OPINION: I spent the first week of January at the CES 2022 conference, and there was one buzzword in particular that was impossible to escape: the metaverse.
That’s not a huge surprise, as people have been talking about the metaverse ever since Mark Zuckerberg changed Facebook’s parent company name to ‘Meta’ to reflect his new focus on the futuristic platform.
Yet I was still shocked to see how many companies on the CES show floor had jumped on the metaverse bandwagon. In fact, almost every VR game or application present at CES has seemingly tried to fit the ‘metaverse’ somewhere in their marketing, even if the connection to Zuckerberg’s vision was dubious at best.
So what actually is the Metaverse? In its simplest form, it’s a virtual 3D space where you can interact with other users. If you’ve seen films such as Ready Player One, you should get the gist, as users can go to a meeting, watch a movie or even play sports while using their computer-generated avatar while wearing a VR headset.
Meta has called it “the next evolution of social connection”, arguing that being able to physically wave or smile at someone with your 3D avatar is a far more immersive experience than simply staring at a chatroom on a computer screen.
It’s a very alluring concept that isn’t out of reach in terms of technology. You can already have virtual business meetings in virtual reality, and applications such as Rec Room allow you to chill out with your friends and engage in a few rounds of paintball.
But Meta is hyping up metaverse to be even greater than what current VR experiences can offer. During an interview with The Verge, Zuckerburg said: “You can think about it as the successor to the mobile internet.”
Could the Metaverse really succeed the likes of Facebook to be the go-to platform for virtual social interaction? I’m personally unconvinced.
I’ve used a lot of VR headsets in my career, and have so far failed to find any experiences (beyond gaming) that I’ve really connected to. I’ve been able to watch films, have work meetings or even meditate with various VR apps, but they’ve never been a worthy substitute for real life or existing online applications – it’s just too much of a hassle to set up the headset and load up your chosen activity.
Wearing a headset – or even a pair of VR glasses in the case of the Vive Flow – can be frustrating, as you’ve often got to adjust it on your head to get the perfect view. Not to mention you generally need lots of space in your house to be able to move around freely and get the best VR experience.
I feel like a lot of billionaire CEOs are far more excited by the prospect of the metaverse since they can have an entire room dedicated to their VR antics, but that sadly isn’t possible in a small London flat like the one I live in.
And secondly, VR headsets are bloody expensive. The Oculus Quest 2 is one of the most affordable VR headsets currently available, and that costs a whopping £299. Sure, you need a smartphone or a laptop to be able to use existing social applications such as Facebook, YouTube and Tik Tok, but chances are you already own such devices – most people require a phone and a PC for day-to-day work, but that simply isn’t the case with a VR headset.
Of course, VR headsets will become more accessible and affordable as time goes on, but it’s still going to be a long, long time until they become an everyday item in the typical home. Even Zuckerburg’s claims of “end of this decade” seems far-fetched to me.
To be fair to Zuckerburg, he has clarified that the Metaverse doesn’t necessarily have to be restricted to VR headsets, but will also be accessible via PC, mobile devices and game consoles. But then again, haven’t we already explored such concepts? Social apps such as Second Life and Club Penguin previously allowed users to interact via 3D avatars online, but they never really captured the interest of the mass market.
It’s been a different story in gaming, as we’ve seen the likes of World of Warcraft, Fortinite, Minecraft and plenty more multiplayer experiences gain lots of popularity by allowing players to interact with each other across the globe. VR has a great chance of seeing similar success stories in the future when it comes to gaming, but I personally don’t see it ever evolving into the same scale as what Zuckerberg is predicting with the metaverse.
My chief concern about the metaverse is that it just isn’t a very convenient way to interact with friends, shop online or engage with media. The likes of Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp are popular because of how effortless it is to fire over a text message. And while it’s true that we saw a boom in the use of video chat apps such as Zoom during the pandemic, I feel that people are now far more keen to meet up in person than have to endure another virtual chat room. Having to enter a VR world just to catch up with a friend doesn’t appeal to me in the slightest.
A recent viral Tweet, which showed the ‘metaverse’ vision of online shopping in Walmart, is a perfect example of why many people simply won’t be interested in the platform. It shows users having to traverse a 3D recreation of America’s favourite supermarket in order to add groceries to their shopping cart. But who really wants to do that?
The strength of online shopping is that it’s far easier to narrow down your search by using filters and search bars, while in-person shopping still has its place since you can have a feel for products by picking them up (I personally like to buy jeans in person to make sure they’re the right fit). Shopping in the metaverse lacks the convenience of a digital store, and the practicality of being in person – in fact, I’m really not sure whether there’s any benefit at all for shopping in the metaverse. But developers have proceeded in creating these virtual spaces just because they can.
I think that’s the fundamental problem with the metaverse right now. There’s no doubt that the likes of Meta have the technology to make it possible, but I’m yet to see how it will be a more appealing option compared to existing social platforms, especially when factor in the cost and faff of wearing a VR headset.
Of course, the metaverse is still in its infancy, so it may be the case that I can’t even comprehend its benefits right now. After all, I’m sure plenty of people would have laughed at the concept of Facebook before it became a global success. But I have to say, from what I know so far, I really don’t see the metaverse being successful any time soon.
Ctrl+Alt+Delete is our weekly computing-focussed opinion column where we delve deeper into the world of computers, laptops, components, peripherals and more. Find it on Trusted Reviews every Saturday afternoon.