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I’ve been involved in VR and AR since those technologies first emerged, so with the growing interest in the metaverse, I’m often asked for explanations and definitions. People especially want to know about the capabilities and potential risks of the metaverse. With similar questions coming up again and again, I wanted to put some of the more useful definitions together in one place. So here goes:
In the world of immersive media, virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) are the two pillars of the field. Both terms have been around for about 30 years, with VR emerging in the late 1980s and AR in the early 1990s.
The key difference is where the user feels present. In virtual reality, the user feels present within a simulated environment, while in augmented reality the user feels present in a combined world of real and virtual content.
This leads to the following definitions:
Virtual reality (VR) is an immersive and interactive simulated environment that is experienced in the first person and provides a strong sense of presence to the user.
Augmented reality (AR) is an immersive and interactive environment in which virtual content is spatially registered to the real world and experienced in the first person, providing a strong sense of presence in a combined real/virtual space.
To achieve a true VR or AR experience, a user must be able to interact with virtual content in natural and immersive ways. This distinguishes VR from 3D movies and 3D simulations. It also distinguishes AR from “heads-up displays” (HUDS) that present non-immersive content into a user’s line of sight, such as text, data, and flat images.
For decades, virtual reality and augmented reality were the primary phrases used in academics and industry, but additional words have become popular in recent years. For example, extended reality (XR) emerged to describe the full spectrum of VR and AR capabilities and has become a convenient catch-all for many forms of immersive media.
The term mixed reality (MR) has also become popular but causes some confusion because it’s primarily a synonym for augmented reality. The popularity took off in the mid-2010’s when Microsoft launched its seminal HoloLens headset and used the phrase “mixed reality” in its marketing language. Since then, people often look for ways to differentiate between AR and MR, but it’s mostly a matter of preference.
Additional confusion has emerged because some companies have marketed smart glasses using imprecise language, describing certain products as AR/MR when they are really heads-up displays that present non-immersive content into the user’s line of sight. Such devices can be very useful but cause market confusion when compared to true augmented reality eyewear like Microsoft’s HoloLens and Snap’s latest Spectacles.
To add to the confusion, the word “metaverse” has recently become wildly popular. The word has its roots in science fiction of the 90s but wasn’t widely used until Facebook (now Meta) put its marketing muscle behind it. It can be defined as follows:
A metaverse is a persistent and immersive simulated world that is experienced in the first person by large groups of simultaneous users who share a strong sense of mutual presence. It can be fully virtual (i.e. a virtual metaverse), or it can exist as layers of virtual content overlaid on the real world (i.e. an augmented metaverse).
Some believe a metaverse must also include formal rules of conduct and a fully functional economy. While many worlds will have these features, it feels too limiting to force that condition into the definition. Similarly, some believe that all virtual and augmented worlds will be connected into a single interoperable metaverse, with elements shared between the sub-worlds. While it is very likely that many worlds will share features and content, some will surely stand alone and still meet the definition of a metaverse.
And, no, the metaverse is not a new technology. The first dedicated metaverse I ever experienced was There.com, which went beta in 2001. It was impressive, even by today’s standards. This was followed by Second Life soon after, which was also impressive and gained a large following. Another early metaverse was ActiveWorlds, which may pre-date the two above, although I didn’t experience it until 2006.
Of course, metaverse platforms of decades past didn’t involve recent concepts like Web 3.0 or NFTs that are now part of the conversation. These new words confuse many people, so it’s worth providing some context and explanation for them, too.
The reason Web 3.0 and NFTs are discussed in regard to the metaverse has little to do with any immersive capabilities. Instead they relate to whether metaverse data is stored centrally by platform providers (like user data on Facebook) or stored on distributed networks (like cryptocurrency on blockchain). Both are viable paths for building a metaverse, but distributed networks facilitate interoperability and strengthen data privacy. Still, it will be up to the platform providers to decide which path to take.
Before moving on, it’s worth discussing NFTs as many people incorrectly believe they are defined as “digital collectables.” Yes, they are currently very popular for that use, but the NFT is a far broader concept aimed at assigning ownership of digital assets.
I like to think of NFTs as similar to VIN numbers in cars. In the physical world, you and I could each own a white Tesla, fresh out of the factory so they’re essentially identical. We could walk to our cars in a large parking lot and be confused as to who owns which one. Ownership could easily be settled by looking at the VIN number on each car, which is linked to your title and tracked in a variety of databases.
In the metaverse, the same thing could happen – you and I could each own virtual Tesla that look identical and are parked in the same virtual parking lot. We might be confused as to who owns which one. Instead of resolving this with VIN numbers, many metaverse platforms will likely track such ownership using NFTs linked to each virtual car (and to every other virtual object that can be owned).
I point this out because an NFT defines ownership regardless of collectability. In the future, we may look back and laugh at the wild speculation markets for NFTs right now. Instead, we will appreciate that the primary value of an NFT is far more mundane – to clarify which car in a virtual parking lot is yours. It may also let you take that virtual car from one platform to another because NFTs are decentralized.
Finally, there is one last concept that is new to some people – haptics.
The word “haptics” refers to adding a sense of touch to computing. Touch has two components: tactile sensations (i.e. texture and vibration) perceived through the skin, and force sensations (i.e. weight and resistance) perceived through your muscles. Most consumer devices today that provide haptic feedback focus on tactile sensations (because of cost). But hardware that also provide force sensations make VR and AR significantly more immersive and compelling by giving virtual objects physical realism.
All in all, immersive media is a rapidly developing field with many overlapping words and phrases. The graphic below should help clarify the language:
Consumers should be aware that many in the industry currently use these words imprecisely. Every virtual environment is not a metaverse; every pair of smart glasses does not provide an AR/MR experience, and it’s not guaranteed that all virtual worlds will be interoperable, even if that’s a noble objective. On the flip side, our language will surely get more precise as the market matures and consumers become more sophisticated. Until then, the definitions above may help reduce confusion.
Louis Rosenberg is a pioneer in the fields of VR, AR, and AI. In 1992 he developed the first interactive AR system (the Virtual Fixtures platform) for the U.S. Air Force. He then founded the early VR company Immersion Corporation (1993) and brought it public in 1999. He then founded the early AR company Outland Research (2004). Rosenberg earned his PhD from Stanford, worked as a professor at California State University, and has been awarded over 300 patents for his work in VR, AR, and AI. He is currently CEO of Unanimous AI, a company that amplifies group intelligence in shared environments.