I haven’t really added much to the discourse about Meta’s attempt to create the “Metaverse” – a term pulled from a cyberpunk novel (Snow Crash) – largely because there’s frankly already plenty of folks saying what I’d want to say. But hey, they once again made “big advancements” today with the addition of lower bodies for their virtual avatars, and just… for fuck’s sake.
I don’t entirely blame the development team working on this. I’m sure there’s some very smart people involved, and some of them may even have prior experience with virtual worlds and game development – though that might be optimistic, based on the results so far. I say I don’t entirely blame them, because it’s a very high profile, expensive project, with a lot of direct pressure and visibility from the head of the company. That’s bound to fuck up a roadmap or two.
Put simply, the idea is half-baked. Based on what demonstrations they’ve given, I’d say they have no idea how to make a virtual world engaging, effectively making a Disneyfied, defanged version of VRChat. And when I say the idea is half-baked, I mean the idea, not the implementation. Of course the implementation is going to have bugs, that’s beside the point: the idea, the central concept they’re building around, isn’t up to snuff. There was a good thread recently on Twitter, talking about teams intentionally ignoring fundamental flaws (and dooming their products in the process) that I think may be relevant to the situation here. The broken idea is that the mainstream market will want to strap into a VR headset en masse (let alone the large number of folks where that is an economic or technologic impossibility) just to chat or wander around some basic-ass virtual spaces. It’s a niche product at its core, and no amount of wishing changes that.
Conceptually, it’s not that different than a thousand previous forays into making virtual chat rooms. It immediately reminds me of apps like The Palace, which dates back to the mid-90s. While the graphics may have improved since then (and now in VR!), it’s still basically just a chat room, with some somewhat limited creation tools allowing you to customize your virtual world, and add some degrees of interactivity. There’s nothing wrong with that per se, but a) it’s not remotely groundbreaking like they tout; and b) it’s inherently a sort of niche interest.
Even if they drop the requirement of it being in VR (which it sounds like they are, since there’ll be some sort of mobile version coming “soon”), it’s still a large amount of activation energy to get involved in that system, and there’s no compelling reason to get into it. Anyone who has spent any time in virtual spaces can tell you that they work best as a synchronous (real time) environment. This requires time and engagement to maintain, and an empty space that was solely built for engaging with others is both boring and lonely. It’s an entirely different mindset from what the teams at Facebook are used to, and thus far I’ve seen nothing to indicate they’re giving that issue the attention it needs (see my previous comment about being intentionally blind to fundamental flaws).
Perhaps I should be more generous to them, give more of the benefit of the doubt. But frankly, I don’t want to. There have been literally decades of research into this space, and the sheer fucking hubris of Zuckerberg thinking he understands the space well enough to usher in “the metaverse” leaves me very little room for sympathy. He’s spent billions on this already, for a system not really any better than what others have done before (for a fraction of the cost).
You might think I’m being cynical or pessimistic, but I’m not. The cynic and the pessimist in me is more afraid he might succeed in capturing that virtual world market – even with its broken idea space – and what that sort of stunted, hamstrung, corp-controlled environment would end up blocking from existing.