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Facebook’s 2021 rebrand to Meta brought the metaverse to the attention of the masses. Today, far more people are talking about it than even just a year ago, and major companies like Nike and Microsoft have invested in meta technology and experiences. However, the concept of the metaverse isn’t new – the idea of a virtual world existing as part of our everyday lives has been around for years, and VR tech has been in use for decades. The foundations of this technology go back even further. In this article, we will look at the history of the metaverse, from the inventions and insights that underpin it to some of the landmark moments that have occurred to bring us to this point.
Life imitates art
New technologies are often foreseen in the minds of science fiction writers, and the same is true with the metaverse. Many people were introduced to the idea of an expansive virtual world where people can have authentic experiences in Ernest Cline’s 2011 book, Ready Player One, and its subsequent film adaptation, in which people live out much of their lives in a metaverse-like place called Oasis. But this idea has been around in sci-fi for much longer.
The originator of the term ‘metaverse’ was Neal Stephenson, a sci-fi author who, in his 1982 novel, Snow Crash, wrote about a dystopian future in which people escaped the decaying real world to find solace in a virtual environment. This ‘metaverse’ was so immersive and engaging that some people spent their entire lives there, often to the detriment of their real-world, physical bodies.
With the technological developments of that era, maybe it’s not a surprising leap for a sci-fi writer to make, but remarkably, this wasn’t the first time someone had written about a fictional world accessed and experienced via a head-mounted display. The 1935 book Pygmalion’s Spectacles, written by Stanley Weinbaum, featured a character who donned a pair of special goggles to traverse an alternative reality that appealed to all the senses. Soon after, in 1938, the phrase ‘virtual reality’ was brought into the public consciousness when it was used by French writer Antonin Artaud in relation to the theatre. He used it to describe how an immersive world can be created through the use of objects, images, and characters.
A budding technology
The physical hardware used to bring virtual reality to life actually began as far back as the 1800s, with the stereoscope. This was founded on the idea of binocular depth perception, employed by Sir Charles Wheatstone, a forward-thinking scientist of his time. He invented the Wheatstone stereoscope as a way to present the viewer with a 3D image using combinations of physical pictures that the brain then fused together to produce one single image.
Several stereoscopes were developed throughout the 19th century, and these might give us an insight into what could occur with VR headsets in the coming years; they were a popular form of entertainment for over a century, even being used in the 20th century for virtual tourism and as kids’ toys. However, they also caused eye strain, headaches, and fatigue.
Today’s VR headsets use these same basic principles to build the illusion of depth and transport the user to the metaverse, but they aren’t comfortable enough to be worn for extended periods yet, so it’s difficult to imagine how people could spend hours every day in this virtual world. However, with new and improved hardware coming out all of the time, it might not be too long before we reach this point.
Virtual reality experiences
True virtual reality experiences only came about more recently, but it might surprise you to find out just how long ago this was. The earliest one was designed by Morton Heilig and launched all the way back in 1962. It presented the viewer with the authentic feeling of a motorcycle ride through New York using a machine called the Sensorama. This device effectively blended the color film of the city with stereo sound, the smell of exhaust fumes and food trucks, the feeling of wind, and the rumble of the bike created by a vibrating chair to give viewers a realistic experience of the ride. Like Artaud before him, Heilig believed in the power of theatre to draw the audience into an immersive world created on screen. His involvement with VR continued after this, and he would later go on to patent the very first head-mounted display based on the stereoscopes of the 1800s. However, he ultimately failed to raise the money required to follow through on his ideas, so any future work on the Sensorama ended there.
The 70s brought more novel VR experiences as MIT took people on a virtual tour of Aspen, and two members of the University of Essex, Roy Trubshaw and Richard Bartle, produced a text-based game called MUD that was the first multiplayer virtual world – it even featured avatars. However, it wasn’t until 1984 that VR hardware began to be commercialized. The firm VPL Research created a VR headset and a pair of gloves that could be used to interact in both augmented and virtual reality environments, demonstrating its potential for commercial use.
Another big step occurred in 2003 when Linden Lab released Second Life. This was an online virtual world where people could create an avatar and live out a ‘second life’ online. While it gained somewhat of a cult following, many of whom still play it today, it never took hold in the mainstream and is only frequented by around 1 million devout users. Despite this, it provided an early testing ground for major companies to work out how to build customer and employee experiences in a virtual world.
VR tech took a huge leap forward in 2010 when Palmer Luckey invented the first Oculus Rift headset, which provided the wearer with a 90-degree field of vision. He managed to launch this new gadget via Kickstarter in 2012, bringing VR technology to a wider audience. This headset really brought the VR experience to life, and just 2 years later, Oculus was purchased by Facebook for $2 billion. By this time, many other firms had begun to realize the potential of this budding technology. Google, Sony, and Samsung all got in on the act around 2014, while Microsoft entered the fray a couple of years later with HoloLens – the first mixed-reality headset.
During the same period, play-to-earn games came to the fore. They grew out of the popular gacha games phenomenon that came about in Japan around 2010 and beyond, which allowed players to win virtual items by spending in-game money. The item received would be chosen randomly, generating tremendous excitement as the user could potentially get something incredibly valuable. Subsequent play-to-earn games were built on this concept and have since become an integral part of today’s metaverse. One of the most popular is Axie Infinity, which currently attracts 2,800,000 daily active players.
As the second half of this decade came around, things really began to pick up speed. Pokemon Go took advantage of augmented reality in 2016 to position their popular virtual creatures in the real world for people to search for, sometimes with disastrous results. IKEA developed the Place app in 2017, allowing people to use AR to see what furniture would look like in their homes before buying it. In the same year, Google brought out Google Cardboard as a way for users to turn their smartphones into VR viewers, once again improving the accessibility of the technology.
