Since the concept of the "metaverse" was widely introduced to the public in 2021, it seems as though every day brings news of another company, brand, celebrity or product trying to establish a foothold in this digital space.

Clearly not a passing fad, the metaverse is rapidly shaping up to become a multidisciplinary and multi-sensory venue where new methods of interaction, community-building and self-expression can be found. It has already featured powerhouse pop stars' performances at hugely successful concerts on Roblox; opportunities for the fashion-forward to flex rare non-fungible tokens (NFTs) minted by luxury brands in Fortnite; and, in Decentraland, beer-brandsponsored virtual bars where consumers' avatars can enjoy a cold one while watching the big game.

What Exactly is the Metaverse?

At this stage in the technology, there is not yet a single, overarching digital universe that a user can plug into like The Matrix. Currently, there are a variety of different metaverse platforms, each with its own look, feel, capabilities, goals and technologies.

In short, a metaverse is:

characterized by its ability to allow individuals to immerse themselves into a given platform, interact with others and participate in consumer activities in a way that more closely resembles the physical world than any other technology to date.

The pre-metaverse digital and social media landscape is two-dimensional. Looking at flat screens, users type, click on and view pictures and words to communicate, purchase products and watch content. Conversely, in the metaverse, users are immersed in a three-dimensional platform. Instead of users sending their friends direct messages through their social media profile pages or messenger apps, users of a metaverse platform are able to actually see their friends' avatars and walk up to them to have a conversation. They can watch a live concert being performed on a stage in front of them or take a stroll to check out the digital merch booth and snack stations.

Metaverse platforms in this vein have been around for quite some time. Video games — particularly massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs) and immersive role-playing games — have been operating in this manner for many years. It is not surprising, then, that some of the biggest metaverse platforms currently available are those associated with video games: Fortnite, Roblox and Axie Infinity are just a few.

Other companies have their own view of what the metaverse should look like, however. Facebook, for instance, which brought the term "metaverse" into the mainstream as part of its corporate rebrand as Meta, sees the metaverse as an immersive world utilizing virtual reality and accessible through VR headsets, where consumers can enjoy living in an entirely separate sphere. Put on your headset and be transported from your two-bedroom apartment to your luxury mansion by the ocean — in the metaverse. Conduct video meetings with your colleagues face-to-face in a magnificent boardroom — in the metaverse.

Still others view the metaverse as something that should be fundamentally deregulated and decentralized. These idealists envision a way for consumers, creators and everyone else to interact freely without being subject to the control of large private corporations. Platforms such as Decentraland espouse this view, and notably are operated by a decentralized autonomous organization (DAO) — a collective of like-minded individuals working together to achieve their shared goals, similar to a cooperative—rather than a traditional corporate entity.

Despite their differences, these metaverse platforms share some things in common in addition to their immersive nature. They function largely on blockchain technologies, which power many transactions that take place in the metaverse. Using cryptocurrency, consumers purchase non-fungible tokens (NFTs) that correlate to goods and services ranging from luxury products to fast food. Some NFTs are meant to remain solely within the metaverse (such as the digital handbag that your digital avatar carries). Others come with physical-world benefits, such as a discount coupon, offer code or trade-in token that can be used to obtain physical products that correlate to the digital item purchased in the metaverse. Many metaverse platforms — notably, Decentraland — also encourage the purchase and development of digital land that buyers can use to do things like set up a house, a virtual storefront, a restaurant or a pop-up location that can be rented out to others. If you can dream it, you can achieve it (for a price) — in the metaverse.

Until all these different platforms and experiences become interoperable and unified to the point where a person can take their assets from Fortnite and use them in Decentraland, for example, there will be no single "Metaverse." For now, various metaverse platforms will essentially be competing to see which vision of the future resonates most with today's consumers.

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