Is the metaverse doomed?

Wednesday 25th Jan 2023, 12.30pm

Ask an internet aficionado what the ‘next big thing’ is, and they might respond with ‘the metaverse’. This is the idea that we could soon be wandering in a virtual world – a kind of global, immersive video game. But are we really just one VR headset away from paradise? Or is the metaverse doomed before it’s even really got off the ground? We chat to Dr Bernie Hogan from the Oxford Internet Institute to find out if Big Tech’s confidence in the metaverse might be misplaced.

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Emily Elias: Mark Zuckerberg is trying to sell us on the metaverse, this virtual world where it has some of the hallmarks of our physical one, but better. On this episode of the Oxford Sparks Big Questions podcast, we’re asking, are we one VR headset away from paradise, or is the metaverse doomed?

Hello, I’m Emily Elias, and this is the show where we seek out the brightest minds at the University of Oxford, and we ask them the big questions. And for this one, we’ve reached a researcher who’s not only familiar with the world of Facebook, his old students staff it.

Dr Bernie Hogan: -Dr Bernie Hogan. I’m a Senior Research Fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute. Now, most people wouldn’t necessarily know what an internet institute is, but it’s an interdisciplinary social science school. And I’m trained as a sociologist and a computer scientist, and I’ve applied, kind of, the combination of those to the study of online worlds.

Emily: So, we’re talking online worlds today. I mean, the metaverse. Help me understand, what exactly is this thing?

Bernie: Well, there’s the metaverse as a concept, and then there is, kind of, Facebook’s metaverse, but there’s lots of different kinds of them. So, the concept is really about the idea of an augmented reality, or a virtual reality, where it’s immersive. So, you would feel like you were going into a metaverse, or that you are a character or an avatar, or a self – it could be a person or something – inside of a virtual world.

Now, it’s slightly different than the idea of, say, an in-game world, where you might play that on a video game or on your television, because the idea is that it’s supposed to be something where you’re immersed in. So, it really relates a lot to virtual reality, because we would use VR headsets often in order to create that sense of immersion. You put on the headset and you look around, and then you see, this is, like, a place where I can be that’s virtual or computer generated, or so forth.

Emily: Is it like being in a physical space, or is it trying to replicate something else?

Bernie: Well, it’s a digital space, because it’s, well, synthesised, or created. So, it can have a lot of features of the offline world, but there are some differences, and maybe some limitations of that.

The first is that it’s not really immersive. It’s not like a hallucination. It’s not inside your mind, like, a dream. Personally, I think none of these are really metaverses until we get to the place where it feels like it’s a waking dream. And that’s going to take a lot more sophisticated technology than we have right now. What we have are basically 3D games, and other variants on that, that you see through a headset.

So, the differences? Well, because it’s digital, you can do, kind of, interesting things, in terms of, it can be limitless in its space, or you can fast travel from one to the other, or you can have people from all round the world, kind of, coalesce in a particular space.

It can get more creative, where you don’t even need to be a person, you could just be a set of hands that just walk around and interact with tools. So, it has a certain amount of flexibility.

But also, it has a level of what we might call being circumscribed. That it’s coded by somebody – normally the people who are the data controllers, or the providers of this. So, in Facebook’s case, their metaverse would be a place that they control from their servers, and that generates the images that you see when you act as this avatar walking through their metaverse.

Emily: So, does Facebook have a confident stranglehold on the metaverse as a concept? Or is there a rival metaverse that is cropping up?

Bernie: Well, there are many metaverses that are cropping up, insofar as we can think of any 3D space as potentially being immersive. So, Fortnite is a classic example now, where people go, and they both will play videogames – you know, running around, shooting, and zapping, and whatever – but also engage in trade, engage in, like, go to even libraries. There are special events that will happen. Ariana Grande, for example, did a really big thing in the Fortnite metaverse.

Minecraft is an example of a metaverse, where people go and they build things in a whole bunch of different servers. The servers, kind of, link together, and if you were to walk around with a headset, you may think of it as a metaverse.

So, does Facebook have a stranglehold? Not in the slightest. What Facebook does have is a lot of clout, and has spent a lot of money on their metaverse, or horizon worlds, as well as the design of avatars and their considerations of things like what would make a place safe, as well as what might make it profitable.

Emily: So, who’s actually using this thing? Is it the Ariana Grande fans of the world? Or is it all across all generations?

