The Metaverse May Be More Hype Than Hyper Real

We haven’t seen a bubble like this since Second Life

Key Takeaways

  • VR headsets are way less convenient than the phone screen in your pocket.
  • Augmented reality is already here—and it doesn’t require glasses. 
  • The only people that want the metaverse are tech company execs.
Person using an Oculus VR headset in their living room

Facebook

The metaverse is so hot right now—if you're an executive in the marketing department of a big tech company. 

Google, Snap, and Microsoft are all getting in on the metaverse hype, and Facebook is so excited by the idea that it changed its name to Meta. Meanwhile, VR headsets are still dorky and uncomfortable and blind you to the outside world. What's going on?

"Facebook and Snap are so deep into the metaverse because they've always obsessed over community and making community addictive," Amy Suto, writer, and creative director of a game about the metaverse, told Lifewire via email. "And in terms of the VR headsets, we're seeing that Microsoft Mesh can bring lightweight AR glasses into the metaverse so that you don't even have to exist in a fully digital world. Instead, you can bring digital elements into the real world."

VR, AR, and Normal R

The metaverse seems to be a loose catch-all for our online existences, with a big dash of virtual reality thrown in. The idea seems to be that we’ll meet up in a virtual space, using something like Facebook’s Oculus VR goggles. You might hold a meeting in a virtual room instead of a Zoom call; a store might offer a 3D, faux store with shelves for you to browse. 

But this all sounds a bit 1990s, right?

This version of the metaverse relies on some big advances in tech, but even that might not be enough. Imagine a VR headset that looks like a pair of sunglasses and can blank out the world and replace it with a virtual world in an instant. It would still be a pair of glasses, something you’d have to wear, not carry. And it would still block the outside world while in use. 

"I think the world is probably too fragmented to all come together on one platform..."

Augmented Reality (AR) is better, possibly overlaying Pokemon onto the mundane world, but it’s still glasses, and we would still have to interact with gestures or by talking to our gadgets in public. 

The biggest barrier to both AR and VR is that our technology is already more than good enough. A phone in your pocket is super convenient, especially if it can send you messages via your watch or your earbuds. We already live in a heavily-augmented reality, just not one based on 3D virtual worlds. 

And remember, our entire computing paradigm is based on a screen, a keyboard, and a pointing device. That could change if something better comes along, but we still haven’t managed to replace the QWERTY keyboard, and there have been better options for decades. 

In short, maybe nobody wants or cares about AR and VR outside of games. 

What’s in It for Tech Companies?

Tech companies have more reasons to persuade themselves that we want to relate to each other in a virtual metaverse. Facebook relies on keeping people on its website, or in its apps, for as much time as possible. 

You can bet Facebook’s metaverse will be just as proprietary as its current social networks. There’s no way these internet giants will build communal, interoperable spaces. The metaverse won’t be email or the open web. It’ll be virtual Instagrams, Hangouts, and Teams meetings. 

"I think the world is probably too fragmented to all come together on one platform, and EVERY other platform will fight to the death to make sure NO ONE controls it—that's why it won't happen," metaverse fan and marketing expert Scott Robertson told Lifewire via email. 

The goal is that the winner takes all, just like YouTube is pretty much the entirety of self-published internet video. When Facebook mentions the metaverse, it's talking about a 100 percent Facebook-owned metaverse. 

Believe the Hype?

Not everybody thinks the metaverse is bunk, of course. Several respondents to Lifewire's queries for comment were confident that it's the next big thing. The catch is, like Facebook and the others, most of these have a horse in the race, as they say. For example, here's Sturgis Adams, chief metaverse officer with AR company Seek, via email:

"It's not really a question of whether it will be as popular as phones, as it will be one of the main reasons people even HAVE a phone. AR lets the internet 'come out' of your phone's screen and meet you in a layer between the physical and digital world."

We'll have to wait to see how it turns out, but it seems like a big ask to get every internet user around the world to change how they interact with their online life. Their second life, one might say.

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