ANYONE WHO’S SPENT much time on the internet in the past nine months or so will have heard a previously-unfamiliar word being used often: the metaverse.
The concept is somewhat fuzzy, and a collective understanding of what precisely people mean when they say it is still emerging. At its core, it’s a vision of the internet centered around virtual reality (VR): creating 3D virtual environments that users can be immersed in and interact with as if the environments were physically real.
Metaverse proponents imagine that browsing the internet of the future will not happen through browsers and apps, but through VR headsets and haptic gloves; we won’t interact online in chatrooms or twitter threads, but virtual worlds.
Both Facebook and Microsoft have made huge investments in developing metaverse-related tech and systems. The former has formally renamed itself Meta to align with this new focus, and spent more than $10bn (around €8.8 billion) on metaverse projects last year alone, a move New York Times tech journalist Mike Isaac calls “bonkers”. Microsoft cited the metaverse as a key motivation for its $69bn (€61 billion) acquisition of scandal-wracked gaming studio Activision Blizzard, which was announced last month.
The two giants—and countless other companies—are effectively betting on the future development of the internet, counting on the metaverse being the “next big thing”.
Many are laying the groundwork: McDonald’s has filed ten trademark applications for the metaverse, including one for a virtual restaurant that would deliver to your (real-world) home, and other companies are doing similar. Gucci, Walmart and Nike have all announced plans to enter the metaverse.
The Guardian recently described how it makes sense for smaller businesses too, letting them ditch Zoom and Teams to meet with people in virtual conference rooms instead. “It will make your interactions more pleasant and more personal, as opposed to the detached online meetings we’re having right now,” the writer noted.
So will it be the next big thing?
Phil Libin emphatically says no. Libin is a tech CEO, having previously headed up note-taking app Evernote, and now serving as the boss of videoconferencing company Mmhmm. He’s previously described the metaverse as “an old idea…that’s never worked.”
Speaking to The Good Information Project, Libin did not hold back his criticism: “It will be rare to see the word ‘metaverse’ used without sarcasm a year from now.”
He described the tech as “lifted directly from decades of dystopian sci-fi by uncurious fanboys”, and believes it “exists because lightsabers are too tricky”.
Libin said that while the hardware for VR experiences is still evolving, once it reaches maturity “the world will see the metaverse for what it is: mostly lame.”
The industry veteran believes that some useful innovations will emerge from the “metaverse hype”, probably in the areas of augmented reality and multiplayer gaming, but that other big tech companies like Apple will “steer away” from using the word metaverse when they enter adjacent markets.
Futurist Aric Dromi is less sure that the tech will prove irrelevant, but is worried by its potential implications. He believes that tech giants like Microsoft and Meta “see [the metaverse] as yet another space that will give them the ability to monetize people’s data.”
While Dromi himself is “extremely pessimistic” about “the societal implications and the lack of a philosophical governance model” for the metaverse, he believes the immense effort being put into it by such influential companies means it will be relevant for some time.
He sees large tech companies as “very good at using technology as a crowbar to take over an industry, or a space within industry, that has proven not to be scalable or sustainable.”
“We will end up in a society where you are a metaverse user or not, like you’re a Trump supporter or you are a Clinton supporter,” Dromi continued.
He thinks that the future of online interaction will be more fundamentally changed by the advent of direct human-to-computer interfaces, such as those being developed by Elon Musk’s Neuralink. But such technologies are “in their infancy” currently, and “some of them fail miserably, some of them succeed”.
But Dromi emphasized: “I really think that we focus so much on the technology that we are missing the human aspect.”
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“We’re still looking into this potential future using yesterday’s eyes, and the monetization model that exists on screens…I’m afraid of that model being implemented. Right now they’re sucking data out of our brains, but imagine living in a reality where they can push data back?”
A spokesperson for Microsoft declined to be interviewed for this article, and the Meta press office did not respond to a request for comment.
It will likely take some years before we can definitely say whether the metaverse has become virtual reality or remained the stuff of virtual imagination. Zuckerberg himself admitted during the company’s recent quarterly report that “this fully realized vision is still a ways off”.
That can be seen in Meta debuting a 60-second metaverse ad ahead of the Super bowl in the US earlier this month, to decidedly mixed reactions. (“I’m not sure how they managed to squeeze this horrifying an episode of Black Mirror into 60 seconds”, reads one of the top comments under the ad on YouTube. “Am I supposed to feel happy at the end of that commercial? ” asked a writer on The Verge) – suggesting that even as the metaverse becomes more of a mainstay, it still has a way to go with the public.
This work is co-funded by Journal Media and a grant program from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work are the author’s own. The European Parliament has no involvement in nor responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information, see here.