The metaverse is already here. But the dazzling new world Facebook promises is a long way off
It could be years until people can spend an entire workday inside virtual reality. But would you want to?
These days, Evan Jones rarely takes the hours-long commute from his home in London, Ont., to his company's office space in Toronto.
But thanks to a shared virtual reality space they've built, his team can hold meetings whether they're in the Greater Toronto Area, London or somewhere else entirely — in a setting more like a real-life office than the ubiquitous pandemic-era Zoom meetings.
"Everybody that I have managed to, you know, put inside VR, is just always shocked at how quickly you can immerse yourself into that space," Jones, co-chair of Stitch Media, told The Sunday Magazine.
Stitch Media is a production company that creates games and other interactive media for virtual and augmented reality (VR) hardware.
With the aid of a VR headset, Jones and his 20-odd other team members can project themselves in a shared virtual space akin to an open-concept meeting room, while everyone is actually working on their own from home.
It's yielded other surprising benefits: by eliminating the need to commute to a Toronto office, they've been able to hire new employees from further out in Ontario.
Jones readily admits that his company is an outlier, as they already design VR software. But it represents a possible version of the future workplace, with workers embedded in a nascent version of the so-called metaverse.
Meta's VR promises are old-hat, says critic
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg thrust the metaverse unto the wider world in October, renaming the parent company Meta.
In a video presentation, Zuckerberg's vision of the metaverse featured digital avatars and highly sophisticated shared virtual spaces allowing people to attend work meetings or concerts together.
But here's the thing: there isn't a widely agreed-upon definition of just what the metaverse actually is yet. And, as critics point out, people have been doing versions of the social activities touted by Zuckerberg and crew, years before "metaverse" became the latest buzzword to describe them.
Jones pointed to VR programs that train workers in skills that might be dangerous for newcomers to learn on-the-job, like operating heavy machinery, but could use better visualization than reading an operations manual or watching a video.
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Ian Bogost, a writer for The Atlantic and director of film and media studies at Washington University in St. Louis, said there's little new about the metaverse, save the "future ambitions for power and control" of the tech companies currently championing it.
"The technology itself, like, nothing's new. [It's been] 30, to 40 years now of the same promises of being able to strap on a headset and go somewhere else. It's never happened," he said of modern virtual reality.
"Are people going to hang out in these spaces? I just don't know. I mean, we had Second Life.... And like, everybody's forgotten about it already," he said, referencing the online digital platform released in 2003.
"And now here we are asking some of the same questions in a different moment."
Hard limits stand in the way
Experts say several hard limits to technology, VR or otherwise, still stand in the way of the all-encompassing metaverse vision pitched by Zuckerberg.
For instance, Jones can only work with a current-generation Oculus headset for a couple of hours at a time before it starts to strain his head and shoulders.
The hardware will need to shrink to reduce physical strain, and image frame rates need to improve to reduce eye strain, for it to be comfortable enough to use for an eight-hour work day or longer, he said.
Another key roadblock is just how many people can virtually gather in the same space — whether in virtual reality or not.
Digital spaces may be smaller than they seem
In 2020, over 27.7 million people gathered for a live digital concert by Travis Scott in the online game Fortnite, according to the game's maker Epic Games.
But the actual number of people you might have shared that experience with was much smaller, explained Timoni West, vice-president of augmented and virtual reality at Unity Technologies in Austin, Texas.
"There's no way for like, a million people to really be in the same digital space right now, even though it might feel like it's possible," they said.
Players are grouped into servers with a much smaller number of people who can interact together, she explained. Add those servers together, and you get the total number of attendees or players.
"It's going to take a ton of money to basically solve these technical problems. And that's just the reality of it, especially when you're working with … cutting-edge emerging tech," West said.
A metaverse of brands
It remains to be seen whether metaverse spaces owned by disparate creators or companies will connect to each other — say, if players in Fortnite could communicate seamlessly with someone in Stitch Media's virtual meeting room.
"We need a public commons where we can work together effectively. That does not happen easily behind corporate walls," said Evo Heyning, who is co-chair of the Open Metaverse Interoperability Group, a collective that hopes to achieve just that.
Zuckerberg presented an idea of a metaverse owned by Meta and using its products, including Oculus VR headsets. That may be at odds with developers like Heyning, who is based in San Francisco, and has been creating digital social spaces and immersive art installations since the days of Second Life.
"There are many of us, for example, in metaverse creative work who do not want to use the Oculus ecosystem at all," said Heyning, who is also the founder of Playable Agency, a U.S.-based company that creates immersive art installations and virtual events.
To Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney, breaking down those corporate walls would allow more brands to interact with each other – and the user.
"I think the real force that's going to shape the metaverse into an open platform is the power of all the brands to participate in it," he told The Washington Post.
Breaking down corporate walls
Fortnite already feels like a rough draft of this idea, where you can play as Keanu Reeves's John Wick to fight Marvel's villain Thanos, then take a break to watch an Ariana Grande concert or an educational program for Martin Luther King Day.
It's a bleak vision of the future, according to Bogost.
"What I think the metaverse is, is this kind of capitalist monopolist's fantasy about capturing all of your attention and every dollar that you spend inside of a world that parallels the material world," he said.
"I just don't know what to say other than, yeah, I'd rather not."
Written by Jonathan Ore. Produced by Peter Mitton.