As somebody who writes about social VR and flatscreen virtual worlds on this blog, with a popular Discord server packed with metaverse fanatics and a front-row seat on pretty much everything that has been happening in this space, let me tell you, the past twelve months have been a wild ride. You can even see it in my blog statistics of the number of visitors and views the RyanSchultz.com blog has attracted over the past year:
See that surge from October through March? In October, Mark Zuckerberg announced in a Connect 2021 keynote that Facebook would rebrand as Meta, and would focus on realizing his vision of the metaverse. This also coincided with a crypto speculation boom, where people and companies were frantically bidding for artificially scarce NFT-based plots of land in various blockchain metaverse platforms.
Together, these events sparked a greater awareness among the general public of the metaverse (as indicated by a corresponding increase in traffic to my blog). However, it would appear that the ongoing crypto crash, combined with Meta’s recent woes and missteps, are causing people to sour on the concept. (And by “people”, I mean the general public, not the metaverse fanatics, content creators and world builders whom I tend to hang out with!)
As an illustration of this, I would like to focus on a recent announcement made by Mark Zuckerberg, about the expansion of their flagship consumer social VR platform, Horizon Worlds, from Canada, the U.S. and the U.K. into two new countries, France and Spain:
The first thing I think of when I look at this picture is: hoo boy, somebody working in Meta’s PR department is gonna get fired! You’re trying to sell people on Horizon Worlds with this unappealing, uninspiring, and frankly ugly image on Twitter?
The response to this on two different subreddit communities on Reddit, r/technology and r/Buttcoin, proves to be quite illuminating. (By the way, r/Buttcoin is the blockchain, crypto, and NFTs snark community, where we cryptoskeptics and critics love to discuss and dissect the latest shenanigans, antics, and scams in that world!)
Here are some of the better comments on the r/technology post, sparked by Paul Tessi’s biting August 17th, 2022 Fortune article, Does Mark Zuckerberg Not Understand How Bad His Metaverse Looks?
It looks like Mark Zuckerberg watched Ready Player One and thought he would be able to recreate that universe with MS Paint.
“Looking forward to seeing people explore and build immersive worlds!” :: “Work in my content mill, peasants.”
The more money they dump into this dumpster fire, the better chance Facebook finally collapses into the abyss. So keep doing it Zuck.
One much-upvoted comment reads as follows:
No one is building a $1500-2500 PC with [a] dedicated GPU to add a Facebook $600 VR headset to attend work meetings in a virtual space that looks like a kids CGI series from 2004 at a mass adoption level, where the majority of the public would use it daily for 8 hours at work then again for another 4-6 hours “for fun” at home, as the Meta dystopian dream suggests.
Meta has already been subsidizing the costs of their currently meh headset, which they just increased the prices of, as they were losing too much money.
For this to work, the hardware has to be good enough for grandma to be able to buy it on a pension, put it on out of the box and it just works, and it does not make her sick to her stomach in 5-20 minutes due to the low frame rates and quality.
That’s the barrier of entry to the space you need to be able to target… if that old guy at your office struggles with getting their mic to work on MS Teams for a video call every day, as the manager he is not going to order $100,000 worth of gear for your department that is hard to setup and use to meet in the metaverse.
This thing is dead on arrival, but Facebook is also dying/dead in it’s current form, so this Hail Mary [pass] is all they have.
In the August 17th Fortune article which spawned these responses, reporter Paul Tassi writes:
The thing is, this happens all the time with Zuckerberg and his metaverse because Horizon Worlds has looked terrible since its inception and has barely gotten any better over the years, where its avatars still look like Miis from 2012 and they still don’t have legs.
Granted, I understand that showing 2D screenshots of VR is difficult, and that VR generally lags behind traditional console and PC gaming in terms of graphics. And yet that doesn’t change the fact that even within VR, Horizon Worlds is one of the worst-looking offerings I have seen, and that Meta has spent something like $10 billion chasing its Horizon, VR-centric version of the metaverse, even embarrassingly changing their company name to reflect that. And…this is the result.
Meanwhile, here are some of the opinions of the cryptosnarkers over on r/Buttcoin:
If I was a Meta stockholder I would be selling the minute I saw that screenshot.
He (and many others) are hoping that nobody remembers Second Life ever existed, let alone that it still does. It has a dedicated audience of somewhere between half to one million users and that’s kinda it. I suspect the future for “the metaverse” is similar.
One r/Buttcoin member posted the following detailed comment:
This is the part I don’t understand. Any “meta” style environment will be incredibly limited in terms of graphics and gameplay due to the need to have a high number of players at once. So who is the target audience?
• Someone looking to play a game is going to go with something like Grand Theft Auto V (and continue to move on to the next biggest thing when they come out).
• The live concerts! aspect of the website seems equally absurd given the graphical limitations and that this would be less entertaining than watching a concert on TV.
• Your casual Farmville-style person isn’t shelling out hundreds of dollars for a VR headset.
• For their “practical” concepts like virtual stores, it seems to invalidate the concept of buying metaverse land as either the system will allow for fast travel style movement (making “premium” land a joke), or not allow for this travelling and completely turn off their customer base for this.
I just don’t see where the interest comes from.
And I chuckled at this wag’s opinion:
Second Life managed to survive because it fostered a community of weirdo people who fetishized the environment. I think the only person who fetishizes Facebook’s metaverse is Zuckerberg.
