Why the term Metaverse took hold, specifically, is an unknowable question. “Cyberspace” seems to have been left behind — probably because it was too commonly used to skeuomorphically describe where online “things” “resided” in the 1990s — while the “Matrix” became impaired by the blockbuster success of the film of the same name. Maybe the “Grid” was too similar to other terms such as the “power grid.” Virtual reality never really went away, problem number one, but it was also too firmly associated with hardware, problem two, and those products were typically considered flops and “uncool.” Three strikes. VR-adjacent terms, such as AR, the newer MR, and newest XR, brought their own taxonomy problems and, in an inversion of VR’s problem, lacked popular products that would have given consumers an intuitive understanding of one versus another.
Under classical (though still simplified) definitions, augmented reality refers to interactive, digitally rendered visual information that is overlaid on top of the “real world” and refers directly to the real world. The most famous “AR” experience is Pokémon Go, but for years (including at the height of its popularity) it was not really “AR.” Instead, what users saw was essentially just a 2D image of a Pokémon through the passthrough video feed of their smartphone camera — not altogether unlike placing a Pikachu sticker on your screen (though in that instance, it would have a few different postures, might jump, etc.). If the user tilted their phone up, the Pokémon wouldn’t “stay” where it “was” in the background but instead follow wherever the camera pointed. In the flick of a wrist, a flying Pokémon might be incomprehensibly underground (and not know it was), or the flightless Pokémon might suddenly find itself soaring in the sky (which would not prevent it from stamping the nonexistent ground underneath it). Many users simply turned off “AR” in order to preserve battery, as there was scarcely any benefit to the functionality. Eventually, Niantic added context that empowered Pokemon to “anchor” in position and in appropriate ways, such as enabling them to hide behind real-world objects (a tree); should the user throw a virtual pokeball at the hiding creature, it would bounce off the obstruction. The users could even walk around a given Pokémon to see them from another angle (which also demonstrated that the model was truly 3D).
In recent years, the term mixed reality has gained favor. In contrast to AR, MR explicitly calls for the real and physical world to be intermixed — and richly so. Imagine, as an example, not just “anchoring” a virtual TV screen to your living room wall but playing racquetball against it (complete with virtual projectiles ricocheting across your furniture, if you so chose). Yet exactly where AR stops and MR begins is bound to be fuzzy. Magic Leap described itself as an AR company but would now be described as an MR company (many former employees report their work there was primarily spatial). Regardless, note that in the case of AR and MR, we are talking about the technology and experience, not the device — as in the case of VR.
Many in the tech community hate the term extended reality (XR) because it’s a catchall that covers everything and thus barely means anything specific. Worse still, some folks take XR to mean everything other than AR/VR/MR, such as XR projectors that enable the real world to assume a touchable interface.
The flaws, narrowness, and technical orientation of VR/AR/MR/XR are, presumably, a partial explanation for Zuckerberg and others’ preference for “metaverse” in the first place. The word is a portmanteau of “meta,” the Greek term for “above” or “greater than,” and the backformation of “-verse,” as in “universe.” The Metaverse thus spans and connects all universes — real and non-real — and the many technologies that comprise them. This is the perspective shared by Sweeney, Huang, and Nadella, as well as Zuckerberg, who, in the months leading up to the name change, said plainly the Metaverse “isn’t just virtual reality. It’s going to be accessible across all of our different computing platforms; VR and AR, but also PC, and also mobile devices and game consoles.” Even so, to the average person, Metaverse just means “VR” (or more likely, a cartoon playground in VR).
This is probably because at the time of Facebook’s name change, most of its Metaverse-focused hardware were VR-only, and the company’s signature social platform, Horizon Worlds, was also VR-only and cartoonish. As Meta’s product suite diversifies and its vision is realized, the public misperception may change, but language famously cannot be controlled, least of all by its creator. In 2022, in response to the constant questions about whether his by-now-decades-old metaverse required headsets, Stephenson Tweeted:
“The assumption that the Metaverse is primarily an AR/VR thing isn’t crazy. In my book, it’s all VR. And I worked for an AR company [Magic Leap] — one of several that are putting billions of dollars into building headsets. But I didn’t see video games coming when I wrote Snow Crash. . . . Thanks to games, billions of people are now comfortable navigating 3D environments on flat 2D screens. The UIs that they’ve mastered [keyboard and mouse for navigation and camera] are not what most science fiction writers would have predicted. But that’s how path dependency in tech works. We fluently navigate and interact with extremely rich 3D environments using keyboards that were designed for mechanical typewriters. Its steampunk made real. . . . My expectation is that a lot of Metaverse content will be built for screens (where the market is) while keeping options open for the future growth of affordable [AR/VR] headsets.”
Not Who is On, But Who Is First
Another, arguably more intractable problem the Metaverse’s gluey association with Meta, whose name changed coincided with a precipitous (though essentially unrelated) fall in its share price, and crypto, which experienced its own free fall over the ensuing 18 months and was rife with entrepreneurs and advocates who had used the indescribable “metaverse” as a sort of multi-trillion dollar plug that would justify their valuations. As a result, many of the companies that had previously used the term began to back away from it. One such example is Roblox.
In 2023, a Roblox developer told the boss, founder and CEO David Baszucki, “I have always thought of Roblox as largely a metaverse company. . . . Recently, I’ve become aware of a brand marketing push, I believe by your sports division, to distance yourselves from metaverse connotations. Can you please tell us about that?” Bazsucki replied, “I wouldn’t say that’s a distancing. We have evolved the terminology we’ve used. We’ve always used the term ‘human co-experience’ or ‘bringing people together.’ . . . We’ve never really used the term metaverse a lot, and I think going forward, we’ll probably always think of ourselves as a communication and connection platform.’ This is a bit absurd. At the time of Roblox’s October 2020 IPO filing, the term “Metaverse” had appeared in only 17 filings with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission since January 1, 2001. In its filing, Roblox used the term “Metaverse” 16 times, writing that Roblox operated in a category sometimes known as the “metaverse” and that Roblox believed was “materializing,” with its “business plan [assuming] . . . the adoption of a metaverse.” During the company’s pre-IPO roadshow, Roblox’s Baszucki wrote an opinion piece as part of Wired magazine’s 2021 predictions column, titled “The Metaverse Is Coming,” in which he predicted that “billions would come to [Metaverse] platforms such as Roblox” and that the “Metaverse is arguably as big a shift in online communication as the telephone or the internet.” Then, on the day of the company’s March 2021 IPO, Baszucki tweeted, “To all those who helped get us one step closer to fulfilling our vision of the #Metaverse-thank you. #RobloxIPO.”