Whatever you think is the “metaverse,” this isn’t it.
It’s not often that I find myself agreeing with Apple’s Tim Cook, but we agree that VR immersive worlds are not the future. It’s not like they are even new. I’ve seen people online who are unquestioningly overexcited about Meta’s Metaverse and its potential. I felt compelled to capture the reasons why it cannot succeed in its current form.
Some background: my visionary credentials
I wrote my first mobile app in December 2003 and set up Rapid Mobile to create a platform building mobile apps in February 2004. At the time numerous people told me that nobody would ever walk down the street looking at their phone. In 2006 we built a screen-scraping app that let you post to Facebook, Bebo and MySpace. When I showed it to a senior Facebook person she said “interesting, but we don’t see people updating their status or posting photos from their phone.” I wrote a novel in 1988, Network Sleeper, that predicted fake news and its effect amongst other things. I was inspired to write it after reading Snow Crash, the book that gave us the word Metaverse.
I mention all this because I now find myself on the other side of the argument about the so-called Metaverse and want to establish my visionary credentials. For the last year I have been asking myself why I find the whole Metaverse argument so unconvincing? Why is it different from the incredible excitement I felt about mobile, even when the devices were very simple and connections numbingly slow? Here are some answers, and two areas where there may actually be value.
Virtual Reality is already well established
Virtual, and its sisters Augmented and Mixed, Reality have been around for a long time. There are well established niches in training and gaming, although many gamers prefer to use multiple large screens for their immersive experience for the simple reason that that way they can see their controllers. Lighter and better headsets make those experiences better, but don’t add anything significant. It is difficult to see anything new in what Meta, in particular, are proposing, not helped by the Sims-meets-Mario style graphics they insist on using.
Wearing headsets is annoying
Wearing glasses is bad enough, but having a big sweaty box clamped to your face for an extended period is really, really annoying. It also has medical impact for some people, ranging from headaches to early myopia. There is a trade off between battery life, weight, and trailing around a cable.
Current headsets also look ridiculous, which is a concern for many people outside of technology. The CEO of Vuzix talks about “the Oakley gate”: will your life partner walk down the street with you when you wear an AR headset? Until the answer is yes there’s no route to mass adoption. Vuzix offers some devices that are very near to that standard, for example their Blade 2, and they even offer waterproof versions that work with swimming goggles. While powerful and the most advanced available, these devices are still only intended for very basic activities and could not support the vision of working with virtual people. We are still some way off having hardware that lives up to what people imagine, not to mention haptic feedback suits and gloves which are still expensive and will always be something extra and heavy to put on no matter how the technology advances.
It achieves nothing new
When we started building commercial mobile apps, one user called us to say “I can finally leave the house!” He was able to maintain his trading positions while on the move for the first time ever as it had never been possible before. What new thing can the proposed Metaverse offer the world of work that doesn’t already exist? There are literally no benefits to using avatars and virtual environments over the use of video calls. Virtual whiteboards have been around for a long time — I knocked on up for a project back in the early 90s — and there are numerous examples of powerful visual collaboration tools including Miro and Canva. As Techcrunch says the Meta vision of VR is simple a worse version of what we do every day.
Virtual environments, meetings and events have been around for ages
When I launched my mobile agency it was moving into a new space. Sure there had been clunky personal digital assistants (PDA) like the Apple Newton, Palm Pilot, Psion Organiser and Nokia Communicator devices, but they lacked the ability to add new apps and most lacked the ubiquitous connectivity of cellular data. The magic of the mobile phone platform was that pairing: download what you needed and connect from anywhere.
In the gaming space Second Life, Habbo Hotel, Fortnite and various others are well known and have managed some really cool feats such as in-world concerts that use the freedom from the laws of physics to become truly creative. So far the only example of that in Meta Horizons is people floating around without legs because they are too difficult to compute and are under desks most of the time. (Why do you need a desk in a virtual environment anyway?) There are also 3D virtual worlds for work, such as Virbela and the tragically punny Meetaverse, and numerous virtual events platforms like Airmeet. All these seem to do is offer varying levels of fancy interior designer spaces where you have to “walk” around to have the same video experience as Teams or Zoom.
Seriously, walking to virtual places?
One of the things that infuriates me about these virtual worlds is that they make you direct your avatar and click to take steps to where you want to go. Meeting in virtual room F? Keep on clicking down the corridor past the virtual designer furniture. Oh, the conference? It’s in another building, please click down the stairs, out the door, and across the courtyard. And no, you can’t just click on the destination and jump there. What is that all about? Some of them make you wait for elevators. The whole point of this is to make life easier and there is no limit on virtual availability. Maybe people find it cute, but that cuteness is going to wear off very quickly if used everyday. Clicking on an invite or a list, or even better, using search is so much faster than trying to walk round.
Joining in the general mania are people touting virtual “real estate.” What’s real about it, other than the inflated price? Companies bought virtual properties in Second Life — I doubt if they recovered any of their costs to this day. The last time someone talked about Second Life ROI was in 2009, but they also projected that Second Life would become a standard by 2012. Those buying into Fortnite are, at least, know what market they are addressing. Vague purchases of retail “space” in some branded Metaverse are like buying into an abandoned mall in a rundown neighborhood on the promise of it being revamped and one day bringing in crowds.
And then there are the fashion designers selling fancy clothes and sneakers. For what to whom? Good question! They are strictly limited to one environment, limiting their appeal. The idea of creating “unique” content in an environment where there is concept of scarcity is pure exploitation. It strikes me that this is similar to the top-end of fashion — largely disconnected from the real world of clothes, with the more extreme items working their way down to mass adoption in diluted form. As such it will address a real but very limited market. Were I putting on a concert in Fortnite I would love to pay for a custom-designed outfit beyond my own design skills, but that’s never going to be a mass market. I also wonder if these people have read Snowcrash where the main character, Hero Protagonist, is an avatar designer and lives in a shipping container without any facilities?
