Love the Metaverse? Don't Use the M-Word
In 2017, I wrote The Fourth Transformation, the first business book to champion immersive technology. In it, I referred to emerging technologies such as AR, VR, MR, XR spatial computing, and extended reality.
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The one word I avoided was Metaverse and I still do.
I had read and loved the 1992 book Snow Crash, where author Neal Stephenson introduced the term to describe a fictitious where people went to avoid the harsh realities of a dystopian real world. As I started researching my Transformation book, the tech pioneers I talked with often used the Metaverse term and frequently referred to the vision Stephenson had painted.
So, many pioneers of immersive technology embraced both the Metaverse word and Stephenson's vision. It seemed to me the word had a chance for a while. A Toronto-based consulting company named itself MetaVRse, and an early Silicon Valley headset maker dubbed itself Meta. When it tanked, the bank sold off its assets without naming the buyer: I assume that’s how Facebook got the name.
While the name certainly resonated with immersive technology insiders, the remainder of the world took little note until Facebook changed its company name and the general distaste for the Facebook brand was transferred to Meta thus amplifying an underly in sentiment against the word. mainstream companies had already started avoiding the term. Back when I was writing my book, someone knowledgeable about Apple, told me that they would never use the word. “It’s just too much inside baseball, she told me, “There is no business or marketing advantage to using the word.”
Based on that conversation, I decided to not use the word in my book, and in retrospect, I feel fortunate.
Why the M-Word?
The Fourth Transformation was published early in 2017 and was well-received. I started getting invites to speak at tech conferences, where I noticed again that tech professionals used the Metaverse word often, but the Metaverse term was being avoided by corporate customers who were often chilly to the word, and increasingly downright hostile.
In fact, my book had been overly optimistic. It had predicted that by the year 2025, the center of our digital lives would migrate from the phones in our hands to immersive glasses on our faces. Headsets, I said, would eventually shrink to the size of contact lenses and ultimately become nanochip implants. That vision may still become a reality someday, but right now it feels more like a hallucination.
I see three major problems:
Tech refinements are far more challenging than I was made to believe and will take far longer to produce. The prices remain too high for mass consumer adoption.
There remains a paucity of applications, particularly when you look beyond entertainment and training/education.
The word Metaverse resonates badly with many potential purchasers and users. It strikes an emotional chord in many. More than inside baseball, users are considered by potential customers as zealots.
Stats & Apps
I do not mean to imply that the immersive technology industry is not doing well because it is. It is not changing how we work, play, and communicate as rapidly as so many of us thought it would.
The concept of one huge Metaverse for all users makes cybersecurity officers nervous, and many people get confused by just what a Metaverse is. I’ve seen perfectly good conversations get derailed as talk shifted to an appreciation for what Extended Reality can do and misgiving about this mysterious place called the Metaverse.
It seems to me that it has become like the new F-Word, something that it is wise not to use in polite company unless you intend to offend people. For that reason, I have started to call it the M-Word. Statista, the research firm, estimates the extended reality market was $12 billion in 2021 and is heading to $22 billion by 2025. While it is estimated that about 175 million people use extended reality at least once monthly, some say that number is closer to 400 million. But phone makers do not have to shudder worrying if the center of our digital life is going to migrate to headsets.
Even these numbers can deceive because so many users of immersive technology are gamers and there is no data supporting the idea that playing in the Minecraft sandbox or zapping aliens on a PlayStation will migrate other aspects of life and work to Head-Mounted Devices.
While the technology is growing, it just has not become transformative in the way that ChatGPT has with its acquisition of 100 million users in four months.
That being said, I am learning about new immersive applications with increasing frequency and they signal a steady evolution in enterprise applications I find impressive.
The app that most makes me go ‘Wow’ comes from the Monterey Area Bay Area Research Institute (MBARI), which deploys 3D Panoramic cameras on its unmanned submarine to explore deep-water terrain and life more closely than has been previously possible. Marine scientists aboard a surface vessel wear headsets and use hand gestures to navigate and gather new data on marine creatures, vegetation and previously unmappable underwater terrain.
In fact, there are a growing number of apps involving unmanned vehicles and vessels on sea, land, and air. I am told that the US Navy is using unmanned vessels to detect and disarm thousands of undetonated sea mines some, going back to World War 2, but still dangerous: They kill about 5,000 people a year.
On land, the Army is planning to use robots and AR to detect and disable land mines, which kill an additional 5000 people per year, often children.
I remain active on Facebook, despite my distaste for the social network’s founder and for the tedium of reading on Facebook how much people hate the social network. I still find value in crowd wisdom and my easiest place for acquiring it is on Facebook. In preparation for this ISTM post, I asked friends what their favorite AR/VR apps were and got about 20 interesting ones.
My three favorites are:
Tery Spataro, a gifted graphic artist, is a pioneer in using AI for creating art
and new friend who publishes beautiful AI-generated art in books. She used AI to generate the Rabbit above (and explained below).
Risto Linturi, Finland’s leading telecom and futurology consultant as well as an unabashed proponent of the M-Word shared this impressive clip of the factory of the future produced jointly by BMW and NVDIA.
I also decided to test my concerns about the M-Word. Here’s a sample of those results:
“Facebook stole the word, and I’ll never support Facebook (posted on Facebook).”
“It’s a cultish word. It’s for techies talking to techies.”
“It’s bullshit. (3 identical comments)”
“I can’t figure out whether it’s supposed to be one huge metaverse or many little metaverses like websites. (Four similar comments)”
“Our company likes its walled garden.”
“Blockchain makes us uncomfortable. We’ll wait for currency transactions.”
“We are not interested in toys for affluent gamers.”
“Avatars make me nervous. You can’t really be sure who you’re talking with.”
“Zuck’s marketing trick.”
“Waste of time and money.”
“Is there a difference between the Metaverse, and Web 3?”
“Frankly, Shel I don’t give a damn.”
“I prefer Zoom.”
I received 248 responses to my request for comments, among the highest I have ever received. Of these eight people defended the word. It was not until I saw these comments that I decided to write this post. It convinced me that the M-Word is working like a sea anchor that slows a ship down when it’s moving forward too fast. It seems to me that the M-Word is taking its users and their products down a long and winding rabbit hole where the adoption of a promising technology may be slowed by an unpopular word.
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