Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.
For many, that’s been the general reaction to the metaverse, an all-encompassing virtual world that big tech CEOs like Mark Zuckerberg really want people to inhabit using virtual or augmented reality headsets. Zuckerberg’s company Meta actually spent $10 billion to promote this vision in 2021.
Sure, we now have the technology to dive into virtual worlds and immerse ourselves in activities that were once the domain of science fiction novels, but doing something in VR or AR doesn’t automatically make it more interesting. In plenty of cases, it does the opposite.
If we have to keep hearing about the metaverse in 2022 and beyond, we should all be honest about one thing: So many of these fancy metaverse demos are just worse versions of IRL activities.
Pin a “TV” to your wall, or just get a real one instead
One of the big selling points of all things metaverse is that so much of it looks futuristic, therefore it must actually represent some kind of forward progress in the way we do things. However, “newer” is not always “better.”
Case in point: This tech demo from the YouTube VR team shows off a way to project a “meta” TV onto a nearby wall using passthrough on a Quest 2.
That clip originated from Facebook’s developer-focused Connect stream (where the company announced it would rebrand as Meta) back in October 2021. It circulated around Twitter and Reddit again in early February 2022. On the surface, yes, it’s neat to draw a square using a motion controller and have something resembling a big TV show up in your field of view, even if the wall is totally empty in real life. But what is actually gained from this?
At $299, a Quest 2 costs more than the 4K TV I bought for around $250 in 2019. That TV has this really cool feature where more than one person in the room can see it because… it’s a tangible object. I can even sit down and enjoy a Lord of the Rings movie without worrying my heavy headset might run out of battery before the movie finishes.
Yes, the YouTube VR demo allows you to place the screen anywhere and resize it to your heart’s content, to go along with slick navigation controls, but it would still be inferior to the real thing. I can respect that not everyone has the means or desire to own a decent 4K TV, but we’re talking about an alternative that costs as much if not more and offers an objectively worse experience. No thanks!
Online dating, now with more catfishing
It’s hard to come up with a version of dating that’s less fun than what humans have been doing IRL for approximately all of history. It’s an anxiety-inducing necessary evil — something we put up with for the very slim chance that it leads to lifelong fulfillment, or at least a night of fun. Now, imagine dating where you don’t even know for certain what the other person looks like. Well, more than what already happens via catfishing on existing dating apps.
That’s what Match Group, Tinder’s parent company, reportedly has in the works. More specifically, Match Group has laid out vague future plans for avatar-based online dating spaces where you meet people in a slightly more organic way than swiping left or right on an app screen. From there, you could strike up conversations and then potentially take them to more private virtual spaces.
Admittedly, there is some utility to this idea. COVID-19 made dating more physically risky on top of being emotionally risky, and it’s a whole lot easier to eject from an uncomfortable situation in a virtual bar than a real bar. But letting people create cartoon-y avatars for a virtual dating space just adds another layer of secrecy that could make it harder to judge just who exactly someone is while talking to them. Online dating as it exists right now already has issues with trust and transparency, so why create more?
Beyond that, we’ve seen recent examples of harassment in metaverse spaces, which is too much of a problem with regular dating right now.
Dating is already such a pain. Let’s not make it worse.
Basketball but without the ball
Back during the aforementioned Meta rebranding extravaganza stream, Mark Zuckerberg took a couple of minutes to show off what the future of fitness could look like in the metaverse. This manifested in several fantastical ways, such as playing pickup basketball with people from around the world and taking fencing instructions from a world-class trainer, among others.
To be clear, this is not a stand against VR fitness as a concept. There are plenty of fun and productive ways to work out in VR right now. Anyone who’s played Beat Saber would agree that it’s both exhilarating and exhausting. But the thing about basketball and fencing is that they both revolve around objects with unique physical properties, as well as the movements of other people’s bodies. Basketball is as beautiful as it is because of the artistry of players ducking, weaving, and spinning their ways around the court to find open shots against defenders. It’s also fun to bounce a real ball.
