The metaverse has recently become a hot topic of discussion, with both Facebook and Microsoft claiming ownership. But what exactly is the metaverse? And when will it arrive?

The term “metaverse” was coined by author Neal Stephenson in his 1992 science fiction novel “Snow Crash,” in which he imagined lifelike avatars meeting in realistic 3D buildings and other virtual reality environments.

Since then, various advancements have paved the way for a true metaverse, an online virtual world that incorporates augmented reality, virtual reality, 3D holographic avatars, video, and other forms of communication. As the metaverse expands, it will provide you with a hyper-real alternative world in which to coexist.

Metaverse inklings can already be found in online game universes such as Fortnite, Minecraft, and Roblox. And the companies behind those games want to be a part of the metaverse’s evolution.

It is a technology hybrid that combines virtual reality, augmented reality, and video to allow users to “live” within a digital universe. Supporters of the metaverse envision its users working, playing, and staying connected with friends through activities ranging from concerts and conferences to virtual world travel.

Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of the newly renamed Meta (formerly Facebook), estimates that the key features of the metaverse will take five to ten years to become mainstream. However, elements of the metaverse do exist right now. Ultra-fast broadband speeds, virtual reality headsets, and persistent always-on online worlds are already available, though not to everyone.

The formerly Facebook-owned tech behemoth has already made significant investments in virtual reality, including the 2014 acquisition of Oculus. Meta envisions a virtual world in which digital avatars interact via VR headsets for work, travel, or entertainment. Zuckerberg is optimistic about the metaverse, believing it has the potential to replace the internet as we know it. “The next platform and medium will be an even more immersive and embodied internet where you’re in the experience, not just looking at it,” said Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg last month after revealing the company’s rebranding.

The software behemoth already employs holograms and is working on mixed and extended reality (XR) applications that combine the real world with augmented reality and virtual reality through its Microsoft Mesh platform. Microsoft revealed earlier this month its plans to bring mixed-reality, including holograms and virtual avatars, to Microsoft Teams in 2022. Explorable 3D virtual connected spaces for retail and workplaces are also in the works for next year. The United States Army is collaborating with Microsoft on an augmented reality Hololens 2 headset for soldiers to train, practice, and fight in. Aside from that, Xbox Live already connects millions of video game players worldwide.

“It’s no secret that Epic is invested in building the metaverse,” said Tim Sweeney, CEO of the company that created Fortnite. It’s hosted Ariana Grande and Travis Scott concerts, movie trailers and music debuts, and even a “immersive” re-imagining of Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic “I Have A Dream” speech from 1963. And, with its MetaHuman Creator, it’s creating photorealistic digital humans, which could be how you customize your digital doppelganger in future open-world games.

The platform, which was founded in 2004, houses a plethora of user-generated games, including role-playing offerings such as Bloxburg and Brookhaven, where users can construct homes, work, and play out scenarios. After going public this year, Roblox is now worth more than $45 billion. the Roblox founder and CEO David Baszucki tweeted a thank you to all who helped bring the platform “one step closer to fulfilling our vision of the #Metaverse” on the day of its IPO in March. Since then, Roblox has collaborated with skateboarding shoe company Vans to create Vans World, a virtual skateboarding park where players can dress up in new Vans gear, as well as opened a limited Gucci Garden, where you can try on and purchase clothing and accessories for your virtual self.

Minecraft, another popular virtual world among children, is essentially the digital equivalent of Legos, with players able to create their own digital character and build whatever they want. Minecraft had over 140 million monthly active users as of August. During the pandemic, it grew in popularity among children who were forced to rely more heavily on virtual connections.