About a year ago, I wrote a series of articles exploring the possible benefits and downsides of
Facebook’s Meta’s Metaverse plans. In some ways, referring to it that way isn’t fair, because Oculus (which was bought out by Facebook and became Meta) isn’t the only player in that arena. A growing number of companies were involved then, and even more are chasing the metaverse now.
I don’t want to rehash the whole series of articles, but if you’re TL;DR about a four-part series, the short version is that there are safety and environmental benefits that can come from lowering the need for transportation and keeping people out of dangerous situations. But, the cost of hardware may get in the way and that’s assuming the metaverse is both high quality and not a cesspool of misinformation, human rights abuses, and incivility.
It’s Not Looking Good On The Meta Side
Sadly, the Facebook part of the metaverse hasn’t even gotten far enough in quality for those deeper questions to even come into play. The centerpiece VR app, Horizon Worlds, got a lot of initial interest, but has been losing active users like crazy. Like VR headsets themselves, people want to try something new and then many people quit using it when the novelty wears off. Now, the company is in a “quality lockdown” where new features are suspended while they try to make it more stable and pleasant.
It’s pretty unclear how the company intends to get out of the slump with Horizon Worlds, or if it plans to do something else to bring its overall Metaverse concept to bear. I tried to get into Horizon Worlds myself to see what its prospects looked like, but apparently at present they’re not even allowing new users in, or they don’t think I’m good enough to test it. Whatever their reasons, I couldn’t get into it to learn about it. But, from everything I’ve read, I’m not missing out at this point.
It seems unlikely that the new Oculus Pro headset is going to save it on its own. While impressive in terms of hardware and capabilities, the Oculus Pro also has an impressive price tag that will keep all but the most serious users from considering it. It’s hard enough to get people to spend $300 on a device that does nothing but VR, despite people regularly spending upwards of $1000 on smartphones. With a smartphone, you can do almost anything, after all. $1500 seems like a pretty tough sell considering all that.
One possible solution is to interact with the metaverse without requiring a VR headset, which is Meta’s plan at this point. If you remember seeing the 360-degree videos and photos on Facebook a few years ago, that’s probably a pretty good hint at how the worlds of 2D and 3D can overlap. By moving a smartphone or tablet around like a “magic window,” you can have a VR or augmented reality (AR) experience of sorts. If that experience can get people interested, it may be the way to get people to invest in dedicated hardware.
There’s also the traditional video game approach. With a mouse, WASD keys, and arrow keys, you can move around virtual worlds the old-fashioned way. So, desktop computers and laptops can be another entry point to the metaverse. Games like Minecraft and Roblox show us that it’s possible for consoles to get in on the action in much the same way.
When it comes to productive use of the metaverse for things like meetings, it’s possible for webcams and software like Zoom to get in on the action. Instead of showing up as a 3D avatar that looks like you in the virtual space, you could show up as a floating monitor or TV screen with the video from your webcam hovering over a seat at the virtual table. Screen sharing, presentations, and more are also essential for virtual meetings.
Outside of Meta’s Metaverse
If Meta/Facebook can’t make the metaverse happen, it isn’t the only player. There are plenty of other niche uses for VR technology, virtual spaces, and such that can make it work out.
The popular 3D and 2D design software SketchUp has had VR viewers where you could check out your designs for a while, but more recently the ability to actually do 3D design in a virtual space has emerged. For SketchUp, there’s VR Sketch.
On top of that, professional CAD software can work with VR to help big engineering and architectural firms show people what a multi-million dollar project will look like in the end. This should have been obvious, but VR is a natural way to interact with 3D designs, and costs for things like headsets would seem small when millions are on the line.
VR & Metaverse Gaming Hasn’t Gone Anywhere
VR gaming hasn’t gone mainstream, but it’s a sure bet when you lay down money for VR hardware that gaming will be a reliable use for it. Popular titles like Beatsaber, Star Wars, and the upcoming Among Us VR show that VR gaming is still viable.
But, once again, we need to keep in mind that the metaverse isn’t just VR. Roblox and Minecraft are considered to be big metaverse players, too, despite most gaming happening in 2D there. The important thing that makes those online venues part of the metaverse, and not just computer games, is that they bring people from different places together and give them some control over the environment. So, even if the Facebook/Meta version of the metaverse flops, the concept definitely isn’t dead.
One Last Thing To Keep In Mind: VR Doesn’t Replace Anything
It’s important to keep in mind that a successful metaverse concept doesn’t require that old ways of doing things die out. The internet used to not even involve web pages, if you’re old enough to remember that. But, FTP didn’t go anywhere. Webpages eventually got video capability, but photographs and text (like the text you’re reading right now) aren’t dead just because YouTube is a thing.
So, as we watch things unfold, don’t assume that VR and the metaverse is dead because the World Wide Web and hypertext is still a thing. Things might not be happening with VR as quickly as Meta may have hoped, but there’s still a lot of potential.
Featured image: a screenshot from a Meta video (embedded above) showing how Horizon Workrooms can interact with older meeting software, like Zoom.
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