Matt Gurney: I'm a pretty big tech nerd, and I am baffled by what the 'Metaverse' will do.
THIS is the problem Zuckerberg thinks he should be focusing on right now?!
Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's founder, chairman and CEO, has unveiled the newly rebranded company's plans for the "Metaverse" — a combination of online environments that can be experienced in augmented and virtual reality. (The company's new name, Meta Inc., reflects the new focus, but the major brands the company owns, including Facebook itself, will retain their current names under the now-renamed parent company.)
We can't ignore the fact that Facebook is rolling out its bold plan at a moment when the company is on the receiving end of much negative attention over its business practices and corporate values, if any. Facebook is as much a global supervillain as a company, or at least the overall coverage would suggest as much. No, we definitely can't ignore that, and we won't — look for a specific analysis of that part of the whole puzzle in this week's full version of the The Line's dispatch feature later today.
But for this column, just for now, let's briefly set aside Facebook's major political and cultural problems, and actually try to assess Metaverse on its own merits. What the hell is the company trying to do here, and will anyone go for it?
The what of Metaverse is intriguing. Zuckerberg announced the concept in a promotional video, but that's mostly marketing. The Guardian tried to concisely sum up what is being proposed, and I probably won't do better, so let's just crib their summary:
The metaverse is where the physical and digital worlds come together. It is a space where digital representations of people – avatars – interact at work and play, meeting in their office, going to concerts and even trying on clothes.
At the centre of this universe will be virtual reality, a digital world that you can already enter via Facebook’s Oculus VR headsets. It will also include augmented reality, a sort of step back from VR where elements of the digital world are layered on top of reality – think Pokémon Go or Facebook’s recent smart glasses tie-up with Ray-Ban.
Virtual reality isn't a new technology — I first tinkered around with a VR headset as a child probably 25 or 30 years ago at a downtown Toronto convention centre. It was incredibly rudimentary, but the core concept has basically stayed the same: a user puts on a virtual reality headset that puts a screen (or two separate ones) before their eyes, and those screens provide visual stimuli that, when combined with audio through a headset or earbuds, can create a very convincing simulation of ... basically anything. There are a series of virtual reality video gaming systems on the market today; I own one of the lower-capability versions, a PlayStation VR, running off a Playstation 4 console. Though one of the less powerful modern VR systems, it's still surprisingly capable of completely tricking your brain. My wife and I once spent an amusing evening doing a virtual rollercoaster ride, and even sitting in a chair in my basement, you'd swear you could feel the motion of the car going up and down the tracks.
That was a pretty simple demonstration. There are much more interesting and immersive games, including driving games, flying simulators and first-person shooters. Even my nonagenarian grandmother enjoyed shooting zombies with a virtual M1 carbine. Explaining it doesn't really do it justice. You have to experience it to really understand how thoroughly a well-designed VR game can fool your senses. The first time I played one of the newer systems, I was blown away, not just by the experience, but by the fact that this is still really early in the technological maturation of VR. This stuff is going to get a lot better. And it’s already really good.
To this extent, clearly, I'm a believer in VR. It's still a niche part of the video game market, but it's real and growing, and it's interesting. If Zuckerberg had announced that he was throwing more money and resources into bigger and better VR games, well, hey, sure.
But that's not really what Metaverse seems to be. It seems designed as a social experience more than anything else — a virtual environment where you'll hang out with your buddies to play games, socialize or enjoy shared experiences, like a virtual visit to a historical site or some kind of performance art. Zuckerberg also said there'd be ways to actually use the Metaverse as an individual — you could create a perfect retreat to withdraw to when you need alone time, and take in gorgeous simulated vistas of your choosing as you chill out after a stressful day.
Sure? I guess? All of these things could be interesting? I have to confess I'm not really seeing this as the next big thing (write that down, folks, in case it does indeed become the next thing, and then mock me — I won't mind). All of these ideas could be fun and neat and lovely, but the major roadblock for Meta here is that virtual reality is expensive and cumbersome. The headsets cost money. They're finicky. You need to be reasonably tech savvy to set up and operate them. Meta no doubt intends to improve on all of these metrics, and God knows it has the bucks to throw at the effort, but you'd need to make virtual reality really cheap and really easy to use before it would ever become a more attractive option than just doing a lot of these things in the physical world. Or even just like reading a book or something. Metaverse will only work if the virtual experiences are so amazing that people are willing to make the necessary effort to partake in them, and that barrier to entry ain’t modest.
Some people would love meeting up with friends in a virtual environment; I've played some online games too (though non-virtual), and it's fun. Over the course of the pandemic, during lockdowns in Toronto when families were staying largely isolated, my kids also kept up with their friends with online video games like Minecraft or Roblox. It was a badly needed way for them to stay in touch with the peers they so keenly missed. So it's not that I doubt there's a market for this. It's just harder to see this become such a massive success that it turns into Facebook's next big thing.
The possible workplace applications are also interesting. Virtual and augmented reality has obvious professional applications — imagine engineers and architects experimenting with designs they can see brought to life before them, or realistic training exercises helping personnel perfect emergency procedures. We'll no doubt see more of these sorts of applications as the technology improves and becomes more widely available. But just replicating an office environment for a meeting? Really? I'm as tired of Zoom as the next guy, but never once have I thought to myself, "You know what would make this editorial meeting better? If we were all wearing helmets that made it seem like we were actually robots or animals on a space station. That'd really spice up this budget chat."
And again, you'd have to pay extra to have the headset to put on just for the pleasure of doing a somewhat fancier version of the Zoom meetings we all figured out 20 minutes after COVID-19 hit North America.
I’m well aware that I could easily be falling into the trap of people not seeing why anyone would ever be interested in a new technology that, in short order, becomes utterly ubiquitous. Twenty or 30 years ago, you would have read skeptical columns just like this one, but about cellphones, home computers or even the internet itself. “But why would I ever want a phone on me at all times when I have a perfectly good landline at home?” “Email? What’s wrong with a fax?” And so on. This column may easily sound like that 10 years from now. This column may mark the moment when I became too old and inflexible in my thinking to appreciate the potential of something new and exciting.
So, yes, I grant it could be huge. I believe that VR is a technology to watch, and that we're just starting to figure out what we can do with it. Video gaming is a gigantic industry all by itself, and VR will become more useful in professional settings as well. It is also ripe for use in education: just imagine the possibilities of immersing yourself in historical simulations that let you see, as if an eyewitness, famous (and infamous!) moments in time. Zuckerberg doesn't have to sell me on the upside of any of this. Hell, let me wander a realistic virtual recreation of Victorian London or ancient Rome or Egypt, just for a taste of what that might have been like. Seriously. Find a way to do that and I’ll gladly open my wallet.
But a Metaverse where we all put on helmets to hang out with virtual avatars of our buddies? Where we seek peace and tranquility with a simulated mountain view instead of just firing up a meditation app or going for a walk? Having an in-person meeting in a digital conference room? And paying a premium price for the technology for the chance to do all of this?
Hey, we'll see. If anyone has the bucks to pull it off, it's Facebook — er, sorry — it’s Meta, Inc. But I do confess to some skepticism. The company has real problems today. What does the Metaverse do to solve any of them?
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