The metaverse makes me sad

by Jarred Cinman: Joint CEO of VMLY&R.
Everyone is suddenly talking about the metaverse – but will it live up to the hype?

When fashion houses parade emaciated people up and down catwalks in Paris every year, they are knowingly defining a trend. They create fashion; they don’t discover it. If they say the next year’s earrings will be huge and the skirts will be short, so be it. That’s what you will find on the cover of Vogue and the racks at Zara.

By contrast, the tech industry – and the media moths fluttering around it – report on trends as though they have been unearthed, found ... as if they were the Higgs boson or the coronavirus. Nothing is more demonstrative of this than the metaverse.

The above graph shows volume of searches for the term “metaverse” since only September last year. It’s a graph, not of a trend line, but of a “hype explosion” or a terrorist attack. And like all such earthquakes on the tech landscape it’ll have you wondering: Am I left out? Is it too late? Do I need to hire a Metaverse Agency of Records (MARS, let’s call them)?

Deloitte in the US recently launched an Unlimited Realities agency that claims to “educate on the next massive wave that will be disruptive to business and society, and equip executives with the strategies, tools and technologies they need to take full advantage of digital worlds”. Some lines of copy are so self-satirising as to not require it.

The metaverse explained – simply

The metaverse is a virtual reality world, one in which you wear some kind of gadget that removes you partially or entirely from this reality and puts you into another one.

No wait, I exaggerate. It’s like that, except: you still have to breathe, eat, ablute, physically move, probably work, draw electricity from and buy things in this reality. Which means – sorry, guys – if you’re poor and hungry and miserable, and ruled over by some crazy dictator, the metaverse is – what do they say – lipstick on a pig. Also, and no doubt this is going to shock you, the people who stand to be rich and powerful in the metaverse are none other than the exact same people who are rich and powerful in this one. Well, they would be. They are the ones building it.

Serious articles in The Guardian and The New York Times, and analysts and investors use as their primary references for the metaverse the novels Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson (who apparently coined the term) and Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. Stephenson has worked as an adviser to Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos’s rocket company. That’s like robot design firm Boston Dynamics inviting Frankenstein author Mary Shelley to sit on its board to advise it on robot design.

Will there be an “alternative universe” that people can escape into that will look and sound at least similar to and possibly more magical than this one, where you can meet other animated people and chat to them and play games and while away your time earning imaginary wealth with which to buy imaginary goods?

Yes. There will. But will we?

The metaverses we already have

As Wired recently wrote, a lot of this already exists in the world of gaming, and has for many years. Microsoft’s recent purchase of video game company Activision Blizzard, which every tech pundit that traded words for cash hailed as an “investment in the metaverse”, is in fact just what it looks like: an investment in gaming. And why not? Games are a huge, thriving, fun, lucrative and immersive experience for billions of people on earth. Game titles’ revenues long ago surpassed those of movies and other forms of entertainment.

To be honest, the one kind of genre that hasn’t actually gotten as huge as everyone has predicted many times over is, in fact, alternative virtual worlds. Yes, multimedia platform Second Life is big – it has about 1-million active users – but laughable compared with video game Fortnite’s 80-million or the 400-million copies in the Call of Duty franchise that have been sold. And sure, life simulation game The Sims is still a thing. And VR headsets and games are growing – about 1-million VR headsets were shipped in 2021. That sounds impressive until you hear that 1.4-billion smartphones were sold over the same period or that 40-million CDs were still bought last year.

Alternative reality games haven’t taken off because they mostly suck. Only someone at the intersection of “very sad” and “rich enough to spend all day wallowing in it” could be attracted to the mundanity, bad graphics and hollow narrative of something like Second Life or The Sims. It’s the reality TV of gaming. I’m sure, like most people, your dream second life is not owning a small suburban house that you get to furnish with garbage from V-Walmart while you hold down a job in the local coffee shop.

Where the action really is

Games – which, yes, are largely consumed on a screen in 2D that your brain agrees to accept is 3D – are, by contrast, purposeful, collaborative, imaginative and exciting. They let you imagine yourself in the future, in the past, in many roles and situations, with all kinds of amazing gizmos and gadgets. Their raison d’etre is not to compete with your life, though. And unless you enjoy that kind of game, you don’t have to “earn” money to buy things in them or be defined by your in-game status. And if you do like that kind of thing, you can choose from the thousands of titles that suit your preference.

As an avowed geek, early adopter and digital enthusiast who has literally made my entire living off the disruption of the internet, I am more excited about aspects of this than it may sound. I love, for example, the applications of augmented reality in my personal world and those that are changing surgery and engineering and science forever. I have been swept away by many games and game worlds, and I am intrigued by blockchain and its myriad applications. And, like that of everyone else on earth, my life is interwoven with my phone and the extensive feature set it offers. We all already know where our actual second life is, and it’s in our pockets.

So, what do to? Keep your eye on the developments, because they’re interesting and fun. But take them with a pinch of salt. Instead, focus on getting your digital strategy working, figure out how to add more value on the devices people are already using and, for goodness’ sake, embrace the gaming world and its incredible technologies (like 3D creation tool Unreal Engine) properly. If you want to know where the audience has gone, they are there, they are happy and they are ready to play.

Thanks to Matthew Arnold for the Deloitte and Wired links and for provoking this outburst of an article.

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