Opinion

Is The Metaverse Heading For A Snow Crash?

A couple of weeks ago I talked to the founder of TrendzOwl, Stephen Loynd, on my CX Files podcast. Our conversation was focused on how the metaverse is going to change and redefine customer experience (CX) in the near future.

If you are not entirely familiar with the metaverse as a concept then it’s really quite simple. Imagine engaging inside a virtual world with other real people. Gamers will be familiar with this concept as games have been engaging real people from all over the world in virtual universes for many years now – just look at Roblox or Fortnite.

But how does this change or influence CX? There are a number of suggestions. First, if consumers are spending a large amount of time in these virtual environments then there will be a new economy featuring property and various products that remain in the virtual environment. Second, there is an opportunity for companies selling expensive experiences – think of luxury resorts or travel brands – to demonstrate what they are offering in a virtual environment before the customer decides to book and pay.

But as Stephen said on the podcast, and as I found when researching the podcast, there are very few corporate experiences available at present. The metaverse exists as a platform that has many promises, but few actual users. A recent article looked at Decentraland and found 38 active users on the site and fewer than 1,000 in The Sandbox.

In an underwhelming announcement, Horizon Worlds has recently boasted that avatars will now feature legs although executives at Meta (formerly Facebook) confess that even their own employees hardly use the service. Meta is spending billions on this virtual environment, yet globally there are around 300,000 registered users – who knows how many are still actively logging in?

This was also true for social media, and even earlier technologies. I can remember in the early days of online chat I could go into music chatrooms and hang out with genuinely famous musicians – they were early technology adopters and were talking about music before the millions of fans arrived and the chatrooms descended into chaos.

So we are still exploring the possibility of the metaverse, but are companies such as Meta not seeing the real future of online virtual environments?

Horizon Worlds has only ever been available to users with a Virtual Reality (VR) headset. They have plans to roll out a phone and browser version soon, but at present it still requires the user to put on an expensive headset and completely immerse themselves into this virtual world.

The new Quest Pro headset from Meta sells for $1,499. Commenting on the new headset, the Washington Post said: “For nearly the same price as one Quest Pro, consumers could purchase a PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X and a Quest 2 VR headset. That’s three high-end gaming platforms. A gamer could buy four of the newest Nintendo Switch OLED models. Many gaming PCs also cost less than the Quest Pro.”

Meta is spending billions to make their vision of the metaverse a reality, but they are being greeted by little more than skepticism and confusion. The share price is in free fall.

Meta is now trying to push their vision of the metaverse as the office of the future. It’s a valid idea now that we are living in a world of distributed work where people might clock on from their home, an office, or a coffee shop. Being present inside a virtual work environment could be a way to bring everyone together, regardless of physical location. It’s a clever way to unite a distributed workforce.

But is the continued focus on VR the weak link? If you are sitting in Starbucks, would you really put on a VR headset to attend a work meeting? Do regular consumers – not hardcore gamers or early adopters – really have a reason to invest thousands of dollars in a headset for their home?

The metaverse idea creates opportunities – this has been demonstrated by games that now have millions of global users, but most games don’t require VR. Even so, they still create a social connection for the gamers who participate in these virtual environments.

Perhaps the focus needs to shift to the virtual environments and the cooperation, social activity, and collaboration that is possible even before migrating to the full VR experience?

Most new technologies that go viral do so because consumers find a need that did not previously exist. The spreadsheet suddenly allowed managers to ask ‘what if’ questions without needing to learn about their business through trial and error. The iPad created a desire for tablets that nobody (except Apple) knew we had. Who is really crying out to sit in a VR headset all day, whether it is to go shopping or to clock in to a virtual work environment from home?

If these metaverse platforms make it easier to engage, without the requirement of VR, and start creating more reasons to engage – such as major brands offering previews or new metaverse-only services – then maybe the user numbers will creep up.

People need a reason to engage. Augmented Reality and browser access will be the baby steps that make it easier to engage, but people that are happy with their existing online experience still need a reason to engage in these environments at the expense of all their present-day entertainment options.

Almost nobody can remember Tom from MySpace now. Will this be the fate of Mark Zuckerberg if he doesn’t change course?

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