Virtual reality has been the future for more than half a century, from its experimental beginnings in the 1960s, with a device so big and likely to crush the users beneath its weight that it was nicknamed the Sword of Damocles. It has been a future that has often seemed almost within grasp but has always fallen just short of mainstream acceptance. But the moment Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg mentioned the concept of the metaverse it gained most favoured status in the lexicon of techbro buzz words. That’s despite the fact that most people haven’t a clue what it is and have no idea the same basic concept has already existed for years… and was never that great.
Up until the last decade the main problem with VR was simply the technology itself, with the limits of both headset hardware and the raw horsepower afforded by home PC and video game consoles meaning that it was virtually impossible to create a worthwhile VR experience at home at anything like an affordable price.
These issues have been partially overcome in the past few years but it’s only really the Oculus Quest headset, which is relatively cheap and doesn’t require a connection to any other device, that has come anywhere close to enabling the dream of an interconnected virtual world that anyone can enter. That is essentially what the metaverse is, and while Zuckerberg was happy to imply that he’d invented the term it has actually existed in sci-fi since the 1990s and in reality since the early 2010s.
In 2014, back when it was just Facebook, Meta bought Oculus VR, but as its VP of content Jason Rubin admitted four years later, despite brisk sales of the headset VR was not catching on as quickly as had been hoped. The Oculus Quest might be cheaper than other headsets but it’s still a minimum of £300 for an experience that shuts you off from everyone else in the room and is physically straining enough that most people won’t want to do it for more than a couple of hours at a time.
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“It’s only really the Oculus Quest headset, which is relatively cheap and doesn’t require a connection to another device, that has come anywhere close to enabling the dream of an interconnected virtual world that anyone can enter.”
Rubin’s answer to this problem was not to give up but to increase the company’s involvement in VR. He subsequently wrote a 50-page document – obtained several years later by CNBC – outlining his vision for the metaverse, a network of 3D worlds that would establish Facebook as the market leader in VR and leave rivals such as HTC, Apple and Google struggling to keep up.
Considering his strong ties to the video game industry (he was the director of the original Crash Bandicoot on PlayStation), Rubin would have known fine well that connected 3D worlds are not a new concept, just as the word metaverse is not. The term was first coined in the 1992 post-cyberpunk novel Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson, in which it is described as a virtual world where people are able to buy property and run businesses, with some, nicknamed gargoyles, spending their entire lives inside the virtual space.
Like with most things software developers see in movies and read in sci-fi novels and comic books, they tried to recreate it in real life, which led, just 11 years later, to Second Life. This was, more or less, exactly what Stephenson had imagined, with users creating avatars to lead their titular second existence and many spending large swathes of their life there, running businesses, socialising with others and playing games.
Second Life’s visuals were basic even at the time, and although VR eventually became an option it was never a focus. Nevertheless it attracted more than a million users at its peak and despite now being almost forgotten – with many assuming, like some long-forgotten actor, it must have been shut down years ago – it still has about 800,000 active users.
It was also the butt of jokes for as long as it remained in the public eye, with the general public happy to laugh at suggestions that the people using it had no life at all and were wasting away in their social space that looked like a badly made Lego set and whose most useful purpose seemed to be as a testbed for a psychological test.
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“Using a headset today not only makes you look ridiculous to anyone else in the room with you, but also shuts them out from your experience in the most purposeful way possible.”
To a degree that’s exactly what happened, since with such a large user base developers were able to start to draw conclusions about how to police virtual environments and ensure they remained accessible to all. Abuse of female avatars was rampant from the start, a problem that is even more prevalent in traditional online video games, and that has been proven to require not only punishment, in the shape of suspended or banned accounts, but also regular educational programmes and promotions.
The Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory states that any normal person granted anonymity and an audience has an immediate tendency towards social fuckwadedness, which is as true now as it was in the early 2000s. Except back then it was just a satirical observation and today we live in a post-Trump world where everyone is an expert on everything despite appearing to understand nothing, and threats of bloody murder are seen as a normal response to anyone disagreeing with you – or simply liking something you don’t like.
These problems were just as prevalent in PlayStation Home, released in 2008, which was a smaller, less ambitious cousin of Second Life created solely for the PlayStation 3. It was mildly popular at the time but few were genuinely upset when it closed down in 2015, a couple of years after the launch of the PlayStation 4, which, despite having its own well-regarded VR headset, never thought to repeat the experiment.
