HTC, Disney and others have echoed the Meta CEO’s plans for a shared virtual space, but for many it’s nothing new
It tells you a lot about the state of the tech industry that much of its terminology is pilfered from dystopian science fiction novels. Isaac Asimov gave us the term “robotics”, HG Wells named the atomic bomb, and Neuromancer author William Gibson came up with “cyberspace”. Meanwhile in his 1992 novel Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson popularised the term “avatar” to refer to the digital embodiment of a human in a shared virtual world that he called “the Metaverse”.
His presentiment of how humans might behave in a virtual world was eerily prescient. “If you’re ugly, you can make your avatar beautiful,” he wrote. “You can look like a gorilla or a dragon or a giant talking penis in the Metaverse.” Last October, the metaverse made the leap from sci-fi jargon to mainstream media after Mark Zuckerberg announced that Facebook was changing its name to Meta and pivoting to become “a metaverse company”.
Now companies including HTC, Disney, Roblox, Epic, Nvidia and Microsoft have outlined their own metaverse aspirations. The problem is, nobody seems particularly sure what a metaverse is. Will virtual reality be necessary? Are NFTs involved? What do you actually do there? Every company is trying to shape the metaverse according to their strengths and strategies, each using the same word to articulate different visions. As it stands, “metaverse” is little more than a lure for investors. It calls to mind Gibson’s comments on coining the term “cyberspace”: that it was “an effective buzzword” because it felt “evocative and essentially meaningless.”