The 2018 sci-fi film “Ready Player One” offers a glimpse of what many technology companies prophesy is the Internet’s next big thing.

Inspired by a 2011 Ernest Cline novel, the film’s orphaned teenage hero flees his bleak real-world existence by immersing in a dazzling virtual reality fantasy. The boy straps on his headset, reminiscent of a pair of VR goggles, and escapes into a trippy virtual universe, dubbed “OASIS.”

“People come to the OASIS for all the things they can do, but they stay for all the things they can be,” the main character says in the trailer.

A number of sci-fi-inspired tech CEOs say that one day soon, we will all be hanging out in an interactive virtual reality world, complete with games, adventures, shopping and otherworldly offerings, just like the characters in the movie.

Instead of OASIS, they call it the metaverse.

The metaverse is different from today’s virtual reality, where clunky headsets offer siloed experiences and few chances to cross-play with people who own other gadgets. Instead, the metaverse would be a massive communal cyberspace, linking augmented reality and virtual reality together, enabling avatars to hop seamlessly from one activity to the next.

It’s a huge undertaking that would require standardization and cooperation among tech giants, who are not prone to collaborating with competitors — though it hasn’t stopped many from saying the metaverse is just around the corner.

Facebook should be known as a “metaverse company,” CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in July on an earnings call. The goal, he said, is to populate this virtual world by enticing new users with cheap headsets. Eventually, Zuckerberg hinted, this robust user base would prove an adverting boon: “hundreds of millions of people” in the metaverse “compounds the size of the digital economy inside it.”

Facebook moved closer to this vision in recent weeks, revealing a virtual reality workspace for remote workers. The company is also working on a smart wristband and VR goggles that project the wearer’s eyes. The company is investing billions of dollars into the effort.

The metaverse doesn’t exist today, and there’s no clear date for its arrival. Augmented reality and virtual reality have yet to woo the masses and remain a niche interest, despite Zuckerberg’s pledge in 2017 to bring a billion people onto Oculus headsets.

But Facebook isn’t the only company betting heavily on the metaverse.

In May, Microsoft said it is “uniquely positioned” with a stack of artificial intelligence and mixed reality tools to help companies start developing “metaverse apps today.” A number of gaming companies, including Fortnite’s owner Epic Games, have released simulation software and VR services for a metaverse. Here’s what you should know.

What to know

  • What is the metaverse?
  • How does the metaverse work?
  • Who are its power players?
  • Will the metaverse actually happen?
  • So why are companies doing this?