Zuck claimed that his “metaverse” could unite everyone. I just experienced bugs and disappointment.
I’ll admit that I’m a “metaverse” skeptic. The phrase became widely used without actually referring to any particular technology, and the firms like Meta, formerly Facebook, that heavily publicize it don’t seem to be very adept at creating whatever it is. I am, however, flexible. As a result, when my editor challenged me to spend some time over the holidays in “the metaverse,” I was game to try it.
I stumbled. Or did the tech let me down. Really, I’m not sure which. But this is how it happened.
It was an easy concept. Companies like Meta assert that their “metaverse” platforms will foster human interaction. The holidays would be the ideal time to put this to the test. Social events take place throughout this period, frequently including loved ones from different states or even other countries. March 2020 would be the ideal time for new technology to bring together people who are physically separated. The holidays, however, come in second.
We choose to use Meta’s Horizon Worlds as our platform. It’s also important to note that commencing this experiment from the end led to this decision. If all that was intended to do was bring many individuals into one virtual space, it has been done! We’ve spent the entire pandemic playing Animal Crossing, Zoom calls, and Discord parties.
So how is “the metaverse” different if it really exists? The fact that so few people own a VR headset is the first issue I run against.
Yes, VR Is Still a Niche
I enlisted the aid of everyone I could think of for my experiment. I questioned my friends, my romantic relationships, and my family. I questioned neighbors as well as others who lived close by and thousands of miles away. That nobody I spoke to was open to participating in this experiment with me. Because no one could.
Although it was also difficult to find the willingness. One friend in particular—whom I adore and won’t get to see over the holidays, making her the ideal participant in this experiment—said she would be up for helping. Grudgingly. However, the concept didn’t have much appeal on its own. VR, in my opinion, would only serve as a sharp reminder that you are not present. She agreed to give it a try anyhow, but she was unable to do so since, like everyone else I knew, she lacked a headset.
I might have just been unfortunate, but I doubt I’m the only one. Hard data is a little difficult to come by, in part because many surveys conflate owning a VR gear with merely using one, but according to one eMarketer survey from 2021, only 31.3 million US citizens will “experience VR content” once a month. Be aware that it doesn’t say “own a VR headset.”
Even the most popular VR headset, the Meta Quest 2 (and that number was released immediately before a $100 price rise), has only sold 15 million units since its introduction. For comparison, the same period saw the sale of 25 million PS5 devices, which debuted around the same time and has had almost continual supply shortages. 114 million Switch consoles have been sold.
Reasonable individuals can disagree over whether a social VR application is significantly different from, say, a video game enough to warrant a distinct name. The fact that most people still lack regular access to VR is something rational people cannot disagree with.
When I couldn’t find enough VR headsets among my friends, I looked to a group of people who were more likely to be early adopters.
The Dreaded Office Christmas Party
The results are clear if the experiment was to spend time with my loved ones over the holidays in virtual reality: I failed. Simple as that. The office Christmas party with your coworkers and not quite enough alcohol is an event everyone looks forward to, but I still wanted to test out the technology, so I asked a few employees if they would join me.
To begin with, using Horizon Worlds to plan an event is not at all intuitive. I struggled for a couple of hours to find a way to invite individuals to a group without adding them as friends on my own Facebook page. I ultimately discovered a mysterious program that, like Zoom, allows you to create a shareable link, but it wasn’t at all user-friendly. Depending on how recently we’d touched our devices, each of us also had to go through a drawn-out procedure that involved updating apps, rebooting our headsets, and generating new profiles.
One of my colleagues had problems joining our voice chat even after we had established our group. And by that, I mean they could never get it to function. One of us was confined to miming and occasionally pinging the rest of us in Slack, while the majority of us were allowed to speak and explore the virtual environment together. Every office party has that one person who simply observes without participating, although it’s typically their preference.
“I was really hoping this would work! And because I was excluded from the enjoyment, I developed a serious only-child complex, she later admitted to me in Slack.
However, the program proved surprisingly enjoyable for those who were able to use it. Everyone has noted, including me, those virtual social apps are nothing new. To make up for this, Meta has produced a number of environments for players to explore as well as several physics-based toys and games.
