There are a lot of reasons to dislike and make fun of Mark Zuckerberg, but the fact that the metaverse isn’t yet ready for primetime isn’t one of them.
Creating a compelling virtual-reality environment is a monumental undertaking, and it’s going to take a long time and cause many failures along the way. The task is made even more difficult for the fact that we’ve spent decades imagining this technology.
Neal Stephenson gave us a comprehensive view of what fully immersive metaverse could be like in “Snow Crash” in 1992, and the Matrix movies set our imaginations loose on the idea of a virtual environment that’s indistinguishable from reality.
Even the bleeding edge of current technology falls far short of either of those scenarios because of limitations to computing power and our biology. I expect computing power will eventually catch up, but it will be trickier to avoid making people nauseous when their brains think they’re moving while they’re really sitting still with a headset strapped over their skulls.
This problem of our imaginations running ahead of the currently available technology — and being disappointed by that gap — hasn’t been a problem for many of Silicon Valley’s other creations. Most people didn’t grasp the potential of what home personal computers could be, so the early Apples still seemed special despite their limitations. Many people also didn’t fully understand the possibilities of the mobile phone, so early iPhones still seemed wondrous even though early versions couldn’t even multitask.
Clearly, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg have always occupied different positions in popular culture, but Jobs didn’t face nearly the level of ridicule for those shortcomings that Zuck is catching today.
As a corporate strategy, making sure that you’re the one who disrupts your own business — as Zuckerberg is doing with the metaverse — is bold, difficult, and surprisingly self-aware. Companies that even attempt self-disruption are notable and rare. Rarer still are the companies that succeed.
The real test for Zuckerberg will be whether he sticks with this strategy through the inevitable technical setbacks, internal opposition, and financial losses.
For my money, I think augmented reality is more promising virtual reality because it solves the dizziness problem and doesn’t require people to completely check out of reality, which makes it usable for a much greater portion of the day and thus potentially more profitable for service providers and advertisers.
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Back to Zuckerberg, I want to reiterate that I’m no fan of the guy. The company’s problems with content moderation, data harvesting, fact-checking, and a host of other internal practices are serious and signal a need for someone with entirely different skills to run the company.
And I’ll admit to chuckling at the pictures of the legless, sub-Sims-quality avatars and the stories of staffers who are sitting next to each other yet being forced to hold meetings in the metaverse.
Also, the dude just seems weird in a lot of ways.
However, if Zuckerberg has any talent, it’s for building new products, which is why I suspect he’s so invested in creating the metaverse.
My best guess is that it will take at least a decade before the metaverse is anything like what we’ve imagined it could be. And I’ll put the odds at 50/50 that Zuck will be the one to make it happen. But I won’t fault him for trying.