Tech News: The Metaverse, a whole new world

7th December, 2021.      //   General Interest, Technology  // 

Photo: Epic Games

IN 1992 the science fiction writer, Neal Stephenson, wrote an interesting futuristic book called Snow Crash in which he coined the term “metaverse”. His intention was to describe an alternative computer-generated universe that is highly immersive, with a shared virtual world where people can gather, socialise, play games, work and do business.

Today the description of Stephenson still holds, and the metaverse is seen as an online digital space where people can do things together in interconnected worlds across a wide variety of devices. But you will need a digital avatar of yourself to participate in this virtual world.

The metaverse is also closely tied to the development of Web 3.0, which many believe is the next phase of development of the internet. It is purported that Web 3.0 will be built on blockchains that will democratise access and power and weaken the immense control of the web by the large tech companies.

The creation of a metaverse is also not new, since in the 2000s there were many precursors to the metaverse, such as Second Life in 2003 and Hubbo Hotel. Although they have lost their popularity, both are still operating. Second Life, for instance, still has 200 000 daily active users.

But suddenly the metaverse has become the most popular catchword in tech on the lips of enthusiasts and investors alike. Facebook even changed its name to Meta Platforms Inc because they believe that the metaverse is the future of the internet and therefore their current focus is very much on smart glasses, virtual reality (VR) headsets, and lifelike video calls over the internet. Meta endeavours to move beyond their two-dimensional social media platforms to an interactive digital metaverse by replicating the feeling of real social presence and interactions as if you were physically in the same room with other people.

Epic, the producer of the online multiplayer game, Fortnite, earlier this year raised $1 billion (R16bn) in funding to further develop the online immersive experience. Microsoft again wants to build an enterprise metaverse called Mesh, as part of its Teams platform. And as expected, many new metaverse companies are avidly trying to get a slice of the pie.

Interestingly, it all started with multiplayer games such as Fortnite, Minecraft (owned by Microsoft), and Roblox (loved by children from seven to 12-years old). These companies made social gaming popular, where children and adults could socialise while playing. By focusing on the socialising aspect, they created platforms that could be the basic building blocks for the development of the metaverse.

Most of these games, such as Minecraft that runs on Hadean cloud software, can easily scale up to thousands of simultaneous users. The reason for the sudden focus on virtual reality is because the computing power to scale resource-hungry virtual reality to a massive scale is only now becoming a reality. Due to the increased computing power, providers of large-scale distributed computing can easily accommodate 10 000 players on the same server at the same time. Many metaverse companies are even talking about hosting virtual concerts and sporting events for so many as 50 000 people simultaneously.

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