What if the next big thing never quite becomes the next big thing?
I’ve been pondering that question lately while thinking about the metaverse. It was tech’s buzziest topic for much of 2021 and 2022—according to many, the future of computing for sure, and maybe the future of life itself.
Now, fascination with a tech category subsiding isn’t proof that it’s destined to fade away forever. The decades-old field of AI is famous for going through multiple “winters” when pessimism over its prospects reigned. Today, AI is busily changing the world in ways—both good and bad—that even the experts might not have predicted.
The metaverse could bounce back, too. But for the moment, it’s worth considering why excitement over it has tapered off. Rather than there being one tidy explanation, I think numerous factors are in play. Such as:
Generative AI just stole its thunder. All along, plenty of observers have refused to buy into the irrational exuberance over the metaverse. But I can’t imagine anyone spending a few minutes fooling around with OpenAI’s ChatGPT or DALL-E 2 and concluding that generative AI is a snoozer or something that requires another decade of work before it’ll matter. The technology might fail to live up to 90% of its promise. It could create more problems than it solves. But it’s still going to have sprawling impact on our lives, starting this year. Even Zuckerberg says that it’s a key prioritity at Meta for 2023.
The Meta factor. In at least one respect, Facebook’s rebranding as Meta has been a rousing success. The metaverse is now so overpoweringly associated with Meta that many people perceive it as the company’s project rather than something that isn’t destined to be dominated by anyone in particular. Meta has rounded up some partners to be part of its vision—including, notably, Microsoft. But the prospect of the next major shift in computing leaving The Company Formerly Known as Facebook even more powerful isn’t an enthralling rallying cry for the rest of the industry. Nor does it help the metaverse’s reputation among those who instinctively regard anything Zuckerberg touches with deep distrust.
Self-defeating hype. Overselling the metaverse too soon could leave more people jaded than jazzed. At 2021’s Meta Connect conference, Zuckerberg showed a lavish what-if video depicting two friends attending a Jon Batiste concert together: One through the wonder of metaverse glasses, one (apparently) in real life—with zero difference between their experiences. For now, it felt only slightly more grounded in reality than if it had involved a time machine or shrink ray. The approach couldn’t have less in common with Apple’s silence on the subject of smartphones until the day it announced the iPhone—or its current refusal to talk about the AR headset it may finally announce soon.
The sheer enormity of the challenge. In its most full-blown incarnation, the metaverse won’t exist until someone crams hyper-realistic 3D display technology into something that looks like a garden-variety pair of eyeglasses and can run for an entire day on one battery charge. Progress will be made—progress is being made—but the necessary technologies can’t be willed into existence. Note that even Meta spokespeople, such as head of product Naomi Gleit, whom I interviewed last November at Web Summit, are now talking about the metaverse as something you might experience in 2D on a PC, phone, or tablet long before you can wear it on your face.
Web3 isn’t helping. Many people lump the metaverse in with Web3, the blockchain-powered assortment of technologies that aim to track ownership of digital possessions. And Web3 is tied to such tech as cryptocurrency and NFTs, which have seen their own hype bubbles burst. Their travails aren’t a reason to write off the metaverse, which is a big enough concept that it might come to fruition in ways that have nothing to do with them. But Web3 skeptics who regard it as a get-rich-quick scheme that’s already failing might be inclined to dismiss the metaverse, too.
By this point, you may have concluded that I’m a hardened metaverse cynic myself. Strangely enough, I don’t think of myself as one. From the days when using a computer involved punch cards to the text-centric MS-DOS era to today’s high-resolution, touch-driven interfaces, our digital experiences have grown only richer over the decades. 3D worlds such as Roblox and Minecraft already have huge audiences. Virtual reality, though not yet pervasive, has made plenty of progress—mostly thanks to Meta’s own Quest (née Oculus) platform—and is a necessary milestone along the way to the metaverse.
The arc of technology has always bent toward more immersive, interactive modes of computing. It’s only natural that we’re headed for something that looks more like a recreation of the physical world and is more intermingled with it. It’s just too soon to say whether it’ll look much like the metaverse as folks such as Mark Zuckerberg have been imagining it. Or be brought to us by any of today’s tech giants rather than some startup that hasn’t even been founded yet. Or even be called the metaverse at all.
Whatever we’re headed toward could be wonderful (or dystopian, or both) in ways we don’t yet understand. But until it starts to come into focus, why waste too many brain cells on a future that might never arrive?
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Patrick Chalhoub on his passion for art, culture and retro-futurism