With Meta pitching new online worlds and workspaces and everyone throwing the metaverse into everything, it's time to gear up.
VR isn’t the only way into the infinite marketing term of the metaverse, but it’s probably your best bet. Scott Stein/CNET
This story is part of Holiday Gift Guide 2021, our list of ideas, by topic, by recipient and by price, to help you discover the perfect gift.
The metaverse is happening now! Or it’s already happened. The metaverse is gaming. It’s virtual reality. It’s a marketing term. It’s Web 3.0. It’s Facebook’s quick-change identity shift to Meta. Or, of course, it’s still a decade away.
I’ve been covering VR and AR for years, but even I’m still holding the “sudden arrival” of the metaverse at arm’s distance. The conversations happening now have been underway for a while. And they’ll keep happening.
The point is, you can connect to that half-here metaverse world right now. If you know of a person (or yourself) who wants to try something weird and fun and immersive, here are some great ways to dip into VR that don’t cost a ton.
Oculus Quest 2
There isn’t a better or more affordable VR headset right now than the Quest 2, despite your feelings on Facebook and Meta. It’s stand-alone, self-contained, and yet still works with PCs. Its biggest downside is that you’ll need a Facebook account to use it. Meta (formerly Facebook) plans to relax that rule down the road, so maybe you’ll want to wait. Also, Meta has a new, more expensive VR headset planned for next year that blends VR and the real world with better cameras. But the Quest 2 is still the best doorway to some incredible games and social experiences in VR. We wouldn’t recommend it for kids, though, because Facebook never created safe kid content/accounts for Oculus (and doesn’t plan to right now, despite lots of kids using them). Want other options than the Quest 2? Here are our favorite VR headsets for the moment.
Quest 2: accessories: battery strap (or, a dock)
The Quest 2’s battery life isn’t great, and it’s also hard to easily carry around or store. Anker’s charging stand gives it a place to rest, and it keeps the controllers and headset recharging. But the less-expensive Oculus Elite battery strap is another option, adding a larger headband and more battery life for longer gaming sessions. A carrying case is essential to keep the Quest 2 free of scratches and dust, and to keep sunlight off the lenses (sun plus lenses can equal display damage). Our best Quest accessories list offers some other add-on ideas.
AR Toy: Mario Kart Live
AR glasses just aren’t fully baked yet. For some more approachable AR fun, pick up Mario Kart Live if you already have a Nintendo Switch. The remote-controlled camera-equipped kart, which was first released last year, can race in your home and show AR-enhanced racing on your Switch screen or a TV as Nintendo turns your home into a mini theme park. A new update lets multiple players compete in relay Kart racing, or do split-screen racing if you pick up two cars.
OK, but do you really want AR glasses? What about phone apps?
Pikmin on my park table, while I have coffee. Scott Stein/CNET
There are no good everyday smart glasses yet, and I’d hesitate to recommend any early products. The category includes the Nreal Light, Lenovo’s ThinkReality A3 glasses and Facebook’s basic camera-enabled Ray-Ban Stories, which aren’t even AR. Skip them all. Instead, just use your phone and try some games like Pikmin Bloom or Pokemon Go (Niantic is imagining its AR games as metaverses, too), or try your hand at scanning objects. You might as well start getting used to digitizing your life!
iPad and Roblox/Minecraft
Hey, gaming is already the metaverse, right? Pretty much. Roblox, Minecraft, Rec Room and Fortnite are massive communities that work without headsets, and cover a lot of the same ground as Meta’s high-concept future vision. I know because my kids already live in these online worlds. A basic iPad is all you need to set up an account and hop in (a paired game controller is optional). Congratulations: instant metaverse.
Spatial audio earbuds (or, an immersive audio experience)
Headphones like AirPods 3 dabble in spatial audio, which means sounds seem located in different parts of your room, staying in place when you turn your head.
Alternately, try some immersive audio gifts that work their magic in other ways. McSweeney’s recent audio issue mixes print media with audio content you play alongside, disappearing into little experimental worlds. Audio might still be the best type of augmented reality. Darkfield Radio is worth a booking and doesn’t even need special new headphones.
Books for the metaverse
Snow Crash: Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel birthed the term “metaverse,” making it everyone’s go-to book, alongside Ready Player One, for imagining what the future might be like. Snow Crash is about a world-spanning virtual community, but it’s also about a rogue linguistic virus that unravels humanity. It’s also about gated communities and pizza delivery. It’s still a great read. When you’re done, read The Diamond Age, which I like better.
Dawn of the New Everything: Jaron Lanier is one of the original pioneers of virtual reality, and his 2017 memoir of his years exploring the new fringes of art science offers some great perspective on the immersive worlds we’re still trying to figure out decades later. Watch our interview with him here.
Ready Player One: Sigh. It sparked Oculus and birthed a Spielberg movie. Read it mainly as a blueprint for how companies are hoping to strip-mine content into the metaverse. Then move on.
Glitch Feminism: This manifesto by Legacy Russell isn’t specifically about the metaverse. It is, however, an important perspective on fluid identity and diversity in a changing technological world. Embrace the glitch.
88 Names: The author of Lovecraft Country wrote a whole book about VR! Read if you’ve already read all of Neal Stephenson and William Gibson.