Since then many other games have created their own metaverses, sometimes even using the term itself. Minecraft’s infinite array of user-created worlds has limited interconnectedness but fellow children’s favourite Roblox is perhaps the most successful metaverse so far. Fortnite is not close behind, having evolved well past just being a game and now offering an entirely separate social area where there is no fighting and major musical acts can earn millions for performances that last a fraction of the time they would in the real world.
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“The Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory states that any normal person granted anonymity and an audience has an immediate tendency towards social fuckwadedness, which is as true now as it was in the early 2000s.”
Meta’s adoption of the term metaverse has confused many not only because of the implication that it came up with the idea but its failure to properly define what it means by it. Most of the historical examples here do not involve VR, or only have it as an optional extra, but Meta’s plans revolve primarily around the Oculus Quest 2 and its inevitable successors. Oculus Quest 2 already has simple VR chatrooms that will presumably form the foundations of a more expansive service and, of course, they’re already filled with sexisim, racism and every other kind of bigotry – despite everyone having to log in with their Facebook accounts.
What Rubin’s plan seems to ignore though are the intractable problems with VR itself. Using a headset today not only makes you look ridiculous to anyone else in the room with you, but also shuts them out from your experience in the most purposeful way possible. VR is social when everyone is using it in the same virtual world, but it is profoundly unsociable in ordinary human company. In fact, no less than PlayStation creator Ken Kutaragi recently criticised not just the general concept of the metaverse but virtual reality itself. “Being in the real world is very important, but the metaverse is about making quasi-real in the virtual world, and I can’t see the point of doing it,” he told Bloomberg News in January. “You would rather be a polished avatar instead of your real self? That’s essentially no different from anonymous message board sites […] Headsets would isolate you from the real world, and I can’t agree with that. Headsets are simply annoying.”
Kutaragi left the video-game world behind him at the end of the PlayStation 3 era (he now works in the AI field) and it’s clear that Sony doesn’t share his scepticism about VR, as it recently announced a new headset for the PlayStation 5, even if it didn’t mention anything about the metaverse. This makes it one of the few tech companies not to mention it, with investors now insisting that companies talk blue sky nonsense about it during every earnings call, even though everyone involved is careful to ensure that they at no point explain what exactly the metaverse is – since they clearly don’t know themselves.
Although Kutaragi can afford to be outspoken it’s clear that Microsoft, the owner of Xbox, is also surprisingly sceptical of VR, since it has never hinted at any plans to make its own VR headset and its only public experiments in a similar space have been for AR – and even those were put on the backburner years ago.
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“VR is social when everyone is using it in the same virtual world, but it is profoundly unsociable in ordinary human company.”
In 2019, while Xbox Series X/S was still under wraps, Xbox boss Phil Spencer admitted that VR was currently “not a focus” and Microsoft has done and said nothing since to suggest that has changed. “I have some issues with VR – it’s isolating and I think of games as a communal, kind of together experience. We’re responding to what our customers are asking for and… nobody’s asking for VR,” Spencer told the gaming site Stevivor.
One should never take anything a video game exec says at face value, especially when they’re trying to put rivals off their scent, but the game’s industry scepticism about VR has been remarkably consistent, with most publishers, no doubt at Sony’s urging, experimenting with a project or two during the initial launch of the PlayStation VR and never again. This is notable because there are two industries that consistently lead the curve on new technologies: pornography and video games. If one or both see opportunities in a new field, and enjoys some initial success, then others inevitably follow.
When it comes to VR and the metaverse the question is not so much whether the idea has merit but when it will be able to prove it. The sort of virtual worlds that so commonly feature in science fiction – the otherwise awful 2018 film Ready Player One is one example – are not currently possible and even if they were the technology and social safeguards needed to make them remains unwieldy and expensive.
The metaverse (a metaverse, some metaverses) will undoubtedly be the future of online communication and perhaps even society itself but it’s not going to happen overnight just because Zuckerberg says so. Sometimes the future just takes a while and the problem with VR and the metaverse is essentially the same as it’s always been: it’s expensive and you look like an idiot while doing it. That is less true than it used to be, but there’s still got to be a fairly seismic shift in pricing and eyewear fashion before VR finally has its day.