There’s just no replacement for actually doing these things with real people. Even if technology evolves to a point where we have gloves (or wristbands) that use haptics to simulate the feel of a ball or fencing sabre in the hands, it’ll never be the same as the genuine article.
Pop star avatar concerts
In February, Snap put on a virtual concert to promote the new Jennifer Lopez rom-com Marry Me. There’s nothing wrong with that in a vacuum, as the pandemic made concert-going a shaky proposition. We’ve seen some really creative alternatives in the form of livestreamed performances and Fortnite musical events, for example.
That’s not what this JLo show was. They turned “Jenny from the block” and co-star Maluma, two objectively beautiful people, into 3D bitmoji-looking monstrosities. The avatars look terrible, which is bad enough, but the whole conceit also kind of misses the point of live performances.
Stage presence is real and important. A live performance from your favorite artist might not sound as clean or nice as an album recording, but their physicality makes it transcend that, even if you’re watching the show remotely. If metaverse concerts aren’t going to go all the way into expensive absurdity like those Fortnite events, they shouldn’t exist at all. Just film performances and release them online instead.
This could’ve been an email, Zuck
Work meetings are another unfortunate reality of adult life. They can often be important, but most of the time, the information presented in the meeting could’ve been conveyed just as effectively in an email. Naturally, Meta is trying to revolutionize this unique brand of time-wasting boredom with Horizon Workrooms, a VR alternative for work collaboration.
That trailer for Horizon Workrooms is bleak, folks. The audience is supposed to buy that people are having a great time putting on Meta’s headsets so they can stare at charts together in a fake boardroom. We can already do all of these things remotely via Zoom screen-sharing and shared editing in Google Docs. Sure, it’s less flashy and can often be janky, but at least nobody’s forcing you to wear a VR headset to do it.
I tested out a similar VR work meeting app called Spatial with some other Mashable folks back in 2021. It was fun in the sense that I could summon a 3D model of a dog and make it the size of the room whenever I wanted, but it didn’t feel substantially more productive than a Zoom call. If this is the future of work, the least Zuck could do is give us a virtual volcano lair or something to collaborate in rather than just recreating the same sterile office spaces many of us abandoned in March 2020.
Bar crawls minus the booze and fun
For some, few things about COVID were more disruptive than the inability to meet up with their pals at the bar. For others, bars were never that fun anyway. Both groups can surely agree that going to a virtual Miller Lite-branded bar is the worst of all worlds.
Yes, Miller Lite has a metaverse bar hosted on the “Decentraland” virtual real estate platform. It’s browser-based, so you don’t need a VR headset to visit it, but you should still avoid it at all costs.
Credit: Miller Lite / Screenshot: Alex Perry / Mashable
The number one point of concern is that buying beer at a digital bar doesn’t magically put a real beer in your hands. That’s sort of a big problem. Other issues include terrible visual design and the fact that my one brief excursion into it (for the purpose of writing this article) ended in someone playing the first 10 seconds of Modest Mouse’s “Float On” repeatedly via a virtual jukebox. It’s not that I hate that song or anything, but that little riff at the beginning doesn’t really work without the rest of the song afterward.
Off to a bad start
In the interest of not sounding like the world’s biggest metaverse-hater, there are certainly positive, transformative uses for the platform to come. Technology this broad and versatile will inevitably find its way to people with cool ideas.
Apple is working on a headset of its own and is reportedly uninterested in the metaverse Meta is chasing, which could be a good thing. Microsoft, too, has some fancy hologram stuff in the works. Unfortunately, so many of the high-profile metaverse demonstrations we’ve seen so far are like everything in this article: A massive waste of time and resources.
Call me a luddite if you want, but I’ll keep practicing my Euro Step on a real basketball court with real people. You can keep your virtual pickup games.