The Metaverse is the future of the internet!
I’ve seen videos of serious people claiming that Millennials and Gen Z don’t want to use their parents ecommerce solutions, and that they don’t want to scroll through lists and want to shop with their friends. This is another aspect of the whole mania — all this stuff has been tried before and it has never hooked as it doesn’t offer value. Freedom from 2D, they cry! Scrolling isn’t great, but what’s the difference with “walking” round a virtual object when you have to gesture your way round? It’s been tried before, more times than I can remember, and we always come back to scrolling lists. Because they work. And are amenable to search. And you can embed 3D models in your lists?
And a nerdy complaint: the internet is the underlying connectivity. I think they mean the future of the web. Small but important detail.
The Internet is about open standards, Metaverse is a landgrab
The internet, and the web that runs over it, is based on agreed, open standards which allow pretty much everything on it to talk to each other if it wants. Early mobile apps were based on some open and some proprietary standards such as Java ME and Brew. The internet rapidly consumed these proprietary, disjoint environments such as CompuServe, AOL and others, simultaneously enabling their interoperation and removing any uniqueness.
What we see with the virtual environment players is that same stage, with a number of distinct islands of activity which do not interact cleanly if at all. They are all, of course, jumping on the Metaverse hyper paid for by Mr Zuckerberg; ignoring it would would be madness.
In some cases the alleged Metaverse is a literal landgrap, for example Earth 2 which reminds me of the cybersquating of useful domain names that went on early in the days of the internet. Now you can buy an exact replica parcel of land over an existing brand’s establishments and you’ll be able to sell it back to them when we all switch to living in this digital twin earth! As one Verge commenter said, “sounds like a cyber scam.” Also, I wonder whether the people who make claims such as ‘similar to “The Matrix” or “Ready Player one”’ actually took time to consider how utterly vile the worlds in those stories are? After all Neo and crew are fighting to get out of the Matrix, so why would anybody voluntarily enter it?
A reheated jumble of underlying ideas
The other mantra is that the Metaverse is the realization of Web3, which is in itself a bunch of unrelated technologies looking for problems to solve, including blockchain, decentralized everything and NFTs. I like how Vox calls Web3 the “rebranding of crypto.” The idea of the Metaverse being decentralized is, of course, ridiculous when the biggest proponent of the Metaverse is also one of the biggest centralized services ever built. It doens’t make it any more convincing when the transaction rate would melt even the biggest blockchain server farm into a pool of molten silicon.
The whole notion of decentralization is also dodgy. When Skype was launched it was based on a peer-to-peer network, but as it scaled it was forced to move back to having a centralized architecture. Those who want to manage their own data ignore the fact that most people do not have the skills or the tools to truly manage their own data, enterprise security rules would prevent its use for work, and that all too many people simply lose their key data.
This leads me to conclude that for many, Metaverse is like bitcoin and NFT, sorry Web3, and is based on either disproven libertarian thinking or a desire to find solutions that need their pet technologies. Not to mention that many of them are just plain scams. Unfortunately their pet technologies have been around for a lot longer than mobile phones had been when I started building apps, and that they are still looking for those winning applications. Blockchain was invented 24 years ago this month, based on even older work from 1991, so the concept is now 31 years old and people are still claiming it is new and revolutionary. I will leave Ed Zitron to eloquently describe why NFTs fall into this same category or worse.
Sure, Microsoft are saying nice things about Meta’s efforts and the forthcoming new headset. Microsoft have previously tried to work with Occulus, have cancelled much of their own HoloLens work, and discussed partnering with Samsung around a headset. 365 and especially Teams will be embedded in the Metaverse, screams the headline.
It seems obvious that Microsoft is using it’s famed “embrace, extend, extinguish” approach to replace Horizon with Teams. Given that Teams has 270m active monthly users and even the Meta development team at doesn’t dogfood Horizon, it strikes me that this is just a means of suppressing what little attraction Horizon has and absorbing it into the behemoth. On the hardware side, it looks like a low-cost way of acquiring a new hardware manufacturer to replace the cancelled HoloLens 3.
A recurring issue that all new platforms face is that of legacy applications. Mobile adoption faced the same hurdle, and a remarkable number of websites and applications still don’t offer mobile-optimized experiences. Microsoft Office was initially a hurdle, with the mobile experience being essentially reduced to scrolling around a fixed surface, however it is now a compelling experience that works surprisingly well on small screens through clever engineering. The same problem exists for any VR solution, and the same uncomfortable compromise is available: use a browser or, worse, a virtual desktop floating in the low resolution environment.
There are clearly opportunities to reinvent even the most boring software for a virtual experience. The ability to virtually explore a really large and complex spreadsheet might be interesting, but only for the largest ones, and not for creation. Indeed, a nagging problem with the Metaverse as a concept is that outside of 3D design it is not great for creating content. Waving your arms around turns out to be very tiring and potentially medically hazardous, as musicians and conductors find. Clearly there is plenty of scope for exploration, and yet another problem with the way that the Metaverse is being presented today is that none of that scope has been considered.
One possible real use case
When I was working at Gartner I spent some time on building a method for companies to work out what devices should be provided to different workers. The key distinction boiled down to there being different needs for those that work at desks most of the time, and was those that don’t. At the time those that fell into the latter category would be best served by mobile phones and tablets, but those offer a less immersive collaboration experience than is possible with big monitors on a desk. Some applications for this category of users might benefit from a more immersive experience, although some of these users have already had AR glasses for over a decade.