Suddenly almost every major company seems to be investing in the metaverse. Does everyone believe in Mark Zuckerberg’s vision or is there something else?
When Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg launched the term metaverse late last year, his vision was widely hailed by big business. Microsoft wants to steal a piece of the metaverse with Teams, SAP is looking into B2B possibilities, Adobe is working on tools to develop the metaverse, and Dell is thinking about associated hardware. The Meta itself wants to soon recruit 10,000 Europeans for the creation of the metaverse. The interest is not just coming from the technology sector: the Carrefour supermarket chain has already bought a virtual piece of land in the metaverse.
You may find that plausible. After all, renowned analytics firm Gartner predicted that one in four people will spend an hour of their time in the metaverse every day by 2026. Grayscale calculated that the metaverse has the potential to generate $1 trillion in annual revenue, even through advertising, e-commerce, digital events and supporting hardware.
All of that seems rosy, but what exactly is that metaverse? Zuckerberg lays out a future vision of a shared digital world that is partly, but not exclusively, virtual. That virtual reality (VR) world would be integrated with the real world through augmented reality (AR). Anything is possible in the metaverse.
The Meta CEO sees people gathering for social activities, watching movies together on a virtual screen, or playing board games around the same virtual table while everyone is home. He will also work in the metaverse behind virtual screens and talk to virtual colleagues.
That view is problematic, and not just because Zuckerberg names his virtual world after the dystopian metaverse from the 1992 book Snow Crash. First of all, this interpretation of the metaverse always requires glasses. In promotional videos it’s classic glasses (or even nothing), but in practice you have to wear headphones full of sensors. Such earphones have been on the market for a while, but these days they mainly reach out to enthusiasts.
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To illustrate: In 2021, approximately 11.2 million VR headsets were sold according to IDC. During the same period, approximately 17.3 million PlayStation 5 consoles were sold (despite a global shortage of chips). So there is a market for virtual reality, but we are still a long way from a reality where people from all walks of life regularly put glasses on their heads. Consider Gartner’s prediction: one in four people equates to just under 2 billion daily visitors to the metaverse. Hardware sales and supply will have to increase significantly by 2026.
The popularity of glasses will undoubtedly increase as they become lighter, more comfortable and move towards marketing designs. However, the technology to process an entire headset into glasses does not exist (yet). If you’ve ever had a chance to set up a cumbersome Microsoft Hololens or a Magic Leap, you know there’s very little total immersion. At best, you look through a small window into a digital world full of pixels.
Sure, classic lightweight glasses with VR/AR functionality are technologically possible, but so far companies haven’t even shown a proper prototype with high resolution and wide width. field of view† Technological development is fast, but not fast: if an affordable version is on store shelves ten years from now, it will be soon.
moore has to work
That doesn’t solve the problem by much: Intel estimates that Zuckerberg’s proposed metaverse requires 1,000 times more computing power than is currently available. It’s not just about faster computer chips with higher graphics performance. The metaverse must become a shared and social experience. Today, shared digital worlds already exist in computer games. This shows that pushing more than 128 people in a world is already a technological feat. That technology will also continue to develop, but again, you shouldn’t expect miracles for years to come.
Intel: ‘1000 times more computing power is needed for the metaverse’
Moore’s Law has long been the rule of thumb for technological evolution. Moore is reaching his limits, but we’ll ignore him for a while. The law says that the number of transistors on a microchip doubles every two years. To put it bluntly, we associate this with a doubling of hardware capabilities over the same period. By that logic, we need at least 20 years of spectacular growth before we hit a factor of 1,000.
life on facebook
Suppose for a moment that we find a shortcut from dream to reality that bypasses practical objections, and that a metaverse such as the one suggested by Zuckerberg is possible. What does that mean exactly? For Meta, it’s about a connected digital experience that’s seamlessly linked to its own services. Imagine that Facebook is evolving from a platform to a real digital world. Zuckerberg wants us to put on glasses and start living on Facebook.
You can take that literally. The man does think about intimacy and reassures us. When he doesn’t feel like social (digital) interactions for a while, he can either keep people out or retreat to his own digital bubble. The metaverse doesn’t exist yet, but Zuckerberg already forgot that you can also take off your glasses. Facebook has already developed the first tools: Horizon Home as your digital home and Horizon Worlds where you can build simple virtual reality worlds.
