What’s holding the Metaverse back?

I’ve seen a lot of marketers recently bemoan the fact that their clients are pushing for ‘Metaverse work’ when there is no existing infrastructure. A case of the emperor new clothes? Marketers though are wily old foxes. They’ve jumped on this opportunity to talk their clients about what was once taboo. Gaming. Platforms like Robolox and Fortnite are being put to the test as fore-runner sandbox experiments for a future metaverse. They are the obvious choice being favoured for their user base. But the Metaverse madness doesn’t stop there. I’ve seen content creators’ cashing in by rebranding existing tech like 360 degree videos as ‘Metaverse content’. Fake it till you make it. It is a good strategy for those in that position. But it made me wonder what is really holding us back in implementing a Metaverse experience with what we have today.

You may not know his name but you will remember, the video ‘Hyper-reality’ that Keiichi Matsuda released back in 2016. It demonstrates a Metaverse like reality brought to life with some clever video editing. Recently I saw someone share a similar video that promoted Chinese tourism. It shouldn’t be overlooked that while AR projections is the obvious focus in such videos, the other underlying technology in these videos is definitely geo-location.

I expect a deluge of such videos to follow, perhaps some more subtler than these (like the Renault ad seen in India). There’s going to be a whole genre of ‘Metaverse themed’ advertising soon. Put forth by brand managers pressurised to deliver metaverse ready campaigns to cement their next promotion. While these campaigns might be the necessary first step, I was left wondering what would it take to build a Metaverse today and what is really holding us back?

The Metaverse has an image problem

What’s the first thing that popped into your mind when you hear someone say “Metaverse”?

When we think of the Metaverse, what comes to mind is often influenced by popular fiction. Whether it is Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash that coined the word, or movies like Tron that preceded it. We are not short of examples. Like Lawnmower Man, Total Recall or in the more recent past – Surrogates, The Matrix and Ready Player One. The list seems endless. It really depends on how old you are and what you’ve been exposed too. But they all have one common theme – escapism.

Most of popular fiction paints the world in such a dire strait that the only way to escape is to plug into the metaverse. In these depictions, the Metaverse is as garish as the real world is drab to stand in contrast. Which is a problem. We think retro themed grids, neon colours, holograms and intrusive AR the kind you see in Cyberpunk themed art when we think about popular portraits of the metaverse.

One particularly interesting twist where the future wasn’t dystopian was Surrogates. In that movie, users stay at home and plug into reality using robotic surrogates. It flips the script with the core reason for the system to exist being reality is dangerous and scary so live it with a virtual surrogate android. Add to this a huge dose of vanity – being able to fight age and to keep up with the Joneses. It is an interesting thought. And considering disposable incomes are on a downward spiral, you might think that this is a good motivation for getting onto a virtual platform and buy bigger virtual property. This is partly the premise of Earth2.io. Personally I think that virtual life will imitate real life eventually with all its prejudices and distinctions.

It should also be noted that there will be a fair number of marketers who will only associate a Metaverse with Mark Zuckerburg’s demonstration of Meta’s virtual workrooms. Which is entirely ok. The lack of exposure and expectations might encourage them to be more creative within the constraints of the initial official Meta offering.

Whether you think that the Metaverse is a plaything, educational experience, work tool, or a trip to escape too like a holiday, the way we think of the Metaverse is a problem. Added to that is that there really isn’t any reason for a mass adoption drive right now. The world as it stands today, even with the terrible pandemic and lockdowns in the rear mirror, doesn’t have enough reason to use a Metaverse. Why would you login to a virtual world today? Certainly not to do things you can do with ease on your traditional desktop. Some people will draw parallels to the early days of the internet and email. They are right to do so. I would draw a parallel to Steve Job’s Next Computer and the creative curve when pondering about that goldilocks moment for Metaverse adoption.

Why would we use a Metaverse anyway?

One reason that a lot of AR glass manufacturers (and there are quite a few independent developers coming out of the woods) is to provide you with a virtual screen space that is larger than your traditional desktop. We are talking screens that rival the largest TVs and resemble a small movie hall screen. A step up the ladder is Magic Leap’s prototype virtual desktop demonstration, which while unique to watch the first time round, perhaps doesn’t look like the most intuitive or easiest experience to pick up.

Even Mark Zuckerburg hasn’t really made a case for switching from existing technology to donning a VR headset everyday to get your Meta time. He iterates that we are not there yet when it comes to visual fidelity. What he calls the visual Turing Test. In my opinion a virtual meeting room doesn’t really equate to a video call. We have years of experience when it comes to reading body language. Unless the purpose is for everyone to hide their face in the first place. Which could be a real reason. The Metaverse experience neatly slots into the middle ground of a voice conference call and a video call.

Perhaps a simpler user experience will be the driving factor for adoption. If we have a similar user flow to what exists online today, there isn’t going to be any incentive to make the transition. I think of all those fly out menus in Half Life Alyx, which is one of the best VR games till date. It’s just a tad complex and too heavily inspired by traditional UX. But if we combined VR with voice recognition you might actually have people who don’t use computers on a daily basis to perform similar tasks in the Metaverse.

Think about it, how the mobile phone eliminated the need for pagers. You may not recall but sending a message to a pager was a tedious task that meant calling up a call centre in the beginning. The metaverse needs to deliver on such revolutionary usage shift. Like how an entire generation has experienced the internet first and sometimes only on mobile rather than a desktop. Because mobile phones are multifunctional and cheaper. A metaverse that delivers a simpler user experience, might trigger such a technology shift.

