“A REVOLUTIONARY APPROACH on how to connect our world without being super-weird…In the Icelandverse, there’s…skies you can see with your eyeballs, volcanic rocks you can caress, and really big geysers you can observe from a safe distance.” So runs a viral advert designed to lure tourists to Iceland. The target of the parody is Mark Zuckerberg in particular, and Silicon Valley in general, for whom the idea of the “metaverse”—a sort of 3D sequel to today’s two-dimensional internet, in which users work, play, buy and sell inside immersive virtual worlds—has become the latest Next Big Thing.
Iceland’s tourist board is not the only sceptic. When, on October 28th, Mr Zuckerberg rebranded Facebook as Meta Platforms, to signal his commitment to the new idea, many assumed it was a PR stunt to divert attention from the social-media giant’s scandals. When Satya Nadella and Jensen Huang, the bosses of Microsoft and Nvidia, made their own pitches a couple of weeks later, people muttered about bandwagon-jumping.
Mr Zuckerberg may well prefer to think about exciting new products than deal with the downsides of his existing ones. And hype is the water in which techies swim. But to stop the analysis there would be too dismissive. There are good reasons to take the metaverse seriously.
One is historical: as computers have become more capable, the experiences which they generate have become richer. The internet began its life displaying nothing more exciting than white text on a black background. Flat images were added in the 1990s. Video came to dominate in the 2010s. On that reading, a move into three dimensions is a logical consequence of the steady growth in computing power.
That progression is more than merely theoretical. Google Maps already offers a virtual space that contains the real world’s stations, shops and streets. The video-game industry—the only type of entertainment fully exposed to the compounding power of Moore’s law—has been selling virtual worlds for years. “EverQuest”, an online game launched in 1999, had half a million subscribers at its peak. (Players quickly co-opted it for socialising, and even weddings, as well as dragon-slaying.) “World of Warcraft”, which arrived five years later, hit 12m. These days 200m people a month hang out on “Roblox”, a video-game-cum-construction-set. Many spend their real money on virtual goods. It is hard to argue that an idea will never catch on when, for millions of people, it already has.
Finally, mockery is an unreliable guide to the future. When YouTube was launched in 2005, commentators wondered why anyone would want to watch spotty teenagers filming themselves in their bedrooms when the delights of cable TV were a button-push away. In two decades, online dating has gone from being furtive and embarrassing to take its place as an unremarkable way to meet people. Smartphones are some of the bestselling devices ever built. Their brick-sized predecessors were mocked in the 1990s as crass status symbols for insecure investment bankers.
This does not mean every Silicon Valley brainwave will automatically succeed. Nor does it mean a fully fledged metaverse will arrive overnight, any more than the World Wide Web or the mobile internet did. But it does suggest that the idea of something metaverse-shaped lying in the relatively near future is worth taking seriously.