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What Is the Metaverse?

·6 mins

Okay okay, I realize this is a click-baity subject, but I couldn’t help myself. I see a lot of confusion on the internet and elsewhere about VR, the “metaverse”, Facebook’s pivot, and the cringeworthy marketing content (which you can skip unless you love buzzwords and egregious use of terms like “collaboration” and “AI”). The whole thing is oddly reminiscent of an episode of Star Trek.

Let me also preface by saying that I’ve never thought of VR as more than a niche, so I’m not particularly bullish on VR.

Anyway, regardless of how you feel about the work FacebookMeta is doing, it’s important to try and separate the buzzwords into concrete technologies. I think that Zuck is lumping a lot of different trends under the same umbrella and hoping they will somehow synergize into a profitable thing as Facebook and Instagram’s growth declines. The “throw tons of stuff at the wall and see what sticks” strategy isn’t terrible, it’s pretty much how the whole VC game works.

The core ideas behind the metaverse as near as I can tell are:

  • VR: virtual reality, which is really just a catch-all term for lifelike digital environments which could encompass just about anything you do on a computer depending on how generous you are with the definition. Generally, however, when people say “VR” they’re referring to using stereoscopic video headsets that project 3D images directly into your eyes of whatever you want.
  • AR: augmented reality, which is taking a digital feed (such as video or audio from a camera) and overlaying digital information, renderings, sounds, etc. You can combine this with VR to make for some neat visualizations, but it might make you feel extra woozy.

There might be a bit more to it than that, if you watch their promotional video they talk about a lot of technologies and show demos, but most of it seems like flying cars-type stuff (i.e., interesting technology that might be neat in scifi movies, but not practically useful at this point).

Additionally, it seems like they’re trying to jump on the videoconferencing hype train, which I suppose is a bet on the idea that people will prefer to avoid in-person contact, particularly in the workplace. This makes some sense for people who would prefer to work remotely, but personally I’m not convinced that VR headsets are an improvement over webcams, and it all just looks and feels really awkward and uncomfortable to me.

Regarding VR and AR, I think we have to acknowledge that the Quest products are actually pretty good, as far as VR goes, but my hunch is that VR will remain a niche product mostly for gamers, plus perhaps a few specialized applications, for the following reasons:

  • VR headsets are awkward, clunky, not cool, and not casual. I don’t think the tech or laws of physics are going to change enough for them to become fashionable.
  • The VR experience is almost too intense at times.
  • Some people get sick from the headsets because it confuses the brain due to a disconnect between what the eyes see and what your physical sensors are telling you about the world.
  • Real world interaction is, in my opinion, much better than digital interaction.
  • Trying to push more people into virtual spaces instead of real life community, interaction, human connection, physical touch, etc is going to make the world more divided and a worse place. Virtual life is no substitute for real life.

Prior art #

The metaverse idea isn’t new, and neither is VR, gaming, or videoconferencing. Combining these technologies isn’t new either, it’s been tried (unsuccessfully) before, but it would be fair to say that the individual technologies have drastically improved. Most video conferencing software is much better than it was 10 years ago, but I still don’t want to do video chats in VR.

Let’s talk for a moment about the most famous example of a VR universe that looks a lot like what Zuck is pitching: Second Life.

Second Life
Health Info Island on Second Life, from Wikipedia

If you haven’t heard of Second Life, I’ll give you a tiny summary: it’s a virtual reality game-like digital space where you have an avatar and walk or fly around interacting with other avatars. It looks the same idea as the metaverse Zuck is pitching, and it was surprisingly popular for a little while. I tried Second Life many years ago, but I couldn’t figure out the point of it, and I can’t imagine spending more than 15 minutes fiddling around with it again, although that might be due to my lack of imagination. I also thought the iPhone wasn’t as cool as my Nokia N900 back in the day.

Second Life is a bit weird because it felt like there was no point to it. At least with video games you have goals to achieve, a sense of purpose, and maybe you can win some points. With Second Life, you couldn’t do much more than fly around and look at stuff from what I recall (I’m sure this is not quite true, and there is likely a lot you can do, but that’s beside the point).

Second Life was intentionally made to not be a game, and literally have no objective. Would adding games have saved it? I doubt it, because we already have games that are games, and they too are virtual worlds.

Games can be fun with friends, whether they’re digital or not. Playing cribbage is fun with friends, as is Settlers of Catan, or Call of Duty. I think it’s not so much that they’re fun because they’re digital, but rather they’re fun because they’re games and you’re playing with your friends (and yes, single-player games are fun too).

Alternative hypothesis #

Another thing I’ve been wondering is if the whole metaverse thing is just a sideshow to take the heat off Facebook’s recent bad press regarding elections muddling, promoting misinformation and disinformation, and so on. If I had to give it odds as to whether the metaverse pivot is about avoiding scrutiny versus finding new revenue sources, I’d say it’s about 50/50. Facebook is already a money printer, so all they need to do is keep the printing turned ON and nothing else matters. Who cares if Zuck pisses a bit of money away on his metaverse fetish if it takes the heat off Facebook? Investors won’t care, the only thing that matters is the money coming in.

There are some very smart people working at Facebook, because they tend to pay relatively well amongst the big tech companies. Could it be that they know something the skeptics don’t? Or are they just all keeping their heads down to vest a little more? Perhaps they have some data or insights the rest of us lack? Who knows.

One thing is for sure, Facebook was always an advertising company. Do I want to look at VR ads? Not particularly, that gives me Black Mirror and Idiocracy vibes. Does Facebook have the imagination to somehow turn their VR universe into something that isn’t ad-based, and isn’t just plain old video games? Maybe, but I am skeptical. Why bother when the ads are so profitable?

I will add one more thing: I would not bet against Meta, because regardless of the real motivations behind the VR push, I think their ad business will continue printing money for years to come.