What happened with the metaverse?

By Ben McKeown on

Supposedly the metaverse is dead. Or maybe it’s not quite dead, but even the most ardent fan can’t deny that the ambitious vision hasn’t been taken up as originally promised. It’s at the “trough of disillusionment“, even with Facebook/Meta trying to own the space. In the current pecking order of digital fads, the metaverse has now fallen well behind ChatGPT and other AI-driven tools.

I’m not an expert on the ins-and-outs of the metaverse, but 99% of their target audience aren’t either. My understanding of what the metaverse is supposed to be is similar to how McKinsey defines it:

“The metaverse is the emerging 3-D-enabled digital space that uses virtual reality, augmented reality, and other advanced internet and semiconductor technology to allow people to have lifelike personal and business experiences online.”

McKinsey & Company – What is the metaverse?

Proponents of the metaverse suggest we should move our lives online (especially buying and selling things). We should do everything in a virtual world. The metaverse is a promise of a fantastic experience, an escape into a second life that lets us live beyond our physical selves. So, amid all this potential, what happened?

Ultimately, it seems to have been designed to show off the technology, and not designed for its users. Without a focus on user needs and experiences, it simply doesn’t make sense.

You fight your way in

ChatGPT is instantly useful. As with many other AI-generation tools, anyone could prompt it and get something back. Do people truly understand how it works? That it is guessing the next logical word in a sequence, rather than intelligently writing a response? No, of course not. Most people don’t care for that level of technical knowledge and that is completely fine. I drive a car, but I don’t understand the engine like a mechanic. Technology with a large uptake won’t require instructions, but if it’s fun to use straight away and people can explain and talk about it, then you’ll attract users.

The metaverse didn’t have that ease of access. Horizon World (Meta’s primary metaverse app) was designed for VR devices, required you to log into your Facebook account, and then you could… what? Explore the metaverse? Buy something? A huge number of users were expected to start living their lives online. It was interesting, hyped technology. But, there was never a straightforward on-ramp for people who weren’t invested in being part of the new technology. The sales pitch was always about how great the technology is (connect with people all around the world!), and was never about meeting user needs or solving specific user problems.

The metaverse concept was supposed to stand on its own two feet, but where was the designed experience of what people would do in there? ChatGPT on the other hand, has a much easier point of entry and people can more immediately understand why the technology is great. They designed an easy way in that makes sense to users.

A screenshot of Meta's metaverse
A screenshot of the metaverse. Image: Meta

The metaverse doesn’t feel great

One non-technological observation is that Horizon Worlds isn’t competing in the “metaverse” space. There are already virtual worlds that users spend countless hours in, spend virtual money and inhabit digital avatars: open world video games. The concept of the metaverse is competing with the experience someone can have in The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom. Polished, immersive and fun, the only difference is that you don’t need VR equipment to enjoy it. It delivers on a player-centric promise.

The metaverse seems to have been caught in a kind of no-mans land: never embracing a game-like experience, but also without clear, productive reasons for being in there either. It’s a showcase for the metaverse technology. Not good looking enough to be immersive, the experiences aren’t designed in a way that brings delight. Reasonable issues with the technology (there’s no legs) aren’t solved in a creative way.

This is a common issue when technical prowess is prioritised over user-centred designs. You end up with impressive tech where the wrong things are prioritised. In short, it doesn’t feel great.

“Imagine if it was exactly like this other thing…”

If you want to do some shopping online, it makes sense to build a virtual version of a physical shop, right? Not really. eCommerce websites are incredibly effective, and the experience of shopping on them isn’t anything like shopping in a physical store. They borrow “carts” and “checkout” for familiarity, but shape the design to the format of the technology.

Shops in the metaverse are shops. This contributes to one of the current fatal flaws of the metaverse: the design is “lame and ordinary“. Experiences are poor copies of what you can do in the real world. Once again, the technology is driving the experience here. The brief seems to be building the world, not helping out the users. This lack of creative dexterity isn’t producing a user experience that’s any better than being in the real world.

ChatGPT is a tool that just requires a text input, and now a secondary group of people have been at the vanguard of creatively deploying it. Its freedom allowed it to be firmly rooted in real world applicability. ChatGPT has been used to write (inaccurate) articles, host trivia nights and plan holidays. This flexibility has lead to businesses being able to imagine using it without having to think about how it works… which has lead to the “slope of enlightenment“. The design of ChatGPT has worked in its favour.

Is it the metaverse dead?

Probably not. It’s an interesting idea; VR is still viewed optimistically and there’s plenty of people still invested in making it all work. VR equipment will become cheaper and more accessible. The name was coined in 1992 by Neal Stephenson, and living online will always appeal to humans in the internet age. We do more online than ever, and this is a natural extension of that.

Where to next?

The next iteration needs a serious think about its design, from a fundamental perspective. Is VR the best way in? How can users interact with it in a few moments? What are we going to offer to them that they actually want? Meta seems to be slipping into a role as a lumbering incumbent of the tech world. However, perhaps there is an opportunity for a reexamination of the design thinking that informed Facebook’s transformation of our lives through social media.

There’s a lot of experiences that make sense in a well designed metaverse. Let people experience somewhere they don’t have the resources to go to, work collaboratively or learn concepts that are difficult to teach. What is critical to success here though, is letting user needs drive the technology, rather than technology driving the design.

Ben McKeown

Co-founder of Blitzm Design, Ben has a more than 15 years experience designing and leading digital projects. His experience working across all stages of the digital process has lead to a focus on digital prototyping and general product design strategy.

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