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I’m trying to understand what the value of Metaverse is, and I’m not sure I’m succeeding

It seems working in tech has always been about figuring out stuff. You realize there are buzzwords you are not that familiar with every now and then. In my three decades of working in IT, I’ve spent considerable time over the years trying to grasp the essence of numerous buzzwords – such as XML, XML-RPC, JSON, IoT, SOA, AI, ML, 3D, VoIP, Web 2.0, Web3, crypto, bitcoin, paperless office, WFH, remote work, flex work, IAM, IGA, and many, many other.

Sometimes this effort has yielded greater understanding, and other times I’ve realized that I know enough and do not need to know more about a specific topic.

Where I’m coming from

In 2018, I had a chance to put mostly everything aside and focus on Mixed Reality. It was a time when Microsoft rapidly released its vision for VR and MR-based solutions, and several vendors – such as HP and Lenovo, I recall – produced cheap and affordable glasses. HoloLens was also all the rage at the time.

I spent several months figuring out the hardware, developing solutions for them, how Unity fits into the mix, and what customers might want to get from these innovations. I organized tech demos, one for a car retailer, where they could walk around a garage and inspect a fancy 1960s sports car. It was impressive tech – for the time. But also very poorly documented, and the number of errors, crashes, warnings, frustration, and failed builds I encountered was like never before.

Then, that thing died as rapidly as it appeared. After 2018, I saw a few hardcore enthusiasts preaching about the HoloLens and MR-based realities. Still, they were mostly niche cases – perhaps you’re an architect and need to visualize the bridge you’ve been planning in AutoCAD for all those months. Possibly very useful, but a vast amount of work has already been done elsewhere.

I forgot this industry and shifted my focus to more exciting and tangible things. Then, perhaps a year ago, I started seeing hopeful promises that the Metaverse would change everything. We wouldn’t be sitting in 2D meetings at home – we’d be meeting people worldwide in real 3D, and everything would be simply awesome. This brought back memories of the clumsy plastic MR glasses and the hugely expensive (and somewhat fragile) HoloLens devices.

Defining the Metaverse

I joined a few conferences that were conducted “in the metaverse.” Those events were hosted on 2D platforms with cartoonish avatars; if you had the glasses, you could see things in 3D. It gave me nothing; as for a conference, I typically like to learn about something new from the presenter – and I’m lovely with just audio, or audio and slideware at most times. I do not need to see avatars in the audience. I don’t need smoke and mirrors to make it more attractive.

As I love reading about tech, I’ve followed up on the debate and innovations around the Metaverse. Meta’s new forays, Apple’s frustration in trying to define what it is, and Microsoft’s push into avatars in Teams. Somehow, the idea seems to be that the Metaverse is for productive work, not games, entertainment, or fun stuff. And productive work – for many – is conducted over meetings, workshops, emails, chats, and calls these days.

What is the Metaverse, then? Let’s first look at how Meta defines it. The first sentence on their landing page is:

The metaverse is the next evolution in social connection and the successor to the mobile internet.

Meta.com

First and foremost, it’s a social connection and a successor to the mobile Internet. For me, mobile Internet is two things: 1) ubiquitous and cheap mobile data on my devices, and 2) services (on the web) and apps I can easily use to do many tasks very quickly. That’s it.

Once you scroll further down the page, it seems the Metaverse is other things, too – you can play, work, and shop. Either in a familiar 2D interface or by using 3D glasses. And Meta’s 3D glasses, as I’ve understood, are VR glasses. So, to put it bluntly, Meta’s Metaverse is a platform that Meta provides and which you best access with Meta’s VR glasses.

Next, let’s see how Apple defines the Metaverse. Which they don’t. I couldn’t find a clean definition from Apple for this, which might not surprise anyone but me. In one article, Apple’s Tim Cook is quoted as saying:

“I think AR is a profound technology that will affect everything,” Cook said. “Imagine suddenly being able to teach with AR and demonstrate things that way. Or medically, and so on. Like I said, we are really going to look back and think about how we once lived without AR.

