What Is the Metaverse? Even the Experts Aren’t Sure

When students at Stanford Graduate School of Business chose the metaverse as the theme for this year’s Future of Arts, Media, and Entertainment Conference, they kept returning to the same question: What exactly is the metaverse?

It turns out they aren’t the only ones struggling to define it. Speaker after speaker at the conference, held recently at Stanford GSB, offered their interpretations of the metaverse, and none could identify a common vision. They included leading figures in online gaming and augmented reality, representative companies that have hosted some of the world’s most popular multiplayer games.

Students tried out a VR application during a break in the conference. | Julia Yu

The lack of a single definition may be why the metaverse still lives mostly in the imagination. Broadly speaking, it describes a virtual space inhabited by multiple users who can interact with each other, a dreamland where you can unshackle from the pesky constraints of everyday life. The term covers a lot of ground, ranging from online games that already exist all the way to a futuristic virtual universe — one vast interconnected network in which users, via their avatars, could travel effortlessly between worlds. What the speakers at the conference seem to agree on is that the metaverse is going to be a very big deal, with profound implications for business.

Craig Donato, MBA ’13, chief business officer at the gaming platform Roblox, believes the metaverse is characterized by two key features: social connection and immersiveness. “I think the metaverse is about sharing space, doing things with other people,” he said. “They need some sort of context, and a lot of the games on Roblox are just shared context. You’re hit with a disaster, and you work together to survive it. It feels like you’re inside [that world]. I think our job is to enable, create or produce these shared experiences.”

That social aspect differentiates the metaverse from the internet as we know it, says Matthew Henick, vice president of metaverse development at Epic, whose game Fortnite has earned the company millions of fans and billions of dollars. “For me, the most simplistic way to think about the advertising metaverse is as a new principle,” he said. “When you think about access on the internet, you think of going to websites or clicking on an app. The metaverse means there’s a new organizing principle that is going to be around social interactive experiences. When you choose to go to the metaverse, you’re choosing to go into an experience.”

Gaming may be the most common gateway to the metaverse, but Donato says its potential goes far beyond amusements like Adopt Me!, Roblox’s hugely popular pet simulator. “We work with a company called FIRST Robotics that does robot competitions. Robot kits cost about 1,000 bucks, right? Well, they are creating a virtual version to provide kits for free. Now, any kid, anywhere, can learn to program a robot. Or how do students look at history? What if kids could not only study Rosa Parks, but they could be Rosa Parks on that bus that day, or they could play the role of the bus driver or someone in the back of the bus. How do we use these technologies to make them transformational?”

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