It's the online universe Mark Zuckerberg says we'll all be living in, so what is the metaverse really about? Hugo Rifkind takes a trip into a brave new virtual world. First step? To get his headset to work.
The first time I go into the metaverse, sort of, I come across a group of completely cartoonish men standing around outside a Smashing Pumpkins concert, bickering about Covid and racism. Then I pretend to smoke a cigarette. "This," I think to myself, "feels very familiar."
I can tell they are men because I can hear their voices. Visually they are avatars, disembodied from the waist up and looking a bit like Lego Friends. Back in the real world of meat, they could be anyone. They will be at desks, in beds, on sofas or perhaps just standing gormlessly in the middle of rooms, waving their arms around.
They will be wearing virtual-reality goggles, as I am. And they may also, as I am, be caught between being hugely impressed at what the technology can now do – blown away, really – and slightly wondering as to the point.
"You wanna smoke, man?" says a youth in a beanie hat, and his hand comes towards me as if holding an invisible fag.
"Thanks," I say, and I pretend to take it and puff on it, because this seems polite.
"Well, pass it on," he says irritably, and I apologise and do so. Hell, I hope it was just a cigarette.
Near by, an older-looking guy – fussy English voice; white; smart beard; preppy professor stylings – is expounding on some theory about the Omicron variant and why it came from South Africa.
"This just got real serious," says a black guy with a goatee, who sounds delighted.
"If we were all in an elevator," says a white man in a baseball cap, with a voice from the American Deep South, "white, black, whatever? We would not be talking. Period."
"Well, exactly," says somebody else. "And we don't want to bring all that into this world."
Everybody nods their cartoon heads approvingly, and I look up at the big sign on a nearby pillar that warns us we are being watched to make sure we don't do anything vicious or inappropriate. And I wonder why in the real world – on Oxford Street, say – that is something we don't seem to need.
In July, Mark Zuckerberg declared that Facebook, parent company of the social network, was to become a "metaverse company". In October, Facebook changed its name to "Meta". Most people probably hadn't heard the word metaverse before. Many, I expect, still aren't wholly sure what it means. The term comes from Neal Stephenson's novel Snow Crash, where it refers to linked online spaces together making a virtual universe.
Exactly what that means, though, is harder to pin down than you might imagine. Having consulted a variety of broadly unsatisfactory pre-existing definitions, and given this some thought of my own, I reckon I've got this. Ready? For something to be part of the metaverse, it must be an online space a) in which you can interact, and b) that exists in some sense even while you aren't in it.
Or, to put that another way, while a virtual-reality experience like the one I described is definitely happening in the metaverse, not all VR is in the metaverse and not all the metaverse is VR. You might be playing a deeply immersive VR computer game, for example, which leaves you believing you are standing on a spaceship with Darth Vader, but it's not the metaverse if it all blinks out of existence when you press the off button.
By contrast, the lowliest comment thread under an article is kind of the metaverse, because it sits there, existing, with other people in it, whether you're looking or not. That's why, up top, I said it was my first journey into the metaverse, "sort of". Because, in a sense, I already spend half my life in it via Twitter, Facebook and all the rest. And they're usually talking about Covid and racism there too.
The second time I go into the metaverse, sort of, I am sexually molested and so is my friend Jeremy. We're on the way to a Billie Eilish gig in the Horizon Venues app. Made by Oculus, which is owned by Facebook, it's one of the first proper sociable VR spaces. Long ago Jeremy was my deputy on this newspaper's gossip column, so he seemed like the perfect sidekick for a pixellated night out. Also, I was in his real-world kitchen the other day and I spotted he had just bought a headset.