Source: Tim Cook on CNBC article

So, it seems Apple is leaning toward AR instead of VR, like Meta. AR, then, is essentially what Microsoft’s HoloLens was mostly about. Perhaps we’ll know more if Apple eventually realizes devices, services, and capabilities for their Metaverse. Yet, to me, this reads as Apple not defining Metaverse as a platform they’d run but as an extension to their hardware and software that you would access with AR glasses.

Lastly, what is Microsoft saying about the Metaverse? I pulled the transcript for a recent keynote from Microsoft Ignite 2022 and found this notion of how Microsoft seems to define the Metaverse:

Essentially there are three realms of the metaverse, or three categories of innovation in the metaverse – in the metaverse: the consumer metaverse, the commercial metaverse and the industrial metaverse. And I want to spend a moment kind of defining each of the three of them.

Source: Judson Althoff/Microsoft Ignite

Microsoft defines three categories for the Metaverse – consumers, businesses, and industrial use. Let’s disregard the consumers, mostly because I am very little interested in games or the Xbox. The business-focused Metaverse, then, is defined as:

The commercial metaverse is all about taking those same kinds of immersive experiences and bringing them into the world of work. And trust me when I say this is far more than just 3D Teams. It’s about having inclusive and diverse perspectives brought into the collaborative environment.

Source: Judson Althoff/Microsoft Ignite

That’s a lot of nothing to me. I’m not closer to understanding what the Metaverse is beyond its more than 3D Teams – we used to joke at the beginning of the pandemic that perhaps digital transformation is just deploying Microsoft Teams. What’s the play there? A lot of work happens in Teams these days, and if it isn’t just 3D Teams, what will it be?

What is the Metaverse, then?

Having read all three companies’ visions of the Metaverse, it’s still unclear to me. It feels as if all companies envision the Metaverse as a platform that helps us collaborate better. And this could best be done with particular MR, AR, or VR glasses.

Most prominently, Meta is pushing their Metaverse playground – Horizon Worlds – as the key. It’s about as close to being productive as when I sat scrolling my Facebook newsfeed in 2018. For now, I feel Meta is bringing zero to the table of practical work in a metaverse for people like myself.

Apple is yet to be seen. I don’t use any Apple hardware or software at work, and knowing how historically Apple is a walled garden, I don’t foresee this changing any time soon. Perhaps what they’ll eventually produce is highly useful – for Apple users.

Microsoft then is most vocal about avatars in Teams. I’m frequently not using video in my weekly calls as I’m often out and about to focus on the audio. I have a weekly call with a co-founder, and it’s not about watching each other in the eye but focusing on a shared Excel spreadsheet or PowerPoint presentation. Avatars and a virtual 3D space will be a fun thing, just like emojis were back in the day, but nothing that will provide me with any more productivity. They might make the meetings less boring at times.

Suppose we disregard the cartoonish avatars for now. In that case, the other aspect Microsoft seems to be very focused on is to have whatever metaverses eventually exist be powered on the Microsoft Cloud. This makes sense, as public cloud spending is key to Microsoft’s future (and bottom line).

Meta, Apple, and Microsoft are not the only players here, but perhaps the most vocal and prominent ones in my newsfeed and the articles I read.

Well, what is it?

For now, and I’m glad to be proved wrong, the Metaverse is one of three things, depending on where you’re coming from:

One, it’s a fun 3D environment where you can toil away and spend time like on Facebook but with actual video.

Two, it’s a more immersed way to have those Teams calls – perhaps with avatars, or perhaps with 3D surroundings and a more tangible feel of being present in the same virtual space.

And three, it’s a platform that companies hope people will flock to, and they can sell you stuff.

Only the second definition – enriching meetings with bells and whistles – is perhaps something I could envision myself using and possibly liking. And that would maybe then – optimistically thinking – add to my productivity. Moreso, I feel it would add to my wanting to attend meetings, but not perhaps contribute more to my company’s bottom line.

It’s a lot of hype, and not much (yet) to show for it. At least, for someone like me who wants to be productive, productivity seems to happen when I work with customers and deliver my services to them.

I’ll continue following up on the hype and the industry (if you could call it an industry just yet) and carry on with productive work like I have been doing for years now – with email, phone calls, chats, video calls, and similar ways. Perhaps this will change, or partially change, but right now, slapping on 3D glasses does not seem like the missing ingredient.

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