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Will we still want a metaverse when the pandemic is over?

With travel and real world gatherings returning, it may be more difficult to convince consumers to strap on a headset.

Will we still want a metaverse when the pandemic is over?
[Screenshot: Janelle Barrera/Doxy.me]

Twice a month, Janelle Barrera, a researcher for telehealth startup Doxy.me, rearranges her living room furniture; sofas to one side, coffee table to the other, “so I have enough space to play in,” she explains. She does a few shoulder stretches to warm up, then dons her Oculus Quest 2: It’s paintball time!

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In Rec Room, a social VR hangout space, Barrera ducks behind a boulder as she dodges a bullet, reloads, then pops up and fires, hoping to splatter her teammates, all fellow Doxy colleagues. “It’s been good to play with coworkers outside of work,” she says — Barrera’s department works remotely, spread across Florida, Arizona, and Utah— and their metaverse “team-building” games are the closest she’s physically been to them in person, ever.

They hold more corporate metaverse meetings, too, but she says the gaming part is the most enjoyable. Her intern selects and tests whatever they play, she says; other favorites include Quest for the Golden Trophy, Clash of Kingdoms, and a game with Squid Game-esque vibes. For Barrera, the metaverse is a place to unwind, to bond in a way that’s more immersive than straightforward video calls. “It’s cool . . . it really keeps us engaged.”

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As she describes it to me, it sounds like a really fun place to work. I’d love to try paintball—although I’d prefer to try it in real life. Even though I have an Oculus and a Vive headset, I want the satisfying squelch of ammo bursting and the thrill of crawling along the grass as I scope out my targets. And although socializing in VR sounds fun, after months cooped up, I’m more excited about hanging out in bars with sticky floors than in spending time in luxe VR ski simulators.

During the pandemic, the ever nebulous metaverse was a place of refuge (and gaming-wise it still kicks ass), but as the world reopens, and IRL meetings return in whatever hybridized form, will the metaverse allure fade? 

Despite fears of future variants, data shows people are stepping out again. Campbell Travel reported a 26% increase in corporate travel from January to March 2022, and a NerdWallet survey found 70% of Americans are planning leisure trips this year. As for the metaverse, well, screen burnout is real; numerous studies document people experiencing high levels of Zoom fatigue. How likely is it that people will voluntarily choose to be immersed at home? Going by VR headset adoption—an estimated 2.4 headsets per 100 households in 2021—not so much. 

Of course, the metaverse has its share of cynics. “There’s so much hype being poured down this weird dystopian vision that no one really wants,” Phil Libin, an investor and former CEO of Evernote, told CNBC. “Six months from now, it will be very rare to see the word metaverse used unironically . . . no one really wants it.” Meta investors also seem skeptical: The company’s stock is down about 30% since it announced it was changing its name and investing $10 billion to build the metaverse. This seems at odds with the breathless metaverse hype and nonstop investments: Qualcomm just announced a $100 million metaverse fund, and Morgan Stanley estimated there will be an $8 trillion metaverse market in China alone—the same valuation Goldman Sachs gave to the entire metaverse ecosystem.

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This brings us to the squishy point of figuring out what the metaverse actually is. As I dug into the data, I found it so loosely defined, it made some of those aforementioned numbers irrelevant. Some reports included Zoom under their metaverse umbrella—which obviously rockets up user adoption.

I called up Tuong H. Nguyen, a senior analyst at Gartner research for clarification. “The metaverse is not an if, but when,” he says. He acknowledges there are many definitions for the metaverse—Gartner has two, at least!—but “most of the industry is looking in the same direction,” he says. “It’s an evolutionary extension of the internet.” 

Also, we’re nowhere near realization yet. “What we see today are precursors or glimpses,” he adds. AR and VR may be part of it, but they don’t equate to it. But what does that mean for Gartner’s ambitious prediction that by 2026, 25% of people will spend an hour a day in the metaverse for work, school, or social interactions?

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Tuong dismisses the idea of, “sitting for 15 hours a day with headsets on.” I have to reframe my thinking, he explains: Think less about insulating myself from the physical world, and more about how it might be augmented. One hour a day driving with a heads-up display or shopping via virtual try-ons is a lot easier to visualize. “It’s more tangible and relatable to people, but also realistic,” he says.

James Wo, the founder of blockchain investment firm DFG, is confident the metaverse will continue expanding.  “We don’t believe that IRL activities coming back will affect the growth of the metaverse,” he says. But he’s unsure what, if any, role VR will play. “It could be tremendous. It could be absolutely unnecessary,” he says. “We are still very hesitant about whether we should make the investment [in the technologies].”

The metaverse doesn’t need “people to want it,” argues Tuong. Did people want Twitter or Facebook? Did they think they’d spend six hours a day on social media? “The features and functionalities that came with the tech encouraged people to use it,” he says. “The metaverse is one way to interact with digital, and [people] will use it if it brings value.” 

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For Christmas 2021, the entirety of Doxy.me—around 110 people—were sent an Oculus Quest 2. The reason it was gifted was twofold: to show appreciation for their work, and to prepare them for a VR town hall meeting in February. “We want our teams to meet in VR so they can see and experience the potential for healthcare,” says Brandon Welch, Doxy’s CEO, who is exploring using VR for doctor-patient appointments. 

There was pre-meeting prep work: a handout that took people through the sign-up steps for AltSpaceVR, their chosen VR world, a how-to for avatar design, and more. Even so, a bunch of people needed troubleshooting before the event got started. Barrera’s avatar, dressed in a teal shirt and black skirt, used this time to socialize, mingling with her colleagues from both coasts, plus India, Bangladesh, Ukraine. . . . “I tried to make mine look like me, so they can match my (work) photo,” she says. They complimented each other’s avatars—Barrera’s wore pale pink nail polish—and took selfies. Then they quieted, to watch Welch’s avatar impart the usual company updates. “There were some distractions . . . [because] everyone was so excited,” she recalls. “Still, to see our CEO talking to us—not just a neck-up face, you’re seeing body movements–felt really important. It recreates that in-person experience . . . in a less traditional way.”

Tuong from Gartner doesn’t think we’ll be seeing a lot of companies follow in Doxy.me’s virtual footsteps. He thinks metaverse meetings are overkill. “We wouldn’t use VR for this call,” he says. “What benefit would it give us other than novelty?”

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The one thing that everyone agrees on is that there’s room for improvement. 

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About the author

Zara Stone is a novelist and journalist. Her nonfiction novel, Killer Looks: The Forgotten History of Plastic Surgery in Prisons is out now from Prometheus Books

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