Apparently, we are now living on the verge of the Metaverse. Over the last few months, the idea that we will all be living in virtual worlds become a foregone conclusion among the investing universe. With the stock market no longer in the mood for Story Stocks, the heated rhetoric about the metaverse has died down considerably, but we know many still feel that the metaverse story resonates strongly.
How many people remember the last time the idea of a second world was the hot topic of the moment? It was not that long ago. In fact, the last time this idea was in vogue it was in the final stages of the 1990’s dot.com Boom. <Cue foreshadowing music.> People have been speculating about this for a long time. Today, author Neal Stephenson’s Snowcrash is cited as the originator of the concept, but even he will concede he was not the first (Note: Snowcrash is still a great book, worth a read). In fact, the best visual portrayal of this virtual world can be seen in the 1994 Michael Douglas/Michael Crichton film “Disclosure”. (Note: Disclosure is not a good movie, and not worth a view.) For those who suffered through it, the virtual reality world at the heart of the movie’s ‘plot’ is painfully cumbersome. And of course, there is the classic website Second Life, which did a lot of what today’s metaverse proponents talk about (albeit in lower-res).
All of this is a long way of saying that the idea of the metaverse has been around for a long time, and the fact that we have not gotten there yet can be laid down to two chief reasons.
First, replicating the real world in some form of digital simulation may not be the best way to organize digital activity. At the peak of last year’s metaverse frenzy, Wal Mart garnered a lot of online shade for their VR shopping demo. We do not want to pile on, credit to them for being creative, but that video highlights the problems with virtual worlds being too skeumorphic, resembling the real world too much. No one wants to go shopping by walking down virtual aisles when they can just point and click on an Amazon app in regular reality. At the very least, all this talk effort towards virtual reality needs to do a lot more work on the user interface. As artist/musician Laurie Anderson put it – VR will not leak real until they learn to put some dirt in it.
A second problem is that the technology is just not there yet. We wrote about this years ago in 2016 (with an update in 2019). And while the industry has made some advancements since then, they still have a ways to go.
As we wrote about back then, there are really two flavors of metaverse – the fully immerse world of virtual reality (VR) where the user wears headgear and all images are digitally generated; and the world of Augmented Reality (AR) where users where a pair of glasses that present a digital overlay on top of the real world.
Admittedly, the industry has made considerable progress with VR. Most people find that Facebook’s (Meta’s) Occulus is a great product. There is a fair amount of software available for it, and uses cases have broadened beyond gaming and porn to include remote work desktops. And while most people who spend the day working behind VR goggles need a day to re-adjust to reality, it does seem that VR has made real advances.
By contrast, AR is still a work in progress as it presents serious technical challenges. For instance, the compute and battery for AR glasses still need a great amount of miniaturization. Most implementations we have seen are either unwieldy or limited in functionality. Placing a digital overlay on top of a real world image is incredibly difficult. The graphics have to refresh quickly enough to allow for free movement of the head, otherwise the lag creates nausea as users see two out-of-sync worlds simultaneously. This requires immense graphics processing – for which see above regarding miniaturization. It also requires very high bandwidth, low latency data connections.
This last part is probably why we hear so much about the metaverse personally. From our position entrenched deep in the telecom networking world, the solution to this bandwidth/latency problem is 5G! The telecom operators and, especially, their equipment vendors are grasping at any opportunity they can to extol the virtues of 5G (which are otherwise fairly limited), and many of them have grasped AR fiercely. Unfortunately for them 5G is only part of the solution, the other technical challenges and the required software and content are just not ready yet.
We still think all these things will come some day, but the metaverse is many years away.