The metaverse is here, but before we get too excited let's consider the following...
Original published on substack in Oct 2022 - https://open.substack.com/pub/jamesbryan/p/5-metaverse-issues-not-being-discussed?r=1o9qpi&utm_campaign=post&utm_medium=web
It turns out that the power required to produce and trade NFTs is not unreasonable. However, establishing fully immersive, open metaverse environments will demand a mind-bending amount of computer processing, colossal data centres, and massive amounts of good old-fashioned electricity. Breakthroughs in sustainable energy infrastructure, including solar and wind farms, could help achieve this vision. Nevertheless, we are still in the early stages, with numerous difficult manufacturing and supply chain issues to overcome.
Parts of America already struggle to keep the lights on, so how will this work when activities like business meetings or shopping trips require immense amounts of powerful graphic processing? Meanwhile, the old fashioned stick-in-the-muds who insist on navigating the physical world are increasingly relying on giant batteries on wheels. The technology to accommodate this capacity load increase simply does not exist yet.
Addiction to social media and the resulting mental health issues are pervasive, particularly among the Gen Z population. Unfortunately, this normalisation of addiction continues to seep into society as the years go by. Video game addiction has been a concern for some time, with dedicated recovery centres emerging worldwide. Now, imagine these two seductive habits speedballed together, delivered through fully immersive VR and encouraged in our daily lives by some of the most powerful influencers in the world. Meta's strategy, at least before the recent supply chain shocks, was to subsidise the cost of headsets to onboard as many users as possible into the Meta-verse.
Deeper levels of immersion made possible by virtual reality will likely result in even deeper levels of addiction for those susceptible to it.
While the technology to produce and run truly immersive virtual worlds may already exist, significant upgrades to hardware, software, and networking services will be required at the user end to achieve the intended level of immersion. For the foreseeable future, we will have serious barriers to entry due to the resources needed for a smooth and user-friendly experience. I can't help but imagine some poor bastard spawning into the metaverse to escape an economically shambolic dystopia in the not-too-distant future, only to be ridiculed by the highly rendered members of virtual society because of their glitchy, 2D avatar. Just like in the real world, the more resources you have access to, the higher your quality of life will be. Decentralised, blockchain-based virtual worlds that leverage globally distributed computer networks promise superior computing, stability, and governance at scale compared to centrally controlled networks. In theory, this approach will result in a better user experience with fewer limitations for both users and developers. Crypto-powered metaverses also make more sense for those concerned about personal data being collected and funnelled through corporate data centres.
Another obvious advantage of decentralised world building is the natural move towards interoperability. Any metaverse built on Ethereum is, by default, interoperable with any other metaverse that uses Ethereum as its underlying codebase. Furthermore, developers are increasingly building bridges between different blockchain ecosystems, encouraged by the decentralised communities they are part of.
This allows for the free flow of information and digital assets, including NFTs, between different metaverse worlds. It is challenging to imagine how closed systems like Meta or Apple could compete with this freedom of movement across digital borders. However, there is hope for a truly interoperable network of decentralised and centralised metaverses with the formation of the Metaverse Standards Forum (MSF). The MSF has stated that it is open to any organisation to join, although there is currently a distinct lack of Web3 projects on the member list.
With new forms of expression come new forms of harassment and abuse. This trend occurred with the advent of mobile phones and was exacerbated by the internet, and it will undoubtedly continue into the metaverse.
Meta's "Horizon Worlds" is by far the most mainstream metaverse attempt in development and has already been the host of several virtual sexual harassment cases. It remains unclear how these cases should be handled, but one thing is certain: there will be more.
Pseudo-anonymity and the remote nature of internet interaction lend themselves to cowardly trolls and cyberbullies, but they also make it all too easy for service seekers to cross the line from borderless collaboration to digital exploitation. Businesses and entrepreneurs looking to fulfil temporary virtual gigs are more likely to take advantage of the questionable business models of digital labour platforms when communicating with an avatar rather than facing an intern in person.
Access to global online workforces can be an amazing resource, but the prevalence of $5 floor prices for services and misaligned incentives results in race-to-the-bottom scenarios for certain sectors. If the "future of work" lies in the metaverse, then the "future of slavery" might be there too.
Pixels vs Atoms
Artists are utilising these emerging 3D environments to display and sell their work, providing a long-overdue upgrade to the gallery experience and empowering creatives to connect with collectors and fans. Metaverses also offer new possibilities for virtual conferences and more engaging and productive office environments. However, it is challenging to identify compelling mainstream use cases beyond exhibitions and brief work-related activities.
Exercising in VR has some appeal, but VR workout apps often have the same short lifespan as previous home workout products. Does anyone truly enjoy Facebook enough to desire an immersive VR version? The platform's user base has been ageing steadily, and the few people I know who are still active there consider it "lame but necessary" at best and "creepy and anxiety-inducing" at worst. I suspect that "Horizon Worlds" will have a similar novelty value to VR workout apps, if it has any significant appeal at all.
If you attend a virtual concert, expect awful audio quality and a serious underwhelm compared to an actual live performance at a local pub or above level of production. Gamers, understandably, are not overly interested in the recent hype surrounding metaverses, not least because they have had their own metaverses to hang out in should they choose to for decades anyway.
VR experiences can also be powerful tools for education and certain areas of physical and psycho-therapy. However, spending more than an hour or two with any kind of screen strapped to your eyeballs is not going to be therapeutic for anyone. If you already spend more time in the "Twitterverse" than interacting with people in real life or if you despair as your teenagers spend increasing hours playing Fortnite, it may seem like a done-deal that civilization itself is rapidly being digitised. Spend enough time down crypto rabbit holes and hanging out on certain Discord servers, and you might become convinced that we will all choose the chaotic freedom of virtual worlds, where "code is law," as the old world descends into a hyper-bureaucratic dystopia. However, as it stands here and now, the reality is that the silent majority of people are too busy engaging in real-life activities to tweet, let alone strap on a VR headset for eight hours a day to "Party Up", thats how Meta refers to users connecting to Horizon Worlds…. and thank F for that.
Having said that, there is an inevitability to the fully immersive, open metaverse, which will have its use cases. But there is still a long way to go before virtual shopping and socialising become mainstream norms. We may have new frontiers to explore in the physical world before we witness a metaverse on the scale of "Ready Player One" or "Snow Crash." Space tourism? Floating seastead nations?
A trip to your local forest or beach will always be infinitely better for the soul than any of the above. And that will never change.