The Metaverse: What The Hell Is It?

I’m going to go wandering off on a tangent so if you were expecting more photos or info about drones or amateur radio or farming you’re going to want to skip this one. I want to talk about the so-called metaverse. And I should warn you up front that there may be satire. Maybe even sarcasm.

Here we see Zuck plucking a pretty VR flower in his little metaverse. He is not, as some wags have indicated, fondling the testicles of a goat.

And I can’t really talk about the metaverse without also talking about Facebook, The Great Satan, We’ll Sell Your Children If We Can Get Away With It… Oh, hell, what’s the name of that company now? Oh, I remember now. Meta. That’s it. Meta and it’s chief overlord, Palpatine… Oh, dear, that’s not right either. Zuckerberg? Is that it? Yeah, that’s it. But I’ll come to that later.

One of Meta’s problems with the whole metaverse thing is that they aren’t really very good at explaining just what it is. Zuck’s “vision” of the future, the metaverse, is a bit complicated. Let me see if I can explain. Please bear with me because this gets a bit complicated.

In his metaverse we will all be wearing something like those silly goggles he has on in that photo up there. In case you haven’t seen those before, that is a VR (virtual reality) headset that you strap over your face that contains cameras, microphones, and two high resolution video screens just an inch or so away from your eyeballs. The idea is that the headset tries to trick your brain into thinking you are actually inside of a different environment, the one being displayed on the video screens.

Now these have been around for a while. Some gamers use them, some drone pilots use them, sometimes they are used for training. You can think of them as, oh, sort of a video screen that completely surrounds you. The headset tracks the movement of your head and eyes so the scene you see on the video shifts perspective as you turn your head. They’ve been around commercially for, oh, must be ten years or so now. They’ve never been all that popular because they have a variety of problems. People who wear glasses can’t use them at all unless they have special lenses made to correct their vision when wearing them. A significant number of people, as many as 25% or even more, suffer from serious motion sickness when using them for any length of time. (I’m one of those people. Just a few minutes wearing these things makes me so ill I can’t function.)

The new models, especially the new “flagship” model Meta’s company Oculus came out with recently, include sensors that can track your movements so those movements can be mimicked inside of the game or world being displayed. Not just your hand and arm movements, but even track your facial expression. Eventually they hope to make the systems sophisticated enough so they can do away things like hand held controllers so that your movements in a game or whatever environment you’re in can be controlled by your gestures.

Now this can actually be kind of fun, if you can tolerate wearing them. Imagine playing Call of Duty or some other video game, only instead of sitting there staring at a flat screen, it looks like you are actually inside of the game itself. When you turn your head, your view of the world changes just as if you were physically there. Flying a drone that’s tethered to one of these headsets is absolutely breathtaking. You’re seeing the world through the drone’s “eyes” so to speak as if you were actually flying yourself. DJI actually makes a drone specifically designed for this purpose, complete with all the hardware and software to make it work and it is absolutely amazing.

Virtual Reality

But so far this just concerns things like gaming. We want to move into something called VR, Virtual Reality. VR doesn’t actually really need the goggles. Technically whenever we’re playing a game we are engaging in a kind of virtual reality. Even something like watching a movie or a video is, in a way, a kind of VR. We are engaging with an environment that doesn’t actually exist. We sort of, oh, lose ourselves in the drama we’re watching, projecting ourselves into the world we’re seeing on the screen.

In a way people have been engaging with virtual realities, well, forever, really. The difference today is that we now have the technology to make it seem as if you, personally, are actually in that world yourself and that you can actively engage in that world, moving through it however you like – walk, run, fly, crawl, whatever. You can manipulate objects that appear in that world. It’s like you can reach into that movie or video and move objects on the screen, engage with characters in the movie, as if you were there yourself.

In these virtual realities you can have a physical presence in the form of an avatar. An avatar is a physical representation of yourself and the other persons also inside of the virtual world you are in. These avatars can range from very realistic representations of human beings, even ones modeled on your real physical appearance, to simplistic cartoonish forms. You can be human or animal or fantasy creatures. You can change how you appear to others with a few keystrokes or mouse clicks. Feel silly? You can be a cartoon cat. Want to look respectable? You can appear as a human in a three piece business suit.

What do you do in these virtual realities? Why would you even want to bother with any of this? I’ll come to that in a moment. But I want to touch on something called AR first.

Augmented Reality

AR stands for Augmented Reality, and this is one of the directions Meta seems to be moving towards. With AR what you see through the goggles is the actual real world around you. Cameras in the headset project an actual image of your real environment. But you are still seeing a computer generated image, so that means it can be, oh, tampered with. AR lets you project objects that don’t actually exist into your real world.

