To what extent can we define the Metaverse?

metaverse for brands

If you listen to the likes of Mark Zuckerberg and Satya Nadella, CEOs of major technology companies, the Metaverse is where the internet is headed. Or, it could be a game. Perhaps it’s a terribly awkward and inferior version of Zoom? We can only speculate.

Nearly six months have passed since Facebook announced it would rebrand as Meta and devote its future efforts to the emerging “Metaverse.” Nothing has changed in the intervening time to shed light on the precise meaning of that phrase. Meta is developing a virtual reality social platform, Roblox is enabling user-created video games, and some companies are providing broken game worlds with NFTs attached.

Advocates from small businesses to multinational corporations have all pointed to the fact that the Metaverse is still in its infancy as an explanation for its apparent incoherence. For instance, the internet was around in the ’70s, but not all predictions about its future form proved to be accurate.

However, there is a great deal of marketing energy (and cash) invested in spreading the concept of “the Metaverse.” Since Apple’s decision to restrict ad tracking has impacted Facebook’s bottom line, the social media giant is in a particularly precarious position. Facebook’s goal of making money off of virtual clothing sales is inextricable from its vision of a future in which everyone has access to an infinite virtual closet. However, Facebook is not the only business that can benefit monetarily from the buzz surrounding the Metaverse.

What Is the Meaning of “Metaverse”?

Here’s an exercise to illustrate how vague and complex “the Metaverse” is: Replace “Metaverse” with “cyberspace” the meaning doesn’t change 90% of the time. The term refers to a fundamental (and often speculative) shift in how we interact with technology. The term may become obsolete as the technology it once described becomes commonplace.

Virtual reality is characterized by persistent virtual worlds that exist even when you’re not playing, and augmented reality combines digital and physical worlds. It doesn’t require VR or AR to access these spaces.

Many companies that have joined the Metaverse are betting on a new digital economy where users can buy and sell goods. In idealistic visions of the Metaverse, you can take virtual clothes or cars from one platform to another, though this is difficult. Some claim new technologies like NFTs can enable portable digital assets, but this isn’t true. Moving items from one video game or virtual world to another is a complex task that no company can solve as of yet.

When you hear descriptions like those above, you may wonder, “Doesn’t that already exist?” In World of Warcraft, players can buy and sell goods. Fortnite has virtual concerts and an MLK exhibit. With an Oculus headset, you can enter a virtual world. Does “Metaverse” mean that? New videogames? Maybe.. Even if you spend a lot of time in Fortnite socializing, buying, learning, and playing games, it doesn’t encompass “the Metaverse” just as Google, which builds internet data centers and security layers, isn’t “the internet.”

Microsoft and Meta are building virtual world interaction tech, but they’re not alone. Nvidia, Unity, Roblox, Snap, and other large companies are building infrastructure to create virtual worlds similar to our physical lives.

Epic has acquired companies that create or distribute digital assets to strengthen its Unreal Engine 5 platform. Unreal is a video game platform, but it’s also used in film and could make creating virtual experiences easier. The building of digital worlds has seen exciting advances.

Still, a Ready Player One-like singular place called “the Metaverse” is unlikely. Such a world requires companies to share in a way that isn’t profitable or desirable—Fortnite doesn’t have much motivation to give players a portal to World of Warcraft, even if it were easy—and the raw computing power needed for such a portal may be further away than we think.

This has led to different terminology. Companies and advocates now call any game or platform a “Metaverse.” By this definition, any VR space where you can interact or video games are “Metaverses.” Some call it a “multiverse of Metaverses” Maybe we’re in a “hybrid-verse.”

They can mean anything. Coca-Cola launched a “Metaverse flavor” and Fortnite minigame. Rule-free.

At this point, most Metaverse discussions struggle. We have an idea of what we could call the Metaverse if we define words correctly. We know which companies are investing in the idea, but there’s still no consensus after months about what it is. Meta thinks it will have digital houses for hangouts. Microsoft suggests virtual meeting rooms for training new hires or chatting with out-of-office coworkers.

These visions range from unlikely to total fiction. Meta’s original presentation on the Metaverse showed a scenario in which a young woman is sitting on her couch scrolling through Instagram when she sees a friend’s video of a concert halfway around the world.

The video then cuts to the concert, where the woman is a hologram. She can make eye contact with her friend, hear the concert, and see text above the stage. This looks cool, but it’s not a real or future product. It’s the Metaverse’s biggest flaw.

The use of holograms within the Metaverse is intriguing, but why?