During this time, several platforms also sprang up with the aim of building their own metaverse platform. Decentraland, first introduced in 2015, and The Sandbox, which began as a 2D game in 2012 and advanced to a decentralized gaming platform in 2018, are two of the biggest. Gaming worlds like Fortnite and Roblox, which have been around since 2006, are perhaps more popular, though, and Fortnite in particular has tapped into its extended userbase of 250 million people to build new virtual experiences, even holding virtual concerts for popular artists like Travis Scott.
Metaverse solutions for business have also seen more and more interest of late. Facebook’s big change to Meta precipitated mass investment in metaverse technologies and the release of Meta’s own virtual platform, Horizon Worlds, which has met with limited success so far, as well as Microsoft Mesh, which was built to facilitate virtual cooperation in the workplace. More and more companies have become involved in building the metaverse since then, and its influence has reached almost every industry, from healthcare to manufacturing and beyond.
Crucial technologies in the history of the metaverse
Of course, these experiences are founded on a series of remarkable technologies that have been invented over the years. We’ve already heard about stereoscopes, but the next big step, and maybe the most important, was the introduction of the World Wide Web. Developed in 1989, it was a breakthrough that we have come to take for granted, but one that the metaverse is entirely dependent upon.
Cryptocurrency came next – firstly through the invention of proof-of-work techniques by a pair of computer scientists called Moni Naor and Cynthia Dwork in 1993. Later, in 1998, a computer engineer by the name of Wei Dei came up with the idea for b-money. Although the concept failed to take off, the notion of a decentralized, distributed cryptocurrency and the proof-of-stake technique laid the groundwork for the technology that the Bitcoin founder or founders (this is still somewhat of a mystery), known as Satoshi Nakamoto, would use to mint the first of their digital money in 2009.
This was built on top of another essential metaverse technology called blockchain. It was first conceived by a cryptographer named David Chaum in a 1982 dissertation and worked on throughout the 90s by another cryptographer, Stuart Haber, scientist W. Scott Stornetta, and mathematician Dave Bayer. Nakamoto made some alterations to the design to introduce the first decentralized blockchain in 2008, which then formed a key part of Bitcoin the following year.
Going back to 2002, the concept of the digital twin was born – another innovation that has become an established part of the metaverse as we know it today. Developed by Michael Grieves, it was described as the digital copy of a physical object, which he posited as a way to project the lifecycle of a product to help predict and manage this process.
In 2013, programmer Vitalik Buterin built on the work of Nakamoto to envision the Ethereum platform. With help from a grant provided by PayPal cofounder Peter Thiel’s Thiel Fellowship, Ethereum launched in 2015. It is a decentralized, open-source blockchain that has really tapped into the Web3 ethos – to create something outside of mainstream systems where people can interact and trade without the control of corporations or governments. As such, it has given power to the user by allowing anyone to create their own decentralized app for others to use. It has also integrated the idea of smart contracts, a notion that has been around since the 90s when Nick Szabo suggested it as a series of digitally recorded pledges. They are now used on the blockchain for things like ensuring that artists continue to earn royalties on their work after it has been sold and to facilitate the trade of digital assets and currencies on decentralized exchanges.
Around the same time, another critical metaverse innovation came about: the NFT (non-fungible token) – a unique digital asset. Though the concept initially came about in 2012, the first one wasn’t created until 2014. Made by an artist called Kevin McCoy and a tech entrepreneur named Anil Dash, this soon led to the explosion of virtual art and play-to-earn games – now huge parts of the metaverse in its current form.
The final development that we will mention (though far from the last part of this story) is the concept of a decentralized autonomous organization (DAO). This was developed in 2016 and is now considered an important part of many metaverse businesses. Despite this, it had difficult beginnings – the first one was hacked just one month after it launched, with a large portion of its funds being stolen. The DAO, as this first company was known, failed as a result, but its basic principles have been reworked to build metaverse organizations with collective governance, often determined by joint ownership of NFTs, and transactions and rules recorded on the blockchain.
The history of the metaverse: final thoughts
These are just some of the most important technologies and moments in metaverse history that have brought about today’s metaverse. In truth, the concept is too complex to simply rely on this small set of innovations, and there are too many other systems that have gone into its development that could not be mentioned in detail here, including machine learning, cloud computing, and AI, amongst others.
As it stands today, we don’t have the metaverse that many have envisioned. We have a collection of different virtual platforms and experiences but nothing that constitutes the interconnected virtual world that many hope will come to pass one day. So, the story of the metaverse isn’t finished yet – in fact, it’s just getting started.
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When was the term “metaverse” first coined?
The term “metaverse” was initially introduced by Neal Stephenson in his 1992 science fiction novel “Snow Crash.” He described a virtual reality-based universe where individuals could escape the deteriorating real world.
What were some early examples of virtual reality (VR) experiences in the history of metaverse?
One of the earliest VR experiences was the Sensorama, developed by Morton Heilig and launched in 1962. The Sensorama provided viewers with a multi-sensory experience, incorporating visuals, sound, smell, and physical sensations. Another notable example is the creation of the first VR headset, the Oculus Rift, by Palmer Luckey in 2010, which greatly improved the immersive VR experience.
How did the introduction of blockchain technology contribute to the history of metaverse?
Blockchain technology, introduced by Satoshi Nakamoto in 2008 as part of the Bitcoin cryptocurrency, plays a crucial role in the metaverse. Blockchain enables secure and transparent transactions, ownership verification, and decentralized governance. It allows for the creation, trading, and ownership of digital assets such as non-fungible tokens (NFTs), which have become an integral part of the metaverse.