Two years ago, Facebook changed its name to Meta, a move that was supposed to usher in the era of the ‘metaverse’. Instead, society jumped to dystopian, Black Mirror-inspired conclusions, imagining us all walking around in headsets, trapped in a digital hellscape, with some even speculating we’d soon be eating virtual food, whatever that means.
Nothing that drastic happened. In fact, one could argue we’ve already been in the ‘metaverse’ for decades, given how we use technology to alter our environment on a daily basis (think noise-cancelling headphones or even sunglasses).
But the metaverse became an all-or-nothing proposition and the hype snowballed. Money flooded into the space; over $120bn was invested in the sector in the first five months of 2022, according to McKinsey. Meta itself had spent $36bn between 2019 and 2022 researching and developing immersive technology. Marketers jumped on the bandwagon, used it for clickbait, and subsequently the word lost specificity and meaning. Before long there was a backlash, with Meta’s share price falling as much as 25 per cent at one point. People gave up as quickly as they’d jumped on board.
The Meta Connect event earlier this year, the company’s flagship meet-up in Menlo Park, California, provided an opportunity to check in on how the metaverse was going and showed that it’s still being built, albeit less noisily than before. Perhaps significantly, Mark Zuckerberg’s keynote speech included the word ‘metaverse’ only once (probably in the knowledge that zero mentions would generate headlines). But that aside, it was clear the mission of the metaverse is still the company’s top priority. By unveiling the Quest 3 headset and Ray-Ban smart glasses collaboration, Meta is steadily bringing our physical and digital lives closer together.
Critics often see Meta’s metaverse venture as a last-ditch attempt to mitigate dwindling advertising revenue and pressure from other platforms. These detractors think the sector doesn’t have legs on its own, and that Meta has been willing it into existence through huge investment and R&D.
But it’s important to bear in mind that Apple’s move into the mixed reality space – through their release of the Vision Pro headset – is possibly the heftiest market accreditation anyone could ask for. For the last 20 years, Apple hasn’t done anything lightly, with all its new releases (smartwatches, AirPods etc.) becoming market leaders. There’s a similarity between Apple and Meta’s focuses; they’re clearly very excited about immersive experiences for entertainment.
It remains to be seen whether this bet will succeed. But there’s another area of the metaverse both companies are more discreetly looking into: hybrid work. And here lies the real potential of the technology. In August, bosses at Zoom – the company synonymous with pandemic-induced remote work –ordered employees back into the office at least twice a week, stating that in-person meetings benefitted their work. This debate is currently dominating boardrooms around the world, as leaders consider how to increase productivity and collaboration while not reneging on remote work policies already agreed upon, and enjoyed by, employees.
If anything, working during the pandemic was the first ubiquitous experience of the metaverse. It normalised bringing our colleagues and customers into our homes through our screens. Metaverse technology can provide the sensation of being in the same room, and aiding collaboration in a way that Zoom simply can’t. The truth is, the metaverse hype wasn’t wasted. It may not necessarily be with us in the all-encompassing scope people envisioned. But it’s already changing the way we live and work.