16.4 C
New York
Monday, April 15, 2024

The Metaverse Doesn't Have a Leg to Stand On

It only takes four words to sum up the absurd trajectory of the tech world in 2022: “Legs are coming soon!” 

This October, Meta announced an improvement to its metaverse, Horizon Worlds. To show off the new feature, the company released a clip of Mark Zuckerberg’s Horizon Worlds avatar happily lifting each leg, then jumping. Previously, people who strapped on a $400 headset to explore Meta’s virtual space saw avatars with floating cartoon torsos. Now they would have lower bodies, too. Even feet.

Did Meta expect this to impress? Well—it didn’t. Instead, the cheerful message about impending appendages was met with mockery. Legs couldn’t save Horizon Worlds’ crumbling reputation. Meta had spent $36 billion to morph into a metaverse company, to manifest an immersive, globally accessible virtual-reality world that runs permanently alongside this one. Yet Horizon Worlds was a glitchy ghost town. The people who did use it were creeps or children (even though they’re technically not allowed). Not even Meta’s own employees took to it. Here was one of the most powerful corporations on the planet pouring Bond-villain-level resources into the creation of its next transformative tech project … and the best it could do appeared to be a janky Second Life knockoff nobody likes. 

Zuckerberg’s not the only mark here. Microsoft also placed a bet on the metaverse (the avatars in its iteration, Mesh, also lack legs). In the past few years, a comically wide variety of companies have hired their own “chief metaverse officer,” from Disney and Procter & Gamble to the Creative Artists Agency and the accounting firm Prager Metis. Meta placed its bet on the metaverse in the flashiest way, changing its name, spending all that dough, et cetera, but it’s not alone in its conviction that these virtual worlds are the inevitable future. Even writer Neal Stephenson, who coined the word metaverse in his 1992 novel Snow Crash, founded an actual metaverse company in 2022. 

In the past few years, metaverse startups like Decentraland and the Sandbox grabbed venture capital interest by hyping themselves as hubs for a new NFT-fueled economy. Despite these companies’ hefty valuations, they have remained decidedly niche. (Refuting a third-party report that it had only 38 active users one day, Decentraland said it had an average of 8,000 daily active users—which is still tiny.) Why did Zuckerberg gamble his business on something so wobbly, so literally legless? 

In a video from 2021 explaining his vision, Zuckerberg described the metaverse as “an embodied internet.” His spiel here is the key to understanding a delusion animating the reportedly $800 billion market. “When I send my parents a video of my kids, they’ll feel like they’re in the moment with us, not peering through a little window,” he says, miming the act of holding a phone. “Instead of looking at a screen, you’re going to be in these experiences.” Screens, Zuckerberg explains, can’t deliver a “deep feeling of presence.” The metaverse, he says, can.

Most PopularBusinessThe End of Airbnb in New York

Amanda Hoover

BusinessThis Is the True Scale of New York’s Airbnb Apocalypse

Amanda Hoover

CultureStarfield Will Be the Meme Game for Decades to Come

Will Bedingfield

GearThe 15 Best Electric Bikes for Every Kind of Ride

Adrienne So

Except, of course, it can’t. Virtual reality has been hovering on the cusp of success for decades now, never quite able to attract the masses. In an essay written for WIRED just before Facebook became Meta, writer and academic David Karpf outlined how the culture-shaking promise of VR had repeatedly failed to materialize, despite major advances in hardware and software. “The technology is always about to turn a corner, about to be more than just a gaming device, about to revolutionize fields like architecture, defense, and medicine. The future of work, entertainment, travel, and society is always on the verge of a huge virtual upgrade,” he wrote, arguing that the problem boils down to the simple fact that “swinging a virtual sword gets tiring pretty quickly.”

Zuckerberg’s particular metaverse can barely provide the expected number of limbs, let alone the sensation that those limbs are somewhere they’re not, cozying up with long-distance loved ones. Far from feeling “deeply present,” people who currently traverse Horizon Worlds must do so while wearing a clunky headset that requires frequent charging, which means that not only are they not transcending the “little window” of a screen, but they are also physically tethered to a charger. 