Metaversally, he's not looking his best. To enter the various Horizon experiences, you need to build yourself an avatar, as mentioned above. I spent a while on mine. It looks roughly like me but has a nose ring, because what's the point in forging a new identity if you can't incorporate a small midlife crisis? Jeremy has long hair and a beard, in that world and this. Unfortunately, the long hair he selected here came atop a torso that, in his haste, he didn't notice had quite large breasts. Obviously, one of the great boons of alternate realities is that we shall all no longer be confined to the earthly repressive bonds of sex and gender, and hooray for that. Although here and now, he only looks like Dana International because essentially he got dressed in a rush.
I don't think that's why we get sexually molested, but you never know. There we are, standing around in a courtyard, being eagerly shouted at by some random Spanish people, when this fairly creepy-looking bald guy runs up, bends double and starts pumping his cartoon hands at our cartoon crotches.
"Woah," I say. "Are you seeing this?"
"Yes," says Jeremy, and he tries to punch the bald man in the face. Somehow, though, being virtually punched in the face is a lot less impactful than being virtually sexually molested. So I'm not sure he particularly minds.
This sort of thing is going to be a problem for the metaverse. You know all those signs I told you about on the walls? That's why they're here.
"Privacy and safety need to be built into the metaverse from day one," said Zuckerberg, discussing the company's pivot in a slightly weird Facebook video in October.
This might seem uncontroversial. What it highlights, though, is a conflict at the heart of the internet itself that will grow increasingly pronounced as the internet, via the metaverse, comes to resemble reality. Because privacy and safety, well, aren't they two different things? Theoretically we could have reported our sexual molester and he could have been identified, because in order for him even to be in that world he will have been using a registered headset linked to a Facebook account. Only, whither his privacy then?
In the case of a molester, well, who cares? Maybe the appeal of virtual worlds for you is to live a wild, hedonistic life of the sort you'd be loath to admit to your closest real-world friend. Indeed, while writing this piece I had an email from somebody (I think by chance) who wanted me to write about metaverse porn, involving, and I quote, the "first interactive action game that has full-on sex scenes that integrate via responsive sex toys via Bluetooth".
Actually, I don't believe this quite qualifies as metaverse at all, unless there are actual sex workers on the other end, which raises a whole bunch of issues both ethical and legal. Either way, would you really want to start off by linking up with your Facebook account?
"Not everybody wants their social media profile linked to all these other experiences," was how Zuckerberg put it. Hmmm, you think?
Anyway, back to that Billie Eilish gig. She's not an avatar. She's a pre-recorded film on a huge screen. It's OK. We stand around, Jeremy and I, chatting and watching. At the heart of the pandemic, when I hadn't left my house in two months, I can see how doing this with a bunch of friends would have been a refreshing delight. Here and now, though, it's a bit annoying. The real me is on the sofa at home, with a real beer on a real coffee table next to me, but I obviously can't see the beer so I keep nearly knocking it over. It's also quite hard to drink with a headset on. By coincidence, the last time I saw Jeremy in the real world we went to a gig (the Jesus and Mary Chain at the Roundhouse in Camden). Which, it is impossible not to conclude, was quite a lot better.
It's only once I leave, or hang up or whatever you want to call it, that I realise I've actually just been doing what my kids have been doing for years. Both of them adore an online game called Roblox, based around a virtual world. Of a weekend, they meet up with friends on there while simultaneously skyping them so they can chat. At the lowest points of lockdown, it was their only social contact.
As of last year, Roblox had more than 164 million users, including half of all children under 16 in the USA. It has been around since 2006 and it wasn't even the first (Second Life was three years earlier) and aside from the way it's not usually played with a VR headset on (although it can be), it's almost exactly what old codgers like me and Mark Zuckerberg have suddenly started calling the future.
Brands are suddenly all over the metaverse, although I'm not sure that many of them really know why. On Roblox you can go into Nikeland, a Nike-sponsored virtual worldy game. Sotheby's has a metaverse site, although having visited it, I'm not wholly clear how it differs from what we used to call "a website".
