The World in 2020

Building a metaverse

A figment of science-fiction is (very slowly) coming to life

In “snow crash”, a 1992 science-fiction novel, the author, Neal Stephenson, conjures up a “metaverse”, where characters immerse themselves in a permanent, interactive online virtual world, one controlled by a single corporation. In “Ready Player One”, a 2011 novel later turned into a Steven Spielberg film, Ernest Cline imagines something similar, a virtual “Oasis” where people can live, work and play, an escape from dystopian deprivation.

In 2020 these ideas, though still far from reality, will begin to gain something more than virtual currency. People will increasingly hear the term “metaverse” as firms invest in bringing precursors of it to life. A wide range of companies are investing billions of dollars in the physical and digital infrastructure necessary to bring persistent virtual worlds into being—from 5g to virtual-reality spaces.

Magic Leap, a startup in Florida, makes augmented-reality glasses that could one day allow people to “see” a digital virtual world that neatly overlays the physical world in…