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What the metaverse will (and won’t) be, according to 28 experts

The metaverse (hopefully) won’t be the virtual world of ‘Snow Crash,’ or ‘Ready Player One.’ It will likely be something more complex, diverse, and wild.

What the metaverse will (and won’t) be, according to 28 experts
[Source images: Olha Pohorielova/iStock; maxkabakov/iStock]

It may not be entirely random that 2021 was the year that people started talking seriously about the metaverse. During the pandemic, so many things have gone digital by necessity—from socializing to shopping to work—that it sometimes felt as if we were halfway into a metaverse already.

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Actually we’re not there yet, or even close. Defined loosely, the metaverse is an all-digital layer of reality that floats above, around, and throughout the features of the real world–or, in some definitions, is entirely separate for it. Author Neal Stephenson is most often credited with inventing the concept in his dystopian novel Snow Crash. But the metaverse of Snow Crash was partly satirical, and partly dystopian, and, with any luck, not  where we’re headed. Ernest Kline’s Ready Player One presented a metaverse (“the OASIS”) that was escapist and nostalgic.

The metaverse concept clearly means very different things to different people. What exists right now is a series of embryonic digital spaces, such as Facebook’s Horizon, Epic Games’ Fortnite, Roblox‘s digital space for gaming and game creation, and the blockchain-based digital world Decentraland–all of which have clear borders, different rules and objectives, and differing rates of growth.

To get a broader read on this diversity of opinions we asked thought leaders from a variety of disciplines and industries a simple two-part question–What will the metaverse look like, and how will it be used? Their answers provide a clearer picture of what the metaverse may turn out to be–and what it probably won’t be.

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A few definitions

Tiffany Rolfe, Chief Creative Officer, at the global branding and marketing firm R/GA

AR so far seems to be the simplest way to transition us into the metaverse. But we’ll continue to see attempts to push more into VR with headsets . . . and once we are comfortable wearing our powerful phones over our faces, it’s game over. Or rather, game on. There will be different layers of realities that we can all be experiencing, even in the same environment or physical space. We’re already doing that with our phones to a certain extent—passively in a physical environment while mentally in a digital one. But we’ll see more experiences beyond your phone, where our whole bodies are fully engaged, and that’s where the metaverse starts to get interesting—we genuinely begin to explore and live in these alternate realities simultaneously.

Rony Abovitz, founder, Magic Leap

I believe that the Xverse will be a wild, organic, and amazing outgrowth of what we think of today as the internet and web. When you see images and diagrams of the internet today, it looks like a biologic construct, full of neuron-like connections and the emergence of proto life. No one entity will control the Xverse (or should), although many will try. It will have legacy parts that look and feel like the web today, but it will have new nodes and capabilities that will look and feel like the Ready Player One Oasis (amazing gaming worlds), immersion leaking into our world (like my Magicverse concept), and every imaginable permutation of these. I feel that the Xverse will have gradients of sentience and autonomy, and we will have the emergence of synthetic life (things Sun and Thunder is working on) and a multitude of amazing worlds to explore. Building a world will become something everyone can do (like building a webpage or a blog) and people will be able to share richer parts of their external and inner lives at incredibly high-speed across the planet.

[Abovitz once called the metaverse the “Magicverse,” but now calls it the “Xverse,” arguing that Neal Stephenson didn’t mean for his term from Snow Crash to describe the shared digital spaces of the future]

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Matthew Ball, CEO of venture capital and advisory firm Epyllion Industries:

The brilliant thing about platform changes of this magnitude is its unpredictability. We can say blanket statements like participate in an AR world, spend more time wearing VR headsets, and own more virtual goods. But innovation is recursive. Some brilliant technology is created which inspires more innovation, leading to new behaviors, unlocking new use cases. Suddenly, something no one thought we needed–like a persistent, real-time rendered simulacra of the world – will feel essential. No amount of Internet speculation in the 1990s would have led to you to TikTok remixes on the Billboard 100, r/WallStreetBets and YOLO options, or Bored Apes Yacht Club.

[Ball wrote a series of influential essays about the structure, technology, and possible directions of the metaverse.]

Yat Siu, cofounder and executive chairman of gaming and blockchain company Animoca Brands

Reality will exist on a spectrum ranging from physical to virtual (VR), but a significant chunk of our time will be spent somewhere between those extremes, in some form of augmented reality (AR). Augmented reality will be a normal part of daily life. Virtual companions will provide information, commentary, updates and advice on matters relevant to you at that point in time, including your assets and activities, in both virtual and real spaces. These facets of reality will not compete, but instead will enhance each other. For example, VR will involve you in physical world activities, while products and events in the real world will direct you to virtual environments. These new technologies will require fundamental shifts in thinking. For example, today we see AR as a link to a virtual world, perhaps as a way to escape or enhance the physical world. But in the future, AR will serve as a pathway back to the real world, allowing users to take breaks from full virtual immersion–maybe to eat or exercise–without completely disconnecting.

