Dan Philibin

Ways to think about a metaverse

Added on Nov 14, 2022  ·  Filed under futures

I enjoyed and mostly agree with this take by Benedict Evans on the multiple visions for 'the metaverse' being presented to us today.

Ben offers two definitions for 'the metaverse' to consider: narrowly, AR/VR dominance (where AR/VR basically becomes the next smartphone) and a broader "new internet" vision, where the digital world will converge with the physical world and we'll all be admiring each other's NFTs while wearing high-tech glasses, or something like that. (I admittedly still don't understand how this is supposed to work or how it sounds the least bit compelling.) Count me as a skeptic of either scenario taking form.

The real question, of course, is whether AR and VR actually do break out, and reach that scale. People in the space often talk as though this is inevitable and unquestionable, but I don’t think we should be sure. The basic mistake, I think, would be to presume that because the technology can get better, it necessarily follows that billions (or even hundreds of million) of people will use it.

I do not think smartphone-level AR/VR dominance is inevitable, at least not in the next 5-10 years. I briefly owned a Quest and was unimpressed enough to return it; reviews for Meta's higher-end headset don't sound any more promising. The tech will undoubtedly improve to make the experience less miserable, and I can see headsets gaining traction in some narrow enterprise use cases, but I'm not convinced that people will want to spend more time with screens in front of their faces. At the moment it mostly feels like Meta is spending billions of dollars on disappointing hardware and nonsensical CGI ads to will this future into existence.

And every time I see a VR or AR concept showing huge virtual screens floating in space, I think that the future of software is not about seeing more rows in my spreadsheet at once - the future is not seeing it at all, and having an ML engine that builds it for me. This is like printing out our emails.

On the broader "new internet" vision:

The internet was organic. No one person or company could decide how it would work or what it would look like: it was created by everyone.

And so when people start making highly specific predictions about how an entirely new thing will appear, a decade into the future, and explain how it will all work, that feels very inorganic. [...] The problem with this view of ‘the metaverse’ is not so much that there are huge practical problems in making assets portable between totally different types of game, but that you really can’t predict any of that in advance. [...]

Going back to the mobile internet in 2002, many of us knew that this would be big, almost no-one thought it would replace PCs, and only a crazy person would have said that the telcos, Nokia and Microsoft would play no role at all and a has-been PC company in Cupertino and a weird little ‘search engine’ would build the new platforms. So be careful building castles in the sky.