Let’s say you need to have a video meeting with someone. Instead of seeing them on the screen of your computer or phone, you see the person (or their avatar) sitting in your living room on your sofa. Or the system can project information about objects you focus on, with text appearing to float in mid air near the object. Or if you’re walking through town and wondering where the hell you are, you can see the route you need to take projected onto the sidewalk in front of you as you walk.

Now this all sounds actually pretty neat, even fun. And it definitely can be. But it’s nothing new. None of it. Specifically created virtual realities, virtual worlds that can be “inhabited” by people, have been around for a very, very long time. Perhaps the first real attempt to create a VR experience could considered to be Microsoft V-Chat which dates back to 1995. V-Chat was pretty much utterly horrible in every single way but considering what the technology was like back then I suppose it’s surprising that it worked at all.

But I suppose the granddaddy of VR environments is probably Second Life from Linden Labs. Yes, Second Life is still around and doing quite well, actually. Despite all of the bad press it got for a time (some of it justified, some of it not), and articles that indicate that SL has “failed” somehow, it is still out there and doing rather well. The last data I saw showed SL has about 900,000 unique users per month. And then there is the in-world economy to consider.

In-World Economy? WTF?

Oh, I suppose I should explain what an in-world economy is, shouldn’t I?

People being people, you can be sure that no matter what kind of environment they might be in, they will eventually end up doing two things: First, try to figure out a way to make money off it, and second, sex. Yeah, sex. I’m not even going to go down that road, though, so let’s stick with money.

Second Life is an environment that is entirely created by its own users. Every single thing you see in SL was made by the people who “live” in the world. The vehicles, the trees, the flowers, the grass, the buildings, the clothes the avatars wear, the avatars themselves, the little props decorating scenes like pottery, cups, eye glasses, trains, all of it was made by someone. Now you can build your own stuff in SL if you have the time, the patience and skills to do so, but if you want to decorate your own personal space in SL, what you’ll probably do is just buy the stuff you want from the creator.

Now someone will come along and say, well, that’s silly. Why would you pay actual money for something that doesn’t actually exist except as a graphic in a video game? Well think about it for a minute, we do stuff like that all the time as it is. When you pay to rent or buy the latest blockbuster superhero movie from Marvel you aren’t really buying a tangible product either, are you? You’re simply buying the right to view someone else’s intellectual property. It’s the same with systems like SL, you’re buying the right to use someone else’s intellectual property, their artwork if you want to call it that, in your own environment.

And creating and selling virtual objects is big business. Seriously big business. Second Life’s in-world economy generates about $50,000,000 (US dollars) worth of transactions. Per month. That is not a typo. Fifty. Million. Dollars. Per month.

SL has its own currency, the Linden (usually shortened to “$L”, as in $L100 for one hundred Linden. And the value of the Linden is pegged to the US dollar. The current exchange rate is about $L 240 per dollar.

SL mimics the real world in other ways, not just the economy. You can buy or rent virtual land and put up your own buildings or whatever you like on it. Why? Because we’ve found over the years that people like to mimic the real world, even though there is no requirement to do so. We feel more comfortable in an environment that is more or less similar to what we experience in real life.

But to get back to the in-world economy for a moment. With it’s paltry 900,000 users per month, SL’s in-world economy generates about a half billion dollars of transactions a year. Facebook has literally billions of users. If Zuck and Meta can get significant number of Facebook users to buy into this system, the amount of money they could make off of just taking a cut of in-world transactions would be staggering.

What the Heck Do You Do in VR?

In the case of Second life you do pretty much whatever the hell you want to as long as you don’t violate Linden Lab’s terms of service. Linden Labs provides the environment and the tools, and the users define what they want to do with it. A lot of people love modeling things. You can find, for example, a virtually full sized, working, aircraft carrier (used in a Vietnam war simulation). You can find entire cities, both modeled after real world cities or created entirely out of the creator’s imagination. Want to have your own starship? I have one that’s about 250 meters long, has five decks, fully equipped with weapons, shuttles, and can handle a crew of a dozen or more people. You can fly ultra-realistic aircraft. You can go bowling. Want to be a dragon and breathe fire on people? Go for it. Second life has its own railroad, SLRR, and its own highway system if you want to play with trains or wheeled vehicles.

Mostly though, virtual realities like SL are social spaces. People go there to interact with others in some way. I belong to one group which put together a rather elaborate theater environment and we get together once a week or so and stream bad movies in-world while making snide comments and bad jokes.

Here’s a quick little video of one environment in SL, a place called Le Village de Roqueblanche.

Or you can go totally silly if you like:

Or get even more silly.

I’d show you my place but I just completely tore it down and I’m rebuilding it with a new theme so there’s scaffolding all over the place, cement mixers, construction crews, porta potties and debris all over the place.

What, GF, you ask, does Facebook/Meta’s virtually reality look like? It must be really, really cool considering the resources Meta has at its disposal, right?