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Tyler Ishida, Deputy President for Consumer Business Group, Sony Electronics

The metaverse may appear as real as ‘real life’ for those participating, thanks to the level of resolution and quality of today’s technology. It’s all pointing toward a more immersive entertainment experience that engages all senses, while staying true to the creator’s intent. I can see the consumer entertainment aspects of the metaverse becoming the main driver, and there are plenty of other applications I can easily picture: education and research, industrial, even IT and security. I know first-hand that we have the display, image, and key sensor technology available today, and other ways we can engage within the metaverse are coming online quickly.

Timoni West, VP of Augmented and Virtual Reality, Unity:

I think we can all agree our initial dreams of a fully immersive, separate digital world is not only unrealistic, but maybe not what we actually want. So I’ve started defining the metaverse differently to capture the zeitgeist: we’re entering an era where every computer we interact with, big or small, is increasingly world-aware. They can recognize faces, voices, hands, relative and absolute position, velocity, and they can react to this data in a useful way. These contextually aware computers are the path to unlocking ambient computing: where computers fade from the foreground to the background of everyday, useful tools. The metaverse is less of a ‘thing’ and more of a computing era. Contextual computing enables a multitude of new types of interactions and apps: VR sculpting tools and social hangouts, self-driving cars, robotics, smart homes.

Dr. Helen Papagiannis, Augmented Stories, best-selling author of Augmented Human

Vision is just one aspect. It’s important to extend our thinking beyond what will it “look” like to what will it “feel” like, “sound” like, “smell” like, and even “taste” like. It will be possible to experience the metaverse with all of our senses and being. Today, each of the senses can be used to heighten immersion in virtual experiences by mirroring reality; however, the opportunity also exists to apply the senses in alternative ways that are in contrast to what we may experience in physical reality. This opens up a new gateway of possibilities, including even creating new senses.

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Sam Hamilton, Head of Community & Events for blockchain-based metaverse creator The Decentraland Foundation 

We can expect self-contained virtual social worlds but also service layers and tools that unlock opportunities for creatives and entrepreneurs that the physical world can’t or won’t provide. It will be immersive and all-encompassing, but at the same time impact the physical world across finance, goods, and services, play, education, governance, and more. What it won’t be is a centralized experience. A centralized metaverse is not a metaverse, it’s a video game. A curated entertainment. You can’t empower creators and residents of the metaverse to shape its future without giving them ownership and the right to govern. So, the authentic metaverse will be a shared, collaborative space, backed by a decentralized structure. We are witnessing world-building as it happens. The old rules don’t apply.

Nitzan Mekel-Bobrov, Chief AI Officer, eBay

It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that without AI, the metaverse won’t exist; as carbon is to the organic world, AI will be both the matrix that provides the necessary structural support and the material from which digital representation will be made. Of all the ways in which AI will shape the form of the metaverse, perhaps most essential is the role it will play in the physical-digital interface. Translating human actions into digital input–language, eye movement, hand gestures, locomotion–these are all actions which AI companies and researchers have already made tremendous progress on. Understanding what a physical object is in order to represent it digitally starts with its correct identification, the beginning of which we already see in current computer vision applications.

Hugo Swart, vice president and GM of XR, Qualcomm

Qualcomm views the metaverse as an ever-present spatial internet complete with personalized digital experiences that spans the physical and virtual worlds, where everything and everyone can communicate and interact seamlessly. People will access the metaverse through any computing device–smartphone, PC, AR/VR device, etc.–as a portal to a virtual presence that mirrors aspects of real life. In the metaverse, unlimited users and businesses can explore, create, socialize, and participate in a wide variety of communities, daily experiences and economic activities in 2D and 3D.

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Raine Maida, singer, Our Lady Peace 

The ability to have a secondary existence in a virtual world has already been adopted by my kids. Not only can they outfit their avatar with the Air Jordans they can’t get in the real world, they have the opportunity to exchange ideas, creativity, emotional intelligence, and ultimately dream with billions of people instead of being victim to real world barriers such as socioeconomics, borders, and language. This planet requires balance to sustain. It just may be that the metaverse provides another essential component of balance for humanity.

What could possibly go wrong?

Carolina Milanesi, President and Principal Analyst, Creative Strategies

The metaverse could be anything from a form of escapism as alternative reality that is fun and engaging to an absolute hell where the current problems Facebook is facing with misinformation and abuse will feel way more real. First and foremost it will be used by Facebook to further monetize on consumers.

