If you’re waiting for the metaverse to arrive, you’ll be disappointed

Behind the buzzword, there's a much more interesting dynamic at work. And if you understand that, you can make better plans for our virtual future.

The Metaverse will never arrive, and if you’re waiting for it, you’ll be disappointed. This is not a doom-saying prophecy, but merely a recognition of reality. And that reality is that the metaverse is here, right now. It just doesn’t look like we expect — and it may never do so.

The idea of persistent digital worlds we interact with through avatars is hardly new.

Sure, we might be calling that idea the “metaverse” now, and we might be trying to find ways of tying it to blockchain technology, but this is very much old wine in new bottles. That, though, is not a criticism. Technologies do not evolve at a uniform pace, can sometimes take decades to arrive (still waiting for my jetpack…) and often we need a triggering event to make them mainstream. Occasionally, that’s a product, like the iPhone made the true pocket computer a society-altering proposition. Sometimes it’s an event, like the pandemic making the long-gestating video conferencing tech real.

Metaverse Go

And every so often, it’s there under our noses, but we don’t notice because it seems, well, trivial. Pokémon Go, the mainstream AR hit, is celebrating its sixth anniversary right now. While its maker, Niantic, might have suffered some setbacks of late, its best-known game continues from strength to strength. And it is a kind of metaverse: a persistent digital world that is mapped onto the physical one. People have been spending time in this world for over half a decade.

And, of course, the deeper idea of virtual reality has been in the public consciousness for far longer. It was the subject of the film The Lawnmower Man 30 years ago, and Tron a decade before that (except the latter had way more neon…)

The idea of an immersive virtual experience we can submerge our senses with is a form of ultimate escapism. No wonder that the dream never dies. It’s a staple of sci-fi for a reason.

Playing at the metaverse

But what does puzzle me is that, right now, people are selling that ultimate dream — as a work tool. I love my job, but that doesn’t get me as excited as losing myself in a fully realised fantasy world for a few hours.

And, in fact, most talk about “the metaverse” today is actually talk about games. As James Whatley put it, writing for The Drum:

Anybody that tells you they’re doing something ‘in the metaverse’ either has no idea what they’re talking about or is being willfully misleading about something cool in video games.

And sure, you can do things in Fortnite, Roblox, and Minecraft. They are somewhat persistent virtual worlds with communities and relationships you can interact with. But even they are building on earlier virtual worlds.

A second chance at a second life

Blizzard’s insanely successful MMORPG World of Warcraft is now 18 years old. If it was human, it could be voting, drinking and learning to drive a car. People have been building relationships, spending time together and having meetings in this persistent digital world for nearly two decades.

By contrast, the closest thing that exists right now to the Metaverse idea is Second Life. Launched in 2003, despite an early burst of publicity, it never really hit the mainstream like World of Warcraft did. It went through a resurgence during the pandemic, as people sought ways to escape the physical surrounding they were trapped in.

And perhaps that’s why so much thought is going into the work metaverse right now.

Better virtual working

The metaverse will never arrive. There will be no keynote where a tech executive in painfully smart casual clothes gets on stage and announces it. You’ll just start using it because you have a reason to do it. That’s the core lesson from so many of our previous excursions into persistent digital worlds: you need to give people a reason to be there. Gaming is a great reason, but gaming with friends an even better one. Escaping the pandemic and sharing a mutual digital space with friends you can’t see in person is another great one, albeit one whose time has (hopefully) passed for the time being.

And yet, that may be the crack that opens the door to a Metaverse beyond games. After two years spent largely on Zoom or Teams, it’s clear that a chunk of that time will not return to face-to-face meetings. The dream of video conferencing is here, after 40 years of experimenting and prototypes. The technology had been there for years: but the compelling use case hadn’t been.

The idea of a better, more immersive Zoom meeting is an attractive one: but is a headset the right way to do that? At the time of writing, we’re sweltering in summer heat. The idea of strapping tech to a sweaty face is… not attractive.

Hugging the sensory system

Everything we do is a trade-off: do the positives outweigh the negatives? With VR-based metaverses, that trade-off is complex. Yes, you get a great, immersive experience, but one which cuts you off from the physical reality around you. We already know that that can create nausea. What other impacts could your sense of awareness and danger, detaching from your physical environment, have?

The human sensory system is fiendishly complex. For most of us, it’s a mix of sound, light, scents, tastes, touch, balance… Our brain processes these complex inputs and constructs a stable sense of reality we navigate through. What happens when some inputs no longer match what other senses are suggesting?

That’s a pretty big disadvantage to overcome. That may be why VR headset sales, while growing, are not yet spectacular. Around 68.6 m devices are predicted to be sold next year — but that’s AR and VR combined. And it rather pales against phones, where over 1 bn are shipped every year. Apple alone shifts 150 m iPhones.

These are not numbers that imply that VR is about to hit the tipping point.

I see the metaverse

So, perhaps AR will be our first step towards the metaverse. As Pokémon Go proves, building a persistent digital world that overlays the physical one and augments it is easier to achieve than full immersion. Enhancing what we already do is an easier sell than creating something new. And, if the rumours are to be believed, Apple might well be about to jump into this market.

But Apple’s glasses won’t be the metaverse arriving. They’ll just be another step on a journey towards making our exciting virtual lives ever more compelling. Because, in the end, that’s what the metaverse will eventually be.