What is the ‘metaverse’? Facebook says it’s the future of the Internet.

Big tech companies claim a virtual reality universe is imminent, but it’s unclear what that means

9 min

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.”

A number of tech CEOs say that one day soon, we will all be hanging out in an interactive virtual reality world: Instead of Oasis, they call it the metaverse.

As crisis has eclipsed Facebook, it has leaned in to its virtual reality offerings, announcing on Monday a heavy investment in the company’s Reality Labs division. It’s expected to change its name imminently to reflect this identity, which it has been selling since CEO Mark Zuckerberg said Facebook should be known as “a metaverse company” on a July earnings call. The goal, he said at the time, 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.”

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.

Silicon Valley is racing to build the next version of the Internet. Fortnite might get there first.

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.