Absolutely SAVAGE! I live. Somebody else posted this gem to the r/Buttcoin subreddit:
Even worse, the cryptobros are starting to dunk on the metaverse, notably Shark Tank billionaire investor Mark Cuban. According to an August 8th, 2022 report in Fortune:
Mark Cuban, the billionaire Dallas Mavericks owner and avid crypto enthusiast, is not sold on the metaverse.
“The worst part is that people are buying real estate in these places. That’s just the dumbest shit ever,” he told the crypto-themed YouTube channel Altcoin Daily this past weekend.
I’m quite sure that the various blockchain-based metaverses like Voxels (formerly known as Cryptovoxels), Decentraland, Somnium Space, and The Sandbox, all of whom have seen the value and the trading volume of their NFT-based real estate decline during this crypto winter, were not expecting the ridicule and disdain of crypto influencers themselves! After all, the crypto crowd are main target audience of these platforms, not your average non-crypto user. You know things are getting weird when the cryptobros start to turn on each other!
So, what does all this mean? Well, it looks as though the concept of the metaverse, at least among the general public, is going to sustain some reputational damage, at least in the short term (12 to 24 months). Perhaps it was inevitable that there would be such a swing from irrational metaverse exuberance to equally irrational metaverse distaste, even disgust.
I am reminded of the Gartner technology consulting group’s well-known Hype Cycle, where we appear to be rapidly moving from the peak of inflated expectations, to the trough of disillusionment:
Also, this “trough of disillusionment” means that it’s going to be harder to sell consumers and businesses on the metaverse. This will apply both to behemoth corporations like Meta, Apple, and Alphabet (the parent company of Google), as well as to much smaller metaverse-building companies. As I have said before, not all platforms currently being worked on will survive this rough period.
It is possible, perhaps even likely, that only a handful will achieve dominance in this ever-evolving market, leaving the other firms to fight over the leftover scraps. Of course, some companies will be savvy enough to focus on a profitable niche market, such as the surgical training platform FundamentalVR, which recently received another venture capital infusion of US$20 million.
So, as Bette Davis once memorably said in the movie All About Eve: “Fasten your seatbelts…it’s going to be a bumpy night!”
UPDATE August 19th, 2022: As further evidence of the antipathy towards Mark Zuckerberg’s latest announcement, Zack Zwiezen wrote this scathing report for Kotaku, titled Mark Zuckerberg’s Soulless Metaverse Avatar Has Me Worried About Our Digital Future:
Earlier this week, the alien-wearing-a-human-skin-suit known to us as Mark Zuckerberg posted a VR selfie from inside his company’s metaverse project, Horizon Worlds. The selfie showed off the Eiffel Tower and was meant to announce that his metaverse is expanding to more countries. Instead, however, people immediately began dunking on the terrible picture, the ugly avatar, and how it all looked like it fell out of a 2005 edutainment game…
And that brings us to 2022, where Zuckerberg’s avatar is a legless knock-off of a Nintendo Mii with some really weird buttons and the eyes of a corpse. And this isn’t just how Zuckerberg looks, this is the way all avatars appear in Horizon Worlds. I’ve played enough Horizon Worlds to tell you that the missing legs quickly cease to matter. But the lack of style and the cold, dead aesthetic never goes away.
Sure, part of the reason these avatars and worlds look simple and ugly compared to modern video games comes down to the limited VR hardware in Quest 2 and Facebook’s desire to make VR content that can run on as many devices as possible.
On the other hand, I can find Nintendo DS and Sony PS Vita games with better, nicer-looking art and models than what we’ve been shown so far in Facebook’s metaverse. I also don’t think you can blame the people making this stuff, as I assume they are more than capable of doing better and more vibrant things. But more and more, it seems that isn’t what Meta and Zucklehead want. Instead, they are focused on making a product that can be consumed by the masses and which lacks any defining characteristics in an attempt to get more people to dive in.
This is the exact opposite approach we see in more community-driven VR metaverses like VR Chat, which looks better and feels warmer and more inviting. In comparison, Horizon Worlds looks like an animated video I’d walk by in some fancy hospital while I look for the bathroom.
And if this bland and ugly metaverse is the future Mark Zuckerberg wants and is investing billions of dollars into, I’m worried that it could end up winning out over other, better alternatives simply because he has the money and resources to squash or buy up competitors. Well, if it does win out, at least I’ll be able to skip it and not buy a new VR headset.
Also, as further evidence of the distress in the entire cryptosphere, Bloomberg reports that ad spending by the crypto firms has absolutely cratered:
Spending by major crypto firms, including the trading platforms Crypto.com, Coinbase Global Inc. and FTX, fell to $36,000 in July in the US, according to ISpot. That’s the lowest monthly total since January 2021 and is down from a high of $84.5 million in February, when the industry flooded the airwaves around the Super Bowl.
Again, Yeee-OUCH!!! And it looks like things are not going to get better anytime soon, as inflation roars and recession looms. People have more important things to worry about (like keeping food on the table and a roof over their heads) than buying virtual real estate on the blockchain!
In December 2021, Republic Realm spent approximately US$4.3 million worth of land in The Sandbox, setting a record for the most expensive land sale in the metaverse (more about Republic Realm here). It would appear to be highly unlikely that Republic Realm, or any of the other investors who bought NFT-based plots of virtual land at the height of the boom market, are going to be able to earn a profit anytime soon.
Has the bottom fallen out of the NFT-based metaverse market? And what does this mean for the concept of the metaverse in general? Stay tuned!