The fashion world has gone particularly nuts for the metaverse, inspired by the idea of people buying virtual things to wear in virtual worlds. In Roblox alone, players have spent US$1.5 billion to date on owning the right accessories. At the end of November, Alessandro Michele, the creative director of Gucci, appeared in avatar form on Roblox to present the first ever British Fashion Council award for Metaverse Design, which was won by somebody calling themselves cSapphire, who makes Roblox clothes. Other nominees included Genkroco, who has sold more than 30 million hairstyles. Have you any idea what I'm talking about? Have I?
There's obviously a heavy whiff of bullshit about all this, although given that we're talking about the fashion world I expect it barely touches the sides. Integral to much of this is the idea of NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, which are items – often artworks – that only exist online but you can buy for real money. Earlier this year, an artist called Beeple sold a collage called Everydays: the First 5000 Days for $69.3 million.
To my mind the whole concept of NFTs is preposterous, but they start to make a lot more sense in the context of the metaverse. On its own, an NFT pair of shoes is pretty pointless. Once your little avatar can wear them in Roblox, they're a tiny bit less pointless. And by the time you put on the goggles and feel like you are wearing your shoes to a gig or a meeting, then they are barely pointless at all. Your virtual NFT art hangs on the wall of your virtual house. No, I'm not totally sure why that's better than just having a photo of it either. But you could say the same about the actual Mona Lisa.
The new aim of Facebook – sorry, Meta – is to be the platform that underpins all this once we are all doing it all the time. The company bought Oculus, which makes headsets, back in 2014. The latest Oculus model – and the last under that name before it changes to Meta too – has sold ten million units. Other brands exist, but none has sold anything like so many. Most, I expect, have been played with a bit and now languish in drawers, although as long ago as 2017, the porn site Pornhub was claiming that its free VR videos were being watched by half a million people a day.
Meta, though, wants them to become a daily tool, for fun but also for work. To see what that is like I set up a meeting with the Times science editor, Tom Whipple, via Horizon Workrooms, which is basically Meta's VR answer to Zoom. It doesn't go altogether well. I'm sitting there, again as my nose-ringed avatar, in my own Horizon Workrooms special meeting room, which has a virtual view of a very pretty virtual lake. Cleverly, I've been able to tell the headset about my own real-world desk, which means I can put my virtual hands out and feel physical sensation when they touch the pretend desk in front of me. I've also managed (weird, this) to tell it about my actual, real-world computer and keyboard, which means I can type.
What we can't figure out, though, is any bloody way of getting Tom into the damn room too. This may be because his headset is linked to a Google Chromebook, but there also seems to be a problem with his Facebook account. The app keeps telling him that it is "not of good standing", although it's very hard to figure out why. I'll ask his wife. Either way, we mess around for literally half a day and the best we can manage is getting his real-world face onto a TV screen floating at the end of my table.
"This is maddening," he says. "I've got a degree in computer science."
"Thanks for trying anyway," I say in my pixellated way.
"Nice nose ring," he says.
To be honest, I'm not clear in what circumstances a meeting like this would really be useful. I also have a glimpse of just how horrific this experience would have been if I'd been trying to set up a meeting with somebody more important (no offence) than Tom.
Although, that said, after Tom had logged off, I had to leave the house and head into town for a meeting for real. I had to shower and dress, it was freezing outside and the Tube took about an hour. And that wasn't super either.
There is a lot that is maddening about the metaverse, at least in its VR form. It can be hard to set up. It's also hard once you are in to check your phone, which might sound like a small beef but probably matters quite a lot to the early adopters it needs to woo. It is a massive hassle for journalism, because how even to hold a pen? It is also, quite a lot of the time, irritatingly cute. Imagine, for example, the Taliban giving a metaverse press conference. Insane, right? It would be like something out of The Simpsons.
