The first of two rescued posts originally written for the, now defunct, Mill Experience Blog. There were two hot tech topics in 2022; the Metaverse and AI Creativity. This post looks the first of those, examining why we seem to be having such difficulty building a metaverse that people actually want.
When Did The Metaverse Become Such A Hard Sell?
The dream of virtual realities has been a popular fiction throughout the time I’ve been on this planet. VR replaced space travel as the ideal of sci-fi escapism sometime around the time of the 1986 Challenger Disaster, when most silver-finned modernist fantasies of one day living on the moon came to a handbrake stop. Instead we began imagining future worlds with an easier commute.
Pre-millenium, the concept was defined in books like Neuromancer, Snow Crash and Vurt, and films such as Tron, Total Recall and The Matrix. While none of these are exactly utopian, they did make the idea of a digital alternative reality, barely distinguishable from the real thing, sound rather cool. And no-one ever seriously thought that, if we built it, we’d plump for the dystopian version.
My first experience of VR was playing Dactyl Nightmare in an arcade in Birmingham in the early 90s. This involved an assistant helping you into an enclosed circular rig (which itself was quite exciting), there to prevent you toppling over in the heavy headset. A thick, industrial-looking cable trailed down your back. It felt like being cast into a HR Giger sculpture.
The game itself was pretty meh, and few could tolerate it for more than five minutes before feeling mighty sick. But it hinted this dream of virtual worlds might be right around the corner.
VR fell into a cycle of excitement and disappointment in the years that followed. This generally downward trend was broken suddenly in the early 2010s, when the hardware took a significant technological leap, becoming radically cheaper and lighter. For the first time, affordable VR in the comfort of your own home became a possibility. And there was a market hungry for it.
The significant turning point was the kickstarter for the Oculus Rift in August 2012. With an initial target of $250,000, the crowd funder ultimately received pledges totalling $2.4 million from potential customers eager to own such a device. Quick to follow were viable consumer units by PlayStation and Vive. It looked like virtual worlds were finally going to take off this time.
Now jump-cut ten years to today, when a company called Meta, previously known as Facebook Inc, have acquired Oculus and are reported to be spending an estimated $10billion a year building “The Metaverse”. You know, that thing from Snow Crash.
And they’re not alone. McKinsey report that “Corporations, VC, and PE have already invested more than $120 billion in the metaverse in the first five months of 2022, more than double the $57 billion invested in all of 2021”. But while the business world is getting excited we, the potential users, are not quite so sure we want a metaverse any more. Hence, a lot of these billions are being spent trying to re-sell the idea to us.
So what happened? How did the metaverse go, in the space of ten years, from something consumers were literally throwing money at, to something from which they were recoiling?
The first thing you need to know about the current state of the metaverse is that it doesn’t exist. The idea of a network of persistent, interconnected 3D worlds is still a very long way off.
You don’t have to be a techie to understand the challenge of connecting up disparate virtual spaces into a shared “verse”. Imagine, for a second, what taking your Roblox avatar for a stroll over into the Fortnite universe would involve — technically, commercially, UX-wise, etc… These are hard problems. Solvable, yes, but not easily.
The second thing you need to know about the nascent metaverse is that, actually, it does exist. It’s been around for ages. You probably just haven’t been invited yet.
This duality is possible because of the ambiguity you get when you borrow a word from a sci-fi novel. It is only the Meta version — a single, unified platform — that is the stretch. But Gen Z (and, to a lesser extent, Millennials) are already inhabiting a network of virtual worlds, accessed via bedroom portals, in parents’ houses they suspect they’ll never afford to move out of.
The Covid years changed a lot, particularly in how we work and communicate. Young and old quickly adapted to being quarantined to their homes. And those with the benefit of broadband connectivity evolved new ways of socialising. I, for one, had never before considered the surprisingly enjoyable concept of Zoom-drinking.
Meanwhile, for kids raised on Minecraft and Roblox, it felt quite natural to use these (now delightfully retro) platforms as places to hang out and interact. The demographic who wouldn’t be seen dead on Facebook already had their metaverse. The graphics may not have been that great, but it was who was there that mattered.
Gen-Z don’t like the term “metaverse”. To them, it mostly implies old people in trainers, thinking they’re cool, threatening to show up to their parties. Right now the existing metaverse, grown out of gaming, is theirs and theirs alone. They have no desire for a KarenVerse, and will resist it however they can.
They have overcome many of the technical issues too. Using more traditional web tools, such as Discord or Slack, they can arrange their social lives and coordinate their movements between worlds. Because, of course, there’s no real reason any digital native would feel constrained to just one window. They, unlike the marketeers, might actually prefer a variety of disparate platforms and tools. Which also happens to be the healthiest market conditions for growing this tech.
This is the more realistic vision of how a metaverse might coalesce. There is already an arms race for ever better 3D virtual spaces, capable of meaningful, communal experiences. These will continue to evolve in competition with each other, while a whole other set of bridging technologies will emerge to connect these worlds.
