Can either VR or AR scale to make the metaverse anything more than a Second Life clone with better graphics? VR/AR experts generally agree that virtual reality tech is a better bet to launch the metaverse than augmented reality tech. The technology is more mature, more affordable to mass-produce, and lacks the privacy issues inherent in AR tech that, by design, constantly monitors its surroundings without standing out.
Virtual reality also has a dedicated following of millions of gamers, while augmented reality has a niche as an enterprise device. This is why Meta or any other company looking to get into the metaverse has a lot to think about. Can they turn VR into a common enterprise device for office workers, or something older generations and non-gamers will want to use? More importantly, can they reduce the AR creep factor enough that everyday folks (not just techies) will want to wear related devices outdoors?
Kent Bye, a VR/AR journalist who has interviewed thousands of industry experts for his Voices of VR podcast, notes that AR relies on "egocentric data capture and contextually-aware AI." That means society still needs to address "the ethical questions around bystander privacy" before most people accept AR as normal in everyday life. There's a reason why "Glasshole" became such a popular term when Google Glass first launched.
"AR will have the most utility embedded in the world, which means that there's a lot more complicated sociological barriers around wearing indiscreet cameras on your face from a company whose business model is targeted ads via surveillance capitalism," Bye argues.
Anshel Sag, senior analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy, agrees that VR will lead the metaverse push, but for different reasons. VR beats AR in "development and maturity, and when you have to plan for a fully virtual world, having a fully virtual platform helps a lot." But Sag believes AR will become more important as the metaverse "expands into world-scale and runs in parallel to our everyday real-world."
I don't fully agree with my Windows Central colleague's dismissive claim that the metaverse is a "load of bollocks." But there are serious hurdles related to hardware cost, device accessibility, privacy, and buy-in that Meta and other companies will need to tackle before this internet 2.0 experiment goes anywhere.
Who owns the metaverse?
Tony Parisi, co-creator of the Virtual Reality Modeling Language (VRML), outlined seven Asimov-esque "Rules of the Metaverse" that such a network needs to follow to function properly. His entire Medium post is worth a read, but a simple summary is that the metaverse must be open and hardware-independant, not under the control of any one corporation.
The metaverse must be open, hardware-independent, and available for everyone.
For Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg's metaverse, he is enacting his vision of an "open" space, which in his mind is very creator- and developer-focused. His Connect speech had a petulant shot at Apple and Google, saying that their app platforms create "a lack of choice and high fees" that "are stifling innovation." His plan is to create his own internet platform with the lowest fees possible for creators.
The most immediate and obvious issue is that his metaverse isn't really open. Everything goes through Meta, which would (like Apple and Google) have monopolistic power over which apps and services appear on the metaverse and how much of a cut developers must give up. The only example of a Meta-run app store we have is Oculus, which charges its developers (drumroll please) 30% fees. Meta may be promising low fees at the start, but could easily change that once people start to buy in.
As Bye told me, "historically Facebook/Oculus have platforms and content ecosystems have been a lot more closed than open." It recently began supporting the OpenXR platform, which he calls a "positive move" towards an open VR system, but it also has a history of sherlocking smaller developers, refusing to approve any apps for sale that come too close to its own future services.
For Facebook's metaverse to succeed, Bye says the market needs to see Meta as "committed to building an open, decentralized, and interoperable metaverse." In creators' minds, that will mean a dedicated audience willing to spend lots of money. In my mind, it means allowing people to enter the metaverse with non-Meta hardware, like the upcoming Apple VR headset.
But Meta's name-change can't really mask Facebook's and Oculus's history of exclusivity and data-hoarding, and its metaverse isn't a true and open one. You'll likely need Oculus/Meta hardware to use it.
Who can afford to join the metaverse?
Mark Zuckerberg says that the metaverse and the Facebook-to-Meta rebranding are all about "bringing people together." But which people will the metaverse welcome, and who will it leave behind?
Neal Stephenson coined the term "metaverse" in Snow Crash, a 1992 cyberpunk novel where people escape their crappy real lives into a virtual reality simulation. Far from the equalizing, corporate-free nerd fantasy of Ready Player One's OASIS, Snow Crash's metaverse is chock-full of ads and adopts a hierarchical society. People who can afford personal VR goggles have fancier avatars, while people using public terminals have stigmatized black-and-white avatars and are generally ignored.
The metaverse is now more of a rich gamer's playground than a second internet.
Connect 2021 showed off Meta's vision of the metaverse, which is more similar to Stephenson's vision than Cline's. You'll mix your real-life possessions with virtual possessions, inhabit photorealistic or fantasy avatars, and play games with friends. Zuckerberg emphasized how people could "make a living" in the metaverse by selling art and products. You'll likely have to pay lots of money to give your avatar cooler digital outfits or decorate your home space with unique furnishings and wall art.
