Note — Nov 13, 2022

Ways to Think About a Metaverse

Nothing against Benedict Evans, I like his work, but I didn’t expect he’d come up with one of the best metaverse pieces I’ve read. Perhaps weirdly, perhaps completely appropriately, it’s not excellent for any technical details he comes up with, it’s because of how he spreads out the blurry concept in front of him and adds the context of the last few decades of tech. No predictions of what it is, dreams of specific tech, or who will win, just a clear-eyed reminder of the pretty massive gap between predictions of ‘the information super-highway’ and what the internet ended up being, as well as the chasm between expectations for the mobile internet in 2002 (remember WAP?) and today, with billions of pocket super-computers around the globe. The metaverse is at the Al Gore or WAP stage of its history.

Gaming has created the most advanced ‘proto-metaverses’ so far, so many (including me) often look there for hints of the future. Yet Evans reminds us that “we’ve been applying Moore’s Law to games consoles for 40 years or so, and they’ve got a lot better but most people don’t care. A PS5 is objectively amazing, but the global installed base of games consoles is flat at only about 175m units.” Better tech doesn’t always translate to broad adoption.

Is the metaverse the next mobile internet, the next gaming era, or just Zuck’s fever dream?

The real question, of course, is whether AR and VR actually do break out, and reach that scale. People in the space often talk as though this is inevitable and unquestionable, but I don’t think we should be sure. The basic mistake, I think, would be to presume that because the technology can get better, it necessarily follows that billions (or even hundreds of million) of people will use it. […]

Is a smartphone really more ‘immersive’ than a PC or a giant TV? I think you could argue that the move from command line to GUI to smartphone is a move towards less immersion and a much more casual, fluid, accessible, pick-up-and-put-down kind of experience. […]

[E]very time I see a VR or AR concept showing huge virtual screens floating in space, I think that the future of software is not about seeing more rows in my spreadsheet at once - the future is not seeing it at all, and having an ML engine that builds it for me. This is like printing out our emails. […]

And so when people start making highly specific predictions about how an entirely new thing will appear, a decade into the future, and explain how it will all work, that feels very inorganic. This isn’t how tech works anymore. The problem with this view of ‘the metaverse’ is not so much that there are huge practical problems in making assets portable between totally different types of game, but that you really can’t predict any of that in advance.