During the recent golden age of technology, it was fairly easy to understand the bleeding edge of tech. Because consumer tech, specifically, has mostly produced tangible products in the form of the gadgets we love so much. Of course, there were supporting software and applications – but it’s consistently been fairly clear what we can expect the next big thing in tech to be. This time, however, it’s something far more vague. Something more… metaphysical.
Earlier this year, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg put his face on-screen and announced that his company, the owner of a variety of successful social media apps, is refocusing its future strategy. In the same breath, Facebook rebranded to Meta and managed to confuse a lot of its users. But it’s the metaverse that’s managed to confuse all of us much more than that.
In the keynote, Zuck explains how the metaverse will be a virtual space where office-workers can go to attend meetings remotely, with their digital avatars in attendance around a virtual table. The real humans behind the avatars would then wear VR headsets to enter the virtual space.
Of course, the whole principle of the metaverse is far more than just a virtual work space – it’s a world, or worlds, that exist only virtually. Here’s where it can get confusing – but that’s because it’s hard to comprehend something that’s still so far off we may only see it in 5-10 years.
And companies are now talking it up as if it’s around the corner.
Let’s first… understand the metaverse
“The Metaverse is an expansive network of persistent, real-time rendered 3D worlds and simulations that support continuity of identity, objects, history, payments, and entitlements, and can be experienced synchronously by an effectively unlimited number of users, each with an individual sense of presence,” is the definition by venture capitalist Matthew Ball, author of the extensive Metaverse Primer hub of resources on the subject.
Let’s not forget that this isn’t the first time big corporations have pushed the metaverse narrative.
This time, however, it’s being pitted as the next natural evolution after the mobile platform. According to many sources detailing the concept, it goes: internet > mobile platforms > metaverse. Which is a big label to put on something that’s yet to show us decent proof of concept. When asked to prove its work, metaverse backers cite the applications of Web3 as the next big evolution in tech. And the metaverse will be based on Web3 principles.
Now, Web3 is, in a few words, just technologies that are based on decentralisation and blockchain. That means no one entity owns the tech built on Web3, in contrast to how ‘Big Tech’ has dominant control over Web 2.0 in its current form.
In reality, the metaverse as it will exist, will definitely be controlled by the existing powerful forces in tech including Facebook, Apple (which is currently developing its first VR headset), Microsoft and potentially a few more.
Gaming companies already have a head-start in creating their own virtual worlds, and many explainers hail Epic Games’ battle royale title Fortnite as existing as a metaverse world already.
So it doesn’t look like decentralisation plays a vital role in the creation of the metaverse, or even ‘metaverses’ in the current narrative. They’ll be pretty centralised to whoever hosts the servers, designs the virtual worlds and, let’s not forget, sells the products.
The next frontier of consumerism
In this lengthy explainer on The Verge about the metaverse and what it is (it’s a good read if you’re coming in with no reference), a good chunk of it is dedicated to how the various metaverses would handle selling virtual goods and transferring those digital assets to other metaverses. This is where NFTs and blockchain technology comes in.
Why put so much effort into developing next-generation tech, that we can barely fathom at our current understanding of consumer technology, dedicated to helping users buy intangible things? Because the metaverse isn’t developed to solve a user problem – which is inherently what great tech is based on. It’s being developed to help big corporations sell more stuff to consumers.
In this case, the products they’re selling is a) more VR headsets/VR tech and b) digital assets in the form of vanity purchases.
The main focus of these virtual worlds is purely aesthetic, and based in capitalism. Following Zuck’s keynote, brands from a variety of industries have been quick to align their brands with the concept. Many brands are already beginning to think ‘in’ metaverse terms, brainstorming how they can sell virtual items, experiences and spaces.
They’re not only selling tangible real-world products anymore.
Which isn’t new either. Gamers have shelled out over $120 billion on digital games and assets in games in 2020. These are mostly vanity-purchases, like skins in Fortnite and in-game currency in mobile games. People are clearly comfortable spending real-world money on digital assets or experiences.
Meta’s awfully optimistic, hey
Which is exactly what Meta and all the leeches are betting on with the advent of the metaverse. It’s already established its reach and monopoly as a social media company – but it’s always been limited by the mobile platform. That’s because Google and Apple control this platform – and limit apps like Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp in their monetary gains, and sketchy ad tracking efforts.
Owning a platform as vast as this would give Meta and all its constituents complete control over what users see, access and what data they harvest without much consequence. According to The Verge’s explainer, Facebook is already in advanced conversations with the American government and policy-makers regarding its metaverse.
Which seems very premature for a technology that is still in its infancy. In addition, there’s no evidence that suggests it’ll reach mainstream use any time soon. Facebook, and many other Big Tech corporations have launched new products and virtual features/spaces that flopped completely. Meta isn’t the first to introduce consumers into virtual worlds – so where are those previous attempts? Second Life promised this exact virtual experience in the early 2000’s and it’s still not managed to reach mainstream use.
Of course, it may be premature to say that the technology will flop. It may very well be one of Meta’s most successful products come 2025. But it’s presenting as far-too-ambitious for the current state of technology. It may end up only seeing adoption from those that live on that bleeding-edge – like many people in Silicon Valley, or tech journalists like ourselves.