In fairness, nobody claims that the metaverse is a finished product. The Facebook stuff in particular is still what you might call a Meta beta, with bugs still being ironed out. As Zuckerberg puts it, it is all just intended "to give you a feeling for what this future could be like", and it does. Irritating, finickety and fundamentally pointless as it may be, it is possible to glimpse what could be happening ten years from now or less. You'll put on a pair of glasses that look like your normal glasses, and through them, while still looking at your own real-world room, you may see an avatar of your friend sitting on your sofa. Meanwhile, through their glasses, they'll see you. And that, even outside a pandemic, sounds amazing.
It's probably worth also pointing out, though, that not everybody thinks this is necessarily how the future will look, or even ought to. Jaron Lanier, an internet philosopher and once a VR pioneer, has described Zuckerberg's dream as "like some megalomaniac took my stuff and filtered it through some weird self-aggrandisement filter".
Name change or not, the idea of Facebook/Meta being at the heart of this, with all its past failures on privacy, fake news and incitement, is not wildly encouraging. Social media sites have moderators, but virtual worlds have gods. Is this the god we want? On past form, Zuckerberg is very good at knowing how he wants his products to be used, but very bad at knowing what to do when this turns out not to be how people use them. Everything Facebook did badly, from child protection to bullying to generally making us all bonkers, could happen so much worse here.
None of Meta's big competitors seem all that interested either in the technology or the concept. Recently I asked a senior Google executive about Facebook's pivot to Meta. While he didn't exactly roll his eyes, it wasn't far off. For Google the future is more about artificial intelligence, although inevitably the two futures will run together.
Within the metaverse, after all, how will you know whether an intelligence is artificial or not? The ethical considerations are mindbending. Up top, you may remember that I told you a computer game wasn't really the metaverse if it blinked out of existence as soon as you left. What, though, if that gaming world is populated by artificial minds as clever and aware as your own and you kill them all every time you press a button?
In the end, I suppose my advice would be not to worry about it. Not so long ago, after all, the idea of arguing with distant strangers on the internet about diseases and racism was the hobby only of lunatics, and now look at your uncle. Perhaps before long you too will be buying expensive clothes that don't exist and wearing them proudly in places that don't exist either. And perhaps you will wonder, looking back, how you ever coped without.
A beginner's guide to the metaverse
Pretty much anything that can be capitalised in real life could be in the metaverse too. At the moment the biggest earners are game developers making millions from in-game purchases. But as these virtual worlds develop, such as Horizon, Facebook's meta-planet, there will be more digital goods and services to buy. Right now, virtual offices, such as Horizon Workrooms, act as boardrooms where you brainstorm with your colleagues' avatars.
Festivals, gigs, comedy shows. For the music industry the metaverse is a goldmine. Imagine the hype around Beyoncé's first live concert in the metaverse. Do we all get to be front row? Is she a 3D Beyoncé right there in your bedroom? Will we be having a mad weekend at meta-Glasto? You can camp in the garden for extra effect.
To most people the metaverse and NFTs and all the associated jargon sound a lot like spending your money on intangible things that may or may not appreciate in value. That is pretty much what it is. When digital art exploded earlier this year, so fast-moving was the market that Sotheby's and Christie's had to "go meta" and embrace this new multibillion dollar opportunity with virtual versions of their auction houses. In the fashion world, there are sought-after "drops" of new virtual sneakers and digital designers. Nike is building Nikeland, a simulated sneaker-themed playground.
Your meta-you could buy a Big Mac NFT. The metaverse will be a marketing mecca: on Halloween the Mexican food chain Chipotle created a virtual restaurant on the gaming platform Roblox where users could come in for a "Boorito" and get a voucher for an IRL burrito. Watch this space for a virtual Deliveroo-style "brand" – using your avatar to order food in the metaverse which is then delivered to your actual front door.
At-home fitness fans will become members of a virtual gym where they'll bump into regulars and get to know their trainers.
It's not just about Fortnite and Minecraft: in a second life you can play golf in Hawaii after work or sit around a poker table with friends.
Early adopters are buying up "space" in digital worlds such as Decentraland and the Sandbox, where users can work, socialise and play.
Written by: Hugo Rifkind
© The Times of London