The Metaverse Isn't a Destination. It's a Metaphor
It was about as meta as it gets. After donning VR headsets, Stanford University Professor Jeremy Bailenson and I "stood" in front of his students in a virtual classroom, our avatars watching theirs discuss the nature of virtual existence. Except his students weren't "there." The discussion was a recording. The professor and I stood as living avatars among ghosts.
Bailenson, who founded Stanford's Virtual Human Interaction Lab, then paused the recording and walked through the class. His avatar gliding, he explained how these playbacks will produce insights into what social life will mean in the "metaverse." Of course, he doesn't know what he'll discover, just like the many companies that are now busily touting this much hyped but as-yet-unformed next evolution of the internet.
Bailenson doesn't like the word metaverse. He prefers virtual reality. But irrespective of what it's called, he acknowledges it's here.
"We're at a moment in time where the things that I've been personally talking about for 23 years since I started in VR in 1999, we can do it now," he told me after I put on an Oculus Quest 2 headset and joined his class via Engage, an app for creating virtual worlds.
The term metaverse has drifted around the internet for years. First, a fictional concept -- sci-fi author Neal Stephenson coined the term in his 1992 novel Snow Crash -- it mirrored behaviors in online communities that already existed. It's reemerged over time. Virtual worlds have been around for decades: Second Life in the early 2000s, now Minecraft, Roblox, Fortnite and newcomers like Decentraland and a host of others. It's a topic of discussion at trendsetting conferences, like the recently held SXSW festival and the Game Developers Conference, which starts Monday.
The definition of the metaverse is in constant flux. Many refer to it as a shared, persistent digital space for meetings, games and socializing. Avatars, often cartoon-like 3D figures, gather in virtual rooms, have meetings, shop, play and leave. Others see the metaverse as a layer on top of the existing internet, a set of expanding protocols enabling interconnection between apps and platforms. It's unclear if there'll be a single metaverse ("the metaverse"), multiple metaverses ("a metaverse") or a combination of both. Maybe it's best thought of as a metaphor for the internet's continual change.
The concept was rebooted when Mark Zuckerberg rechristened Facebook as Meta last October, a move that pinned Facebook's future to widespread adoption of the metaverse. He's been trying to get people interested in VR for years, spending $2 billion for headset maker Oculus in 2014. Meta doesn't share specific sales numbers, but since the Quest 2 headset launched a year and a half ago, it's estimated to have sold about 10 million units, one of Zuckerberg's milestones for larger-scale adoption.
Rebranding, of course, doesn't ensure success. But it's undeniably great marketing. Searches for the term "metaverse" barely registered on Google Trends before Zuck's October pitch, but soared to peak popularity shortly after.
I've been exploring virtual spaces for years. In 1996, I wrote a play about chat rooms and virtual worlds, called Utopia Parkway, in which a doctor spent his time online creating virtual replicas of his family. I wrote another in 1998 about MMORPGs, or massively multiplayer online role-playing games.
I've covered VR and its close relative AR, or augmented reality, for a decade at CNET. I've followed as the term metaverse was stretched to peddle crypto and NFTs, market games and promote entertainment. I've watched the hype cycle around the metaverse wax and wane. Now it's waxing again.
A host of new technologies are converging: VR, AR, high-speed networks, blockchain technologies and wearables. All these technologies get cited when companies discuss the metaverse. Still, I paused when CNET's copy chief asked me for a definition of the metaverse. I wasn't sure if there was one metaverse or many. I wasn't sure if it was simply a new way to refer to virtual worlds, which have been around for years. It seemed like old roads being repaved.
Metaverse: A term in transformation
David Chalmers, a philosopher at New York University, has been thinking about the nature of virtual existence since the original Matrix movie. Back in 2003, Chalmers wrote a philosophical essay about The Matrix as part of the movie's official website. It's led to his deeper work on simulations and virtual worlds decades later.
In his new book, Reality+, Chalmers argues that virtual worlds can be as real as our everyday reality, a conclusion he's reached while spending the pandemic hopping in and out of them to meet with friends.
Chalmers sees the meaning of the term metaverse having shifted since he started writing his book. "The metaverse is no longer a single virtual world or even a cluster of virtual worlds. It's the entire system of virtual and augmented worlds," Chalmers tells me over Zoom. "Where the old metaverse was like a platform on the internet, the new metaverse is more like the internet as a whole, just the immersive internet."
Creating the metaverse -- Chalmers sees just one -- requires connecting these virtual worlds in a meaningful way. "Community is really important for building meaningful social worlds, actually building communities where people feel invested, like we're building something here," says Chalmers, who doesn't see these types of meaningful connections yet in recent open-world social metaverse apps like Decentraland or Horizon Worlds.
