Wait, what happened to the metaverse?

Hailed by some as the future of the internet, the metaverse is dead. What went wrong?

Thursday, 18 May, 2023

Corporate history is liberally sprinkled with spectacular failures, disastrous rebranding exercises, and bankruptcies caused by over-investment in a supposedly bright idea.

The computing sector has seen more than its fair share of seismic launches that quickly dissolved into resounding raspberries. Google Glass, Apple’s Newton, Windows Vista…the list goes on.

Arguably no product in human history has been as hyped as the metaverse. Yet barely two years after an extraordinarily high-profile launch, it’s effectively been killed off.

The meta-what?

Although it had existed in other forms for decades before Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg pounced on it, the metaverse as we knew it was officially unveiled in late 2021.

A decade after Ready Player One depicted a future world where tedious real life is replaced with a gaudy, anything-is-possible virtual world, Zuckerberg claimed reality had caught up.

Two decades after Second Life combined social media with an always-on virtual world, Facebook’s Metaverse would add VR and motion sensing technology.

The metaverse promised a combination of virtual reality and augmented reality, in an animated environment where remote end users interacted socially and economically.

Zuckerberg’s $1 trillion Facebook corporation was promptly rebranded as Meta. The future was here, and all we had to do was invest in an expensive (Facebook-owned) Oculus headset.

Hitting the bottle

Unfortunately, inventors rarely catch lightning in a bottle more than once.

Sir Clive Sinclair revolutionised home computing with the Spectrum range, before boldly declaring the all-electric C5 vehicle to be the future of personal transportation.

What consumers saw was a flimsy and slow egg-shaped pedal car, ready to be obliterated by articulated lorries.

Similarly, when Mark Zuckerberg launched the metaverse, he boldly declared it was the future of the internet.

What consumers saw was a legless and expressionless avatar, bobbing around in a cartoonish world that looked like a budget PS2 game.

Consumers reacted with derision, but a sycophantic American media lavished praise on it, and companies like Walmart and Disney dutifully created digital corners of the metaverse.

There was hype in abundance (including Zuckerberg’s claim that a billion users would each spend hundreds of dollars on virtual goods and services each year), yet little of substance.

The Oculus headset required to enter this new world was expensive, cumbersome and uncomfortable, as well as risking claustrophobia and minor injuries by obscuring the user’s vision.

Once online, people found an undefined environment with no USPs and little excitement, other than speculative NFT sellers making a fortune by selling worthless tokens and ‘real estate’.

A bespoke $1.3 billion ecosystem attracted just 38 daily users on average, and even Meta staff avoided the platform.

Corporate enthusiasm quickly waned as consumers failed to be seduced. Even Zuckerberg soon lost interest, switching his focus to AI and abandoning the metaverse back in March.

This sounds familiar…

Mark Zuckerberg has heralded the second coming of the internet before.

His Internet.org project would have made Facebook the exclusive gatekeeper to a curated internet in developing nations, and was rightly rejected for its censorious approach to web access.

Other notable failures included the Facebook Credits shopping app, short-lived Snapchat rival Poke and the privacy-destroying Beacon tracking tool.

However, none of these cost a fraction of the $36 billion invested into the metaverse. And none triggered a staggering $700 billion fall in the share value of their parent company.

No company in human history has lost this much stock market value in such a short space of time.

Could the metaverse be reborn?

Advocates of the metaverse as a concept believe there’s still a future for a fully immersive Second Life-style platform.

However, it’s hard to see it working on clunky cabled VR headsets, or using cartoon avatars.

To succeed, the metaverse will need to be projected onto a wall or AR glasses rather than into a headset. It’ll need to be free to access, with realistic visuals, no latency and widespread corporate uptake.

Ultimately, despite receiving undeserved praise from a star-struck media, Facebook’s metaverse had no real purpose or focus.

If any future iterations of the metaverse are to succeed, they’ll need compelling use cases.

Neil Cumins author picture


Neil is our resident tech expert. He's written guides on loads of broadband head-scratchers and is determined to solve all your technology problems!