The metaverse is going backward
We tend to assume that technological developments are forward progress. The metaverse is no different: we call it an ‘evolution,’ the ‘next step’ for the internet. But does that narrative blind us to the mistakes we’re making? Francis Williams, The Drum Network member Hallam’s head of user experience, argues that we’ve got to stop moving backward before we can start moving forward.
Hallam on the importance of moving forward, not backward, when it comes to the metaverse
We’re only at the start of its evolution – metaphorically, the metaverse could yet develop two eyes or six – but does anyone else think the current metaverse takes are painfully dull and unimaginative?
Because the technology is new, brands consider the metaverse world wholly unknown, disregarding what we’ve learned about digital experience over the last 30 years. They’re creating VR replicas of physical experiences and, in doing so, keeping all the worst aspects of those, while forgetting the benefits of a digital experience.
The current offering
Take Walmart’s recent version, a video preview of shopping in the metaverse. You explore Walmart’s virtual store, pick virtual items off the virtual shelves and add them to your virtual trolley.
Digital shopping has exploded because of the huge benefits it brings: speed and convenience. Why on God’s green earth would anyone want to trudge around a digital supermarket, look for a bar of chocolate on a shelf, struggle to find it, speak to a floating AI, change your mind because you just remembered you’re starting a diet, and have to put it back on the virtual shelf?
Walmart’s video even shows users rummaging through their trolleys to put something back and grabbing the wrong item.
My God, the search bar was created for a reason.
Walmart defended the video, saying it was created several years ago. Regardless, it doesn’t encourage confidence in their creative vision for this brave new world. All the worst aspects of the physical shopping experience are being replicated digitally, while the best digital experiences are being ignored.
Office of the future?
It’s not just retail. Last year, Microsoft revealed a preview of ‘Microsoft Mesh,’ where part of their metaverse showcased a virtual replica of the Microsoft offices. There was some consideration of accessibility and translation, with a promising caption-type feature, but that functionality is readily available on most digital conferencing and video platforms.
Is this what we can look forward to – a digital office?
It isn’t solving a user problem. A big challenge businesses face with remote working is teams struggling with a loss of meaningful human interaction. Does visiting a digital office replica and interacting with a stylized avatar of a colleague solve that? Assuming a physical (or even digital) workplace is at the center of meaningful human interaction seems short-sighted.
What the metaverse needs to be
People crave digital experiences that require little to no effort, not just digital replicas of what we already have.
There are so many cool things the metaverse could spawn, but right now it’s going backward. To be successful, we need amazing concepts where technology and experience can enhance our lives.
So are brands ready for the changes on the horizon that the metaverse will bring? In short, no.
We’re still sussing it out, just like when we first started publishing on the internet. Over time, this evolved into an interconnected, social, personalized and accessible ecosystem. The metaverse, too, has the potential to enhance our lives in ways we can’t yet imagine.
It does make some sense to base this on the physical experiences that we all recognize. But we’ve learned a lot about digital experiences, especially over the last few years; we need fanciful, creative ideas as something to aspire to.
Look at Apple’s Knowledge Navigator. It was essentially the iPad with a voice-activated digital assistant but designed in 1987, more than 20 years before Siri or the iPad was released and two years before the invention of the world wide web.
Although rooted in the aim of enhancing users’ lives by making tasks contextual, relevant, quick and easy, the Knowledge Navigator was never actually manufactured as the technology and digital infrastructure didn’t exist at the time. Sound familiar? However, it served as a guiding star for Apple’s engineers; if the Knowledge Navigator was simply a duplicate of a physical book on a screen, would its vision have survived more than 20 years? Would we have the iPad without it?
Today’s problems v tomorrow’s visions
This stems from a wider issue: the internet of today still isn’t ‘right.’
Today’s social, personalized, interconnected internet has so much potential, but it’s underutilized – partly because we’ve added flaws.
Social bias, fake news, privacy issues and the impact on mental health are all problems spurred by the current state of the internet. If we don’t correct these, we’ll carry them on to the next evolution. What will these problems become in more connected, more immersive digital worlds? Sheer chaos.
To get ready for the changes on the horizon we need to get the basics right. Rather than focusing on replicating familiar experiences (including their flaws), we should be focusing on what we want the metaverse to be and how it can improve our lives.
People currently in the industry (that’s us) won’t be the main users of the metaverse – that’ll be the children and teenagers of today. They’ll be the ones to shape and create it. Our job is to lay the foundations for them.
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