Facebook has rebranded itself as Meta and last month chief executive Mark Zuckerberg announced the creation of 10,000 jobs to help build the ‘metaverse’ — a concept so radical nobody yet knows what it really is. People in the media tend to describe it as ‘a 3D version of the internet’. Facebook describes it rather vaguely as a network of ‘virtual spaces where you can create and explore with other people who aren’t in the same physical space as you’. Some suspect it might actually be hell.
The term metaverse first appeared in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel Snow Crash, in which future humans distract themselves from economic collapse by submerging themselves in a parallel virtual reality world. The contemporary meaning appears to be a little different. Rather than a simulation we tap into only for entertainment, like a VR game, the metaverse is what happens when that simulation and the real world merge entirely.
Imagine you’re out walking, enjoying the splash of autumnal light in the oak trees. You decide to show your friend the view. You call her, and, thanks to your augmented reality goggles, her lifelike hologram bursts into existence in front of you. She, meanwhile, is at home wearing a headset too and thanks to the metaverse ‘mirrorworld’ can suddenly see exactly what you do. The mirrorworld is a full-scale, real-time, three-dimensional digital replica of the entire planet, right down to the last millimetre, recreated by hundreds of thousands of drones and millions of microscopic cameras planted in every street (as well as in everyone’s headsets of course), all scanning and refreshing the landscape.
After admiring the sun-bright leaves for a moment, your friend wonders what the same landscape looks like in winter. Instantly, your headsets transport you back to a digitised blizzard from February. Then, waving your hand over a tree, you trigger a hyperlink that tells you all about oak trees or the exact location of England’s other oak woods… Brrrring! Your boss is calling.