With the rise of the term “metaverse” and its prevalence in modern society, has come with it an unusual assumption: it’ll be in Virtual Reality (VR). I’m going to lay out why I think that is and then why it’s a mistake to tether the two together.
Why Is the Metaverse Presumed to Be VR?
The metaverse’s inception likely predates the coining of the term by Neal Stephenson in his 1992 novel, Snow Crash, which is now a cult classic. That is, the idea of a digital existence — a second life away from the physical world — is one that would have been conjured before 1992, in all probability. However, to keep this article somewhat self-contained, I’ll use Stephenson’s work as the starting point.
There have been a few rumblings about the metaverse and VR, and whether or not they are necessarily connected. A lot of the blame is thrown at Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook (Meta), and that isn’t unfair to do, but the pairing of these two technological concepts does predate Facebook’s brash play.
So, where does this idea of a VR headset and the metaverse as a duo come from?
Snow Crash: A Digital Life
Perhaps because writing about someone on a computer is horrendously dull, the metaverse in Snow Crash is immersive. That is, to access the metaverse in the novel, the characters must use virtual reality display goggles. Note that the idea of immersive viewing devices can be seen in patents as far back as 1960, the concept of the metaverse just gave a more holistic purpose to them.
READY PLAYER ONE
The seminal science fiction film, READY PLAYER ONE, became the modern visual equivalent of Snow Crash, and when the metaverse was proposed, this film is what many imagined. In READY PLAYER ONE, characters access The Oasis via a VR-style headset and not only does the main protagonist do this, but seas of background characters can be seen standing around the streets wearing these devices.
I first criticized this conflation of the metaverse with VR in the article FTC Sues Meta Over Metaverse: The Good, the Odd, and the Unspoken Inference. This lawsuit was essentially an anti-monopoly move after Meta continued to hoover up VR start-ups. In the filed complaint, the FTC says:
Meta in recent years has set its sights on building, and ultimately controlling, a VR “metaverse.” One need look no further than the rebranding of the company from Facebook to “Meta” in 2021 to understand its vision—and its priorities—for the future. And Meta is serious about its goals: it has become the largest provider of VR devices and apps to customers in the United States.
This is where the “unspoken inference” lies in that article: the presupposition that the metaverse is intrinsically linked with VR technology and that Meta buying up VR companies was to serve their ultimate goal of metaverse control. Meta may believe that to be the case, but it’s far from set in stone.
The Danger of Tethering the Metaverse to VR
There are several dangers of tethering the metaverse to VR, but the primary offender is VR itself. VR has been the next big thing for well over a decade at this point and we still can’t quite get it right. VR encounters a plethora of issues, from pricing and computing power, to nausea and motion sickness, but these are all underpinned by one single problem: the technology isn’t there yet.
Try as we might, we cannot will the computing power and immersion into existence with VR, and as novel and fun as it is — and it really can be — it’s not ready to replace monitors and current systems. Since it first started picking up traction with Oculus (now incidentally owned by Facebook-sorry-Meta), it has suffered the age-old issue of being ahead of its time.
Occasionally, this frustrating issue of an idea being ahead of its time is accredited to political motivations and conspiracy, for example, the electric car of the early 19th century. Or, if you’re feeling particularly conspiratorial, I implore you to go down the Stanley Meyer water fuel cell of perpetual motion rabbit hole. Then, more commonly, there are technological limitations, of which there are myriad examples: From Rene Descartes’ contact lens in 1632 to Apple’s pre-iPad iPad, the Newton MessagePad of the 90s.
I can’t see a reason why VR is not in the latter camp and its technological limitations are plain to see. Some are nearly solved or solvable, and some are far more difficult and costly, but VR needs to overcome difficulties such as the following: latency, accurate spatial sound, recreating an accurate field of view to the human eye, refresh rates, form factor, pricing, compatibility and interoperability, and so on. Year on year, VR gets closer to where it needs to be to achieve mass adoption and begin to replace PC monitors, televisions for consoles, and perhaps even the computers themselves. Nevertheless, it’s still not there and has taken far longer than most anticipated.
Now, the problem for those in Web3 and the metaverse is this: how much weight do we put in VR when building the metaverse? Building the poorly-defined-thing for the not-yet-ready technology is absurd. Even if builders of the metaverse were to aim at current VR, rumors suggest that Meta’s next major VR headset, estimated for release in 2024, will not be backward compatible with earlier devices. Whether that’s true or not is immaterial: current VR isn’t up to scratch and so when VR is, it’ll be running different specifications and using different computing power.
If we tether the metaverse to VR technology — that is, to envision the metaverse as only being complete in VR — we will hamper the development of the metaverse. It goes from being something for companies to invest into and build now, to either something to keep an eye on or a slow burn for the R&D departments. Furthermore, it could hamper VR’s development too as its purpose is narrowed from the vast potential scope it has presently (for example, education, film and TV, and so on).
This isn’t to say that the metaverse won’t eventually be something that exists primarily on VR devices — I think it might — but rather, insisting that it cannot exist without VR could set back the timeline of the metaverse’s development drastically.
There is no reason that the metaverse must necessarily be in VR. This misconception that the two are indivisible insofar as the metaverse is concerned, is based partly on loyalty to science fiction and the lore of the term, and partly on Zuckerberg’s vision (which could be a consequence of the lore.) It is an exciting concept and it may one day take form, but like Web1 and 2 preceded Web3, the metaverse can be a living and usable, working concept until VR is ready to house it.
We cannot afford to put the creation of the early metaverse on hold because 30-year-old novels and modern Spielberg classics have characters wearing clunky headsets to access it.