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What Is the Metaverse?
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What Is the Metaverse?

A quick explainer on a topic you'll be hearing more about.

At one point in Christopher Nolan’s 2010 blockbuster film Inception, the main character descends to a dingy basement where a dozen people are hooked to machines offering an escape to a literal dream world. Shocked that a human would rather live in a dream world than reality, one character inquires, “They come here every day to sleep?” 

“No,” the old man running the operation says. “They come to be woken up. The dream has become their reality. Who are you to say otherwise, sir?”

So, is that where the “metaverse” is headed—a dream world that will entice us all to escape reality for hours on end? With the metaverse grabbing more and more headlines, here’s a breakdown of the basics.

Let’s start with what the metaverse is not: one single entity. You can’t just Google “join the metaverse,” find its website and log on. 

The metaverse is a conglomeration of a number of different virtual reality, augmented reality, and physical entities. Those working to build the metaverse, such as Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Meta (the company formerly known as Facebook), imagine the physical world blended with that of the virtual and augmented. 

More on Meta and Zuckerberg shortly, but first let’s break down the difference between virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality. Simply put, virtual reality is a completely computer-generated environment, whereas augmented reality is a blend of computer-generated aspects and a person’s physical surroundings. 

To further understand the difference, think about the devices people use to access these different worlds. Virtual reality headsets, like the Oculus Quest (also owned by Meta) or the newly announced Sony Playstation VR2, mount on your head, completely cover your eyes, and require handheld gadgets to control your hands and arms in whatever virtual world or game you are accessing. 

Augmented reality is different. Still in early stages of development, demo models have taken the form of normal-looking glasses that people wear every day. 

Janor Lanier, who coined the term “virtual reality” and founded the first company that developed  VR headsets and gloves in the 1980s, told The Dispatch there is a difference between virtual reality and the idea of the metaverse. 

“Virtual reality is a fascinating, interesting, sometimes very beautiful and meaningful experience that can have all kinds of utility,” he said. The metaverse, though, “some mass social experience … where everybody is in this sort of same virtual world of some kind—that’s less clear.”

Zuckerberg explained the challenges that come with trying to build augmented reality technology on The GaryVee Audio Experience podcast hosted by Gary Vaynerchuk: “You’re gonna need augmented reality glasses and that’s a harder problem because first, you’re inventing a completely new optical stack. So, you’re not just using normal screens and kind of building an architecture around that, which is how virtual reality has sort of worked to date.”

Translation: Building augmented reality glasses is hard. Augmented reality is different because it’s supposed to interact with the real, physical world people exist in every day. VR, on the other hand, is a different world you can access with a headset. 

A problem for some in accessing the metaverse is cost. VR headsets cost hundreds of dollars: Meta’s Oculus 2 costs around $300, and that’s on the lower end of the spectrum. Plus, entering the metaverse will bring costs associated with whatever world or game you choose. 

Those are costs to consumers. Big business is plunging millions into the new venture. As Michael Brendan Dougherty of National Review reported last week, “Republic Realm spent $4.3 million on digital land in the Metaverse. They created a digital yacht that someone bought for over $600,000. J.P. Morgan thinks the Metaverse is a $1 trillion yearly opportunity — meaning that it would bring in almost twice as much revenue as Walmart, the largest company in the world by revenue.”

Adding to the confusion surrounding the metaverse is the social media company formerly known as Facebook deciding to change its name to Meta. Does that mean Meta, the company, is in charge of the metaverse overall? Not at all. With the name change came a shift in the company’s focus away from the social media website and to expanding the metaverse. 

A recent edition of The Morning Dispatch detailed why Meta is making the change:

But Zuckerberg’s pivot to the metaverse—futurists’ term to describe a unified virtual and augmented-reality world—is very much real, as last week’s earnings report demonstrated. The company plowed $4.2 billion into the project in the last three months of 2021—research and development, hiring engineers—a 48 percent increase in such expenses from Q3. For the full year, Meta’s operating loss on the metaverse was $10.2 billion—and that will likely grow in 2022. “This fully realized vision is still a ways off,” Zuckerberg admitted. “And although the direction is clear, our path ahead is not yet perfectly defined. … [But] I’m confident these are the right investments for us to focus on going forward.”

In an hourlong presentation last year, Zuckerberg displayed his idea of the metaverse for the world to see. In the produced video, Zuckerberg faced off against a world-class fencer by putting on his augmented reality glasses. Then friends on opposite ends of the globe virtually attended the same concert. People walked from their kitchen to their work desks, slapped on a pair of glasses, and suddenly they were in their office, and those were just a few of the examples Zuckerberg showed.

All of these activities are what Zuckerberg imagines the metaverse to be. The operative word, though, is imagines. Much of the technology demonstrated in the presentation doesn’t exist yet. 

What does exist are different worlds—or metaverses—separate companies have already created. For example, Epic Games’ Fortnite has an entire virtual world it says is part of the metaverse. Epic is also leaning into the metaverse, announcing almost a year ago that it completed a round of funding to focus on expanding to the metaverse to the tune of $1 billion. Roblox, another gaming company, has 47 million daily users and almost 10 million “developers” who focus on building out worlds and games within the company’s metaverse, Morning Brew reported in December. 

The bottom line is that “metaverse” is a term used all the time in the tech world, but will there be “metaverse cafes” that people go to in order to escape the real world? There aren’t yet and the “godfather of VR,” Lanier, doesn’t think there will be any time soon. 

“I think there’ll be a small number of people who might get lost in it,” he said. “But most people will treat it as sort of like a delicacy or like dessert, not like air.”

Not all agree. Dougherty of National Review, drawing parallels to two years of pandemic restrictions hampering in-person interaction, warned: “The whole project is powered by the promise that it will give corporations power to prey upon people’s wallets, without returning to them anything of real value. It will be lifted up by the vision of the political elite who hope to further push-button control of a passive population of alienated individuals.”

Ryan Brown is a community manager for The Dispatch. He previously served as a researcher and production assistant for Meet the Press.