A woman wearing a VR headset sits at a desk and reaching up with one hand, a finger extended to poke or tap at something that only she can see. The table she sits at also holds an open laptop and a piece of paper covered with printed text.
Interacting with the metaverse is done through virtual reality and augmented reality technology. What the metaverse looks like and is used for depends on the company involved. — Getty Images/ilkercelik

A year ago, Facebook rebranded as “Meta” — and the metaverse moved from science fiction into the mainstream public discourse. The metaverse has been on trend forecasters’ radars since before the pandemic, but the new reality of hybrid work has made the metaverse more relevant for many business owners. What, exactly, is the metaverse, and why should you care?

What is the metaverse?

It can be frustrating to try to understand the metaverse because different brands and people have different ways of defining this concept. For Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook, the metaverse is a VR social platform. Microsoft’s interpretation looks more like a more complicated Zoom meeting room. Others are using metaverses in gaming to create fantasy worlds.

The metaverse leverages virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) in combination with other technologies such as video-conferencing, games like Roblox, and cryptocurrency. It could also incorporate legacy technologies, like email, social media, and livestreaming.

“Mentally replace the phrase ‘the metaverse’ in a sentence with ‘cyberspace,’” wrote Wired. “Ninety percent of the time, the meaning won't substantially change. That's because the term doesn't really refer to any one specific type of technology, but rather a broad (and often speculative) shift in how we interact with technology.”

Ultimately, the metaverse is best understood as a unified virtual universe. That’s the goal, at least. Today’s iteration of the metaverse is actually many separate virtual spaces and experiences offered by different brands for different purposes. Today, “the” metaverse is, in reality, multiple emerging technologies seeking to reach the next level of interaction in the virtual and physical worlds.

[Read more: Augmented and Virtual Reality Will Play Big Role in Small Business Post-Pandemic Plans]

For now, it’s still unclear how and when the metaverse will become a reality for the average consumer.

What is the metaverse for?

Advocates of the metaverse see unlimited potential in its potential uses. Many companies are envisioning a digital economy where users can create, sell, and buy goods using NFTs and crypto tokens. To some extent, this already exists: Games like Fortnite and World of Warcraft allow players to buy and sell goods; Fortnite even offers virtual concerts.

[Read more: How to Monetize the Metaverse: Big Brands' Tech Partners Share Tips]

Others see the potential to use the metaverse to improve the way we work. Colleagues could create virtual avatars of themselves, put on a VR headset, and join a conference room in the metaverse, mimicking the experience of sitting together in a meeting without physically having to leave the house. Trainings in the metaverse can help doctors and surgeons practice life-saving procedures without putting real patients at risk.

There’s a fun aspect to the metaverse, too. Soccer team Manchester City is building virtual stadiums so fans can watch games and feel a sense of community with other fans. Musicians have also started experimenting with holding virtual concerts in the metaverse — with mixed results.

How should you prepare for the metaverse?

For now, it’s still unclear how and when the metaverse will become a reality for the average consumer. The VR headsets that empower users to join the metaverse are still seen as bulky and deeply uncool. And the technology is still in development—Meta’s VR division has reported heavy losses since it was launched in 2014, with little discernible progress on developing the technology further.

“Opportunities are emerging fast, but organizations should be careful when investing in a specific metaverse, as it is too early to determine which are viable for the long term,” wrote Gartner.

Merchants who are interested in the metaverse can still prepare by keeping tabs on the many metaverse-adjacent technologies, such as blockchain, crypto tokens, NFTs, AR and VR, and video games. Understanding developments and trends around these digital assets can help you prepare to bring your business into the future digital world.

CO— aims to bring you inspiration from leading respected experts. However, before making any business decision, you should consult a professional who can advise you based on your individual situation.

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