I have been involved with VR for some years, had both the early Oculus kits, written tons about virtual worlds and demonstrated it to many hundreds of people all over the world, including Africa. I have a whole chapter on this in my book Learning Experience Design (2021). These worlds are not new. We know a lot about them and can start to speculate about their future.
1. Facebook’s landgrab
One worry that most people should have is that this is Facebook. Rebranding the whole company as Metaverse, or Meta, is a huge leap but the Metaverse brand is just flying a marketing kite. It is not really a rebrand - we, and they, still call it Facebook. What we need to question is their move towards total ownership of such virtual worlds. By owning the world, you own everything; the who, what, where, when and how. As a landgrab on the internet, it needs to be treated with due suspicion.
2. Data on everything
Then there’s the data collected within the Metaverse. Facebook want to do a Microsoft and own the OS for virtual worlds by market dominance. At the moment data is distributed, do we really want a centralised place where data can be harvested, not only social data, what is said, but also physical, behavioural data? The opportunities fro extreme forms of surveillance are obvious, so I think not.
3. Metaverse as an economy
Most metaverses, even Second Life, but mostly large-scale games, create worlds in which people want to buy and sell virtual stuff. That's fine on a small scale. When you have a world that is the size of a small, even large, country, you have an economy. But economies are regulated. Do we want facebook to be a regulated economy, like a country? There are already serious concerns about Facebook’s role as a supranational force. One can see the time when such virtual worlds have the status of a country but not for now, and not ones where Billionaires are kings, no matter how benign the PR says they are.
4. Metaverse crypto
Notice how Facebook dabbled in cryptocurrency recently? In 2019 it created Libra, rebranded in 2020 as Diem. This created such a backlash that it has all but disappeared. That doesn’t mean it has disappeared. Facebook as a central bank controlling a cryptocurrency is a frightening thought. Remember, Facebook is not creating a Metaverse as a charitable act, they want to make money... lots of it. Allowing them to create a global virtual world with a virtual cryptocurrency and economy is being touted. This is truly frightening.
5. 2D to 3D problem
3D movies and 3D TV bombed. Sure we like 3D but desirable experiences are not all about 3D fidelity. Even stereo is no longer a big deal in listening to music. Media rich is not mind rich. We love a good podcast precisely because it is a stripped down, single media experience. It feels intimate, like being in that conversation. Turns out that for entertainment and much else, we like just enough to do the job well for immersion (big 2D TV) and no more. The Metaverse may be piling on the pixels but it is not clear that this is what consumers want.
The Metaverse has problems when it comes to communications. It is not so much the high fidelity expectations of the avatars but the communications within a group. It is difficult to get turn taking and the real dynamics of a real meeting going in such environments, especially when they are in a 2D representation. We have two ears, two eyes and a brain that has evolved to monitor around us. Our ears are the shape they are, with folds, as a form of sterescopic radar for listening to others around us. Our eyes are stereoscopic and on the top of our swivelling necks and bodies. Take any of that away and you have a problem. Interestingly Zoom solves that by taking a 3D world and tiling it in 2D. The Metaverse may therefore have a worse group dynamic than Zoom, a lot worse.
7. Turn taking
In a fascinating piece of research by Carnegie Mellon, it turns out that turn taking and problem solving went better when learners turned OFF their video cameras. It would appear that not seeing others in a group is sometimes a lot better than full visibility, as one can focus on the task, not the people.
8. Appearances matter
The Carnegie Mellon study surprised a lot of people who had turned to teaching online during Covid, where the general advice was to keep students’ webcams ON. Counterintuitive though this may be, it seems that students are concerned about how they and their home environments look online. This says something about being careful about true needs in full-blown online environments. That's why most existing Metaverses are chocked full of bizarre avatars.
9. Avatar narcissism
In most virtual worlds, weird avatars are the norm, as people don’t really want to show their true age, weight and looks online. It is all colour, costumes, animals features, weirdness and cartoon fun. How people represent themselves online is far from what they look like in the real world. Will we have a parallel world where people are perennially young, good looking and thin or look like oddballs to mask their ordinariness? It promotes exaggeration of social norms around what one should look like on one hand and freakshows on the other.
