When the fashion houses parade emaciated people up and down catwalks in Paris every year, they are knowingly defining a trend. They create fashion; they don’t discover it. If they said this year’s earrings are huge and skirts are short then so be it. That’s what you will find on the cover of Vogue and the racks at Zara.
By contrast, the tech industry – and the media moths fluttering around it – report on trends as though they have been unearthed, found… like the Higgs Boson or the coronavirus. Nothing is more demonstrative of this than the so-called metaverse.
This graph shows volume of searches for this term since only September last year. It is a graph, not of a “trend line”, but of a “hype explosion” or a terrorist attack. And like all such earthquakes on the tech landscape it’ll have you wondering: Am I left out? Is it too late? Do I need to hire a Metaverse Agency of Records (MARS, let’s call them)?
Recently the world was greeted by the announcement that Deloitte in the US had launched an “Unlimited Realities” agency, which claims to “educate on the next massive wave that will be disruptive to business and society, and equip executives with the strategies, tools and technologies they need to take full advantage of digital worlds”. Some lines of copy are so self-satirising as to not require it.
The Metaverse Explained – Simply
So let me spend a moment spelling out what the metaverse actually is, for those not on that graph. It is a virtual reality world – one in which you wear some kind of gadget that removes you partially or entirely from this reality and puts you into another one.
No wait, I exaggerate. It’s like that except: you still have to breathe, eat, ablute, physically move, probably work, draw electricity from and buy things in this reality. Which means – sorry guys – if you’re poor and hungry and miserable and ruled over by some crazy dictator, the metaverse is, what do they say, lipstick on a pig. Also – and no doubt this is going to shock you – the people who stand to be rich and powerful in the metaverse are none other than the exact same people who are rich and powerful in this one. Well, they would be. They are the ones building it.
Serious articles in the Guardian and the New York Times, as well as actual analysts and investors, use, as their primary references for the metaverse, the novels Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson (who apparently coined the term) and Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. Stephenson has worked as an “advisor” to Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos’ rocket company. That is like Boston Dynamics inviting Mary Shelley to sit on their board to advise them on robot design.
Will there be an “alternative universe” that people can escape into that will look and sound at least similar to and possibly more magical than this one; where you can meet other animated people and chat to them and play games and while away your time earning imaginary wealth with which to buy imaginary goods?
Yes. There will. But will we?
The Metaverses We Already Have
As Wired recently wrote, a lot of this already exists in the world of gaming and has for many years. Microsoft’s recent purchase of Activision Blizzard, which every tech pundit trading words for cash hailed as an “investment in the metaverse”, is in fact just what it looks like: An investment in gaming. And why not? Games are a huge, thriving, fun, lucrative and immersive experience for billions of people on earth. Game titles long ago surpassed movies and other entertainment revenues.
To be honest, the one kind of genre that hasn’t actually gotten as huge as everyone has predicted many times over is, in fact, alternative virtual worlds. Yes, Second Life is big – about a million active users – but laughable compared to Fortnite’s 80 million or the 400 million copies in the Call of Duty franchise that have sold. And sure, the Sims is still a thing. And VR headsets and games are growing – about 12 million VR headsets were shipped in 2021. That sounds impressive until you hear that 1.4 billion smart phones were sold over the same period or that 40 million CDs were still sold last year.
Alternative reality games haven’t taken off because they mostly suck. Only someone at the intersection of “very sad” and “rich enough to spend all day wallowing in it” could be attracted to the mundanity, bad graphics and hollow narrative of something like Second Life or the Sims. It’s the reality TV of gaming. I’m sure, like most people, your dream second life is not owning a small suburban house that you get to furnish with garbage from V-Walmart while you hold down a job in the local coffee shop.
Where The Action Really Is
Games – which, yes, are largely consumed on a screen in 2D that your brain agrees to accept is 3D – are, by contrast, purposeful, collaborative, imaginative and exciting. They let you imagine yourself in the future, in the past, in many roles and situations, with all kinds of amazing gizmos and gadgets. Their raison de’tre is not to compete with your life, though. And unless you enjoy that kind of game, you don’t have to “earn” money to buy things in them or be defined by your in-game status. And if you do like that kind of thing, you can choose from the thousands of titles that suit your preference.
The metaverse as conceived by Zuckerberg and others sounds a lot like this universe except Jeff Bezos will finally have a big enough rocket to satisfy himself and Stormy Daniels. And Mark will finally have some friends, even if he has to code them himself. The rest of us will still have to play by their rules and work in their virtual factories. And at night we can dream of all the crap we must buy so that others can pretend to be happy for us, while being eaten up by the envy the algorithms implanted in them.
As an avowed geek and early adopter and digital enthusiast who has literally made my entire living off the disruption of the internet, I am more excited about aspects of this than it may sound. I love, for example, the applications of augmented reality in my personal world, and which are busy changing surgery and engineering and science forever. I have been swept away by many games and game worlds and I am intrigued by blockchain and its myriad applications. And – like everyone else on earth – my life is interwoven with my phone and the extensive feature set it offers. We all already know where our actual second life is and it’s in our pockets.
So, what do to? Yes, keep your eye on these developments because they’re interesting and fun. But take them with a pinch of salt. Instead, focus on getting your digital strategy working, figure out how to add more value on the devices people are already using and, for goodness’ sake, embrace the gaming world and its incredible technologies (like Unreal Engine) properly already. If you want to know where the audience has gone, they are there, they are happy and they are ready to play.
Thanks to Matthew Arnold for the Deloitte and Wired links and for provoking this outburst of an article.
First Published on BusinessLive.co.za