The grander plans of a unified and, by implication, owned metaverse platform sit outside of this. And will likely be fought against by the very users it wants to attract.
Fixing The Bugs In Web 2.0
The proposal to link virtual spaces into a single, shared experience, is essentially building a new web. This might sound a little premature, particularly while we’re still working out some serious snags with Web 2.0.
Unlike Web 1.0, there’s still a degree of ambiguity over whether the social web has been, on the whole, a good thing or bad, particularly regarding mental health. It has also created the Surveillance Capitalism problem. which, literally, pops up in our faces on a daily basis.
People, it would seem, don’t really like being tracked and surveilled. Who’da thought? While we’re all now very familiar with the business models whereby we agree to “be the product” in exchange for free services, the commercial world shouldn’t delude itself into thinking these models are popular. Nor that they will be a continuing trend.
The multi-billion-strong userbases of the successful web 2.0 platforms have a lot to do with stickiness. Tied in with their friends and acquaintances it’s hard for users to break free. But these aren’t necessarily happy users. Were a brand new platform of the Facebook model to be launched today, we wouldn’t expect it to last the year. Yet this is pretty much what Meta is proposing with their owned metaverse.
Cookie pop-ups are a visible symptom of a disease fighting its host. Data protection legislations, such as GDPR and CCPA, are kicking back against the user-tracking trend, which many sites have so far been unable to wean themselves off. The popup you see is essentially a site saying “sorry visitor, we haven’t had time to rethink our monetisation model yet”. This is Web 2.01. Not an update as such, more a quick patch.
The data protection counter-trend doesn’t only exist with the legislators. Brands are sensing this zeitgeist too. Apple, for example, currently the biggest of the tech giants, have a similarly bold corporate vision to Meta, but theirs is much more about reassuring their users that their data is safe. This appears to be significantly more popular than Meta’s vision, and seems set to clash with them at every turn.
The excitement around VR tech from companies founded upon user-tracking models is easy to understand. VR will allow much more than just key presses, cameras and phone mics to be trackable. It opens up a full gamut of biometrics. They would be able to know exactly what your eye is looking at, and the level of tingle you experience whilst doing so.
But is there a single user out there, amongst us potential citizens of the metaverse, who sees this as desirable? Is there anyone who’d throw money at that KickStarter?
Meta’s President of Global Affairs, Nick Clegg, wrote a long Medium post recently hoping to “build the credibility of the metaverse as an idea, and to demonstrate to people that we are committed to building it in a responsible way”. But, right now, it appears the market doesn’t trust Meta to make a metaverse they actually want. To many it feels more like an imperialist land grab than the sci-fi dream.
Fortunately, there is more than one path to the metaverse.
Much of the development work I’ve been doing recently has been around utilising 3D games platforms for shared experiences. Game engines are where it’s at right now. In my 20+ years in the industry I don’t think I’ve ever seen such rapid advances in this one particular area.
We are marching toward a metaverse at speed. Propelled, in part, by the level of hype around Meta’s bold pronouncements. When a major tech player invests billions, and even renames the company, the concept takes on an air of inevitability, and the cultural industries in their wake develop some serious FOMO.
While we’re keeping an eye on Meta’s Horizon Worlds, it’s definitely not at the top of our list. The rising tide is benefiting many boats, and one of the most exciting aspects of the nascent metaverse right now is the competitiveness of the various rival technologies. There are a lot of players racing to grab potential market share in this imagined future.
With a finger in the air, I predict VR worlds will continue to be siloed for a while yet. But this is fine, as it allows for the growth to continue. At this stage the interconnectivity of the metaverse is less important to users than it is to the surveillance capitalists. And it’s not as if a viable metaverse is dependent upon enticing users who are happy to accept tracking cookies.
Were I to be tasked with writing the corporate vision for one of the key players in the VR space, I would lean more towards Apple than Meta. I’d begin with a clear pledge around protecting personal data, the single biggest barrier to the adoption of metaverse technologies.
Returning to the sci-fi once more, might we consider etching a principle like Asimov’s laws of robotics into the hardware layer? We could produce a range of headsets which make it impossible for any personal data — social, biometric or anything else — to be gathered or derived, by any software that runs on it. I’d buy one. In fact, put me down for three.
I know it’s a radical idea, but how about if we simply listen to the user and design a metaverse people actually want. Do it right, and they’ll be throwing money at it. Like the Oculus Rift Kickstarters did ten years ago.
We know the demand is there. Gen Z crave these new amusements like our grandparents craved colour televisions. Like millennials throw cash at Disney+ to immerse themselves in comic-book universes. Like the junkies in Vurt chase feathers.
That 2012 Kickstarter raised $2.4 million, from nothing. Even if Meta’s annual $10 billion is a figure 4000 times greater, the crowd-funding raised from a standing start is much more impressive. I’d like to see how that looks scaled up beyond just early adopters.
When Meta bought Oculus ten years ago, they became the owners of the technology, but not the dream. The dream is still free to all. It’s out there, alive and well and unevenly distributed. And it’s in the process of being realised.