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What’s wrong with the Metaverse?

Nokia’s chief strategy and technology officer Nishant Batra is confident that the era of the smartphone is coming to an end and the future lies in the metaverse. He stated:

Our belief is that this device [the smartphone] will be overtaken by a metaverse experience in the second half of the decade

Nishant Batra

Nokia was famously caught flat-footed by Apple with the release of the iPhone. It was a major error; although the creation of the iPhone was shrouded in secrecy it was widely rumored that Apple was working on a phone and many of the features that were finally unveiled had been long expected. Today, Nokia are little more than a bit-part player in the consumer mobile phone world. It might seem odd to be critical of a company that brought in $21 billion of sales last year but considering that Samsung sold $72 billion of mobile phones alone in 2021, it feels legitimate to me. Nokia lost the mobile phone market – is backing the metaverse them staking a claim to the future or is it another misstep?

The race for the Metaverse

Like settlers in the Old West, companies are racing to stake their claim to the metaverse. Meta are currently even running TV advertising campaigns to let people know that they are working on it. (And, just like an ad for a dodgy Android game, the graphics in the ad look nothing like the graphics currently available).

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The race is clearly on to produce a metaverse headset that consumers can wear without feeling like an extra in Ready Player One. Google tried and failed with Google Glass; a technically excellent product but one that nobody was ready for. Snapchat’s camera specs are either a novelty or a privacy nightmare, depending on your outlook. Gaming headsets like the Oculus deliver a good gaming experience but are nowhere near portable. To their credit, Meta seem to understand that people may not be ready for the Metaverse. A big of what they need to do to make it successful is convince us, as consumers, to buy their vision of the future.

Nobody needs Facebook attached to their actual face

Whether we need the Metaverse is, of course, a pretty vexing question but it’s less important that the question that is driving Meta, Apple, Nokia, and others to invest in this technology. It seems inevitable that the Metaverse will arrive. Having adopted and adapted to video conferencing as a norm and with increasing numbers of AR and VR experiences entering the mainstream, we are perhaps just one “killer app” away. The really big question that everyone is really trying to answer is therefore… who will own the Metaverse?

Meta really, really want to own it. They are probably the worst candidate, given the appalling job that they did, and continue to do, with managing their “walled garden” on Facebook. At least, today, you can choose to disengage from Facebook (as many, many people are). If you’re living and working inside an environment managed by Facebook, it’s going to be much, much harder.

Meta may have already latched on to their “killer app” as well – a virtual workspace where you can interact with colleagues in a way that (at least in Meta’s mind) is somehow better than Zoom, Teams, or Google Meet. Frankly, as someone who lived through two years of having to tell people that they were “on mute” or didn’t have their camera on, I dread to think what the early days of Metaversal (is that a word?) meetings will be like. Probably ghastly (and thus successful in that they will have reproduced the inherently ghastly experience that is most meetings anyway).

If history is any guide, legislators will be late to recognize the importance of laying down laws and controlling monopolies in the Metaverse. It will be too abstract, too confusing, and too difficult to control. (Updated October 27th 2022): Looks like Ofcom, the UK communications regulator, agrees with me that Meta cannot be left to self-regulate the metaverse, though.

Somehow, however, we have to wrestle control of the Metaverse away from the likes of Facebook and ensure that there are open and accessible standards governing its use, sensible laws to control the type of content and experiences that can be created, and the freedom for a new generation of creators and developers to build and innovate.

A quick Google of “Metaverse Open Standards” reveals the existence of https://metaverse-standards.org and its members list at https://metaverse-standards.org/members/. Quite frankly, I’m not sure I’d trust some of the companies on this list to follow a standard, let alone define one. Is the future of the Metaverse destined to be proprietary?

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The impact will be real – it’s down to us to choose what that impact is.