Castaneda, Eduardo. Carl Sagan with the planets. 1981. Photograph. (Photo taken on the set of the TV show Cosmos.)

“The Metaverse” is a term appearing more and more in the tech press lately. Which begs the question, what does the term really mean? What does the concept actually imply from a feasibility standpoint? And most importantly, what are the prospects for something like a metaverse to appear and gain adoption?

The vision of a metaverse or mirrorworld

“The Metaverse” is a term coined by author Neal Stephenson for his 2003 book Snow Crash. In the book, Stephenson presents the Metaverse as an alternate, more manipulable and explicitly informative virtual and augmented reality. That overlay provided a pervasive, interactive, digital complement to physical reality. The term gained popularity among tech enthusiasts beginning in the 2000s.

More recently, folks like Mark Zuckerberg have co-opted the term. According to Zuckerberg as quoted by Kyle Chayka of The New Yorker, “The metaverse is ‘a virtual environment where you can be present with people in digital spaces. It’s ‘an embodied Internet that you’re inside of rather than just looking at. We believe that this is going to be the successor to the mobile Internet.’”

Facebook clearly hopes to expand the market for its Oculus goggles and its advertising, and is using the metaverse metaphor to help describe to its users how they might shop, game and interact more immersively online. It’s a narrow, frankly self-serving view of what a metaverse might consist of.

Since Stephenson’s book was published, other terms have cropped up that describe a comparable concept. Kevin Kelly, for example, introduced his concept of a “Mirrorworld” (a term hardly original to him) in an article in Wired magazine in March 2019.

In a discussion with Forbes contributor Charlie Fink onstage at Augmented World Expo in August 2019, Kelly said,“Mirrorworld is a one-to-one map of the real world that’s in digital form. That is, there’s a digital skin right over the real world that can be revealed using AR. It’s at the same scale and in the same place, so it’s a skin. Or you could say it’s a ghost or it’s embedded in the same way.”

During the discussion, Kelly and Fink both agreed…

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