What if you could live two lives at once?
That's the premise of Ben Stiller's Apple thriller series Severance. Employees of a mysterious tech corporation undergo brain operations in which a chip is inserted and divides their work memories from their personal memories.
Once they enter the elevator of their workplace, they become the "work" version of themselves, with no memory of who they are or what they're like in their personal lives.
The show offers one interpretation of the "metaverse," a somewhat-hypothetical digital universe that parallels our everyday lives. Filmmakers and entertainment companies alike have recognized its potential as a narrative trope — and as a filmmaking tool. Facebook is also dipping a toe in with a newly renamed parent company, Meta.
Free Guy, Ready Player One peek into the metaverse
In 1992, writer Neal Stephenson coined the term "metaverse" in his science fiction novel Snow Crash. Stephenson's vision was that of a sweeping virtual world existing in tandem with real life.
Since then, the concept and its definition have swelled, though most go back to Stephenson's idea as a framework.
"It's a vast virtual world, which can be interacted in by millions of users at the same time through avatars," said Wagner James Au, author of The Making of Second Life and founder of the longest-running metaverse culture blog, New World Notes.
Popular metaverse prototypes include virtual world-building platforms such as Second Life and VRChat, as well as gaming platforms Roblox and Fortnite. Roblox alone has 55 million daily active users.
"It's highly immersive, it has creation tools, so that virtually any experience can be created and it's connected to the real life economy, generally through a cash-out process," Au said.
In a report by VICE, venture capitalist and angel investor Mathew Ball offers this perspective: If your phone is a computer in your pocket from which the internet is always accessible, then the metaverse should be thought of as always being within a computer and inside the internet.
A true metaverse — one accessible by a single gateway, in which life persists even in a user's absence — doesn't yet exist.
LISTEN | Confronting the 'realness' of our reality on CBC Radio's Tapestry:
But its depiction on screen is becoming more frequent and all-encompassing, giving audiences an idea of what to expect from what experts call "the next stage of the internet."
Beyond Severance, the Amazon Prime black comedy Upload is set in a future where the deceased can pay a generous fee to live on in a metaverse-like afterlife created by a tech company. The characters choose which version of heaven they want to exist in, but it's not the utopia you'd expect.
And the 2021 film Free Guy stars Vancouver-born Ryan Reynolds as a bank teller who discovers that he lives in a metaverse-like game world, where others are at risk of being permanently deleted by the game's creator.
Past films such as Ready Player One, The Matrix and Avatar (with the first of four sequels arriving this December) have mined the metaverse, starring characters who enter parallel digital universes using augmented reality (AR) or virtual reality (VR) technology.
A common trope in these properties is that they are set in dystopias. In Ready Player One, for instance, characters are plugged into a virtual world called OASIS to escape their real-life environment, which has deteriorated due to climate change and overpopulation. Why so bleak?
"Part of it is a cautionary response that so much of our life is becoming online and digital," said Au. "There's a concern that writers and filmmakers want to express, that we might lose too much of our humanity in the digitization of everything."
But the all-encompassing potential of a metaverse — both good and bad — has yet to be fully explored on the big and small screen, Au said.
"Every depiction of the metaverse I've seen so far only kind of touches the surface of what using the platforms are like."
Entertainment giants investing in their own metaverses
Film and television have been depicting the metaverse for decades now. But the use of metaverse technologies in actual filmmaking is becoming increasingly common. Several major entertainment companies have revealed plans to develop some version of a metaverse.
Netflix has also made public its intentions to move into the virtual reality space. metaverse prototypes from the gaming industry pose a risk to traditional and streaming entertainment: in a 2019 quarterly letter to investors, Netflix wrote, "we compete with (and lose to) Fortnite more than HBO."
Epic, the gaming company behind Fortnite, announced a $1 billion US round of funding to support their vision for a metaverse.
According to one virtual reality filmmaker, users will soon be able to inhabit the worlds of their favourite films — think boarding the Millennium Falcon with Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia and Han Solo, or journeying through Middle-earth with Frodo Baggins.
With money being poured into the industry, the pressure to turn out a viable product leaves little room for filmmakers and creators to experiment.
"We don't know a lot about how to tell great stories with these capabilities," said Richard Lachman, an associate professor at at Toronto Metropolitan University (formerly Ryerson University) who researches the relationship between humans and technology.
"We know a lot about how to build puzzles. We know a lot about how to build exhilaration and excitement and emotion, but not necessarily great storytelling.
"That's a challenge, and one of the risks with this challenge is there's so much money being put into it now … that money doesn't necessarily lead to us figuring out the art."
Oya Media Group, a Toronto digital media firm, has launched an initiative to teach young Black producers and filmmakers how to create compelling stories using metaverse technologies.
"We give them the overview of what immersive media is and how that can be applied to filmmaking, to create content for what … hopefully will soon be the metaverse," said Ngardy Conteh George, a producer and co-founder of Oya Media Group.
WATCH | Ngardy Conteh George explains the metaverse:
The projects use AR (in which digital components are transposed over our real-life environment) and VR (which usually requires a headset to simulate a digital environment different from the one we see).
Metaverse platforms give grassroots creators from all backgrounds a powerful opportunity to "compete on near equal terms with the big companies and also [with] people who have more privilege to move through the traditional economy," said Au.
But with great power comes great responsibility: all of the social and financial consequences that we deal with in the real-world can be duplicated in the metaverse. You can lose all of your money in a scam, for example, or fall in love with someone — only to have your heart broken by their real-life counterpart. You can also be the target of racism or bigotry.
"When we're thinking about the metaverse and the creation of these new worlds: who is creating them? And then whose viewpoint and whose gaze will be reflected in the end result?" Ngardy said.
"I think it's really important that it's inclusive and non-exclusive, and there is access for everyone to participate in positions of power, in positions of authority and decision-making, so that we're not replicating this world that we currently live in."