Behind those connections, of course, are big companies. And that concerns Chalmers. Since Zuck rebranded Facebook, many people have begun to see the metaverse as an extension of the social network, Chalmers says, an association that comes with a history of troubling privacy and societal baggage.
"But," he says, "it's not that easy to see exactly what the alternative is right now."
We don't have the perfect hardware yet
The big philosophical questions around the metaverse are fascinating but ultimately academic if people aren't accessing it. To get to the metaverse, at least the deluxe version that has people excited, you need hardware. Right now the hardware is clunky and expensive.
Cher Wang wants to do something about that. She's the CEO and chairwoman of HTC Group, the huge Taiwanese hardware manufacturer that makes the Vive VR headset, the biggest challenger to Meta's Oculus as a gateway to the immersive experience everyone's talking about.
The first Vive headset appeared in 2016, the same year as the first iteration of the Oculus headset, which was called the Rift. Though they bear a physical resemblance -- they're both heavy hoods that cover your eyes and rest uncomfortably on your nose -- the two pieces of hardware are going in different directions. While Meta pushes goggles for the masses, HTC has been trying to generate more traction with businesses.
Those differing models are a function of economics. Wang says the Quest 2 is an excellent device. But Meta subsidizes the price in an effort to get more people into VR, she says, making it a $300 product no one else can easily counter the cost of. (In a CNET interview last year, Zuckerberg said, "We're not approaching this from the perspective of, 'How do we charge people as much money as possible and make profit on the devices?' We want to get as many people as possible to be able to experience virtual reality and be able to jump into the metaverse.")
HTC is looking at the mainstream market again, focused on developing a pared-down device that can reach a larger audience, but in a way that could be more reasonably profitable. Last year's Vive Flow goggles were a step in that direction: phone-connected, lower-cost.
Like a lot of today's information technology, those stripped-down headsets will rely on the cloud to handle the heavy computing. Wang says that means the hardware will be less obtrusive and more natural.
"The weight will be lighter, the device will be cheaper, and the consumption of power will be much less," Wang told me via Zoom. "The technology will solve the problem of the cost."
Mobile chipmaker Qualcomm has been taking a similar approach using, no surprise, phone-connected headsets. (HTC is a partner.) A wave of lightweight glasses that are powered by phones via USB-C are aiming to make the VR/AR device part smaller and more affordable. Having them be peripherals to phones makes sense. The first wave of home VR headsets before the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive were plastic goggles that connected to phones. Plug-in headsets could advance that idea. Apple's expected VR/AR headset could also connect with phones, too, but possibly at a much higher price.
The work on lighter, more connected hardware underlines another strong current in the recent metaverse hype cycle: Much of it is focused on bridging VR and AR headsets on one side, and phones and computer screens on the other. The work is a tangible acknowledgment that right now there aren't enough people who want a headset on their face to make the full-on, 360-degree vision of the metaverse a reality. There might never be.
Some VR app developers seem to recognize that reality. Spatial, a company that started making social meetings apps for VR and AR, has been pivoting toward browser-based experiences to meet the interests of NFT artists and art galleries, making VR the secondary experience. Second Life's founder, Philip Rosedale, is making a similar return to browser-based metaverse platforms after having invested for years in VR.
South Korean giant Samsung recently held an event in Decentraland, a browser-based social metaverse platform, to launch its latest smartphones. The gathering was mostly a publicity stunt but it highlighted the real struggle to meet in the middle, to have an immersive metaverse without an obtrusive headset.
Even Zuckerberg, despite promising a future in VR for years, is planning a phone-based version of his newest VR sandbox space, Horizon Worlds. It mirrors the cross-platform strategies of Roblox, Minecraft and Rec Room, a VR social app that's already on game consoles, phones, tablets and PCs.
It's reasonable to wonder if using existing technology is a walk back from the immersive vision of the metaverse. But I've found the most interesting aspect of Meta's Horizon Workrooms app, which looks like a cartoon conference room, is the way it merges its world with my actual physical desk. It's an early vision of where mixed reality could take the future of immersive technology.
The mapping, which lets me work with my physical computer in virtual reality, also makes the chair I'm sitting in feel like it's part of the virtual space. I haven't done it often, but when I talk with someone in Workrooms, I feel like I'm making eye contact, like I'm having a real meetup. Even if we're rendered as cartoons.
As impressive as they can be, these moments come with serious drawbacks for everyday work and comfort. It's why the metaverse now feels like it's caught between the future and the past. Just like laptops didn't die when phones became essential, we'll probably still be using phones and laptops even if AR glasses become mainstream.