In a sense, Zoom meetings have accelerated the experience and demand for virtual worlds. Yet there are real doubts about the Metaverse as meetings' technology. Meetings need to be real. We have meetings because we want to have real discussion and make decisions. Is this helped by another layer of representation - avatars? Maybe not. We want to hear real voices and see real faces. The key is not actually the tech but how the meetings are set up and run. They need a good Chair, clear agenda and proper turn taking, along with a movement towards decisions and actions. Having a cartoon, avatar layer may not help one bit. In fact, it may distance you from, or smother, the event.
A surprising finding in VR research was its of lack of efficacy in learning. This is partly to do with the poor design of learning experiences and the focus on creating worlds, not actual learning experiences. But there are lessons to be learnt. Overstimutaion is clearly a problem. People are overwhelmed, and get a sort of stage fright or wonderment in fully immersive online environments. They also get obsessed with detail. This can hinder, rather than help with other tasks, such as efficient meetings and learning. There seems to be a form of uncanny valley effect going on here, where the technology captivates but doesn't relax you.
What happens when you build such worlds. Turns out most people muck about a lot. They have fun. It is not as conducive to serious endeavours as you would think, such as collaborative brainstorming and design, even meetings. In fact, it is often a bit anarchic. In VR open worlds, you get people donning full body suits and doing gymnastic moves (and more). It’s showtime! That's why most Metaverses are actually in the games world, something that seems to have passed everyone (apart from gamers) by.
I had a female avatar in Second Life and used to recommend this as the best form of sexual harrassent training you’ll ever receive as a man. It was relentless. There is a real problem in policing this sort of behaviour in open worlds. It is not like the real world where norms are accepted, rules and laws implemented and agreed. It is all a bit Wild West.
Fakery is the norm in terms of appearance but there is also the problem of fraud and fakery on scale when such a world becomes a phishing ground for scammers and scams. It is bad enough with email and the simple telephone without full-on people talking, charming and defrauding you into doing things that are harmful. The potential for bad actors doing bad stuff is immense.
15. VR shutout
Note how we go full screen when screensharing, that makes sense in terms of focus. There is nothing worse than using 3D VR then seeing 2D video and PowerPoint inside that environment. The problem with VR is that it stops you from using keyboards, taking notes by pen and generally seeing and dealing with the real world. VR is a new medium and not a gadget, yet has not taken off as a mass medium. Even when untethered, it is still largely a niche gamed device. That tells us something.
16. Tech not invisible
Good technology is increasingly invisible. The Metaverse, especially if it involves headsets, makes the technology incredibly tangible, visceral and obvious. It may be that the invisible tech, powered by AI and data, such as IoT, voice assistants and AI as the new UI, will win out and not Metaverses. People want solutions not clumsy tech and the Metaverse is all too visible and clumsy.
17. 90:9:1 consume:comment:create
Most people online are lurkers who consume (90%), a small percentage comment (9%) and 1% create. You can play around with these figures but you get the point. The Metaverse may be just another playground for the 1% of extroverts and narcissists. Most people are reluctant to expose themselves and engage with strangers in such environments, so we may be looking at yet another niche world.
Another problem associated with the 90:9:1 problem is who will build these worlds? Fine in Minecraft but the idea that adults will be able to handle the tools and have the time and inclination to do this is ambitious, if not utopian. It is not just the tools, it is the skills. Giving someone a copy of Word does not make them a novelist and giving someone a 3D builder does not make them an architect. Sure there may be pre-built environments. But this is a gargantuan task.
19. Social engagement
Do people really want to engage with strangers like this, as avatars in a virtual world? It is not clear that they do. The reluctance to engage in this form of communication is interesting. Low-fidelity, social media may actually be better as there is less reveal of the self and more control of exposure. We still use texting, messaging and voice calls - a lot. Virtual worlds give immediate and total exposure that can be unsettling. People may not be as openly social as the extroverts think.
20. Breakout problem
We have a differentiation of media. While the Metaverse is being touted, we have the rise of the audio-only podcast, the inverse of the Metaverse. Philip Rosedale the chief architect of Second Life gave up on High Fidelity, a VR version of Second Life, to focus on spatial audio technology. Second Life is still a million people and a $650 million transactional environment but, as Rosedale says “it didn't break out, it didn't become a billion people. And the hope that Facebook has is that there'll be a billion people using a metaverse”. Maybe, maybe not.
Technology surprises and I have no doubt that Metaverse-type tech will do just that. It may be in speaking to our future or past selves, learning languages, political engagement, dating, porn - no one really knows. But of one thing I’m sure, it will happen, just happen differently from how we envisage.