What is the Metaverse, Exactly?

Whenever there’s a complex or obscure topic I’m interested in but can’t quite make sense of, I typically turn to my favorite Reddit community “Explain Like I’m 5” for help.  

If you aren’t familiar with the community, it’s basically a no judgement zone where people can ask questions about complicated subjects and other community members explain the answer in a way a five-year-old would understand. Popular topics might include science, technology, law and economics. 

One of the things I love about the community is it typically gives me a boost of self-assurance because I usually find I’m not the only idiot asking these questions. It’s similar to the feeling you experience when you Google a random question (that you should probably know the answer to) and the predictive text autofills your question before you can finish typing. I believe the correct psychological term for this phenomenon is cognitive empathy.  

Ever since the metaverse propelled into the mainstream thanks to Facebook’s rebranding as Meta late last year, I’ve tried to wrap my head around what the heck it is. Considering I work, live and breathe technology, I should be able to figure this out!  

Regrettably, no matter how many podcasts I listened to or articles I read about the metaverse, I still struggle to fully comprehend it. How do I get to the metaverse? Does someone own the metaverse? Do I have to wear a clunky headset in order to enter? Do I even want to go to the metaverse?  

Feeling out of the loop, I decided it was time to ask my favorite Redditors to explain the metaverse to me like I was five. If you’ve also struggled to fully grasp this topic, have no fear. While I certainly don’t have all the answers, and while the metaverse will continue evolving for years, here are a few tidbits I plan to use when my real-life five-year-old begins asking me questions.  

What exactly is the metaverse? 

At its most basic, the “metaverse” generally refers to a virtual world that lies beyond or is an extension of the physical world. It’s an evolution of the internet and it’s often described as online spaces where people can socialize, work and play using avatars.  

Do you remember I need you to explain it like I’m five; I’m still having trouble wrapping my head around the concept? 

Think of it this way: The internet is the “world wide web” and is used for a vast array of different activities, ranging from shopping and working to socializing and banking. Practically everything that exists in the real world can now be found on the internet and eventually will also be “in” the metaverse. 

Does the metaverse already exist? 

Because the description of the metaverse is so broad, this is a divided topic. Some say it already exists in the digital worlds of Roblox, Minecraft and Fortnite (which allow players to gather in 2D environments). Others claim we are still 10-15 years away from the metaverse being a reality and that the true metaverse will be built for the next generation of consumers, who will be key to maximizing its adoption and take up.

Do you need a VR headset for the metaverse? 

In short, no. The vast majority of today’s metaverse experiences can be accessed with any computer, or even a smartphone or video game console. By definition, the metaverse is any virtual space in which users interact within a computer-generated environment. In this way, virtual reality (VR) and the metaverse can combine for an enhanced experience, but it is not a requirement you have both.  

However, when you enter the metaverse using VR, the experience feels more realistic due to the sense of immersion the headset screen delivers. The virtual world appears as if it’s really in front of you, and the controllers you hold in each hand enable interacting with objects and controlling your avatar, which furthers the immersive experience.  

What is the purpose of the metaverse? 

The goal is that, eventually, anything you can do in the real world will have a virtual counterpart in the metaverse. However, it isn’t about replacing reality (a la the Matrix or Ready Player One), but working in sync with your real life in order to enhance it.  

What is the difference between the internet and the metaverse? 

The internet is a network of billions of computers, millions of servers and numerous other electronic devices. Once online, internet users can communicate with each other, share data and applications, complete financial transactions, view and interact with websites and buy and sell goods and services. 

The metaverse doesn’t compete with the internet – it simply builds on it. In the metaverse, users cross into a virtual world that mimics aspects of the physical world using such technologies as VR, augmented reality (AR), artificial intelligence (AI), social media and digital currency. The internet is something that people “browse” or “use.” But, to a degree, people can “live” in the metaverse. 

Are there any regulations concerning the metaverse? 

There are currently no metaverse-specific laws. But, as with any new development, there is already a network of existing laws that can apply. 

How will the metaverse impact businesses? 

In some ways, it already has—and successfully. Fortnite has been a leader in virtual transactions. Players, for example, use real money to buy V-Bucks, which they then use within the game to buy outfits, tools and other accessories for their avatars. It’s already a big business. Epic Games, creator of Fortnite, generated gross revenue of $5.8 billion in 2021.  

The metaverse will also unlock new opportunities for buyers and sellers to connect in new ways. Some companies already use AR and VR to enable customers to try on or try out their merchandise. Ferrari, for example, showcases its luxury automobiles in AR to better permit exploring models’ various features, while Apple employs AR to assist customers in familiarizing themselves with iPhones and Macs. 

What’s next? 

The metaverse is sure to continue developing and evolving. As it does, the impact on businesses will grow in importance. Expect firms to increasingly leverage the metaverse for training purposes (yes, they’ve already begun). Orientation, continuing education, simulations, entertainment and other activities are sure to follow. Just as the Internet changed the way most everyone works so, too, does the metaverse pack the same potential.