The Metaverse Probably Won't Be All That We've Been Promised, Experts Say

Virtual reality battles for our hearts and minds

  • Apple CEO Tim Cook recently said augmented reality would win over the metaverse.
  • Many experts say that the concept of the metaverse and virtual reality is overhyped. 
  • Apple is reportedly developing an AR headset, while companies like Meta offer VR headsets.
Silhouette of someone interaction with virtual reality.

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The metaverse may be fizzling before it's fully gotten off the ground. 

Apple CEO Tim Cook threw cold water on the concept of the metaverse and virtual reality (VR) technology in a recent interview. Instead, Cook argued that augmented reality (AR) would be more valuable for everyday users. He's among a growing number of skeptics who say the idea of the metaverse is overblown. 

"AR is better aligned for productivity in the real world," Chris Harrison, a professor in the Human-Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, told Lifewire in an email interview. "People are much more likely to wear an AR headset to get their job done (office workers, and especially anything involving manipulating the real world, like mechanics, construction workers, police, surgeons, etc.)."

Virtual or Nothing?

Companies like Meta have spent billions building their vision of the metaverse, a network of virtual places linked to a virtual universe. Meta offers its Meta Quest 2 VR headset that it bills as entry into the metaverse. 

VR has been around for more than 40 years—the first head-mounted display VR system was credited to Ivan Sutherland in 1968, so it is nothing new, Sa Liu, a professor of Interactive Technologies at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology, told Lifewire in an email interview. "It currently draws more attention partially because Facebook (Meta) starts to call it Metaverse, and partially because of the technological advancement and affordability for every household," he added.

But you could "write a whole book about the downside of VR," Liu said. For users, VR hardware needs a complex setup, and calibration steps are required before it can function optimally. It's also expensive, he said, noting that the total cost of purchasing a VR set may still be prohibitive for the general public. 

Experts say there are solid practical reasons why VR hasn't gone mainstream. Virtual reality requires the human participant to be mostly stationary, confined to a safe space where they can move without bumping into obstacles in the real world. Nils Pihl, an AR and metaverse expert and the CEO of Auki Labs, told Lifewire via email. Also, virtual reality does not accommodate human needs like eating and going to the bathroom.

Augment This

If virtual reality and the metaverse don't get fully off the ground, augmented reality (AR) might be the future of displays. The term refers to an interactive experience that combines the real world and computer-generated content, and Apple's Cook said in a recent interview that AR will "affect everything." Apple is reportedly developing its own AR headset

Pihl said that AR allows for much more complex human-computer interaction than VR, unconstrained by display sizes and inclusive of natural human motion and interaction. "It is likely, perhaps almost a certainty, that augmented reality will replace digital displays as the predominant way of interacting with computers within 20 years," he added. 

Todd Richmond, the director of the Tech & Narrative Lab at the Pardee RAND Graduate School and an IEEE Member, also predicted in an email interview with Lifewire that AR will win out over VR. 

Someone wearing a VR headset and seeming to fall into the Metaverse.

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"It can be implemented in a much wider variety of circumstances," he said. "VR, as currently envisioned, immerses your senses in ways that typically block the real-time analog world."

Richmond envisions an eventual "utopian vision" for AR. "Imagine all the best bits of your digital world presented to you in a non-distracting way whenever and wherever you wanted, without having to handle a device (such as a phone)," he added. However, he cautioned that "in reality, it will take a lot of experimentation with crafting user experiences, along with prudent regulation, to get to a place where our augmented world provides value to our lives."

Andrew Baussan, who is leading efforts at the company 3M in AR and VR capabilities, said that "in the future, people can expect AR to act as an in-world HUD (heads-up display) to help them with everyday tasks and enable them to do things that would normally require specialized tools.

"But phone-based AR is extremely limiting," he cautioned. "It is basically only used for visualization and rarely has the capability of making people's lives easier or more enjoyable. That will change dramatically once wearable AR becomes cheaper, lighter, and more available for the general public."

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