Technology breakthroughs like long-distance computer-to-computer communication and hyperlinking were the first steps in the development of the internet. Websites, applications, social media platforms, and everything else that depends on these basic elements were all constructed using these technical features as their foundation. In addition, the convergence of input devices like monitors, keyboards, mice, and touchscreens, which aren’t technically part of the internet but are essential to its operation, is also a factor.

Some of the Metaverse’s new building blocks are already in place, such as the capacity to host hundreds of users on a single server instance (some hopeful Metaverse predictions assume this will grow to thousands or even millions of users simultaneously, but this might be overly optimistic) or motion-tracking tools that can distinguish where a user is looking or where they are holding an object. These cutting-edge innovations have the potential to be fascinating and forward-thinking.

But there are constraints that might be insurmountable. The ways in which people will interact with the Metaverse are often glossed over in the fictionalized videos produced by tech companies like Microsoft and Meta. Virtual reality headsets are still quite cumbersome, and prolonged use is usually met with complaints of motion sickness or discomfort. The issue is compounded for augmented reality glasses because of the need to figure out how to make them less obviously geeky when worn in public. Furthermore, there are problems with virtual reality accessibility that many businesses are ignoring for the time being.

How do tech companies show off their tech without inconvenient headsets and unattractive glasses? Their primary solution is to make technology from scratch. Meta’s hologram? Even with advanced technology, it’s impossible.

Unlike motion-tracked digital avatars, which are janky but could improve, there’s no janky way to make a 3D image appear in midair without tight controls. Ignore Iron Man. Perhaps these are images projected via glasses—both women in the demo video are wearing similar glasses—but even that assumes a lot about the physical capabilities of compact glasses, which Snap can tell you isn’t easy to account for.

This is common in Metaverse video demos. Another Meta demo showed characters floating in space; are they on an immersive aerial rig or sitting at a desk? Is a hologram’s face scanned with a headset? A person sometimes grabs virtual items with what appear to be their physical hands.

It raises more questions than it answers.

This is fine in moderation. Microsoft, Meta, and other companies that show wild demos are trying to give an artistic impression of the future, not answer technical questions. It’s a tradition dating back to AT&T’s demo of a voice-controlled foldable phone that could erase people from photos and generate 3D models.

In recent months, tech giants and startups have pitched unrealistic Metaverse visions. Chipotle’s “Metaverse” was a Roblox ad. “Metaverse” “real estate” is a buggy video game with virtual land tokens (which also glosses over the very real security and privacy issues with most popular NFTs right now).

People thought a 2017 video of a Walmart VR shopping demo was a Metaverse demo when it started trending again in January 2022. It showed how much of the Metaverse discussion is hype. Walmart’s VR demo flopped (and for good reason). Why should anyone believe Chipotle is the future?

This kind of wishful-thinking-as-tech-demo makes it hard to predict which aspects of the Metaverse will become real. If VR and AR headsets become comfortable and cheap enough to wear daily, a virtual poker game with your friends as robots and holograms in space could be close to reality. If not, you can play Tabletop Simulator on Discord.

VR and AR distract from more mundane ways to improve our interconnected digital world now. It would be trivial for tech companies to invent an open digital avatar standard, a file that includes character creator data like eye color, hairstyle, and clothing options and lets you take it everywhere. No need for a more comfortable VR headset.

How’s the Metaverse?

In order for the Metaverse to be the future, the present must be defined away. MMOs are essentially virtual worlds, digital concerts, video calls with people from around the world, online avatars, and commerce platforms. In order to sell these things as a new vision of the world, they must contain something new.

When discussing the Metaverse, someone will inevitably (and exhaustingly) reference fictional stories like Snow Crash, which coined the term “Metaverse,” or Ready Player One, which depicts a VR world where everyone works, plays, and shops. These stories, combined with the general pop-culture idea of holograms and heads-up displays (basically think Iron Man movies), serve as a fantastic reference point for what the Metaverse could look like—a Metaverse that tech companies might actually sell as something new.

Hype is arguably more important to the Metaverse than any specific technological advance. Understandably people are promoting NFTs—cryptographic tokens that can serve as digital ownership certificates—while embracing the Metaverse.  If a tech company can argue that NFTs and blockchain will be the digital keys to your virtual mansion in Roblox, then boom. You just turned your hobby of buying memes into a crucial piece of internet infrastructure (and possibly raised the value of all the cryptocurrency you own).

There’s still cool stuff ahead. VR headsets like the Quest 2 are finally cheaper than desktop or console rigs. Building video games and virtual worlds are getting easier. I think photogrammetry, which creates 3D objects from photos or video, is a cool tool for digital artists.

The tech industry at large depends on futurism. Selling phones is fine, but selling the future is better. In reality, any “Metaverse” may be little more than VR games and digital avatars in Zoom calls, but mostly just the internet.

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