By Amy Chen, Director, Experience, Siegel+Gale
Web3 is suffering growing pains.
Crypto prices, volatile as ever, have been trending downward as new developments in the space fundamentally change their landscape — cryptocurrency appears to be heading toward either heavy regulation or utter truancy.
NFT trading volume has taken a major dive, plunging by nearly 100% from its all-time high in January this year. And in an interesting face-off, art collectors still ultimately chose physical copies over NFTs in Damien Hirst’s The Currency art experiment.
In the metaverse space, things are no less rocky, especially for the company that co-opted its name — Meta. The recent layoffs at Meta are an indication of what we may have all already suspected; the Meta ship is sinking.
Meta’s Horizon Worlds has had a rough year. First, an awkward selfie of Zuckerberg’s mid-00s Wii avatar was released in front of a mid-90s 8-bit render of La Sagrada Familia and the Eiffel Tower. Then Zuckerberg released a higher-fidelity fast-follow of his avatar in response to the cyberbullying that rained down from the entire internet. Then, in his announcement at Meta Connect 2022, Horizon Worlds finally got some legs — literally.
While these sneak peeks are excellent fodder for the meme factory, they are decidedly less so for those serious about the viability of the metaverse. The longer these flubs continue without any promising value propositions or exciting experiences, the more likely the entire concept of the metaverse might go down with the Meta ship. No matter how much excitement Zuckerberg or Meta’s product team can ooze onstage, the fact is that there simply aren’t a whole lot of people clamoring to hang out in the space.
A brief Meta history
Metaverse sceptics have joked about The App Formerly Known as Facebook ever since it renamed itself in October 2021 but still withheld their judgment from seeing what would happen to the space with Meta’s huge investment. But with all these odd blunders from one of the most highly-valued companies in the world, it’s starting to look like the skeptics were right, and Meta’s $15B investment may have taken a wrong turn at some point.
Here’s the thing — two schools of thought exist regarding the development of consumer tech: build the hardware or build the community. The former aims to create cutting-edge software to attract the power users of the world whose interest and investment will drive innovation. The latter aims to develop the ecosystem of apps, games, and experiences that make it so compelling it cannot be ignored by the general public.
The second approach is how Facebook became a household name. Facebook’s ascent was not one of techy bells and whistles, but it did promise access to something fresh, new, and exciting: a newsfeed. It didn’t really need many of its subsequent tech evolutions to be a hit. But Zuckerberg’s problem is that he’s been playing catch up to smaller, nimbler companies for a decade now.
Zuckerberg has clearly chosen to prioritize hardware with the recent release of the Oculus Pro model, which retails at $1500 — five times the cost of the Oculus 2. He’s positioning it as an enterprise productivity solution, but a future where doing something in the metaverse is somehow better, easier, or more intuitive than doing that same thing in person or over a video conference seems far off.
How much would someone, even a business interested in its tech for productivity purposes, be willing to invest in an ecosystem that only just rolled out its legs? And what could Zuckerberg’s metaverse provide to businesses besides ever more immersive screens to get eye strain from and 3D keyboards that are less tactile and accurate than the ones that you’re already using IRL?
What’s next for the metaverse?
The metaverse as a concept needs excitement and inspiration, not in-progress development snapshots showing how far we are from that future and the expensive hardware with which we could ostensibly access it. Even with the most cutting-edge headset, Horizon Worlds has no draw. Consumers are not looking for an approximation of reality but a new medium to access something either stunningly useful or expansively novel.
With competing XR headset projects anticipated from Apple and Sony in the coming years, Zuckerberg is either farsighted in his focus or committed to a product in a walled-garden innovation death spiral.
We, as creators, need to do what we do best — keep on imagining and building. Instead of being discouraged by the slow, plodding steps that Meta is showing us, recognize that a whole lot of infrastructure is being built and tested through these painful public experiments. It’s going to be ugly before it becomes great.
The creator community outside of Meta is already investing in an alternate vision: an “Alphaverse” platform was recently proposed to connect a multiverse of third-party worlds, not just worlds built in-house. At a glance, this proposition is already much better aligned with Web3’s decentralized tenets and would enable individual creators to foster communities outside the walled garden of a corporate sponsor.
Whether Meta’s Horizon Worlds stands the test of time remains to be seen, but even if it goes down like Google+, it’ll still be a study of technology, design, and user experience that will be carried forward through all the people who are working on it now.
How brands can succeed in the metaverse & beyond
Meta is not the end-all, be-all for the metaverse. Not by a long shot.
If you create for a brand, for a movement, or simply for a future that you’d like to live in, the message is this: the metaverse isn’t solely Meta’s to own — it lies in the connective tissue between experiences that you or I can create. There are already alternate metaverses out there, and every digital experience you can imagine could be one. It’s only a matter of time before they’re interoperable, knit together into a community of immersive worlds you might browse, like browsing the internet or social media today.
So keep dreaming big. It’s only by pushing boundaries that we understand where they are.