A brief metaverse history: from where it started, to today
The buzzword of the moment is ‘metaverse’. With Facebook’s parent company rebranded as Meta, the news is abuzz with Mark Zuckerberg’s push for the creation of the metaverse. We could (apparently) be entering a new era of online interaction.
But the metaverse isn’t as new an idea as you might think. Not long after the invention of the internet, other ideas about how we would interact via computers started to evolve. The metaverse is one such idea.
So, here’s a brief metaverse history.
See also: ELI5: what is metaverse?
The metaverse history begins with a 30-year-old dystopian sci-fi book titled Snow Crash, written by Neal Stephenson and published in 1992.
It was in this book that the term ‘metaverse’ was coined.
The novel depicts people using virtual reality technology and digital avatars of themselves to explore an online, digital world. In this world, the characters can walk down the street, visit shops, offices, amusement parks, and other forms of entertainment. Events that happen in the metaverse can sometimes impact people in the real world of the novel.
In Snow Crash, the metaverse acts as an escape from the dystopian reality the characters live in.
A detour – the technology needed
The exact beginning of VR is disputed, but rests somewhere around the 1950s/60s. Morton Heilig, a cinematographer/filmmaker, wrote of an ‘experience theatre’ that draws viewers into the onscreen activity. He built a prototype of this idea in 1962.
The first ‘VR headset’ was created in 1968 by Ivan Sutherland with help from his students Bob Sproull, Danny Cohen, and Quentin Foster. This head-mounted display (HMD) was heavy and had to be suspended from the ceiling to be usable.
The term virtual reality became popular in the 1980s, while widespread commercial releases of VR headsets began in the 1990s. There followed a dip in interest in the technology until the reveal and release of the Oculus Rift in the 2010s. Over the next decade, VR devices grew in development, and were popularly used in video games.
With the availability of VR technology, the metaverse that Stephenson wrote of was more than distant science fiction. Rather, it had grounds in the technology of the time, and of today.
Iterations of ‘a’ metaverse
Over the decades, there were numerous iterations of ideas that could fall under the metaverse umbrella — making them part of the metaverse history.
‘Cyberspace’ is a term coined in 1982. It refers to a virtual computer world — a notion of an environment distinct from the real world, which deals only with communications over computer networks. In a way, this is like a very basic metaverse. It creates the idea of our online activity taking place in an environment separate from the physical world.
In 2000, Gartner describes a fusion of a digital/virtual world with the physical (real) world, called the Supranet. This relates to metaverse history in the sense that it once again envisioned a rich virtual world, and how it will interact with the physical world.
Evolution through gaming
A huge part of metaverse history comes from gaming.
Second Life, a video game released in 2003, is largely considered the first ‘metaverse’ in metaverse history. In Second Life, the user is represented as an avatar. They can build a second, fictional life for themselves in the digital realm.
Roblox is another game that has earned the title metaverse. It’s a major part of metaverse history because the company is also planning to build its own modern metaverse.
Massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) are more examples of gaming metaverses. They allow players to explore a virtual world and interact with each other.
Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook’s role in metaverse history began in 2014, when the company acquired the virtual reality hardware/platform Oculus.
Metaverse history makes another stop in fiction in 2011, and then again in 2018, with the book and then the movie Ready Player One.
The story depicts a metaverse which again offers an escape from a dystopian reality. In Ready Player One, the metaverse is a VR game that doubles as a secondary society — a place to interact with others.
The COVID pandemic and subsequent lockdowns may have further influenced the current push for the creation of a metaverse. With shops unable to open and people unable to go out and interact physically, the need for a virtual space to do these things felt intense.
Other contributing forces may include the death of the high street in favour of online shopping. With a metaverse, the convenience of online shopping could be combined with the fun of entering stores, browsing tangible items, and socialising while shopping.
2021 saw Facebook rebrand as Meta — relating to the projected future of the company as a pioneer of the Metaverse.
Today, the metaverse as we now understand it — a virtual world that replaces our current idea of the internet — feels closer than ever. But it isn’t here yet. Many factors remain uncertain, including, of no small importance, the demand for such a technology.
However, we’re at a pivotal point in metaverse history. Enormous tech corporations are pouring resources into its development. While the metaverse isn’t a new idea, it still represents a new internet, and new ways of interacting with others, both professionally and personally.