The concept of the Metaverse, at least with that name, has been around since the early 1990s, with most dating its conception back to the 1992 sci-fi novel Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson.
But the Metaverse really began to arrive in the public consciousness during and after the height of the pandemic. It soon became the topic du jour at most tech conferences in 2021 and 2022, and, in the fall of 2021, the company formerly known as Facebook changed its name to Meta Platforms, Inc., as part of a big push into the Metaverse world.
The Metaverse was thought to have numerous applications, from business to dating to buying and selling real estate within the Metaverse. There was also much made of the massive potential of e-commerce in the Metaverse. Back in February, Dealerscope wrote about digital storefronts, including that the likes of Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Nike, Tommy Hilfiger and Adidas, were all committed to some degree to provide an e-commerce window in the Metaverse.
However, thus far in 2023, one has the sense that a backlash has begun to emerge against the idea of the Metaverse. For one thing, even a couple of years into the current craze about the technology, a large chunk of the public either has no idea what the Metaverse is, or if they do, they are not able to easily define it. That is the sort of thing unlikely to drive much e-commerce traffic.
In addition, Meta’s Metaverse efforts are beginning to look like a massive flop, with negative headlines all over tech press. Horizon Worlds, Meta’s flagship app, is used by very few people and, as The Verge reported last fall, not even the company’s employees use it, while Wired wrote a well-received story in January about a sparsely-attended “holiday party,” also in Horizon Worlds.
Apple, during its World Wide Developers Conference in early June, introduced its long-awaited Apple Vision Pro headset, and it was much noticed that the word “Metaverse” was not said a single time during the keynote, nor did Apple’s application for the technology look much like what had been proposed for the Metaverse up until that time.
This led to a lot of headlines: “The Metaverse is Dead.”
Tech writer Ed Zitron wrote an “obituary” for the metaverse for Business Insider after the Apple event noting that, “the Metaverse, the once-buzzy technology that promised to allow users to hang out awkwardly in a disorientating video-game-like world, has died after being abandoned by the business world. It was three years old.”
“Far from being worth trillions of dollars, the Metaverse turned out to be worth absolutely bupkus,” Kate Wagner wrote in the political magazine The Nation in July. “It’s not even that the platform lagged behind expectations or was slow to become popular. There wasn’t anyone visiting the Metaverse at all… To say that the Metaverse is dead is an understatement. It was never alive.”
Yes, the Metaverse Has a Future
Wagner James Au has been writing about the Metaverse longer than any other journalist. He worked as an embedded journalist within Second Life, which launched in 2003 and was the first major mainstream iteration of the Metaverse. Au now runs New World Notes, which he calls “the world’s longest-running metaverse news and culture site,” and is the author of the new book Making a Metaverse That Matters: From Snow Crash & Second Life to A Virtual World Worth Fighting For.
The thesis of the book, Au said, is to “explain where the concept came from, and why it’s powerful, and why it’s successful, and how to make it even better than what we have now.”
While he agrees that Meta’s efforts have not worked, Au does see a real future for the concept – one that absolutely has e-commerce as a part.
“One of the purposes of the book is to really sort of reframe the understanding of the Metaverse, because Meta, and a bunch of players really confused the concept… Meta really created a straw man concept of the Metaverse, and has really confused the market.”
Au noted that people have been trying to build the Metaverse for 30 years, and the real energy in the concept today is on gaming platforms such as Fortnite and Roblox, both of which include e-commerce elements.
Au said that if a company is looking to get into e-commerce today, those two platforms are likely the best bet, provided its target demographics line up with the user bases of those platforms.
“Retailers are seeing a lot of return on investment when they create installations in Roblox and Fortnite,” Au said. Vans is a brand that has had some success, as other youth-focused brands are now taking advantage of the younger-skewing demographics of those platforms.
“It’s primarily used for games, and light entertainment, but ideally what we want is it to become even larger and more diverse in terms of community and culture, and that’s when we’ll really start to see a trajectory of lots of real-world use cases.”
Where Meta Went Wrong
Back at South by Southwest in March 2022, former Nintendo of America CEO Reggie Fils-Aime took a shot at Meta’s plans in a keynote interview.
“You have to admit that Facebook itself is not an innovative company. They have either acquired really interesting things, like Oculus, like Instagram, or they’ve been a fast follower of other people’s ideas,” Fils-Aime said. “Inherently, they are not an innovative company other than the very original social platform that was created many years ago.”
Over a year later, that’s looking like a prescient prediction.
“There’s a lot of internal tumult and confusion about what the Metaverse even is,” Au said, adding that internal surveys have said the majority of Meta employees do not believe Zuckerberg has adequately explained his own understanding of the Metaverse.
“That’s one of their bigger mistakes, is to focus their Metaverse efforts around the Quest, because VR has a very limited market, and it’s almost by definition a niche product.”
Fils-Aime noted that Facebook researcher Danah Boyd noted in 2014 that women are more likely to become nauseous while using VR.
“They spent tens of billions of dollars on this, without checking to see if this is actually scalable to half the population.”– Wagner James Au, author, Making a Metaverse That Matters
The Future of the Metaverse
So, what will the Metaverse look like five or ten years out?
Au said that while Apple didn’t pitch the Vision Pro as a Metaverse device, the company did recently partner with a VR/Metaverse platform called Rec Room, which will be an application available when the device launches in early 2024. However, the ongoing Apple/Epic Games legal battle will presumably keep Fortnite off the Vision Pro.
“I say the near-term future (of) the addressable market is about one in four people who are on the Internet,” Au said. “There will be multiple more platforms launching, that will become and more Metaverse-like.”