For Meta Or For Worse
I don't want a virtual world that is just like the real one.
Dateline: Woking, 24th March 2022.
You can probably remember your first taste of the metaverse back in the early days of Second Life. Who can forget such a compelling vision of the future as the virtual bank branches that were launched into that brave new virtual world? Who was not inspired by the hope for the future of the human race apparent in one of the online poetry reading sessions that I went to, where avatars milling around in a Minecraft-style forest glade listened to utopian expositions on the interconnectedness of everything and the sunlit uplands that await us all once we are truly connected? Who did not think that Maldives were forward-thinking when they opened the first embassy in the new virtual country?
Well, not me. Although one thing that sticks with me from that time is a demo I saw at a financial institution that shall not be named. Not because I want to protect their image as valiant pioneers trailblazing across the newly minted territories but because it was a long time ago and I've completely forgotten who it was. Anyway I remember using a mouse to navigate my virtual self into a virtual bank branch where I found a virtual bank employee who proceeded to virtually annoy me by droning on about some credit card offer or other when I was trying to move money from one account to another (or whatever mundane bank activity I was engaging in). It was in colour and in 3D, but in every respect the experience was even worse than the web-based online banking that we were all using at the time.
(These 3D simulations of inconvenient and time-consuming industrial-age processes were simply a reflection of the paucity of imagination amongst technologists such as myself. If you want a vision of the future, you need artists, not programmers who specialise in optimising parallel processing in graphics cards.)
As Matthew Olson wrote in The Information, the assumption that browsing virtual store shelves is going to be a big driver of business may well be wrong. As people become accustomed to using forms of augmented reality on their phones to inspect furniture or to try on clothes without leaving their homes, interest in visiting “digital doubles” of brick-and-mortar retailers may well evaporate.
I’m not smart enough or visionary enough to know what the metaverse shopping experience should look like but if it is me putting on a headset to flog around the aisles of a virtual supermarket then that’s never going to gain traction. Why create something that is worse in the virtual world than the options we already have in front of us in the real world just so that it can be done in 3D?
The central catastrophe of the skeuomorphism at the heart of those visions is that, as a customer, I don't want to go into a bank branch at all. I don’t care whether it’s a real bank branch or a virtual bank branch I just don't want to go there. It doesn’t matter whether it is in black and white or colour, whether it is staffed by space aliens or chimpanzees with sunglasses on. I don’t want to go to the bank.
(Skeuomorphism is a characteristic of user interface objects that mimic their real-world counterparts in how they appear and/or how the user can interact with them. The trash can on your computer desktop is an example. Skeuomorphism helped my generation through the learning curve of coming to grips with a digital era but then began to hold evolution back.)
Embedded finance has delivered a less skeuomorphic but much better version of the future where I go to do something I actually do want to do and via the miracle of APIs and micro-services the boring banking stuff gets done out of my field of view. I pull up my app and order a takeaway and it shows up at my door and somehow the payment gets done but I pay no attention to it and don’t care about it.
Similarly a supermarket video of metaverse shopping that was doing the rounds on Twitter a day or two ago displayed just such a blinkered perspective. The consumer pushes a virtual shopping basket around a virtual supermarket while being shadowed by a virtual sinister supermarket employee/political officer who chirpily steps in to advise on which wine to buy to go with the meat that you just purchased. No matter how nice the graphics are and no matter how skillfully the AI can make it seem to me that I’m being shepherded from shelf to shelf by Clint Eastwood or Sergio Aguero, the experience is dead. Real or unreal, I don’t want to go to the supermarket.
I might want to select some recipes from interesting suggestions on the Weight Watchers website and have the shopping service in the background source the ingredients and arrange delivery. I might want to do that. But I don’t want to go to a virtual supermarket or a virtual bank branch or a virtual farm.
I am not negative about the metaverse at all. Quite the contrary, I think it is the next age of communication, following on from the internet age of yesterday and the mobile age of today. And as Leo Lewis observed in the Financial Times, the metaverse creates an environment where certain “realities” are defined by experience rather than physicality. The obvious example is fans coming together to enjoy a concert that they could never attend in real life. We already see this sort of thing going on in proto-metaverses such as Fortnite where virtual reality (VR).
(Games are, of course, the key early use case for VR, but as has been true of every other technology, I assume that it will be adult entertainment that will drive VR into the mass market. Given the need for effective payment systems in that space, fintech innovation is assured.)
Call of Duty aside, in the near-term then, the metaverse is more likely to enhance the experience of social interactions with family and friends who live in different places (as well as entertainment and online gaming of course). I was particularly interested to read that British Premier League Champions Manchester City FC and noted electronics manufacturers Sony are working towards building a metaverse around the team’s stadium, the Etihad. Like many fans, I love watching soccer in 4K UHD with cameras at every angle, so it seems a small step to me to watch a game in VR.
Would I put on a headset to leave my home in the cyburbs and jet pack over to a bank branch to apply for a loan? Not in a million years. Would I put on a headset so that I could sit next to some good friends at a Manchester City home game? I’d do it tomorrow if I could. An NFT season ticket in the virtual Etihad would be a real asset worth paying for.