OPINION: The metaverse isn't dead yet, nor will the concept ever be! I've seen dozens of articles and videos slamming the Metaverse lately. I'm going to give you some of my thoughts on the subject with regards to the relevancy and direction of the technology. The metaverse isn't going anywhere any time soon. But will you be using it?
Let's begin by addressing recent news, which revolves around Meta (formerly Facebook)'s version of the Metaverse called Horizon Worlds.
Meta has suffered enormous losses, and investors aren't happy. Tech companies have been growing at near exponential rates in the past decades. Now, the social media market is mostly saturated. Facebook is on its way to 3 billion users. That's equivalent to roughly one third of the Earth's entire population. There's no more room for Meta or Facebook to grow in this environment. Everyone that's going to sign up for social media has mostly done so.
Many nay sayers have tried out Meta's Horizon Worlds. And they hate it. Rightfully so, it's not a pleasant experience. It's buggy, underpopulated, and not fun. It looks like a poorly designed video game. I will not argue with these points, they're all valid. But seeing the current state of the technology and calling it dumb or pointless is completely overlooking where the technology is headed.
Mark Zuckerberg, a technology enthusiast and Meta's CEO, believes strongly that the Metaverse will be the future of communication and the internet. A virtual world entered through VR headsets that both simulate real-world experiences and provide new experiences unimaginable in the real world.
It's a lofty goal, and the technology has a long way to go. Is this another billionaire "vanity" project like Jeff Bezos's Blue Origin and Elon Musk's Space X spaceship programs? Or is this actually going to be the future of tech? Meta is betting that it is. If they're right, in the long run, they could be the biggest player in the game.
With Meta's investment in virtual reality (formerly the Oculus hardware), they have brought VR experiences to mainstream audiences. The Meta Quest 2 has made getting into VR easier than ever, for only a few hundred dollars, roughly the same price of a new game console. Their recently released Quest Pro, targeted at businesses and developers, is significantly better than its predecessor. In the two years between the Quest 2 and the Quest Pro, Meta has made the headset much slimmer, more comfortable to wear, and more powerful, with dozens of new sensors and features. It's not a leap to expect the hardware to get significantly better in the future.
As it becomes cheaper, more comfortable, and more useful experiences are created, it's safe to assume more people will use it. It has the potential to facilitate or enhance most office jobs, engineering jobs, and virtually every remote work position. Years down the road, the technology might entirely replace desktop computers and smartphones.
Horizon Worlds is kind of a joke at the moment. It's a chaotic experience. Random kids are running around, people are getting virtually groped and sexually assaulted. There are many privacy and surveillance concerns. The graphics look like an old Nintendo game. It's not a place most people would want to hang out or conduct work.
It's probably not a safe place for kids, without strict monitoring. It allows people to communicate in real time via voice, after all. I wouldn't want any random stranger talking to my kids (if I had any).
A more interesting experience is Horizon Workrooms, Meta's virtual office in the Metaverse. With Horizon Workrooms, you can:
- Horizon Workrooms
- Work from anywhere
- Converse in virtual conference rooms
- Use your computer with virtual VR monitors floating in front of you
- Preview 3D models and designs at real-life scale with coworkers
- Organic human interactions (visit your coworkers office and have a chat)
- Tracks facial expressions and body movements - convey body language through VR
Horizon Workrooms, like Horizon Worlds, uses 3D characters and looks very much like a video game. You need to get over the video-gameyness of it and imagine what it might look like in the future. Computer graphics have only gotten better over time. In a few short years, it could look much more realistic, like a Pixar animation. A decade from now the experiences might be nearly indistinguishable from real life.
This technology could easily be applied to education as well. If you've ever done remote learning, you know it's a lot of self teaching from reading and watching videos. This isn't an ideal experience for many students. If you recall, we're still escaping the claws of Covid. If students could interact remotely over the metaverse in virtual classrooms, might their progress improve? I'd argue that it would. Teachers would be able to tell who's paying attention based on the facial expressions, body movements, and sounds the students are making. It would be a much more natural experience for students, similar to a real classroom. If VR technology was more prevalent and developed when the pandemic first started, you bet they'd have made a killing.
Meta Doesn't Own The Metaverse
Remember, Meta is only one technology company. They're the current leader in VR headsets, and they seem to be investing the most into the Metaverse. However, they don't own the Metaverse, though they'd certainly like to.
When people say things like "the metaverse sucks" it's like saying "all food is disgusting" or "every lawyer is evil." It's a generalization. Meta's Horizon World's isn't THE Metaverse. It's just Meta's version of it.
The Metaverse is a concept. Its roots have been around for decades. The word's creation is credited to an American author named Neal Stephenson, who used the term in his 1992 sci-fi novel Snow Crash.
There are many different definitions for the metaverse, depending on who you ask. I'd define it as:
Metaverse: A collection of user created worlds and experiences that you can explore through electronic devices. A sandbox where you can do and build anything in ways that both simulate and expand upon possibilities in reality. It's most suited to being accessed through virtual reality, though it can be accessed through any internet connected device like a smartphone or laptop.
There are many virtual worlds out there. Habbo Hotel, a game you may have played if you're a child of the 90s, was essentially an online chat-room where users could design their own rooms. You could visit other people's creations and chat with them. There were user created restaurants, parks, stores, offices, houses, and more. This was a primitive metaverse.
Essentially, any sandbox-style massive-multiplayer online game could be considered a metaverse. Furcadia, a mostly unheard of online MMORPG/chat room created in 1996, is credited by Guinness as being the world's oldest running MMO. This was a 2D game similar to Habbo Hotel, where users could build virtual 2D worlds and decorate them however they saw fit. This game never really gained mainstream traction, which may be because of its "furry" nature.
Second Life and Roblox could even be considered Metaverses. These games also allow you to create an avatar, explore user created worlds, and chat with others in real time across the globe.
In summary, Meta's Horizon Worlds isn't the Metaverse. It's a metaverse. There are many metaverses out there, and we have yet to see which one will become the dominant player in the future. Any organization with sufficient resources can build a metaverse. A metaverse is just software running on computers or VR headsets. It's not a replacement for reality, but a compliment to it.
VR technology has a way to go, but it's only going to be slimmer, faster, and better in the future.
There are many things you could do in a metaverse that you can't do in real life. Through VR, we can explore virtual worlds as if we were there. It has the potential to transform work, play, education, social events, shopping, and more. Imagine if going to the movie theatre with your friends was as easy as sitting on your comfy couch and putting a VR headset on. No need to buy tickets or rent out an expensive space. The appeal is certainly there. So many people are glued to their screens already, and VR is ultimately another more interactive screen.
Many people will use the Metaverse and VR in the future. If not by choice, perhaps because they have to as work or school requirements. It's entirely likely that many companies will issue employees VR headsets instead of laptops 10 years down the road. It's a concept that's been around for decades and isn't going away. It's already becoming more mainstream, but the technology is still in its infancy. As the tech progresses, Meta's short-term losses could easily turn into highly rewarding long-term profits.