Well, let’s take a look…

Wait, seriously? That’s it? With all of the billions of dollars Meta has thrown at this thing this is what they think a virtual world should look like? Yeah, seriously. Horizon World hasn’t been doing too good, and that video up there should tell you why.

So, Back To The Metaverse Again

These virtual realities, these metaverses that already exist and have managed to survive like Second Life are games and social spaces, and that’s about it. There are people who make a tidy bit of money creating and selling in-world content, but the majority of people who use these places do so for recreation.

What Zuck and Meta want to do is push you into a world where you will be “in world” a large part of your time. They want you to not just engage with these worlds as a game, but as an extension of your real life. In their vision of the new world order you will have some version of those stupid goggles strapped to your face pretty much all the time. You will work in some kind of version of this virtual or augmented reality.

Your interactions with your colleagues will take place in VR, not in the real world. Your business meetings? You’ll be talking with their avatars in some kind of augmented reality. You’ll work in there, too. Your documents will appear to be floating in space in front of you instead of reading them from a monitor. You’ll write your code or work on your spreadsheets or write your reports all inside of this world. Even when you aren’t actually working you’ll still be connected to this world in a way through augmented reality systems that will project information overlaid onto the real world like the HUD in your car does.

There are serious problems with all of this, though, that Zuckerberg and his people don’t seem to be able to grasp. The first is that we’ve tried a lot of this stuff before and gave up on it because it didn’t work. Second Life is still littered with the remains of companies, charities, news organizations, universities, etc. that tried to do this before. The few properties in SL that weren’t dismantled are now little more than little visited tourist attractions. The virtual world and the real world simply do not play well together.

We are still people, still human beings, and firmly grounded in the real world where we have to live, and Zuck and Meta are ignoring that. We have to accomplish real world tasks in order to keep our lives going. Most of us would much rather socialize with real people down at the local pub or interact with actual real people at work than someone’s cartoonish avatar. These virtual worlds are fine for games or the occasional diversion, but as human beings we crave, no we need, reality, not some bizarre, cartoonish version of it, no matter how realistic that cartoon version might eventually become.

And the majority of us not only live in the real world, we work in it, too. We aren’t stuck in an office somewhere sweating over reports or code or spreadsheets. We’re out here being carpenters, plumbers, electricians, construction workers, road builders, mechanics, caregivers, nurses, farmers, cooks… This metaverse has little or no relevance at all for people like us. Except when I was a writer and a programmer for a time, I’ve never had a job that I could do in some kind of virtual world. Milking cows, planting corn, repairing HVAC systems, repairing plumbing, laying floors, repairing roofs, installing water heaters, repairing laser scanners… None of it could have been done in Zukerberg’s metaverse. And I suspect the same is true for the vast majority of people who are reading this.

In my opinion, the image that Zuckerberg and Meta have for this metaverse of theirs is fundamentally flawed. They’ve put together a bunch of interesting ideas, almost all of which have been tried before and failed, put it all together and have come up with this “vision” of theirs that they claim is going to solve a lot of problems that, frankly, we don’t actually have.

I think that part of the problem is that Zuckerberg and people like him already are living in a virtual world that is disconnected from reality. He lives in a walled garden that is completely isolated from the reality. His power and money give him the ability to already alter his environment to suit his whims. If he doesn’t like something, he has the money to change it. He is surrounded by sycophants who will agree with any kind of stupid idea he comes up with, telling him how wonderful he is, because of, well, money, really. He already lives in a virtual world, but one created by his wealth.

But let’s talk about the real problem with this metaverse, and that is Meta itself, the company, and the people who run it.

Consider, for a moment, what Facebook does. What it does to you, the user. It “harvests” every single bit of data that it can scrounge up about you. It examines every post you make, every photo you put up, every message you send. It tracks every single thing you read or view. It knows how much time you spend looking at a particular type of post. It knows what you like, what you don’t like. It even tracks your physical movements via apps on your cellphone if you haven’t figured out how to turn tracking off. (Even if you have turned tracking off according to some reports I’ve seen.) And what it does with all of that information it has gathered about you is package it up and sell it to anyone who can cough up the money to buy it. Facebook has been called the most sophisticated piece of spyware ever created, and it pretty much is exactly that. That’s how the company works. That’s how it makes money. It sells you.

And now this same company owns this metaverse in its entirety. From the Oculus headset you need to wear, to the software that runs the systems, to the servers that run the code, Meta owns all of it. So everything you do in this metaverse is also going to be owned by Meta. Every document you write, everything you read, every meeting you have, every spreadsheet you work on, even your calls to your grandmother. Meta is going to have all of it. And you can be damn sure that what Meta is going to do with that data is the same thing Facebook does with the data it gathers on its users. It will collect it, slice it and dice it and index it and sell it to whoever can come up with the money to buy it.

You think you you don’t have any privacy now? Just wait.