Imagining µniverse: The B2C Metaverse (Part 1)


Metaverse is a word I had first come across nearly 30 years ago in the book “Snow Crash” by Neal Stephenson. It is once again in the news with the CEOs of Microsoft and Facebook talking about it. In this series, I will review the current thinking on the metaverse, and then imagine how the metaverse idea could be used by businesses to create interesting experiences for their customers.

Wikipedia writes about the origins of the metaverse concept:

The Metaverse is a collective virtual shared space, created by the convergence of virtually enhanced physical reality and physically persistent virtual space, including the sum of all virtual worlds, augmented reality, and the Internet. The word “metaverse” is made up of the prefix “meta” (meaning beyond) and the stem “verse” (a backformation from “universe”); the term is typically used to describe the concept of a future iteration of the internet, made up of persistent, shared, 3D virtual spaces linked into a perceived virtual universe.

The term was coined in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 science fiction novel Snow Crash, where humans, as avatars, interact with each other and software agents, in a three-dimensional space that uses the metaphor of the real world. Stephenson used the term to describe a virtual reality-based successor to the Internet.

Another book, William Gibson’s, “Neuromancer”, published in 1984, had given us a new term: cyberspace. He described it thus: “A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts… A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding.”

Remember that both these books were published in the pre-Internet era. I remember reading them and being fascinated by the futuristic vision that was presented. When I started IndiaWorld in early 1995, I would imagine it at times as a new world where people anywhere could interact with each other – a sort-of 3D storefront for businesses and consumers to engage. Of course, the technologies were still too primitive to make any of that happen.

Since then, the metaverse as an idea has inspired many books, TV shows and movies, as catalogued by Jon Radoff. There have also been some efforts like Second Life. There was a book, “Ready Player One”, which was later made into a movie by Steven Spielberg, that visualised the metaverse. Marvel’s comics and movies give us early glimpses of what is possible in such a world. Minecraft and Roblox are present bets on the metaverse future.

From a South China Morning Post article: “Generally, the metaverse is a place that you can go to find the games, music, films and programmes that you like, all brought together in a single immersive experience… The defining quality of the metaverse is persistence. When a participant leaves the metaverse, it continues to develop – it has an independent existence which you can’t turn off or pause…The holy grail of the metaverse is a player’s avatar that is also persistent, which means that s/he can use the same avatar in every game or experience. A player’s avatar is, in a sense, a single representation of an individual that can go anywhere in the metaverse, and evolves because of its experiences there… such convergence is starting to become a reality…[with] the success and popularity of gaming platforms Roblox and Minecraft. Roblox is a gaming platform that allows users to program their own games using the company’s game creation software. Roblox is already a kind of multiverse, with around 160 million monthly users and its own communities and currency. The online version of Minecraft, in which users explore and create a blocky terrain, has 125 million monthly users.”

So far, the metaverse has largely remained a distant dream. Now, with augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) technologies accelerating, it is edging towards “reality”.

Published by

Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.