Sure, it’s early, and maybe there will be major innovations that make feeling physically present with other people in a virtual space more plausible 20 or 30 years from now, although even that seems unlikely. (Matrix pods, anyone?) But even if that happens, there’s a far larger obstacle to surmount: whether people want this in the first place. Do we really want to plop our bodies down, ignore corporeal existence, and instead spend a good chunk of our wild and precious lives in a corporate-controlled simulacrum? Even the coolest virtual sword loses its luster. 

Big Tech leaders, Zuckerberg in particular, have made an audacious bet that they can profit off the metaverse. This does not make it something people automatically want. The folly of Meta’s quest, in particular, is tied to how broad its ambitions are. The most successful current metaverses are gaming platforms like Roblox and Epic Games’ Fortnite. But Meta has no intention to become the next Roblox or Fortnite. It wants to gobble them up, then spit them into the corner of a vastly larger world, one where people go to work as well as game, to hang out, to read, to stream, to scroll, and, of course, to buy stuff. 

This more ambitious vision for the metaverse—the full-fledged parallel world—is misguided. It hinges on this frankly strange assumption that people yearn to move further into a digitized facsimile of the real world, complete with real-estate bubbles, art speculation, and Zoom meetings. This is an assumption which has ample evidence against it. It’s not like society is turning away from the internet—people spend truly excessive amounts of time both online and playing video games—but there’s no great clamoring for a new, more intense version. If anything, especially after the pandemic pushed a large swath of urban professionals into extremely online, remote-working lifestyles, the cultural appetite is for in-person events, face-to-face conversations, and un-augmented reality.

Most PopularBusinessThe End of Airbnb in New York

Amanda Hoover

BusinessThis Is the True Scale of New York’s Airbnb Apocalypse

Amanda Hoover

CultureStarfield Will Be the Meme Game for Decades to Come

Will Bedingfield

GearThe 15 Best Electric Bikes for Every Kind of Ride

Adrienne So

Ten years ago, another tech giant took a swing at creating a new way to always be online and absolutely whiffed it. Comparing Facebook’s metaverse misadventure with Google Glass is another reminder of how history rhymes; Glass’ troubles a decade ago mirror Meta’s current woes. Glass was meant to “unshackle people from their smartphones,” according to journalist Quinn Myers’ recent book Google Glass. Just as Glass faltered because it was seen as both inherently dorky and socially destructive, Zuckerberg’s vision of an embodied internet is hamstrung by how discomfiting and fundamentally uncool the idea of people spending all their time ignoring the real world in favor of a corporate-gated facsimile accessible through expensive, cumbersome, and uncomfortable headgear is.

Meta’s CTO Andrew Bosworth published a long, impassioned defense of the company’s metaverse investment this December, insisting that the skepticism aimed at Meta’s vision was simply poor short-term thinking. He wrote optimistically about bringing Meta’s “vision for true AR glasses” to life. While surely Reality Labs has made some technically impressive advancements this year in doing so, it remains bizarre that Meta isn’t acknowledging that the last time a tech giant attempted to launch “true AR glasses,” people recoiled

Fifty years ago, historian Daniel Boorstin coined the term pseudo-event to describe an event that existed just to be covered by the media—ribbon-cutting ceremonies, press conferences, and the like. Silicon Valley adores a pseudo-event. The metaverse is a twist on Boorstin’s concept—a “pseudo-place.” It’s an artificially manufactured location, one which might be entertaining enough to visit but which cannot offer the human connection it advertises, nor any underlying reason for its existence beyond profit. This all comes back to Silicon Valley’s twinned obsessions with scale and speculation. The metaverse is understood by the world’s profiteers to be a frontier created specifically to be colonized; its purpose is wealth extraction.

This has been a wild and frequently ridiculous year, so much so that Mark Zuckerberg plunging his company into turmoil in order to make a product it’s truly unclear people want is one of the less capricious antics of the private-jet set. (See: Sam Bankman-FriedElon Musk.) This metaverse stumble, though, is notable for how well it explains the overarching problem with our modern-day oligarchy: They have too much money to throw at bad ideas. And hardly a leg to stand on.

Related Articles

Latest Articles