Why is the metaverse failing?

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Celia Pearce has fond and vivid memories of her life in Second Life.

The non-gaming online virtual world “Second Life” launched in the early 2000s attracted people, like Pearce, who were looking for, what developer Linden Labs calls, a “haven of self-expression”.

Pearce, a Northeastern game design professor who has studied non-game virtual worlds since the mid-1990s, remembers creating his digital avatar, wandering through virtual spaces and homes that others had created, and interacting with. people who had created entire communities in “Second Life.”

Twenty years later, Pearce says the Metaverse, Mark Zuckerberg’s multi-billion dollar attempt to revolutionize the concept of a virtual world, is a lot like “Second Life” – in every way.

For Celia Pearce, an associate professor of game design at Northeastern, the Metaverse is “mind-blowing” in how Meta hasn’t learned from the past 20 years of building virtual worlds online. Photo by Northeastern University

“One of the things that really struck me about the meta-metaverse is that it resembles the virtual worlds of the mid-90s,” says Peare. “If you can imagine it’s the Renaissance and people are doing cave paintings, that’s what’s happening here. … I find it really amazing that these people who literally have all the money in the world can’t figure out how to make virtual worlds evolve after 1995.”

And Pearce is not alone. Ever since Zuckerberg announced Facebook’s renaming to Meta and his big bet on the Metaverse last year, Meta’s value has plummeted. The company’s share price has fallen more than 70% in less than a year, with shares falling 23% after the company missed its profit targets. After dropping out of the top 20 most valuable US companies, Meta is now worth less than Home Depot.

Instead of rethinking Meta’s future, Zuckerberg doubled down on the Metaverse: Meta will commit billions more to Reality Labs, the division responsible for Metaverse, adding to the $15 billion already committed to the project.

Shareholders are not the only ones concerned. Early glimpses of the Metaverse, including Zuckerberg’s eerily unfaithful avatar, have left audiences not only confused about where Meta’s money is going, but concerned about the digital future.

Given his experience with non-gaming virtual worlds, Pearce is also perplexed by the metaverse. She says the glimpses audiences have had so far are off-putting both to gaming audiences, who have grown accustomed to “video games that are indistinguishable from movies,” and to the general public.

Metaverse’s failures partly boil down to what Pearce considers Meta’s “lack of awareness of what’s really happening now and what’s been before” in out-of-game virtual spaces.

Experiences like “Second Life” or “Minecraft”, online spaces that have succeeded in attracting and retaining audiences over time, succeed by encouraging creativity. There’s a reason why, through his research, Pearce found that non-gaming virtual worlds tend to attract more women and older gamers, two demographics typically underserved in gaming in general.

So far, Zuckerberg has touted Metaverse as a VR-powered way to hold business meetings or hang out with friends, but Pearce says it’s more of a Zoom buzz than of revolutionary technology.

“[Meta] really missed the mark in terms of creating something for the right audience,” says Pearce. “They also missed the mark in terms of understanding the state of the industry, both in terms of what people visually expect from games and what people actually do in non-gaming experiences, that’s i.e. create things. Creativity is the killer app in virtual worlds. »

Portrait of Yakov Bart
Yakov Bart, an associate professor of marketing at Northeastern, says Meta has struggled to sell — and even explain — Metaverse to the public. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Yakov Bart, an associate professor of marketing, and Joseph G. Riesman, a research professor, say Meta has also failed to sell customers on the idea of ​​the Metaverse. There’s an inherent challenge here, Bart admits. Unlike when Apple launched the iPhone, the Metaverse is not a physical product. It’s an abstract concept, one that Meta might not even fully understand.

“It’s very difficult to explain something to people when you don’t have a clear idea of ​​what exactly you’re trying to deliver,” Bart says.

Businesses and marketers succeed by trying to understand what customers want and then delivering products, services, or experiences that meet that need or want, whether it’s an upgrade incremental level, like a new iPhone, or a whole new product. In the case of the Metaverse, it’s neither, say Pearce and Bart.

The concept of a metaverse dates back to Neil Stephenson’s 1992 techno-dystopian novel “Snow Crash,” and platforms like “Second Life” have been trying to bring this idea to life since the 2000s and before. It’s not a new concept, and the concurrent complexity and vagueness of the metaverse could be the downfall of this metaverse, Bart says.

In the 1990s, Motorola launched the Iridium satellite constellation, a collection of global satellites that it hoped would revolutionize wireless communications. Unfortunately for Motorola, cell towers turned out to be a much less expensive and complex solution to the same problem, a “good enough” solution for people, although perhaps not as good as a product. Bart can see a similar situation happening with the Metaverse.

“This big vision that Mark has might be a little too much for too much money depending on what consumers really need when looking for entertainment and communication with each other in the worlds of virtual reality and mixed,” says Bart.

Despite his cynicism about Meta’s big-budget experiment in building virtual worlds, Pearce says the idea at the heart of the Metaverse is still appealing. For the digital inhabitants of “Second Life”, it wasn’t just a program they tuned into. It was a digital portal to a whole world and a community, an opportunity to connect with others and create something special.

“It’s just mind blowing to me that people with so many resources can so spectacularly mess things up when the opportunity to do something cool comes along,” says Pearce.

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