Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg is not backing down over his commitment to the metaverse. Despite widespread criticism over the relevance of his virtual reality world, he has rebranded the social media’s parent company ‘Meta’ and ploughed billions into the project, which he believes will be the “successor to the mobile Internet”.
It’s a bold vision for a technology that was, until recently, a novelty whose application no one could pin down.
In the mid-2010s, with Oculus leading the VR (virtual reality) surge, the metaverse was used primarily for gaming. In the years since, tech utopianists have promised that the metaverse could revolutionise everything from flight simulations and aerospace development to medical research.
You can therefore understand why Meta – which bought Oculus in 2014 and has been expanding its Reality Labs business ever since – saw its market value soar past $1 trillion last year.
Yet, Meta shareholders have grown increasingly frustrated over Zuckerberg’s strategy, as he steers away from the bleeding edge and insists that the metaverse can be used for more practical things, like creating Excel spreadsheets.
Investors have described the plan as a “train wreck”, with reports that Meta’s own employees refuse to use the metaverse. Yet, novel technology always has an allure for businesses that want to seem ahead of the game, and proponents of Zuckerberg’s vision insist that it is already bringing unquestionable benefits.
An immersive experience?
It’s easy to poke fun at Meta’s virtual landscape, dubbed Horizon Worlds, with the stories practically writing themselves. There are jokes about how the graphics resemble a 2002 GameCube game, there’s Meta’s stock plunge, its legless avatars, the exorbitant cost of virtual reality headsets and the general public’s lack of understanding about what exactly the metaverse is.
But the technology must have some practical benefit if not only Meta but also a host of other businesses are dipping their toes into the virtual reality landscape. Both Snapchat’s parent company Snap and Amazon are investing heavily in the tech, while Apple – whose CEO Tim Cook has expressed hesitance about the benefits of the metaverse – is onboard.
The difference in those cases is that, whereas most people believe that the metaverse has a handful of specific uses, Meta believes that virtual reality can be used to create vast, interoperable worlds that replicate the way we interact with one another online.
Zuckerberg’s most ambitious plan is for the metaverse to make its way into the workforce. Advocates of the concept argue that the move to remote working has left employees increasingly disconnected, and the current solutions to keep the team together – such as video conferencing and instant messaging – provide scant consolation.
By entering the metaverse, teams could be transported into a seemingly three-dimensional space, such a virtual meeting room, where they can move around, interact with colleagues, pass notes to one another and so on.
It won’t feel exactly like the real, tangible human interactions of an actual office, but it bridges the gap between the isolation that employees feel working remotely and the convenience of not having to commute into work.
In theory, that’s a great idea. But critics have questioned why, if the problem we currently face is our reliance on technology to communicate, the solution is to introduce more technology – one that removes the real world and people’s faces and bodies from the equation altogether.
A solution looking for a problem
Among the most vocal critics of Meta’s strategy is Apple CEO Tim Cook. Although he’s previously praised VR technology – and Apple is currently producing its own combination augmented reality/virtual reality headset – he believes that the technology has a limited scope.
In an interview with Bright, he said VR is “something you can really immerse yourself in. And that can be used in a good way. But I don’t think you want to live your whole life that way. VR is for set periods, but not a way to communicate well”.
Indeed, one only needs to consider how intrusive the metaverse experience is. Its users are required to strap a headset weighing half a kilo to their face. Besides the inconvenience and discomfort this might cause, research has shown that the prolonged use of VR can cause eye strain, fatigue and blurred vision.
People have also been known to experience symptoms of “cybersickness”, which includes headaches, trouble focusing, light-headedness, drowsiness, sweating, nausea and vomiting.
This isn’t to say that we should avoid the use of VR altogether. Many of the same issues are raised with staring at a computer screen all day, and it’s why health and safety protocols urge employees to take regular breaks.
But that’s much harder to do when wearing a VR headset, because you can’t simply look away from the screen.
There are also questions of how confident people will be using the technology. In the latest edition of the Crypto podcast, Bloomberg Senior Reporter Matthew Boyle acknowledges the potential the metaverse has in creating an immersive and collaborative experience for employees.
He cited the benefits it could bring to tasks such as onboarding a new team member, holding meetings and performing a training sessions. However, as we have already seen with tools such as video calling, the challenges that many people face using the technology could become a barrier to the work itself.
“We can’t even get Zoom conversations right,” Boyle said. “There are tomes and books being written, and research papers coming out of Harvard, studying interactions on Zoom and […] whether that Zoom should have been an email.
“The smartest companies are shortening meetings and using Zoom less, because they know what sort of [negative] impact it is having.
“If you’re saying let’s all go to the metaverse and have a more productive meeting, my answer is: we’re not even getting meetings right now with the simplest of technologies for video conferencing.”
The bottom line
For all the criticisms of how inconvenient or impractical employees might find the metaverse, organisations – including Meta itself – knows that these concerns will be irrelevant if there is a business case to be made.
For some organisations, the metaverse is already delivering on its promise. Speaking at the Dubai Metaverse Assembly in July, Emirates Chief Operating Officer Adel Al Redha said that, with the metaverse, the airline has “[cut] out the middleman, bringing in efficiencies and more capabilities with this elimination.
“More importantly, we pass on these costs we’ve saved to the end-users [customers] and give better value for their time. That’s where we’re going with this technology.”
This is so far one of the few positive stories. Organisations are reluctant to use the technology while such gaping problems remain. In 2020, PwC published a report estimating that nearly 23.5 million jobs worldwide would use AR and VR by 2030 for tasks such as employee training, meetings and customer service.
The upward trend has stalled amid uncertainty over Meta’s business model, and for the most part only large firms such as Emirates have been willing to take the gamble.
Whether Meta is able to ride out its flaws and convince businesses that the metaverse is the future remains to be seen, but the reality is bleak.