The metaverse has a couple of major problems. The first is that nobody seems to be able to agree on what it is — even the people setting themselves up as the leaders of our new fantastical future can’t seem to come up with a common definition. The likes of Zuckerberg appear to think it’s basically a VR world, offering the thrill of having video meetings as avatars in virtual boardrooms. Others imagine it as an internet that is somehow underpinned by the all-powerful distributed database known as the blockchain, and involving the wondrous strings of code known as non-fungible tokens (I thought this defined a different techno-utopian fantasy — Web3).
I put the problem to Robby Yung, chief executive of Animoca Brands, a company launching a metaverse investment fund of up to $1bn (it was going to be up to $2bn, since scaled back due to “market circumstances”). I told him I was finding it a little tricky to define the metaverse.
“That’s because you’re thinking about it the wrong way,” said Yung. “You need to think about the metaverse the same way you think about the internet. It’s not one thing. It’s everything.”
I had to be honest: that answer didn’t exactly clear things up for me. I asked how this “everything” he was calling the metaverse was any different from Web3, given that he seemed to be telling me it was just about “adding the blockchain to the internet”. He paused, before saying: “I don’t think there’s any difference, in my mind.”
Dave Karpf, a professor at George Washington University who studies the internet, tells me Zuckerberg’s idea of the metaverse — less about blockchain and more about using a combination of VR and AR to create an immersive, 3D internet — is closer to the consensus, but is still a woolly concept. It’s also nothing new: there have been many attempts to create such a metaverse over the last two or three decades.
That brings us to the metaverse’s most serious problem: nobody seems to want it. Karpf himself forked out $1,500 for the Meta Quest Pro, and has only used it three times. “It’s what I call the field of dreams fallacy: the assumption that if you build it, they will come,” says Karpf. “At this point, we have to look at the results that we’ve seen so far and . . . the biggest problem is that no matter how good the hardware gets, people basically don’t want that.”
All this is not to deny the likelihood that, as technology advances, the internet will become more immersive. But this will happen gradually and messily: we are not about to step into a suddenly formed, blockchain-powered virtual world together. The metaverse never really began — and yet it’s already over.
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