Adrienne discovered a basketball court in the default zone and used the auto-aim ball to deceive us into thinking she was an expert free-throw shooter. I uncovered a short-lived whack-a-mole-style game in an arcade environment. Parker, a well-known member of the band and a musician, was drawn to a location on the stage where you could pick up some virtual instruments but not actually play them.
Innovative Gaming From 2006
But the component I found most intriguing was a computerized air hockey table. We each held a mallet and swung the puck back and forth while Adrienne and I stood at opposite ends of the table. Air hockey is my game of choice when I’m at a genuine arcade, so I was prepared to be disappointed. And I almost was. If the puck started going too quickly, the game would lag. Still, I was amazed that I could play a game like this with someone so far away.
I could genuinely see the potential for this kind of stuff in the future. Online gaming is nothing new, but it is typically only available for games that can be played with a keyboard or a game controller. But with reduced lag and perhaps more precise input capabilities, physics-based video games might eventually take off. in that sense.
We first found our way to a virtual laser tag arena after playing around for a while in a wintry, Christmas-themed environment (which lacked many interactive objects). It wasn’t quite sturdy, just like the air hockey table. The vast arena was difficult to maneuver in, and the cannons were about as responsive as a Time Crisis cabinet. But once more, I was playing laser tag with players from different parts of the nation. That’s really neat.
It also demonstrates the flaw in Meta’s current interpretation of VR, particularly whatever you may refer to as “the metaverse.” These physics games are quite cool. They are likewise devoid of any depth. They are essentially tech demos.
Horizon Worlds might have become a worldwide phenomenon if it had been released in, say, 2006. a technology that demonstrated the viability of interacting with physics-based video games with portable controllers? That sounds amazing! The Wii is also mentioned in it. A low-poly avatar social network where you may communicate with other people? A month prior to the release of the Wii, South Park had already parodied World of Warcraft.
It’s not easy to fit all of that into a VR headset, but the year 2006 is long gone. In retrospect, Horizon Worlds’ arcade setting made sense. A physics toy doesn’t have the power to fundamentally alter the video game business in 2022, let alone the basic foundation of our online social life.
And it doesn’t even touch on how physically demanding our party is.
The party is over, and my battery is dead
The headset itself is the unresolved issue with VR. Wearing a VR headset is physically demanding in a way that using TVs, monitors, or even phones is not. I rearranged my coffee table in my living room before our party to provide additional room. Because standing still for too long might become taxing, I changed into my coziest shoes and made sure the battery in my headphone was charged.
I was prepared to stick it out. But the distance traveled was not very far. We decided to end it after approximately an hour and fifteen minutes. The majority of our headsets had already begun to show low-battery alerts. The Quest 2’s battery life is only rated for two to three hours, but this depends on how you use it, and playing physics games and using voice chat probably didn’t help.
But mostly, it was becoming uncomfortable and exhausting. I can speak for myself. Pushing up my headphone to take a sip of cider resulted in my being kicked out of the game and the voice chat being terminated. Even though I had purchased the nearly necessary Elite Strap to help the headset fit my head better, my face was becoming painful from the strain it was putting on it. (Incidentally, the cost of this attachment has increased since I purchased it.)
It’s not like I didn’t enjoy myself. Despite my doubts and worries, I generally like VR on its own! Beat Sabre is still something I play frequently, Blaston is, well, a blast to play in short bursts, and while the Room’s VR game isn’t my favorite in the series, it’s still fantastic.
However, the existence of those games just serves to highlight the shallowness of Meta’s selection. We enjoyed exploring different physics toys, although we didn’t spend much time with any of them. Playing air hockey, whacking moles, and throwing basketballs was only fun for a short while. The longest game we played was laser tag, but after one game, everyone’s batteries were pretty well dead.
I pondered how much longer we may have played if we had just held a Jack box party instead as I left. How many more of my friends and family could I have invited if I had used the technology that everyone already possesses rather than attempting to compel it with this entertaining but specialized toy.
Maybe we simply need to be patient and let Meta figure out how to lead the way in this bright new world of social virtual-game worlds, I thought as I pulled off my headset and kicked off my shoes. I then got down at my workstation and entered Discord so that I could play Overwatch 2 with some buddies.