it be able to do?

Not a dramatically named app. Just an old school method for cutting screen time at night. Plug your pThe metaverse has the power to make video calls an in-person experience, bring global teams together in a room (virtual team-building, anyone?), let you go to a gig with your friends and never have a giant standing in front of you; and even take you anywhere in the world, with anyone you want. All without leaving your bedroom. Luckily, the metaverse will have gyms – Peloton is already pioneering virtual fitness but there are others trying to muscle in – which’ll be vital if we don’t all want to be shapeless blobs by 2050.

Any downsides, team-building aside?

After 18 months of a global pandemic, we probably need more human interaction in our lives, not less. And not everyone loves working from home. As one Financial Times commenter said, “Who wants to spend time as a high-end emoji in a virtual office?” Especially if your home working environment is less than ideal. You may be smashing that metaverse Zoom presentation while your corporeal body is getting a permanent hunchback from being slumped on the sofa with your laptop. Where’s the occupational health emoji when you need them?

Plus, we should arguably be doing more to save the actual planet before building a new one in cyberspace.

Isn’t the Metaverse going to help the planet, though?

It has lots of potential to, yes. From reducing the need to travel, to moving things like driver and flight training online, even producing toys and gadgets as virtual reality replacements to the real thing; emissions across many industries could be greatly reduced. And the space race billionaires could get their kicks in VR instead of using real rockets.

So essentially, there are positives and negatives, then?

As well as the benefits above, this technology could help the elderly be less isolated from friends and family and disabled people afforded better work opportunities without the physical barriers of travel. And, even if it comes into being in the way that today’s tech companies envision, the metaverse is at least 5-10 years away, so there’s plenty of time to get your fix of reality. Unfortunately, even with the benefits it could bring to the environment, climate change isn’t going to fix itself while we escape into the Metaverse. In the meantime, doing your bit for the planet [could be a link to download Wunder here] is still key before we all start living our best lives entirely online.

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