By Therese Poletti
In his 1992 novel “Snow Crash,” author Neal Stephenson describes Hiro Protagonist escaping from the confines of his shared 20×30-foot home located in a former storage unit in Southern California into “the Metaverse,” where he owns a large home, wears a black leather kimono and carries swords.
“He’s in a computer-generated universe that his computer is drawing onto his goggles and pumping into his earphones,” Stephenson writes. “In the lingo, this imaginary place is known as the Metaverse. Hiro spends a lot of time in the Metaverse. It beats the sh– out of the U-Stor-It.”
This was not the first description of an alternative, virtual world in cyberspace that would allow us to escape from our sometimes dreary realities, but the term coined by Stephenson — the “Metaverse” — has suddenly become the catchall phrase used by tech companies, giant and small, after Facebook’s recent corporate rebranding as Meta Platforms Inc. /zigman2/quotes/205064656/composite FB -4.14% . This is not new, though: For decades, software developers and engineers have unsuccessfully tried to create those alternative worlds with ones and zeros and pixels, a quest inspired by science fiction that goes farther back than “Snow Crash” and a human desire to escape reality.
“This idea of an alternate reality is a very old idea, it goes back to shamanic practices, taking alternative substances,” said Paul Saffo, a Silicon Valley futurist who currently teaches forecasting at Stanford University and chairs Future Studies and Forecasting at Singularity University. “There has always been a deep human yearning for an alternative realty.”
There have been various iterations of alternative digital worlds through the decades, but they have for the most part eluded use by the average consumer, either because the technologies were too expensive, not powerful enough or just not that exciting. The big clunky, often headache-inducing virtual-reality headsets that take the wearer to another environment have also been another drawback, while augmented reality — which melds computer-generated images into a physical environment — is still too complex and expensive.
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So the question right now is, have we finally arrived at the point in history in which an actual virtual world could soon be available? Or is this yet another false promise of a technology that will never actually become mainstream and lucrative?
“Takeoff will be determined by who gets the experience properly matched to what the tech can do, and in a way that is truly compelling for us,” Saffo said, adding he “would be surprised if we don’t start figuring this out in 10 years” and pointing out that the definitions are constantly in flux.
“There is not one single definition of what VR is, there is not a definition of augmented reality. People don’t think about the swampy ground between the two — that will be where the surprises come from.”
Based on the past, it is also feasible that whatever results from all the current endeavors may be too sci-fi for average consumers, or will never really take off.
Videogames are the closest we have come
So far, it is in the world of videogames where alternative digital worlds have been realized, and where the proposed vision of a metaverse is closest to current reality.
In 1986, a group of developers at Lucasfilm Games released a beta of the first virtual community called “Habitat.” They described Habitat as a multiplayer online virtual environment for the Commodore 64, which used a modem and a telephone line to communicate to a mainframe where the world’s model was hosted and the rules were enforced.
Habitat’s creators were partially inspired by a 1981 novella, “True Names” by Vernor Vinge, in which a group of hackers are immersed in a virtual world called the “Other Plane.” In a 1990 paper, software engineers Chip Morningstar and Randy Farmer describe the earliest iteration of Habitat as a screen with various objects like houses and trees, with figures the creators called Avatars. Early on, users manipulated a bug in the system to amass more tokens, used to buy things in Habitat. There were also debates among the users about violence, after some players used guns that were available to avatars, and killed people randomly, highlighting two ongoing issues in virtual worlds: digital currency and security.
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Habitat closed after a couple of years in beta testing because it was too costly to maintain, but the concept survived. “Second Life,” created by Linden Lab of San Francisco, saw a surge of popularity in 2006 when it made the cover of Businessweek. It still exists today as a multi-user virtual world, but it is seen as extremely niche: players do not have any goals as they do in videogames, nor do they wear bulky headsets. There is an economy based around the Linden dollar where users can buy virtual goods and create avatars to their specifications.
“‘Second Life’ was very rudimentary compared to what we can do now,” said Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group. He described the current activity and focus on the metaverse as still in the “hype cycle.”