Does the Metaverse belong in a browser?
If the metaverse is a 3D layer to the existing internet, maybe the ultimate version of the metaverse is something accessed through browsers, no headset necessary. It's surprising what's already possible.
Surreal Events, a company that's built virtual work apps that render 3D cloud-streamed graphics, is a nice example of how this could work. A few weeks ago, I booted a MacBook Air at home and joined two of Surreal's founders, rendered as avatars, to wander through a sunlit car showroom and a virtual office that were rendered by remote computers. My MacBook ran the experience without much struggle over my home Wi-Fi, and the experience resembled a video game in which we could simultaneously work and video chat.
Surreal's platform leans on the cloud for graphics on the fly, much like existing game streaming platforms, such as GeForce Now and Google Stadia. It has video chat that feels like Zoom, as well as a bunch of other connected tools. It doesn't require VR goggles, just a keyboard and trackpad.
Surreal's technology is used by companies like Epic Games, which granted Surreal development money last year. It's used to show off 3D graphics and to host events. It can generate virtual spaces that can be strolled through, sort of like the classroom Bailenson, the Stanford professor, showed me, but outside of VR.
The company's ideas were born out of the pandemic, which required remote, virtual work, another common theme in the current metaverse race. Interoperability is key, says Josh Rush, a Surreal co-founder, as is utility. He's skeptical the metaverse will ever become truly cross-platform, pointing to the mammoth amount of money video game companies spend on intellectual property. "Why should we expect them to freely open that up to other people?" he asks to illustrate the challenge.
The jealousy over IP is part of the reason Rush doesn't see his platform as a metaverse, at least not yet.
"We are inside what we feel are building blocks for that direction," he told me in a meeting that took place inside his company's software. "It's going to start with things like this, one really great world at a time, being able to link from one world to another."
Even app makers are questioning the metaverse
I've wandered from virtual world to virtual world, often feeling confused, left out, unsure of how to start a conversation. One world, Virtual Virtual Reality 2, though, seemed ready to greet me and pair me with strange avatar friends.
Unfortunately, these avatars, which slowly fragmented and disappeared, were prerecorded performances. VVR2 is less a metaversal world and more a commentary on the future of metaverses, a meditation on how personal spaces where personal memories were formed could vanish from under us depending on the whims of the companies that own platforms.
Such extinctions have happened before: Disney's Club Penguin and Sony's PlayStation Home, both long gone. Tender Claws, an indie studio formed by artists with backgrounds in immersive theater, designed VVR2 to question the evolving immersive landscape and the current metaverse hype bubble.
Samantha Gorman, a co-founder of Tender Claws, says the term metaverse is a way of erasing the history of decades of virtual worlds and VR innovation that have come before. "It diffuses and makes the term very open for interpretation," she said, "and open for being appropriated for marketing."
Scripting VVR2 allowed Gorman and Danny Cannizzaro, the other co-founder, to imagine a future metaverse in decline. "We got to build out this metaverse that has this brief moment of collapse," he said. "You can see the society of the avatars devolve ... We got to play with a lot of these kinds of ideas. If we really are creating a metaverse, which is mirroring life, what other aspects of life are getting brought into it?"
A large-scale virtual world might be owned by a giant corporation, but that doesn't mean the company is really in control of it. Look at social networks, many owned by rich publicly traded companies, that can't corral the behavior of their members despite detailed terms of service that dictate what is and isn't acceptable.
Maybe it's instructive to consider Philip Rosedale, the creator of Second Life, still regarded as one of the most successful virtual worlds. It was the place people referred to as the metaverse more than a decade before Facebook adopted the term. Rosedale recently returned to Second Life, which has languished in recent years, as an investor.
Second Life has had its own issues with harassment and social behavior gone amok: CNET was a victim years ago. Rosedale says a balance has to be struck between freedom and curation.
"That's an area that hasn't been done right yet," he told me. "It is totally doable."
Maybe the answer to solving the metaverse's problems is to step outside the box and think about it all over again.
These virtual meetings need to have a reason for existing. To Stanford's Bailenson, that's usually training: He points out VR fitness apps like Supernatural, which have been boosting VR's popularity, fitting that need perfectly. As far as open virtual spaces that now seem like playgrounds in search of a purpose, Bailenson sees an opportunity for more assistance: "You need a tour guide."
"The word metaverse has become part of the vernacular, has become a meme," Bailenson told me after we wandered through the social spaces he'd created, very real worlds being used for students, workplace training, and research. "We should take a step back from that word."