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Whatever happened to the metaverse?

Remember when we were all going to ditch our humdrum lives, tedious physical needs and uninspiring friends and family, so that we could live a life of virtual bliss in the metaverse? When we could give up the endless pursuit of self-improvement and just exist as perfect avatars instead? When Facebook rebranded to Meta because, from now on, the company was going to be “metaverse-first, not Facebook-first”?

It has been just one year since Meta’s fabulously dystopian Super Bowl advert for its VR headsets, in which a group of friends who have lost touch get back together in the virtual world (in the real one they were all alone, with no buddies — or lower halves).

Yet since that ad, excitement over the idea has withered. Type “metaverse” into Google Trends and you’ll see search traffic for the word has collapsed by about 80 per cent over the past year or so. These days, if you want to raise a load of cash, you’d be better off name-dropping “generative AI” — artificial intelligence that can “generate” text, images or other data. Venture capital investment into that particular sector jumped 425 per cent between 2020 and 2022.

So unenthusiastic are Meta’s own investors about the idea that chief executive Mark Zuckerberg was recently forced to say that the metaverse is “not the majority of what we’re doing”. These days, he’s talking more about efficiency than the metaverse. For good reason, too: Reality Labs, the division that makes the Meta Quest headsets, made an operating loss of $13.7bn last year.

The company has also fallen remarkably quiet about its big plan to hire 10,000 people in the EU to work on the metaverse — I asked Meta if that was still happening and whether anyone had been hired yet. They told me: “Our expansion in Europe was always a long-term one planned over a number of years. We remain committed to Europe.” Microsoft, meanwhile, has killed its “industrial metaverse team” just four months after setting it up, laying off 100 members of staff.

Where did it all go wrong?

The metaverse has a couple of major problems. The first is that nobody seems to be able to agree on what it is — even the people setting themselves up as the leaders of our new fantastical future can’t seem to come up with a common definition. The likes of Zuckerberg appear to think it’s basically a VR world, offering the thrill of having video meetings as avatars in virtual boardrooms. Others imagine it as an internet that is somehow underpinned by the all-powerful distributed database known as the blockchain, and involving the wondrous strings of code known as non-fungible tokens (I thought this defined a different techno-utopian fantasy — Web3.)

I put the problem to Robby Yung, chief executive of Animoca Brands, a company launching a metaverse investment fund of up to $1bn (it was going to be up to $2bn, since scaled back due to “market circumstances”). I told him I was finding it a little tricky to define the metaverse.

“That’s because you’re thinking about it the wrong way,” said Yung. “You need to think about the metaverse the same way you think about the internet. It’s not one thing. It’s everything.”

I had to be honest: that answer didn’t exactly clear things up for me. I asked how this “everything” he was calling the metaverse was any different from Web3, given that he seemed to be telling me it was just about “adding the blockchain to the internet”. He paused, before saying: “I don’t think there’s any difference, in my mind.” 

Dave Karpf, a professor at George Washington University who studies the internet, tells me Zuckerberg’s idea of the metaverse — less about blockchain and more about using a combination of VR and AR to create an immersive, 3D internet — is closer to the consensus, but is still a woolly concept. It’s also nothing new: there have been many attempts to create such a metaverse over the last two or three decades.

That brings us to the metaverse’s most serious problem: nobody seems to want it. Karpf himself forked out $1,500 for the Meta Quest Pro, and has only used it three times. “It’s what I call the field of dreams fallacy: the assumption that if you build it, they will come,” says Karpf. “At this point, we have to look at the results that we’ve seen so far and . . . the biggest problem is that no matter how good the hardware gets, people basically don’t want that.”

All this is not to deny the likelihood that, as technology advances, the internet will become more immersive. But this will happen gradually and messily: we are not about to step into a suddenly formed, blockchain-powered virtual world together. The metaverse never really began — and yet it’s already over.

jemima.kelly@ft.com

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