The Metaverse Is Not A Real Thing

I can’t quite believe how much ink has been spilled these last few months about a concept that doesn’t exist and is — at best — a pipe dream. The metaverse is not a thing. It’s meaningless. Facebook had an hour long keynote event which wholly consisted of computer-generated sequences of floating Memoji/Xbox avatars. Microsoft joined the fray with similarly unsubstantiated claims that Teams is becoming a metaverse.

The bandwagoning of the name ‘metaverse’ is dumb, but I’m not really interested in that aspect. I’m just going to ignore all of that misappropriation. Marketing teams always do stupid stuff; see the ongoing misappropriation by mobile carriers about what 5G can do.

I take the meaning of “metaverse” to be the generally accepted idea that people will wear some kind of headset or glasses and be able to access a virtual world, meeting up with others in some kind of virtual geography. The realism and quality of the experience is promised to be so good that your brain believes you are actually there, with your senses succumbing to the generated interface such that you can suspend disbelief that what you are interacting with is not actually there. Perhaps it is not an all-encompassing experience, but instead augmented reality avatars/objects appear to materialise in the space around you and behave accordingly.

Either way, it’s not feasible. It’s not a real thing because it is not grounded in any sort of technological truth. There’s not a tech demo on earth that can deliver anything close to that description; nothing bespoke exists and something for the mass market is even more illusory. It’s not a real thing.

Break apart the vision to any individual element and the state of the art technology is nowhere close to good enough. Realtime visual fidelity has to advance leaps and bounds to be as convincingly legitimate as what Facebook ‘demonstrated’ in its mockups. I’d love to know how long it took whatever render farm they used to make these videos. Probably, days. Even the mockups aren’t what I’d call convincing to a human, because the avatars look like avatars and not people. If that is the aim, forget it. We can’t even get CGI people in Hollywood movies to reliably break through the uncanny valley, and these films take months to generate a single second of footage. For a portable headset, it’s not even on the horizon. Five years. Ten years. Maybe longer. It’s not going to happen.

Graphics are just one of a thousand problems. All the other senses need to be satiated too for a start and the technology for generating synthetic smells, tastes and touch is so much further behind where we are at with GPUs for photorealistic imagery. One of the things that motivated me to write up this ridiculousness in a blog post is this fencing demo from Facebook’s Meta keynote. Zuckerberg is shown to be playing against a hologram of a professional athlete, waving swords at each other. In the demo, when he lunges, she parries with the swords perfectly stopping in mid-air. How on earth is that going to be possible to do, outside of a visual effects mockup? There’s no way to recreate the sensation of metal hitting metal and the sabres rebounding. Rather than an in-air clash of swords, the real sword is just going to pass right through the VR one. A vibration motor and some haptic feedback doesn’t cut it, although that doesn’t stop Zuckerberg miming contact and saying “that’s a little too realistic”. Lest we forget network latency hurdles or a myriad of other issues of course.

What these companies are touting is a fully immersive, engrossing, alternate world is only a few years away, just out of sight. The truth is it’s not anywhere close. I’m not a denier of augmented reality technology altogether. There will be continued small and meaningful improvements to the enterprise and consumer offerings, many of which will find their niche and bring genuine utility and/or entertainment. It will be able to enhance our life. For instance, VR gaming is basically already here, save for some less clunky hardware to use it on and some nice graphics. I could even see how a portable headset, or smart glasses, product could replace the phone in the medium term, as the primary communications device for humanity. The power-efficient-yet-technically-capable hardware to pull that off is still a ways out — maybe ten years, probably twenty — but it’s a plausible future that is deserving of consideration. I’d put that idea in the same bucket as self-driving cars or consumer space travel. These things live in the realm of tech demo today, but they have shown feasibility and appear attainable. Contrast that to the “metaverse”, which is merely made-up fantasy.