On Oct. 28, 2021, Facebook announced that the company was rebranding to the name Meta during its annual Connect conference. This decision created a buzz in the information and technology spheres, as Meta showed the world what this new name was intended to signify: the development of the metaverse.
The metaverse can be described as a system of virtual worlds created using an engaging, dynamic design and the resources that bring that design to life. However, there is currently no universal definition. Ideas for the metaverse range from the bleak, dystopian setting depicted by Neal Stephenson’s book Snow Crash (the first use of the word “metaverse”) to the colorful, utopian vision displayed at Connect. It showed users spending time with loved ones, engaging with media in novel ways, and increasing efficiency in digital workspaces. This diversity in the conceptualization of the metaverse has left many wondering what it will become and what that will mean for the information field.
PIECES FROM THE PAST
A universal global metaverse would require a vast number of resources and a systemic movement to both generate and maintain them. However, parts of what a universal metaverse would require have already been successfully developed within their individual realms. For example, online virtual worlds have existed since the development of Second Life in 2003, but they are now more popularized through multimillion-dollar-revenue video games and platforms such as Fortnite and Roblox. AR and VR—both of which could provide vital integration between the metaverse and the real world—have found their own place within the video game industry. Pokémon GO, an AR app game that centers on catching virtual Pokémon in the real world, reported having 21 million daily active users during the height of its popularity. VR headsets (such as the Oculus Quest 2) have large markets, not only in the video game industry, but in the medicine and education fields too.
Many universal metaverse concepts have included a form of digital currency for users to buy access to content, such as avatar customization or digital-only events. Cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin and Ethereum could potentially fill this role as they continue to grow in popularity. Long-established corporations (such as Walmart) have begun to show interest in creating their own cryptocurrencies. Additionally, non-fungible tokens (NFTs) may have a bright future within a universal metaverse in the form of private digital collections or digital real estate.
WHERE THE METAVERSE STANDS NOW
Although a universal, global metaverse may be in the distant future, several tech giants have made strides in creating metaverse-focused projects. Meta brought forth several new and ongoing projects during the Connect conference. Software, such as Horizon Home and Horizon Worlds, is being developed to provide ways for users to communicate in dynamic social experience spaces. The Presence Platform will assist developers in building more engaging mixed-reality experiences, such as adding detailed hand-interaction capabilities to the apps that are created. Meta is even planning to create its own hardware: Project Cambria will provide a “high-resolution, color mixed reality pass through” headset for a top-of-the-line AR experience.
Both Microsoft and Google are also driving the metaverse conversation. Microsoft’s executive chairman and CEO Satya Nadella posted a video to Twitter 5 days after the Connect presentation. In it, he discussed a new immersive, virtual experience for Microsoft Teams called Mesh. Microsoft is set to acquire Activision Blizzard—a video game developing and publishing company that created the Call of Duty and World of Warcraft franchises—in 2023, citing that the acquisition would “provide building blocks for the metaverse.” Google is continuing to work on AR headsets under Project Iris and is expected to release its hardware in 2024.
While the details of these projects are limited, it is obvious that each of these tech titans has a clear vision on what it would like to see in the metaverse. This vision, however, is not shared by all. The lack of deadlines and current hardware limitations have brought up a healthy amount of skepticism about how the metaverse would begin to develop. Forbes covered additional backlash, pointing at how the metaverse could cause social media to become more entrenched in our lives, especially given how social media has been shown to influence the mental health of the young generations. Even the tech titans themselves are not free from struggle: Microsoft reportedly abandoned the latest plans for its HoloLens 3 mixed-reality headset, causing division within its mixed-reality team.
IMPACTS ON THE INFORMATION FIELD
Only time will tell how the metaverse will continue to develop. Current issues within the information field could be amplified as information professionals use the metaverse in the future. VR and AR headsets are a costly investment for both individual consumers and institutions. The security measures necessary to keep user information private would continue to grow. Digital lending practices could become even more important if apps within the metaverse are allowed to access information services. Addressing social inequity, income inequality, and ageism in the newly created communities of the metaverse could become as important as discussions that information professionals are having around these topics in the real world.
However, the creation of the metaverse could provide significant opportunities within the information field. The Center for the Future of Libraries has added VR to its trends collection, providing information professionals with current use cases for the hardware that will likely be involved in the first iteration of the metaverse. Some university libraries, including the New York Institute of Technology, have offered their communities the ability to check out VR headsets or have used VR headsets in research settings. A universal metaverse could also provide a way to counteract information censorship in the digital space. Minecraft’s virtual hub, The Uncensored Library, has already shown the success of using a digital space to distribute censored journalism in affected areas. Information professionals can rest assured that this is only the beginning of their journey with the metaverse.