Ibrahim Baggili, Founding Director, Connecticut Institute of Technology at University of New Haven

As an active researcher in the security and forensics of VR systems, should the metaverse come into existence, we should explore and hypothesize the ways it will be misused. We have already shown through our research, practical security weaknesses in VR as it lends itself to new types of immersive attacks like our discovered Human Joystick Attack and the Man-In-The-Room attacks. In one attack, we can control the movement of a person in VR without their knowledge or consent. In the other, we can step into private environments “rooms” and snoop on people without their knowledge or consent. This is just the tip of the iceberg of what will be possible in terms of the misuse of the technology.

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Chitra Ragavan, Chief Strategy Officer at blockchain data analytics company Elementus 

I picture [the metaverse] almost like The Truman Show. Only, instead of walking into a television set, you walk into the internet and can explore any number of different realities. It’s the tech moguls’ dream of re-coding the DNA of society. But will we feel more connected? Or lonelier than we are today?

Not fully virtual

John Hanke, CEO of Pokémon Go creator Niantic

We imagine the metaverse as reality made better, a world infused with magic, stories, and functionality at the intersection of the digital and physical worlds. Through it, we think there is the potential to make people and society better by nudging us to get out, exercise, and rediscover the physical world around us.

Carolina Arguelles Navas, Global Product Marketing, Augmented Reality, Snap

Rather than building the “metaverse,” a separate and fully virtual reality that is disconnected from the physical world, we are focused on augmenting reality, not replacing it. We believe AR–or computing overlaid on the world around us–has a smoother path to mass adoption, but will also be better for the world than a fully virtual world. From reimagining entertainment to redefining the way we shop, AR is already changing the way we live our daily lives, and there are countless creative and useful experiences yet to be invented.

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Urho Konttori, cofounder and CTO of AR/VR headset maker Varjo

We believe that the metaverse will fundamentally change the way we use technology to interact with each other. The best version of it will be based in reality, meaning users will be able to digitize their actual physical surroundings and interact with each other as lifelike human images as opposed to cartoonish avatars in pre-built virtual worlds. Empowering people with the tools they need to seamlessly bridge the real world with the unlimited flexibility of the virtual world will ultimately pave the way for all of us to teleport to anyone’s environment around the world. In the reality-based metaverse, we will be able to more effectively design products of the future, meet and collaborate with our colleagues far away, and experience any remote place in real-time.

Catherine Allen, CEO of immersive tech research consultancy Limina Immersive

I think many people have absorbed the sci-fi concept of “the metaverse” being this idea of humans spending much of their waking hours living in a parallel virtual reality, having jobs there, property, businesses, education–even romantic relationships. The public, by and large, when asked, want immersive technology to improve their day-to-day quality of life on this physical earth. Personally, the more time I spend in VR, the more in awe I am at how well optimized our bodies and minds are to this physical earth. If we ditch these scifi assumptions and come to the idea of “the metaverse” with fresh eyes, then a world of exciting possibilities awaits. I prefer to think of the metaverse as simply bringing our bodies into the internet.

Brands in the metaverse

Nick Pringle, SVP Executive Creative Director at the digital advertising agency R/GA London

I don’t buy into the dystopian Ready Player One vision of the metaverse, one where we all switch to living in one seamless permanent virtual reality. In general humanity is too strong for that, and real life is too rich. I do think we’ll start to spend serious time in virtual spaces over the coming years—social media scrolling will be replaced by strolling virtual worlds, but we’ll still nip to the pub for pie, a pint, and a catch-up with mates. Some things can’t be replaced. In terms of AR, I think the big opportunity is in merging virtual and physical product experiences. Take sneakers, when I buy a physical sneaker it should unlock the virtual version and vice versa. The Roblox/Fortnite generation will look for brands that blend the real and unreal, and let them show that off to friends–repping your virtual style in the real world is a solid use case for AR.

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Emma Ridderstad, CEO & cofounder of AR/VR brand experience developer Warpin

Building the metaverse at-large will be a collaborative effort between brands and consumers, and the winning brands will be those which manage to engage, and include, their audiences in the creative process. For example, if a shopper can co-create a garment, as we did with H&M and Star Wars in AR, they will be so much more engaged with the product, and subsequently the brand.

