Metaverse? An Interface By Any Other Name

The media is in the business of inflating expectations. When I wrote a magazine cover story about virtual reality 29-years ago, I didn’t know that the $200 headset from Sega would never come out. I did not predict that it would take three decades for consumer technology to become sufficiently robust to deliver on much of VR’s promise. If you count the much-discussed Holodeck (Star Trek: The Next Generation), today's technology still has a lot of catching up to do.

HYPING IT: In 1993 Popular Science made it seem that VR gear would soon mushroom under every Christmas tree.

I bring up my journalistic guilt trip because the word “metaverse” has recently displaced “pandemic” in its spread. Is this thing called the metaverse something new? Not really. Is it over hyped? Absolutely.

BOTCHING IT: Though the cover line in Time’s 2016 story decreed “the surprising joy of virtual reality,” the boy-man (Oculus Rift inventor Palmer Luckey) looked spastic.

But what exactly is it? Literally, metaverse is a meld of “metaphor” and “universe.”

If “metaphor” means “representation,” and “universe” the whole enchilada, then “metaverse” must be a representation of the world.

While you don’t necessarily need an avatar to get around it, deploying an animated proxy lets you express choices in gender and appearance, affording you a way to interact with and sometimes control the simulated world. It’s the way you want others to see you.

The metaverse doesn’t necessarily require the in-your-face accoutrements of virtual reality. Any connected display from computer to phone screen will do. Nor does it mean playing video games. Increased productivity is usually the selling point to business about why employees, especially those working remotely, should log in. Not only would the bells and whistles of the metaverse help stop people from falling asleep at Zoom meetings, but they’d also be able to take their lunch together in park-like settings—even while brown bagging in their home offices.

BRANDING IT: When Facebook decided in 2021 to change its corporate name to Meta, it expected to be greeted with a Ta! Ta! Instead, we sighed a collective meh.

What we call the metaverse today is what we called virtual reality before. But even earlier, in the mid-twentieth century, we referred to it as the machine world. Back then you interacted with computers using a keyboard. Maybe you had a rudimentary screen for input and a printer for output. Such things composed the interface between man and machine.

When you draw the line from machine world to VR to metaverse, it’s all about the interface, how humans interact with digital creations using the tools of the time.

In calling the metaverse an interface, you might think I’m belittling the term in response to feeling bad about having once misrepresented virtual reality’s achievable timeline. I don’t think so.

I fear that the metaverse has fallen into the same trap as virtual reality. Sure, our expectations are real. But the reality isn’t quite there yet.

INVENTING IT: In the 1992 science fiction novel, Snow Crash, author Neal Stephenson describes the Metaverse as a virtual reality that has taken on a life of its own.
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