I wrote an op-ed in The Guardian today: "Techies think we’re on the cusp of a virtual world called ‘the metaverse’. I’m skeptical"
One struggle in sitting down to prove out my position that the metaverse will not happen is the difficulty everyone has defining it. As I say in the piece, we resort to science fiction metaphors: Neuromancer, The Matrix, Snow Crash, Ready Player One. When you point out that virtual reality (VR) has a long history (dating back to the pre-Internet 80s!) of promising a lot and delivering little, people inevitably say “Well, the metaverse isn’t VR!”
BUT THEN WHAT IS THE METAVERSE?
We have a couple options beyond VR:
AR (Augmented Reality)
Augmented Reality currently exists. See: Pokémon GO or Snapchat’s fun AR filters, like the Dancing Hot Dog. These gained popularity around 2016-2017. But since their media blitz a few years ago, I haven’t seen a huge number of options build out these two basic uses: games and toys. Snap’s Lens Studio lets creators make their own versions of the Dancing Hot Dog, but both use cases feel more mired in now passé novelty than world changing platforms.
MR (Mixed Reality)
I hear Mixed Reality is another option, but real world implications seem a little opaque to me. Feels like a military training module I do not have access to? Intel defines it as:
MR brings together real world and digital elements. In mixed reality, you interact with and manipulate both physical and virtual items and environments, using next-generation sensing and imaging technologies. Mixed Reality allows you to see and immerse yourself in the world around you even as you interact with a virtual environment using your own hands—all without ever removing your headset. It provides the ability to have one foot (or hand) in the real world, and the other in an imaginary place, breaking down basic concepts between real and imaginary, offering an experience that can change the way you game and work today.
Apparently Japan Airlines uses the Microsoft HoloLens to train engineers? Honestly, I have a hard time distinguishing this from either AR or VR. An immersive world seems like VR to me, while overlaying digital objects on your field of vision either through a headset or screen seems like AR. I suppose MR is supposed to include wearables so you can manipulate digital objects, though these are also part of current VR gameplay.
XR (Extended Reality)
This is the merging of the three: VR, AR, and MR. See the diagram below:
Here we see through illustrations, the difficulty of distinguishing the three. VR remains mired in the paradigm of the gaming console. AR remains mired in the paradigm of looking at the world through our phones. MR here looks like the cool prototypes of gloves that control robots arms and manipulate IRL objects. These seem cool and will certainly have commercial and industrial applications, if they don’t already. I suppose advances in haptic technology is implicitly part of any “metaverse”…
WHERE IS THE METAVERSE?
Maybe I am being willfully obtuse, but the profusion of terms adjacent to VR just feel like iterations on the original concept. There are certainly digital products people enjoy buying (this Substack being one of them!) and in-app purchases for video games likely have a bright future. I would hesitate to call that a “metaverse.”
The central conceit of the concept seems to be that consumers want more information, all the time. After a year of Zoom conferences, I’m skeptical of this. As someone who worked remote long before COVID, many clients are entertained by my Luddite preference for old fashioned phone calls. But the truth is, unless I am presenting a deck, I prefer the phone because I want less information clouding my field of vision when I am consulting. I am much more focused pacing around and smoking a cigarette. Glued to a chair, my brain is split between listening to my clients, watching notifications whiz by in the corner of my screen, and looking at myself in the mirror. (Why be bothered managing facial expressions, pondering if it’s a bad hair day, when you can be thinking?)
The Enterprise Metaverse™ or “Zoom on crack” may be appealing to employers. Who doesn’t want to more precisely surveil their employees? Furthermore, it leans into the cultural myth of multi-tasking. Long proven to be more of a self-delusion than a skill, multi-tasking remains a must-have in many corporate settings.
But the sooner we realize multi-tasking should be more correctly termed constant distraction, the better. And the sooner we realize this, the sooner it becomes clear, the metaverse doubles down on current problems, rather than solving them. The popularity of wellness retreats like Esalen shows freedom from distraction is the luxury people are seeking. Build a metaverse that solves for that and I’ll be listening.