The continuing role of hardware

Virtual reality itself is nothing new. It traces back to the early sixties and seventies. The first working concept is perhaps Morton Heilig’s Sensorama and his Telesphere mask later. The VR tech we have today, whether it is the Oculus, Vive or Galaxy Gear VR owe their lineage to a number pioneering and ditched projects that have gone before. Perhaps a more commonly available VR headset in the near future will be the PSVR2 that is compatible with the Playstation 5. Though stock of those consoles in certain parts of the world are still slim. Yet owning a Playstation 5 and PSVR2 may be cheaper than trying to build a VR ready computer at a time where stocks of computer components are still affected by shortages caused by the pandemic.

Today the most anticipated VR headset on the horizon is probably the one from Apple. Which if rumours are true, will be released next year. This is probably the most exciting thing we await in the development of the Metaverse because we’ve already seen Apple’s credible chops in the AR space with their phones. Their hardware leaps are always accompanied by software partnerships that deliver visually incredible experiences. Like the ability to interact with a Minecraft map in AR. Even though you don’t see many people whip out their phone to use AR in the wild, Apple knows how to make the technology look appealing.

Tomorrow’s Metaverse with today’s tech

The reason why we are talking about the Metaverse in the first place is because we believe we’ve arrived at a ‘Goldilocks moment’. Where a confluence of existing technology is just about right to give us a nudge into executing a full-fledged metaverse. The catch is that the tech is disparate. We need a unifying platform that connects together multiple functionalities and that runs on existing hardware. Here are some of the existing technologies that today’s Metaverse experiences will be built on –

  1. Web AR that integrates with today’s social media networks / APIs and maps and accessible through your browser
  2. Web 3D that embeds 3D models within websites
  3. Face recognition – that’s currently baked into cameras, phones and operating systems might also be used to identify objects and gestures
  4. Depth sensing – like using the iPhone’s LIDAR sensors to track hand gestures
  5. Video overlays and 3D objects in video
  6. Geo tagging and geo location
  7. 360 degree videos
  8. Streaming tech – like the cloud computing server tech that makes Stadia and gaming streaming services possible. Forget Web3 this is what will be the backbone for the early metaverse
  9. 5G – to serve up all that heavy content to headsets and mobiles
  10. Spatial sound
  11. Voice recognition – will simplify the UX of VR
  12. Batteries – if you were to use your mobile phone for AR, it would be like keeping your back camera on, continuously

Marketers who want to win big with the Metaverse tomorrow will first find a way to use the above tech to create a pseudo Metaverse experience that you can run from your mobile or desktop browser today. It’s not as far fetched as you may think. We have a number of Web AR game pet projects peppering the internet already. The challenge would be to get those experiences to seamlessly integrate with other experiences we have online. Especially tying into popular social APIs so that you can post your experience to Facebook, Instagram and Tiktok.

Have we arrived yet?

No matter the state of metaverse marketing today, the question is when is it really a Metaverse experience and not some siloed stunt? I recently explained this on a public platform like so.

It’s easiest to explain a true Metaverse experience with an analogy from gaming. A true Metaverse experience is like creating a single in-game object that can be used across games published by different publishers, without having to recreate the said asset across games. So for example, say you picked up a special weapon or branded outfit within one game, you can easily take that with you across various games created by different publishers, no matter the type or genre and it works the same. Even though we have two largely dominant gaming engines in Unreal Engine and Unity, most instances of games using these engines modify the source code substantially enough to ensure you can’t seamlessly port from one game to another. Assets need to be recreated.

A true Metaverse will share more similarity to a computer operating system than it has to any single game running on your operating system. I expect an early mature Metaverses will be like choosing between Windows, Mac and Linux today. While there might be a popular choice like Windows, there will be variations akin to Linux distros, which comes in multiple flavours and multiple complexities. Over this base level playground you are going to have multiple additions that you can add on for additional functionality just like you buy or license software today for your computer. Or to use another gaming analogy – expand your metaverse with DLC’s, cosmetics and loot boxes.

What you do with your Metaverse will be entirely up to you. Whether you use it to socialise, game or tansact will be a matter of choice. If it isn’t built into the system, I am sure there will be companies and enthusiasts who will help add on to the base functionalities. Understanding and identifying these opportunities and tying them to real world instances is what will make marketing in the Metaverse stand out. While studying VR from the Interaction Design Foundation, one of the examples and benefits of the tech that the course puts forward is empathy. There is a VR experience that demonstrates what it is like to be heckled by a crowd. I believe the experience recreates what it is like to walk into an abortion clinic if I am not wrong. Empathy will be a pillar on which many successful Metaverse marketing campaigns will be created around.

A final thought

It should be said that when you think about the Metaverse, spare a thought for Frances Haugen, the Facebook whistle-blower. When I see people bashing the dream of the Metaverse on Linkedin or on other social platforms, I can’t quite marvel at the PR success story that it really is. A timely announcement and rebranding that gradually took the limelight away from the narrative of Facebook’s quagmire of questionable practices that came to light when Frances Haugen leaked internal Facebook documents. Frances Haugen is still fighting the good fight. Her latest aim is to launch a non-profit that will train lawyers to fight big tech companies, help potential investors ask the right questions before funding them and assist regulators understand the inner workings of such platforms. Kudos to her. Without her, we may not be talking about the Metaverse right now.