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Wednesday, December 1, 2021
Big Tech wants to sell you on the metaverse, but don’t hold your breath
If there’s one buzzword the tech world couldn’t stop using in 2021, it was metaverse. Well, that and NFTs, but let’s talk about tech CEOs’ fixation on the metaverse.
Microsoft (MSFT), Nvidia (NVDA), and, of course, Facebook (FB), er, Meta, each laid out elaborate plans this year for a new version of the internet, one that features 3-D online worlds where people can connect as if they were talking to each other in real life.
To hear today’s CEOs talk about it, the metaverse will be the next evolution of the internet. Just as we went from chatting on message boards on chunky laptops to buying homes on our smartphones, tech leaders say, the metaverse will transform the way we use the web. We’re talking walking around a fully virtual world as if you were really there, or dropping in on colleagues to host a meeting thousands of miles away.
If that’s all very sci-fi sounding, it’s because it is. To be sure, we’ve seen glimpses of the metaverse in the form of Microsoft’s upcoming Teams Mesh that lets you use a digital avatar in virtual meetings or Nvidia’s Omniverse, which helps teach AI-powered cars to drive.
But the metaverse as tech visionaries describe it — where you can appear as a hologram in your friend’s special AR goggles and play tennis in real-time — is still years away from reality.
We’re witnessing an incredible advertising effort
Let’s start with the metaverse we’ve been promised so far. If you take Facebook, dang, force of habit, I mean Meta’s version of the metaverse, we’ll be able to fluidly transport ourselves across different virtual worlds. One minute you’re playing chess while floating several feet above the table; the next, you’re hanging ten with your friend on the open water.
But Meta’s demonstration was more fantasy than true metaverse tech. It was a video meant to provide consumers, and investors, with a glimpse at what the company hopes to build.
“It's going to take a lot of time,” explained Stanford University Jeremy Bailenson, who teaches a class completely in virtual reality. “We're not all going to be wearing headsets or glasses anytime soon.”
Bailenson, whose students spent a collective 200,000 minutes in VR headsets in recent months, says nothing has truly changed in terms of the technology recently. Instead, what we’re seeing is a massive marketing campaign by companies that are hyped on the metaverse.
The technology is still in its infancy
The metaverse of Mark Zuckerberg’s dreams will require infrastructure that allows consumers to swiftly travel among 3-D worlds. We’re also going to need headgear that isn’t awful.
I’ve used the majority of commercially available headsets, not to mention a few that are meant for industrial use, and they're all uncomfortable. If they’re not heavy, they don’t properly fit over glasses. Or they leave you sweating. What’s worse, if they’re not tethered to a high-end PC, which costs plenty on its own, they have short battery lives.
On top of that, the visual fidelity of your average headset is nowhere near that of, say, a 4K TV. Fine details are lost in the screen door effect caused by the fact that the headsets’ displays aren’t high enough resolution to perfectly blend each pixel together.
Then there are the headaches and nausea that plague some headset users.
And that’s just the headgear. For a fully immersive experience that tech companies are pitching, you’ll need to be able to feel pressure and resistance, which will require if not specialized gloves then some kind of ... suit?
All of that is to say that, while consumers can have fun in VR headsets, we’re nowhere near experiencing the kind of incredible 3-D world you’d expect from the book “Ready Player One.”
The metaverse has promise
That’s not to knock the metaverse or its potential entirely. Bailenson’s class, for instance, is able to learn about therapeutic medicines and empathy for others by virtually walking in their shoes.
Nvidia’s Omniverse, which the company positions as plumbing for the larger metaverse, has shown impressive promise by helping predict forest fires and serving as a test bed for the artificial intelligence that will eventually power the company’s self-driving car capabilities.
Microsoft’s Teams Mesh, still in its early stages, could make it less stressful to join virtual meetings by letting you skip your webcam and use a digital avatar to chat with colleagues instead. Just imagine never having to comb your hair, or beard in my case, before a virtual meeting again.
Roblox (RBLX) and Epic’s “Fortnite” have also laid the foundation for what early metaverses can offer, creating virtual worlds where users can spend time with friends and attend concerts together whether they’re separated by tens or thousands of miles.
What we’re seeing is the very start of what could turn into the kind of metaverse Big Tech promises with its flashy advertising efforts and videos.
But without grounding those wild dreams they’re pushing in some kind of reality, tech firms run the risk of alienating their own users, and turning the entire concept of the metaverse into a passing fad that never truly takes off.