Bernie: Well, depending on the metaverse, you’ll have different people. Fortnite’s audience certainly scales relatively young, these are teenagers, generally. For Facebook’s metaverse, we don’t really know. And the reason is just because there’s just not a lot of activity happening on Facebook’s metaverse. For example, the European Union recently had a beach party on the metaverse to help support human rights, and it was attended by less than ten people.

So, it’s not really appropriate to generalise with such a small sample of who will be using the metaverse. But I can say right now, in the current incarnation, some people that won’t be using the metaverse. Those who are generally technically – I wouldn’t say illiterate, but those who are not generally into tech. Because it can be very fussy.

Imagine, for example, one instance that’s happening with the metaverse for work is things like two-factor authentication. So, you have this headset on, and you’re in this space for work, and then you have to go and look at your phone to get the code that you have to enter in the metaverse, in order to authenticate, so you’re, kind of, going in and out of the headset. So, people who are not so adept at these things in this very rough period will not be using it.

And especially those with certain disabilities, or disability-like qualities, those who get motion sickness. People who have prisms in one eye often can’t handle the stereoscopic thing of, you know, the way the images are presented to the eye. They get overwhelmed, or it’s just hard to see or focus. So, there’s a number of people who just fundamentally will not be able to enjoy a stereoscopic 3D virtual world, in addition to those who probably don’t want to, because it’s yet another complicated thing to have to manage, as part of their engaging in social media.

Emily: But Facebook is obviously putting a tonne of money and a tonne of resources into it. Is this just early days, and people will catch on?

Bernie: Facebook had a really useful strategy, and a really useful place in the late aughts. They don’t necessarily have that with respect to the metaverse. Facebook came at a time when the world was looking for a way to make use of the internet and make use of a really underserved part of our digital life, which is the address book. The address book, the contact list, it doesn’t really- if you even go on your phone now, it’s quite dull. Maybe it’s not even filled out with enough information to send Christmas cards to people.

So, along comes Facebook, and unlike MySpace, which was very garish, and unlike a number of other sites, which were very niche, Facebook seemed like it was able to present itself as, like, the generic social media site, and so it, at that time, had a really useful way to secure its position. It was, like, the default social network, and they used the ‘People you may know’ feature to great effect for that. That was, kind of, a one-time thing for Facebook.

Since then, Facebook have not demonstrated the sort of innovation and ideas that one might expect for a company of that size. Instead, they’ve acquired companies at great expense, and spent a lot of their time managing the various issues that come up with the vast amount of data that they have, and the need for regulatory compliance.

So, they acquired Instagram, they acquired WhatsApp, and they acquired a number of other small properties. But I don’t see them being innovators in a broad sense. I saw them as being those who normalised or legitimated social network sites at a time when we actually thought metaverses were going to be the thing.

Emily: But when we’re looking at social networks, the landscapes, I mean, Twitter, right now, is in its own sort of peril, where people are leaving it. Could Facebook come and fill that void with the metaverse?

Bernie: Oh, certainly not. That’s just it. Facebook was the answer to the metaverse in the aughts, in 2006, 2007, 2008. At that time, we had wondered whether a MySpace thing, where you nominate friends, and have your top eight friends, or whatever, is going to be the way we moved forward with the internet. Or was it going to be Second Life? Is it going to be Second Life, where you go in and build a table, and build a house, and invite your friends, and go have dinner?

And it turns out, all the trappings of this virtual world are in a way just trying to give people a sense of the internet-like offline life. And it was too much, it was unnecessary. What we really needed was just a means to get access to the people we know and care about, and an easy way to consolidate or aggregate information from them. Adding on extra things – like you’ve got to go through a shiny door, and then inside is a popup message from a wizard, and so forth – is not as straightforward as simply opening it up and seeing, ‘here’s the wedding photos, and here’s my friends’.

So, Facebook clobbered the metaverse in 2007 and 2008, and then people just gave up on Second Life as a potential form of social media. Now, 20 years later, we might say, “Oh, it’s because the tech wasn’t ready.” But it’s not that the tech wasn’t ready, it’s that the needs weren’t there. There’s no need for people to present a whole complicated virtual world in order to get the feelings they need from other people. Those feelings might be, like, “Oh, you’re doing well”, or expressing care, or expressing a sense of political action. None of those need a virtual world, they just need the connectivity.