Other companies like Microsoft have made it clear that they believe in a VR/AR world, but not necessarily in the full version of Zuckerberg. They work on innovative solutions and include the term metaverse in their press release because that way they can navigate hype they weren’t supposed to create themselves.
This also follows in part from research by Sortlist, which last month conducted a study among 200 European companies that were already working in the metaverse in one way or another. 66 percent of them had already thought about investing time and money before Facebook changed its name to Meta and the hype train left the station.
Experiences without Zuckerberg
This implies that Zuckerberg has partly hijacked an existing development with his metaverse. Companies around the world have long realized that there is a future in VR and AR. For example, Microsoft supports apps on Windows, HP makes high-quality glasses, and Apple has an AR kit for developers. Organizations use those tools to develop compelling virtual reality and augmented reality experiences.
We found a good example in Salesforce, which developed a system during the pandemic to host meetings in virtual reality. We attended one such virtual meeting, traveling from the Salesforce Tower in San Francisco through a mountaintop conference center to a virtual forest festival. That experience sounds like Zuckerberg’s wet dream. Solo: Salesforce built its digital headquarters with its own partner when Meta was still called Facebook.
Meta’s metaverse is one of platforms. Meta wants to give the world the tools to work towards a vision that is currently elusive. Think of the way Facebook tries to become synonymous with the Internet: the platform is central and is the starting point for other content on the Internet. In the mobile version of the service, you always stay in the app and visit websites through the Facebook browser.
Metaverse is the name of Web 3.0, in which AR and VR play an important role.
Another vision of the metaverse is less modern, but it exists without Meta. You can compare this to the Internet without Facebook, where people navigate to their favorite websites through their favorite browser. Companies have been working on that version for a long time by developing their own virtual reality and augmented reality experiences. In this context, the metaverse is wide open. This is the metaverse of Salesforce, Microsoft and Apple. In this scenario, the metaverse is simply the name of Web 3.0, where AR and VR play an important role. You not only browse websites through your computer or smartphone, but also visit places in 3D through a headset.
Evolution over revolution
You don’t have to make huge leaps as an organization to participate in this. You can simply evolve with existing technology and develop simple applications in VR or AR when there are relevant business cases.
That pace is more in line with customer expectations. After all, a second Sortlist study indicates that more than half (54 percent) of those surveyed would not trust the metaverse. The undulating innovation is less exciting than Zuckerberg’s version of the Matrix, but more in line with expectations and the realistic evolution of the relevant hardware.
Choosing the dependency
That doesn’t stop organizations from making big investments and betting heavily on the metaverse. What exactly does Carrefour buy when it pays real money for virtual land? In this specific case, it is a Sandbox terrain: an application that, like Horizon Worlds, aims to be a starting point for metaverse experiences. Carrefour bets on the explosion not only of the metaverse, but also of the Sandbox as a platform.
Organizations that subscribe to a metaverse built around a platform unnecessarily tie their bandwagon to an external party. Virtual reality and augmented reality experiences can work perfectly without a platform service, as Salesforce demonstrates today.
The metaverse is a hype term that hides the normal innovations within VR and AR. Due to limited interest from the general public, but especially non-existent hardware, hype can only lead to disappointment. As an organization, it has nothing to do with the hype version of the metaverse.
Technology with a future
AR and VR as technology have a future. Its popularity will indeed increase steadily, fueled by applications that offer added value. No one wants to put on glasses to watch virtual TV when they can see a real device in the real world, despite Zuckerberg’s claims to the contrary. Putting on lightweight 3D glasses is already too much to ask for many people, as the failure of 3D TVs shows.
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Specific experiences, backed by companies, can drive virtual reality. 3D meeting rooms with people from different countries are a good example, as they are much more pleasant than a classic video call. Entertainment is also interesting to some extent, especially to interact with people who may not be right outside your door. If your company has an idea for a fun, value-added VR or AR experience, let it go. Even call the experience a step into the metaverse if you like, but stay away from the oppressive and unrealistic vision being heralded by the impatient CEO of Meta.
Empty marketing term
Finally, there is the risk. If you let Mark Zuckerberg dictate the metaverse using clever marketing videos that make false promises, you will only be disappointed. That metaverse, which seems to have slipped away from Ready Player One, simply may not exist any time soon. Whoever says it will soon look a bit silly as customers burst the bubble. AR and VR are exciting technologies with a future, the metaverse is an empty marketing term today and nothing more.