Since I wrote this “viral” piece about the Metaverse (and NFT) boom going bust on March 15, the traffic trends have continued to tumble down towards zero.
The Metaverse exploded into public view on the back of Facebook’s rebrand to Meta in late October 2021. It quickly became the corporate buzzword of the moment, and companies scrambled to release statements and visuals of future Metaverse-related projects because… well, reasons.
But, just 7 months later, the hype is fading fast, and there’s a real danger that interest in the Metaverse will flatline long before it’s fully realized.
The situation can be summarized by Marc Petit, Epic Games’ VP and general manager of Unreal Engine, who put it bluntly, “People have kind of lost interest in the Metaverse, because characters look like cartoons with no legs. I mean, who wants to be that? This is not attractive.”
While that’s an excellent explanation, there’s more to it than that.
The public is confused
The majority of the population — especially those not involved or knowledgeable in the tech space — still don’t understand what the Metaverse is or why they should care about it. And it’s no wonder. We hear lots about ‘potential’ uses and devoted fans shouting that IT’S THE FUTURE, but every announcement or demo or PR release comes with the caveat that it’s 10 to 15 years away. Let’s cut to the chase — the general population doesn’t get excited about things that far ahead.
It’s not necessarily an age-related confusion either. The Taking Stock of Teens study found that 50% of teens are either unsure of the Metaverse or have no intention of buying a VR device. In addition, a late 2021 survey by Forrester showed that only 34% of online adults were excited about the Metaverse, and less than 30% thought it would be good for society.
The Metaverse concept is at an inflection point; people either write off its potential or are diehard believers. (Remind you of anything? Hello cryptocurrency.) Even the companies pushing it aren’t entirely sure how it will play out. Zuckerberg said so himself, noting on Meta’s first earnings report that while the direction is clear, the “path ahead is not yet perfectly defined.”
The industry needs to get clear on the outcomes before it tries to convince the world that it’s the next big thing.
The use cases are pretty sucky
Remember that demo of Zuckerberg disappearing into a Matrix-like digital world to walk around an expansive digital home filled with random digital items before shooting into space to float around in a spaceship and chat with other virtual avatars?
Some people thought it looked cool. I thought it looked like hell. Leave the real world to float around as an early-2000s Wii avatar with no legs and none of the fun? Or stand in a virtual bar drinking virtual drinks with strangers shouting loudly, akin to the early days of internet chatrooms?
Other glimpses of what’s to come have been just as uninspiring; the Wendyverse, the Snoopverse, Decentraland… the list goes on. Until the creators of these virtual worlds can replicate the wonders of the world they’re trying to replace — (I know everyone is going to argue they aren’t here to do that, but they’re going to make money from your attention and spending within them, and are therefore incentivized to keep you in them) — it’s going to remain hard to convince people to get excited.
I mean, look at this and tell me that pixelated pint of beer doesn’t leave you licking your lips with excitement.
The modes of entry are pretty sucky too
The Oculus, and the various competitors already here (or soon to be here, looking at you, Apple) are cumbersome, moderately-to-very ugly, and make many users feel nauseous, myself included. To borrow from Scott Galloway, “[the Oculus] is a prophylactic ensuring you will never conceive a child, as no one will want to get near you.” As a result, adoption of the devices has been slow. Meta has just opened a physical store to promote the various devices it makes (yes, the irony is not lost on anyone), so whether pushing them to public through stores increases uptake, time will tell.
There’s even been talk of gloves and other tech being developed to improve interaction with the virtual world. It should be obvious to the creators, but if the future Metaverse requires suiting up — a huge point of friction to entering the world — widespread adoption just isn’t feasible.
Many argue that smart glasses or AirPods will be the more accepted and accessible entry point if/when this takes off. But even those technologies have huge issues to overcome, primarily the privacy/security of those not wearing the glasses. Just look at Facebook’s Ray-Ban Smart Glasses, which can record video, indicated only by a tiny little light, to see problems ahead. Tech companies already have a track record of bad privacy policies; adding wearable tech items into the mix is a recipe for disaster.
And what of day-to-day life? If we’re plugged into a virtual world through devices, how do we keep track of what’s going on around us in the physical world?
Innovations and iterations will likely crack the devices conundrum — whether those breakthroughs come too late remains to seen.
Virtual doesn’t mean better
The biggest hurdle the Metaverse has to overcome is convincing the general population that this form of connection —one that’s entirely virtual — is better than physical interaction.
When taking this concept to the extreme, i.e., humans conducting 100% of their work, play and social life through a virtual world, it will have dangerous consequences for society, including depression, addiction and mental health issues, not to mention a complete change in we make, and manage, relationships and friendships.
We have this strange notion that if we made everything digital, it would somehow be better than in the real world. But we forget — or ignore — that all the problems in the real world, like money, power, division, misogyny, racism, homophobia, [insert next problem], will follow us there. If anything, it could be worse; the virtual world is the perfect cover for people to hide behind. There’s already been widespread sexual harassment in the Metaverse — most victims are women — with cases of virtual groping, verbal abuse, and even virtual gang rape.
For the Metaverse to become widely adopted, it needs to be safe for everyone. That means a whole host of fundamentals need to be figured out, including regulatory standards, privacy codes of conduct, inclusivity, age-gating and more.
Like any developing technology, the future of Metaverse is full of possibilities, but also rife uncertainty about what lies ahead.
What is certain is that, to fulfill its promised immersive experience, real, tangible, and exciting use-cases need to start appearing in the public space quickly. Because when the fully-realized outcome lies 10–15 years away, there needs to be signs of progress and real “wow” milestones that get us all excited along the way.
Else, when the finalized form of the Metaverse does become (virtual) reality, no one will be around to give a shit.