Emily: Do we have any idea what’s going on behind the scenes?

Bernie: The metaverse starts as the idea of a virtual world, or a 3D space. And one of the earliest or most exciting of those I certainly remember as a young kid was the game, Wolfenstein. And it was one of these first games where you could walk through and run around and shoot a gun or a laser beam, or whatever. And then there was one called Doom. And these were the beginning of a virtual space you could walk around in, and it was very exciting.

And the gentleman who was perhaps most responsible for these spaces was a man named John Carmack. And I’ve heard John Carmack being quoted as, “He’s not just smarter, he also works harder. He works harder and smarter than other people. He’s really quite an exceptional coder.” And he was hired for the last ten years by Facebook, in order to really advance their virtual worlds. And only in the end of the December, he put in his resignation notice. He felt that he was not able to work with them in the way that allowed him to be realistic about their goals.

There’s a subtext there that suggests there’s a lot of ideological intervention or agendas being advanced with this, that can sometimes get in the way of very practical things that people feel are needed. And Carmack leaving is really, for me, a bit of a canary in the coalmine for Facebook. Because he’s had such a great reputation, and is really just the master of creating 3D spaces for people to navigate in, was there n the ground floor.

If he’s lost faith in Facebook or Meta and their ambitions for this, then that suggests to me that we really should look under the hood before we go all chips in on this, or really invest in Facebook’s aspirations. Not because 3D spaces aren’t worth it, but because if they’re overly massaged, or overly steered, in a top-down way, they’re not just going to engender the faith of game developers or programmers. It won’t fail quickly, but that will end up leading to failure.

Emily: So, in your assessment, as one of the smartest brains at the University of Oxford in this world, is the metaverse doomed?

Bernie: I think Facebook’s metaverse is doomed. I really do. I think it’s doomed. And that’s a sad proclamation to make. But fundamentally, I think Facebook have lost trust of their audiences in a time when rolling out a technology that just circumscribes everything, you just can’t have that.

So, for example, when I say it circumscribes everything, those cameras can look to see whether you’re looking at an ad or not. Not whether the ad’s playing, but whether you’re looking at it. The virtual world itself is totally under Facebook’s dominion, and they really have lost the trust of the population that they can do this safely, and do this without riling up extreme groups across the world, or undermining people’s sense of autonomy.

It’s not safety in the sense of seeing things that people aren’t supposed to see. Facebook are quite good at that level of censorship. But the question is whether they’ve neutered their own experience to the point where people can’t be creative on the site, except creative on Facebook’s very heavy terms.

I’m with many people that believe that a metaverse that will succeed is one that will be more bottom-up. Like, Minecraft is bottom-up, where you can have your own server, and invite people to the server, and link your servers to others. Discord is also bottom-up in many ways, where you can similarly have your own servers.

But Facebook has this very top-down type of structure, and I don’t know that that structure- I’m really pessimistic that that will provide the sort of excitement and autonomy that will allow so many other people to go in and participate, rather than just people who are being paid by Facebook to say, “Here, you should do something on this site. We’ll help subsidise, or we’ll give you some tech support, and sure, then go off and do something.” There’s only a limited amount of that that will actually succeed, without the love or the excitement of people broadly.

Emily: Well, I guess you’ve saved me some money of going out and buying a VR headset, and getting into the metaverse. Thank you.

Bernie: There’s lots of technologies out there that are really great, really exciting. And I think that the future of this space will really be in artificial intelligence, AI. These other tools, like ChatGPT, Dall-E and Stable Diffusion, are helping to show how effectively we can generate really new and novel experiences, rather than simply try to project our everyday life into a slightly more technologically complicated version of it. There’s a lot to be optimistic about in the future, in terms of how creatively we can use technology. But simply projecting a low-grade version of this that’s even more controlled is probably not going to be the one that is going to get the excitement in the 2020s.

Emily: This podcast was brought to you by Oxford Sparks from the University of Oxford. With music by John Lyons, and a special thanks to Dr Bernie Hogan.

Tell us what you think. We are on the internet: @oxfordsparks, and yes, we are in fact on Facebook as well, not quite the metaverse yet. We also have a cool website, – go, look, have fun.

I’m Emily Elias. Bye for now.


Transcribed by UK Transcription.

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