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You may have been hearing discussion about the “metaverse” in online articles, edtech circles, or even among your students. This term can be confusing; what exactly does it mean?
The metaverse is a generic term used to describe a type of technology. When individuals describe an experience as occurring in “the metaverse”, it could refer to one of many different things, including games, virtual experiences, or social platforms. If a student says they were “in the metaverse”, a reasonable response could be: “where?” or “which one?”. This is similar to the way we would ask a student, “what website were you on?” after they said they were “on the internet”.
In this post, we’ll dive deeper into the definition of a metaverse, what differentiates metaverses from other online experiences, and examples of popular metaverses today.
There is a lot of buzz around metaverses, because they are so new. The buzzword “metaverse” can be compared to the general understanding of “machine learning” a few years ago. Many people are familiar with the term, but only those engaging directly with the technology can understand it.
Although few people understand this technology, the metaverse has become extremely accessible for students. The challenge emerging for many educators and parents is, “How do I help my learners or children navigate a technology that I don’t know?”
To help paint the picture of what a metaverse is, I think it’s always best to start with vocabulary and provide a central metaverse meaning.
Some think the metaverse is a state of constant immersive Virtual Reality (VR) or Augmented Reality (AR) where tech is indistinguishable from reality. Others consider it to be as simple as a virtual world. For the sake of this article, we’re going to start with my current definition of the metaverse and have to recognize that just like other emerging technologies, that may change as it matures.
To me, a metaverse is a virtual experience that contains 3 key aspects:
A key element of a metaverse is the opportunity for people to interact with each other. Users need to be able to effectively communicate with each other and create a sense of community. In a robust metaverse, users will likely be able to communicate with each other via:
In a metaverse, these forms of communication appear to come from a user’s avatar (a digital representation of themself that they may be able to shape and dress to their preference).
With recent advances in technology, it’s becoming possible for users to communicate through mediums such as body language or “emotes” (scripted movements or dances similar to those in Fortnite), but these aren’t necessarily requirements of any metaverse.
Metaverse experiences occur virtually (by means of technology) and in real-time. Users are able to communicate with each other, similar to a conversation you would have in the real world. This characteristic of metaverses allows users to create a feeling of community, but it breaks away from some characteristics we may have previously associated with virtual experiences.
In real-time experiences, users are no longer able to hit “pause”. They may come to a natural stopping point in their activity, but they are no longer able to suspend the experience of everyone in the metaverse at one time. This allows a metaverse to create a true feeling of an “experience” as users are now required to be at a certain place at a certain time to experience an event. Just like traditional concerts, conferences, or sporting events, a user could be required to log into the experience at a specific time and day or risk missing out. Unfortunately, it’s this same characteristic that allows a metaverse to mimic some of the more challenging human emotions like FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) and disappointment.
This begs the question: if a person attends an event either physically or virtually, can they receive a comparable experience? Metaverses allow us to feel many of the nuanced emotions we have come to associate with physical experiences, like expectation and community, nervousness and disappointment. In this way, the metaverse will continue to challenge our idea of “real events”.
Perhaps the most complex part of a metaverse is the thing that distinguishes it the most. A metaverse must have a form of in-experience currency. This currency should allow users to buy and sell virtual items to each other or a centralized market. Additionally, the experience should allow users to create their own products to sell in the marketplace.
It’s the economics of a metaverse that make it unique from previous technology. Certainly, traditional currencies, such as the US dollar, can be used to buy and sell items. Metaverses, however, have opened the door to non-traditional currency, like cryptocurrency and NFTs (non-fungible tokens). Both crypto and NFTs have become huge catalysts for metaverse economies, as they provide alternate ways for creators to monetize their craft, art, and experience.
Meta (formerly Facebook) has come front and center into the metaverse conversation in the last few months. When Facebook announced their name change to Meta in 2021, it created a very large misunderstanding of the metaverse.
Plainly, the metaverse is not a product owned by Meta (formerly Facebook). The organization changed its name to solidify the metaverse association and its future as a business strategy.
Do not be mistaken though, Meta (formerly Facebook) has been investing in the metaverse for years through hardware and development of their own metaverses. VR products like the Oculus Quest 2 have helped give users more accessible means of physical connection with the metaverse and their software platforms like “horizons’ ‘ demonstrate their own metaverses where users can do things like attend events and conduct business meetings.
At this point, the former Facebook company has helped shape the ways that users are able to engage with metaverses. Their contributions and platforms, however, represent only part of the larger technology and ecosystem. For example, as many of us know, Facebook includes the ability to interact with a community of “friends” as well as buy and sell products in Facebook Marketplace. Facebook Live is one attempt at broadcasting live experiences, but Meta (formerly Facebook) still has room to invest in VR/AR technology to build out this part of their metaverse.
The goal of any metaverse is to give users convenient access to experiences with other people. For now, the 2 most common types are games and immersive worlds.
Game-style metaverses focus their experiences on allowing users to compete for a central objective. These generally come in the form of competitive games like Fortnite, but can also lend themselves to more creative games like Minecraft. The core interactions of these metaverses can be more predictable as they generally have central objectives. The benefit of this to parents and teachers is the enhanced ability to know “what” students are doing on the metaverse. That said, the real time interactions with other users (text based and spoken) are not rated and should still be considered when allowing them to engage in a game-based metaverse.
On the other hand, the scope of immersive world-style experiences is significantly larger. These experiences hope to create entire worlds that mimic that of real life. It’s within these types of experiences that we touch on some never-before-seen virtual activities, like buying land or even opening a “store” in a marketplace. In these experiences, the land-owning users dictate entirely what other users are able to accomplish. Some users may create a casino experience on their land, while others may create small-scale games for users to play. In some examples, individuals may even use their land for advocacy to share a message or create awareness in a popular location. These world-style experiences are where a lot of uncertainty exists in metaverses. It’s difficult to predict what type of experience your student or child may have, so we advise caution.
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Below we highlight some of the top metaverse companies that are creating unique experiences. These are a mix of both metaverse gaming organizations and metaverse immersive world experiences. As metaverses grow in popularity, these organizations may become classroom and household names.
Metaverses are an emerging technology that have the potential to challenge the way we define “real” experiences, communication, and commerce. As metaverses develop and grow in popularity, it’s important to understand the ways children and students are able to interact with them. While metaverses pose some challenges for parents and educators, it’s easy to see how these growing stages will help pave the way for its use in the classroom.
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