“Some innovations, whose long history of success faded into the background in the course of time, come back in a refreshed form decades later initiated by marketing activities of some companies.” (Buhl and Winter 2009, p. 133)
In 2009, the former BISE Editor-in-Chief Ulrich Buhl and his colleague Robert Winter described what happened with the development of the concept of “virtualization” from their point of view. Currently, a similar development can be outlined for the metaverse concept. Although various companies and researchers had continuously been working on different aspects related to the so-called metaverse, it was the voice of some big technology companies that ultimately fueled the prominence of the metaverse idea (Kim 2021). Among others, they released major investment and ambitious development plans for the metaverse (Di Pietro and Cresci 2021). Most prominently, Mark Zuckerberg’s announcement (Zuckerberg 2021) that his empire Facebook would rename itself Meta as part of Facebook’s transformation into a metaverse company led to a massive hype. Zuckerberg's (2021) metaverse vision is to craft a highly immersive, embodied form of the Internet in which the users experience a feeling of presence in a place and/or with another person or many other persons instead of being a spectator only [i.e., what we refer to as social and tele-presence in literature (Biocca et al. 2003)]. In his vision, the metaverse should facilitate activities such as socializing, sports, work, education, shopping, and other technology-based experiences beyond what we can imagine today (Zuckerberg 2021). At the moment, from what we can see in literature and from industry (announcements) everyone is painting his or her own picture of the metaverse, which is why the opinions, as well as the envisaged areas of application, are quite diverse. Almost every major digital player is currently discussing the metaverse concept and setting out to explore how it may affect their business. Moreover, some companies even start advertising their products and platforms under the umbrella of the metaverse (e.g., The Sandbox). Thus, it has taken almost three decades from the time the term metaverse was initially coined and described by Neal Stephenson in his 1992 released novel “Snow Crash” to the widespread attention across industry.
During that time, fostered by technological advances in, e.g., network infrastructure, cloud and edge computing, immersive systems and associated sensor technology, computer graphics, computing power, and blockchain technology, the metaverse has transitioned from a completely fictitious idea as outlined by Neal Stephenson to a more tangible phenomenon from which – at least some – parts are already technologically viable or will be in the near future. Originally, Neal Stephenson described the metaverse in his novel as a massively scaled, multi-user 3D computer-generated parallel universe controlled by a central institution that is inhabited by people represented by their self-created or bought, partly photo-realistic avatars with authentic facial expressions and by software agents (Stephenson 1992). Nowadays, it is quite common that avatars represent human individuals in digital encounters (Suh et al. 2011), e.g., in online multi-user games such as Fortnite, World of Warcraft, Minecraft, and others.Footnote 1 Furthermore, avatar representation is increasingly enabled by platform providers for serious applications such as business meetings, e.g., in Horizon Workrooms, or other virtual conference formats. For instance, parts of the WI2021 conference were hosted on the Gather.town platform where conference attendees used avatars to socially interact. Similarly, for many years, different multi-user 3D computer-generated virtual worlds have already existed where people spend a considerable amount of their leisure time. Well-known representatives are, for instance, the 2003 released social platform Second Life or the 2004 released multiplayer online game World of Warcraft. Over time, some of these platforms have even developed to non-negligible virtual economies, enabling the trade of virtual goods and services (Animesh et al. 2011; Guo et al. 2019). Particularly, due to the temporary popularity of Second Life, some – also established and primarily non-IT oriented (e.g., Nike or BMW) – businesses in those days tried to position themselves on the platform, e.g., by virtual stores (Yang et al. 2012). However, many of these projects failed to meet the high expectations, which is why most of them were discontinued (Yang et al. 2012).
The metaverse as outlined by Stephenson (1992) shares similar characteristics to the above-described platforms: Companies and individuals can buy land, trade virtual goods such as avatar skins (i.e., the avatar’s look), and continuously extend the metaverse through writing software extensions (Stephenson 1992). A few of the platforms that are currently attracting extensive public attention offer similar functionalities, e.g., Decentraland and The Sandbox offer virtual real estate and provide the opportunity to sell objects as NFTs, i.e., individuals are granted a commonly accepted, vested right to ownership of these items. Fortnite and Roblox allow users to create and share their own content, e.g., self-developed games or designed worlds, or to trade virtual items. While the former two strive to be as decentralized as possible, meaning that the users should have agency, ownership, and be in charge of everything, the latter two are controlled by a central institution, similar to the Snow Crash metaverse (Kim 2021; Lee and Kim 2022). Further, Stephenson’s protagonist named “Hiro” enters the metaverse by wearing goggles and headphones that are capable of creating realistic 3D vision and stereo sound leading to a telepresence experience (Stephenson 1992). The system description thereby resembles that of today’s available consumer-grade VR technology. While former virtual worlds were mostly explored via desktop computers (e.g., Second Life), a couple of platforms now support virtual reality experiences as well, e.g., AltspaceVR or Horizon Worlds. These were only a few exemplary analogies of today's platform and technology developments to the initially described metaverse, and more could certainly be identified.
Overall, the metaverse vision largely benefits from the steady progress in the gaming industry, which – as outlined – has already incorporated many of the different facets in their games for a considerable amount of time. Interestingly, however, already with the advent of virtual worlds around the development of Second Life, “virtual worlds have gained legitimacy in business and educational settings for their application in globally distributed work, project management, online learning, and real-time simulation” (Schultze and Orlikowski 2010, p. 810) widening the application area to include fields far beyond gaming and entertainment. Similarly, virtual and augmented reality technology owes its rise mainly to the gaming and entertainment industry but is now also adopted by other domains such as manufacturing or retail (Kohn and Harborth 2018; Peukert et al. 2019; Wohlgenannt et al. 2020).
As the above enumeration demonstrates, several facets of the initial metaverse concept have already found their way into real-world and non-gaming applications. Therefore, some start referring to the current state or some of the existing platforms as proto-metaverses (Xu et al. 2022). However, as it seems that everything pre-existed before, the question now arises as to what the metaverse hype is all about. In this regard, people have very different – even rather critical – attitudes towards the metaverse. While some see and proclaim the metaverse as “quasi”-successor state to (Ball 2021) or next chapter of (Zuckerberg 2021) the Internet as we experience it today, others argue that the metaverse is just a buzzword misused for marketing purposes without any substantial raison d’être (Smith 2022). To trace these opposing viewpoints, we should have a closer look at what development we expect for the metaverse in the future.