A place for business

Vishal Shah, VP of Metaverse, Facebook

The metaverse is a set of virtual three dimensional spaces where you can share immersive experiences with other people even when you can’t be together. It will be inherently social; you’ll be able to hang out with friends, collaborate with colleagues, learn, shop and create – among other things. The metaverse isn’t just VR! Those spaces will connect to AR glasses and to 2D spaces like Instagram. And most importantly, there will be a real sense of continuity where the things you buy are always available to you. Today, much of what you buy on the Internet is inside a single app, website, or game. You might buy a custom skin for your gaming avatar, but you can’t take it with you when you move to a new space. In the future, you’ll be able to buy goods and services and have them available to you in the metaverse more broadly–and for creators, this can open up new ways to build a meaningful business.

Sayon Deb, manager, market research, Consumer Technology Association

The metaverse will be an infinite realm that blankets both the physical and virtual worlds. At its core will be a self-contained economy that allows individuals and businesses to create, own or invest in a range of activities and experiences. Like the internet, it won’t be just one thing–but several layers of different technologies, products and languages.

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Dr. Rolf Illenberger, managing director at enterprise VR development platform VRdirect

We’re already starting to see how the metaverse is going to change the way employers approach Human Resources–everything from recruiting, to hiring, to training new staffers. There is a lot of pomp and circumstance out there around “Sims-like” virtual offices, but the practical nature of VR through things like career fairs, conferences, virtual showrooms, even employee onboarding and engagement programs will win out in the immediate short-term. Anything that an employer can streamline, both in cost and time savings, will come first, long before the glitz and glamour of what we’re seeing at major tech events. Beyond that, there’s an environmental aspect of minimizing global travel that will be considered and embraced as part of corporate sustainability programs, as will work-life balance for those employees who would typically do the traveling.

Nandi Nobell, Senior Associate at global architecture and design firm CallisonRTKL

The vision of bridging physical and digital realities is about inhabiting an interface, where the metaverse is the spatial version of the Internet . . . Ideally, the metaverse is highly customizable and as separate or integrated into our physical realities as necessary—and desired. Therefore, the metaverse experience can be altered from the individual’s point of view and shaped or curated by any number of agents—whether human or A.I. In that sense, the metaverse does not have an objective look beyond its backend. In essence, the metaverse, together with our physical locations, forms a spatial continuum. The very materials of the metaverse are maths and imagination, so we should expect buildings or garments made here to function in new, more ambitious, and inspired ways than their counterparts in the physical world. After all, there is more than one way to skin a city when the only limitation is the computational cost per second.

Erin McDannald, CEO of real estate management and iOT firm Environments

Within our office at Environments, we aim to converge the current workplace with our new digital workspace, and we also wanted the personification of the digital world for people to understand how to work in this digital setting. Our vision of what the metaverse looks like is a digital twin that mirrors what is happening in the physical universe on a real-time basis allowing remote employees and on-site employees to interact in a single branded collaborative environment and allows you to bring your 2D digital world to a 3D world. Those interactions can then be applied to metrics and using machine learning can optimize your business in literally hundreds of different ways.

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Nick Cherukuri, CEO and Founder of mixed reality glasses maker ThirdEye

Consumers and entrepreneurs will all be able to interact amid the metaverse. Gamers, for example, can have massive multiplayer games in cities where hundreds of people could be on different teams wearing smart glasses and have virtual games behind skyscrapers. Restaurant chains can advertise their menus with virtual games that can only be played in their physical locations. Another example is coworkers sitting around a table as digital holograms for a conference as opposed to a video call, making virtual meetings seem more natural as it is in 3D. The AR applications of the metaverse are limitless and it really can become the next great version of the internet.

Rishi Mandal, CEO of concierge-style fitness app Future

Human connection and accountability is at the heart of what has been most successful for improving consumer health and fitness. The broad history of the internet has been to enable this between people who aren’t standing next to one another. Now, we’re entering a new chapter with modalities that can amplify or deepen connection, and these are going to be critical for allowing people everywhere to access expertise, coaching, and the partnership required to live a healthier life.

Sam Tabar, Chief Strategy Officer, bitcoin mining company Bit Digital

It seems fair to predict that the actual aesthetic of any given metaverse will be determined by user demand. If users want to exist in a gamified world populated by outrageous avatars and fantastic landscapes then the metaverse will respond to that demand. Like all things in this world the metaverse will be market driven, and used for everything that we currently do in life. Honesty, I can’t think of a single thing that won’t happen in the metaverse. Shopping for everything from a vacuum cleaner to art is already happening. But people are also building homes, traveling, hanging out, and even having sex in virtual worlds. So it stands to reason this will continue as creators continue to build this new iteration of online life.

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About the author

Fast Company Senior Writer Mark Sullivan covers emerging technology, politics, artificial intelligence, large tech companies, and misinformation. An award-winning San Francisco-based journalist, Sullivan's work has appeared in Wired, Al Jazeera, CNN, ABC News, CNET, and many others.

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