How far do we need to be engaged in virtual worlds to keep coming back and what kinds of engagement are meaningful enough?
There was a commercial in the 90s that ran on Nickelodeon. It’s aim was to get children to go outside and engage with the world more. It was famed as a new form of reality that made Virtual Reality seem weak and referred to simply as ‘Actual Reality’. With references like ‘feel the weight of the ball because you are actually holding the ball’. This was framed as a selling point that couldn’t be ignored. An opportunity not to be missed.
Certainly getting outside and getting exercise is something we all should do more. For our pyschological as well as our physical health. Given the direction of the metaverse right now and the very poor reception that major projects like those put out by Meta have seen it seems like we may be a long way off from more immersive virtual worlds. So far there is nothing on the general market that is more popular or offers better services than second life a world which was first launched in 2003. It’s nearest competitor, VRChat, was launched in 2017. For at least five years now we haven’t seen anything innovate in such a way as to challenge the existing titans of the field.
Neither Second Life nor VRchat are pulling in numbers like old school games either. A new release of almost triple A title will outperform them both. This begs the question then. What will it take to finally make all the promises of VR as a revolution in our lives and one or more metaverses become a genuine replacement for everything from shopping to baseball? Such promises have been made for a long time but progress continues to be slow and anemic. What is it going to take to really convince people of this value proposition?
To guess exactly when this might happen is a hard game. There are many prognosticators but we will leave that aside in this case and focus on what it might look like when the right platform and right technology are finally available.
The first thing that is probably needed is an element we haven’t seen yet. That would be more full immersion. It is hard to get as excited about a couple of hand controllers as it is being able to actually walk somewhere. There are scale setups in places and walking pads of varying kinds but these remain expensive and cumbersome. None have really seen wide market adoption. There are a few headsets that track feet and these are an improvement but so far locomotion remains minimally tracked. Next gen suits can help with this to some extent. With trackers across the body minor movements will at least translate. Getting real sensation may be the harder problem. As yet most VR does not provide anything more than semi-immersive 3d visuals and sound. Some hand trackers also give haptic feedback in the form of vibrations but this is a very limited form of tactile engagement. A far cry from the wind in your face or the smell of petrichor as you walk up a simulated hill after a rainstorm. That experience remains firmly in the realm of the real for the time being. Even with the most sophisticated setups and virtually unlimited money.
So we’re a long way off on that front and shouldn’t expect a virtual trip to the holodeck (sad as that is) anytime soon. But perhaps we should be a bit more charitable and look at what has had the best success so far. What has been the most engaging and immersive experience that people have really taken to? For this we need to look to the far less sophisticated and perhaps open up our definition of what a virtual world is in the first place. In this case then we are looking at not just open worlds although those are the ones with the most freedom to the user. Yet that doesn’t seem to be what is most demanded in a virtual world. Games seem to be the most engaging and immersive places to go at this time. World of Warcraft remains a titan in this area bringing back users year after year and expansion after expansion. It will hit its limit eventually but there are plenty of other game examples to choose from where we see similar outcomes. Elder Scrolls Online and Final Fantays XIV remain top contenders despite some early hiccups. These worlds contrast with the top players in open worlds at this time. Namely Second Life and VRChat. While both such worlds have a strong userbase and continue to be profitable their concurrent numbers do not reach the same level. This is despite the potentially more practical elements for use and much greater freedom afforded especially by Second Life. Suggesting that the largest portion of the users out there want games and more immersive consistent worlds to exist and explore. Having characters and objectives is more important to them than freeform exploration and creation and a single cohesive world is more interesting than a rainbow panoply of unique expressions.
It is worth noting that the most popular of these worlds do not not even have any immersive systems like a headset or haptic feedback in controllers. They rely on the now old fashioned keyboard and mouse for controls with a screen and speakers for the only feedback methods. Some of this is of course down to the fact that these elements are widespread and most people have them now but there is also something to be said for easy of access and simplicity. It is easy to hop on and off and to develop large spaces in a well understood development space.
So metaverses at this point it is clear that gaming is going to be the strongest selling point for people. It continues to draw in large crowds and provide engagement value that exceeds anything provided by advanced technology. Next gen MMOs would appear to be the place to look to look for multiuser engagement and experience. In this regard then Meta is probably going in the wrong direction. It is one that has been tested repeatedly recently by efforts such as High Fidelity and Sansar with little success. Even during its heyday around 2008 when Second Life was able to bring major companies like Nike onboard with the pitch of using it as a new wave sales platform it never reached gaming numbers and since then has never been able to pull in people in sufficient numbers or make the use of it for business purposes or education sufficiently compelling.
Not that there isn’t some market for business meetings, classes or other immersive applications. There has been a small one for a long time and it will probably continue to slowly grow. However, most companies and people still prefer face to face video rather than avatars. It remains simpler to setup a teleconference than to try to get everyone in world and familiar with all the unique controls and systems required for regular use. So for the time being gamers and gaming will continue to dominate at relatively low levels of sophistication. Only a relative handful of users driving the innovation market.
When we finally get to something more immersive while remaining simple to access and fun then we will begin to see a shift in movement on a wide scale.
Next time: Is Fantasy Transhumanism easier to accept than Sci-Fi transhumanism?