How likely is it that people will spend tons of cash in the metaverse? Look at how kids bully each other for using default Fortnite skins, until kids beg their parents for in-game currency. Zuckerberg would love for the Metaverse to reach that level of cultural impact, where peer pressure drives commerce and generic avatars mark you as someone worth ignoring or mocking.
Zuckerberg also hinted at Project Cambria, aka the Oculus Quest Pro, a VR headset with cameras for full body tracking so it can monitor and project your movements and facial expressions onto an avatar. No doubt you'll be able to enter the metaverse with a VR or AR device without this functionality, but it would make your avatar more artificial and lifeless, putting pressure on you to buy a better device for more realism.
Meta did acknowledge the hardware cost issue, at least. During Connect 2021, Zuckerberg said the company would continue to sell its VR and AR devices "at cost to make them available to more people." It's the strategy it used with the $299 standalone Oculus Quest 2, assisted by Qualcomm and its powerful-yet-affordable Snapdragon XR2 chipset.
Sag feels optimistic that costs can be driven down even lower. How? He says "cloud gaming and cloud computing will help to further democratize AR and VR." Just as you can stream console-quality games to a smartphone, we could see VR worlds rendered primarily on servers instead of on headsets. Of course, this assumes the people with headsets live somewhere where hyper-fast internet is available and have the finances to pay for it.
No matter how cheap VR/AR tech becomes, it won't achieve the global reach of phones or computers for decades.
My concern is that "cheap" hardware is relative. When it comes to smartphones, most of our readers will spend $300–$1,000 on a phone. But in India, Jio's $87 Android phone is still too expensive to give Android greater inroads in the country. No matter how far VR/AR advances, billions of people won't be able to afford — or be willing to spend — enough money to get high-quality immersion in the metaverse.
Facebook and Instagram can reach people across the world because it can be accessed on computers, tablets, and phones for free. The metaverse has an AR/VR platform hurdle that won't be bridged until the technology becomes just as synonymous in households internationally. That's a really long way off — assuming it ever happens — making the metaverse more of a rich gamer's playground than a second internet.
How the metaverse can break out of its niche
There's a reason why so much of Connect 2021 showed people middle-aged and older using mixed reality. Meta wants to have its cake (make its VR/AR tech mainstream with older generations) and eat it too (retain Oculus's popularity with younger users and gamers). But how does it do that?
My hunch is that the metaverse's appeal to non-technophiles will rely on accurate hand tracking controls. Gamers will always prefer Touch controllers over more complicated controls, but older generations will find mastering button controls intensely intimidating. Being able to tap and swipe in mid-air with your virtual hands will feel much more natural to VR/AR newbies.
Meta must also accept that not even the $100 million Beat Saber and the rest of the best Quest 2-exclusive games will cut it for mainstream poularity. Meta needs to play nicer with companies like Microsoft and Epic to get truly popular games like Minecraft or Fortnite into the Metaverse to grow its youth crowd. It can also continue to release classic game VR ports like Resident Evil 4 VR to appeal to the mainstream gamer crowd, and focus on exercise apps to targer non-gamers.
My polled experts, meanwhile, think the metaverse's future can't begin until Meta / Facebook acknowledges and fixes its past.
Can a leopard change its spots? Signs point to no.
It can start by "undoing the damage it did to its reputation with Facebook," says Sag. Meta must "embrace transparency and open platforms in ways that it hasn't before. Meta also needs to work more closely with the industry to help standardize more components of the Metaverse in ways that can enable any size company or creator to make a living" on its platform.
Key says the metaverse needs to fully explain how privacy will be baked into the metaverse. Connect 2021 talked all about ensuring no one steals your avatar or can invade your home without permission, but it certainly didn't explain "to what degree are our actions going to be tracked and monitored within the metaverse."
Case in point, look at comments Microsoft president Brad Smith made to Reuters on Wednesday. Microsoft is bringing Teams to the metaverse next year, but Smith says that "We have to ensure that it protects privacy, digital safety and protects against disinformation, manipulation. We have a lot to clean up." All problems historically associated with Facebook.
We'll see if Meta can shake off its Facebook impulses and build the metaverse into something worthwhile. But it's a shareholder-backed company planning to invest billions into this network while continuing to sell VR and AR devices at cost to grow the platform's reach. It'll have to make its money from somewhere; can a leopard truly change its spots? Signs point to no, but we'll have to wait and see.
Regardless, as Bye assured me, even if the metaverse flops, "VR and AR are here to stay."
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