Clunky Technology Is Holding the Metaverse Back

For it to become a reality, we need to ditch the headsets

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Marketers are obsessed with the metaverse. Companies and brands are spending millions of dollars now to stake out territory, test protocols, create NFTs and gain expertise in blockchain and cryptocurrency. But consumers don’t really care that much about the metaverse. At least not yet.

To many baby boomers, “metaverse” is just a buzzword that has little or no meaning. To younger consumers, especially gamers, the term is interchangeable with virtual reality and mixed reality. For some non-gamers, it’s about virtual reality fitness or a place to have meetings or social events in virtual reality.

Depending on where you stand, the metaverse is either already here, or five to ten years away. To those who believe the metaverse is, by definition, a strictly decentralized virtual universe, it may never actually get here at all.

The idea that our virtual Zoom meetings will move to the metaverse or 3D space within two to three years—as predicted by Bill Gates, among others—is a complete fantasy. In order to have a work meeting in the metaverse today, every member of your team must have a VR headset. That’s a big investment for companies. Every member of your team must feel comfortable wearing them and using them. However, we know for a fact that many people find them cumbersome and awkward. Many get a feeling akin to seasickness when wearing them too long due to latency effects. While 5G helps a bit, not everyone has access to 5G. The minute one person in your meeting either doesn’t have a headset or doesn’t feel comfortable with the headset, you’re all back on Zoom.

That’s just the start of it. Once we get over the metaverse’s novelty factor, Zoom is a vastly superior experience. Instead of interacting with avatars, we are interacting with real people. We can see their facial expressions and their body movements. We’re having a real interaction. In the future, avatars may be able to give us much of the same feedback, but that’s not going to happen in just two to three years.

One of the great fallacies of the metaverse “movement,” driven by marketing hype, is that 3D is better than 2D. That is not always the case. Remember when brands like Samsung started introducing 3D televisions, and everyone was going to have a 3D television in their living room? Well, the technology was there for the taking, and almost no one took it.

Turns out we are very happy with our 2D televisions, especially when they are 72 inches and 4K. Likewise, when people say they “hate Zoom,” they mean they hate the pandemic and having to Zoom so often. But Zoom as a virtual meeting experience? People kind of love it.

Assuming improvements in technology, such as universal access to 5G, come about relatively soon, and that the virtual experiences that exist today improve, there is a realistic chance that many people would spend a lot of time in the metaverse in the not-so-distant future. That is if one big thing happens: We get rid of the headsets.

One hope is that we will trade these headsets in for more lightweight and natural glasses at some point. But a real breakthrough cannot happen until we get rid of facewear or headgear altogether.

The real promise for the metaverse is not in headsets. It is in holograms or, as it is being called, “holoportation.” Microsoft, for example, is doing groundbreaking work in this area, though it still requires VR headsets to interact.

Perhaps more exciting is a product by a company called Proto (formerly Portl). The product, as seen recently at SXSW, is a large box that projects a hologram-like 3D image from one space into another space with no glasses or headset.

These are transitional technologies. We are still in the early stages of the technology that will make the metaverse a real thing.

Sure, a hardcore group will visit regularly. But the average person will not want to spend large sections of their day unless the transition into that world is almost completely seamless from the real world and our interactions there are closer to human, like a 3D hologram that has haptic reality in any space. Throw in appeals to the senses of smell and taste on top of touch and we will have a real start.

There is another important aspect of this brave new world of holoportation and haptic reality. NFTs will be even more important than they are today.

Longer-term, digital ownership of tokenized items and merchandise is critically important in a mixed-reality world—so the more the metaverse resembles and interacts with the real world, the more important NFTs will become. It is not unrealistic to think that an NFT version of your IKEA couch could cost as much or more than the real item if it has haptic and holographic reality in your living room and if it can be replaced with a different one at the touch of a button.

Right now, unfortunately, you can’t just do virtual reality on the fly. You have to “suit up.” Until that changes, the metaverse will be very slow insinuating itself into the average consumer’s life. As an advertising professor, I spend a lot of time talking to my students about the “average consumer”—because, without them, everything is just a niche play.

As often happens, marketers are spending their time and money to win in the future based on an evolution of where we are now. Real change in technology and consumer behavior is rarely a simple evolution. It is disruptive and often revolutionary. The consumer alone will decide what has value.

Brands need to do more than stake claims to real estate in the metaverse—because tomorrow’s metaverse will be a completely different platform and experience than it is today. They need to avoid the hype and imagine new products, marketing and advertising experiences in a truly mixed-reality world, with or without headsets. That will lead them to make some very different decisions than they are making now.

The metaverse today is nothing more than a synonym for VR. It means that millions of dollars of marketing spend right now is probably being wasted. But it also means it’s realistic for the metaverse to be a daily, life-changing experience for all or most of us by 2032.