Image Credit: Image created bv Louis Rosenberg using MidJourney
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Over the last few weeks, many people have asked me the same question: Is the metaverse dead? This pessimism is not surprising, considering that Meta stock has lost over half its value since formally announcing its strategic pivot to the metaverse. Adding insult to injury, last week Meta announced major layoffs across the company, increasing fear throughout the industry.
Trying my best to be objective, I see the current struggles at Meta as a reflection of its legacy business rather than an indication that its metaverse strategy is failing. I believe it will take another year or two before we can really predict whether Meta will be successful in this space, or if other large players will emerge as the true leaders of the metaverse.
My bigger concern is that the general public is still confused about what “the metaverse” is and how it will benefit society. You’d think this would be clear by now, but even simple definitions of the metaverse are hard to come by. Personally, I blame influencers from the Web3 space for creating the confusion, describing the metaverse in terms of blockchains, cryptocurrencies and NFTs. These are profoundly useful technologies but are no more relevant to the metaverse than 5G, GPS or GPUs.
The metaverse is not about any specific pieces of infrastructure.
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The metaverse is not about NFTs
I point this out because of an experience I had at the Metaverse Summit in San Jose two weeks ago. During the event, I sat in on a roundtable on the topic of “Metaverse Marketing.” Executives from many big brands attended. To my surprise, nobody talked about issues that I would consider relevant to marketing in the metaverse. Instead, they talked mostly about NFTs and strategies for appealing to “Web3 natives” and “degens.” That’s not the metaverse. If the industry doesn’t push back on this persistent confusion, it will continue to struggle.
Repeat after me: The metaverse is not about NFTs.
Instead, the metaverse is about transforming how we humans experience the digital world. Since the dawn of computing, digital content has been accessed primarily through flat media viewed in the third person. In the metaverse, our digital lives will increasingly involve immersive media that appears all around us and is experienced in the first person. It will impact everything, from how we work, shop and learn online to how we socialize and organize. It’s really that simple—the metaverse is the transition of the digital world from flat content to immersive experiences—and trust me, it’s not dead.
If anything, the metaverse is inevitable.
Born this way
Why is the metaverse inevitable? It’s in our DNA. The human organism evolved to understand our world through first-person experiences in spatial environments. It’s how we interact and explore. It’s how we store memories and build mental models. It’s how we generate wisdom and develop intuition. In other words, the metaverse is about using our natural human abilities for perception, interaction and exploration when we engage the creative power and flexibility of digital content. It will happen. The only question is: Will it happen soon, or will the industry fall back into another long dark winter?
Personally, I don’t believe winter is coming.
I say that as someone who lived through the longest winter of them all. After doing early VR and AR research in government labs, I founded Immersion Corporation in 1993 to bring the natural power of immersive experiences to major markets. By 1995 the industry was on fire, with a level of media hype that felt similar to early 2022. But then came the dotcom bust. It sucked all the virtual air out of all the virtual rooms. That’s because the VC industry abruptly narrowed its focus, dumping every last penny into ecommerce startups. You couldn’t utter the phrase “virtual reality” to most investors for over a decade. This submerged the metaverse into a frigid winter that lasted from about 1997 to 2012.
That’s not going to happen this time.
The industry is too far along. The metaverse is no longer driven by startups and fueled by venture funding. Many of the largest companies in the world are now competing to bring VR and AR products to mainstream markets. Some say this will evolve into a narrow industry aimed at gaming, entertainment and a handful of other targeted verticals, but I believe it will be far broader than that. In fact, I predict by the early 2030s, the metaverse will become a central part of daily life.
No, I’m not suggesting we will spend our lives in cartoonish virtual worlds using creepy avatars to chat with friends and coworkers. Virtual spaces will get far more natural and realistic. Still, I believe that purely virtual worlds will be aimed mostly at short-duration activities, similar to the way we lose ourselves in movies today. The true metaverse—the one that will transform our lives—will be rooted in augmented reality, enabling us to experience the real world embellished with immersive virtual content that appears seamlessly all around us. That is by far the most natural way for us humans to bring the digital world into our lives. For that simple reason, the metaverse is inevitable.
Dr. Louis Rosenberg is an early pioneer of virtual and augmented reality. In 1992 he developed the first functional augmented reality system for Air Force Research Laboratory. In 1993 he founded the early VR company Immersion Corporation. In 2004 he founded the early AR company Outland Research. He’s been awarded over 300 patents for VR, AR, and AI technologies and published over 100 academic papers. He received his PhD from Stanford and was a tenured professor at California State University. He is currently CEO of Unanimous AI, the Chief Scientist of the Responsible Metaverse Alliance (RMA), and the Global Technology Advisor to the XR Safety Initiative (XRSI).
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