The metaverse is already here


Are you ready to live in a 3D-navigable, socially connected, conscience-curving, carefree virtual world? Facebook’s pursuit of this metaverse dream as its next platform is bold, though it may be like swapping out a car’s engine while it’s going 100 mph—hard to do without crashing. Look at Apple as it transitioned from computers to iPods and iPhones. Facebook even changed its name to Meta. “The dream was to feel present with the people we care about,” CEO Mark Zuckerberg explained. He also promised “immersive all-day experiences.” Facebook may need a new platform anyway if the Biden administration dismantles its current one in the name of antitrust.

This has been tried before. A virtual space called “Second Life” launched in 2003. You could buy digital property and clothes with real money and hang out with other blocky avatars. It was early days. Naysayers in Silicon Valley liked to say that “Second Life” was for those who didn’t have a first one.

The metaverse marks another interface transition. Green and amber text monitors gave way to Apple’s and Windows’ graphical user interface, making computers much easier to use. Then slow modems connected us to the internet and we used the barren search-page interfaces of Yahoo and Google. Eventually graphics and photos sneaked in, especially as blogs and social networks boomed, and smartphones with cameras turned many into photo bugs. Then video was added, peaking this year with TikTok and multi-tile Zoom calls. Each interface iteration means humans spend less time navigating the computer and more time harnessing its power.

Think of the metaverse as another change of perspective. Videogames have 3D worlds already, a big jump from 2D Tetris. Epic Games, maker of “Fortnite,” has more than 350 million registered users. Roblox, for younger gamers, has more than 160 million active users. There are thousands of 3D games on smartphones. An estimated 2.5 billion people play videogames daily, a $150 billion market. My guess is this is where Facebook will go shopping—after it begs for permission from the Federal Trade Commission.

No one reads a videogame instruction manual; players learn by doing. Entire generations have learned how to interact with computers by playing videogames, even if they were mostly killing one another virtually.

Facebook paid $3 billion for virtual-reality headset maker Oculus in 2014 and likely has poured in billions more. Facebook is pushing virtual-reality social platform Horizon Worlds, on which people can meet and interact and perhaps do commerce eventually. Fitness and education are huge potential metaverse markets.

I’ve played around with virtual-reality prototypes since dreadlocked technologist Jaron Lanier pioneered them in the late 1980s. I bought a developer kit for the original Oculus Rift in 2012 and Google Glass in 2013. In 2019 I tried Magic Leap’s artificial-reality glasses, which beam photons directly onto your retina to display 3D objects in the real world—truly amazing but limited and cumbersome. Now I own a $299 Oculus Quest 2, which looks like a pair of opaque ski goggles. It is spectacular. I’ve boxed virtually and explored the International Space Station and Antarctica. In real life I can ride any roller coaster, but I began to feel nauseated after using the Oculus for an hour. Staring at screens an inch from your eyeballs takes some getting used to. And be careful—a guy I know ended up in the hospital after falling over his living-room furniture.

It is early innings, but never underestimate how quickly technology advances once there is a big market that lowers costs. How will it all be paid for? “Ads . . . will probably be a meaningful part of the metaverse, too,” Mr. Zuckerberg noted.

Many real-world problems will sneak into this new world. An early tester of Facebook’s Horizon Worlds posted a few weeks ago that her avatar was groped by another avatar. I had to think for a while about whether that was even possible. I’m against all sexual harassment, and this shows the metaverse has a lot of rules and boundaries to work through.

Eventually, will we see virtual artwork and nonfungible tokens hanging on infinitely expandable walls? Virtual fitness fanatics? Real-estate developers buying up virtual worlds? Self-replicating virtual cyborg Terminators? Maybe, but I guarantee that the metaverse, like all new technology, will be far different from whatever we can dream up today. But definitely keep one of those airline barf bags around.

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text

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