To take off, the metaverse needs its travelogue moment

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This article was contributed by Bob Reid, CEO of Everest.

A subscription-based company may have gotten off the ground with Netflix, but it has now consumed almost every industry. From the burgeoning software-as-a-service market to Peloton’s fitness app, companies have learned the lucrative power of retaining consumers over a period of months and years, rather than relying on one-time purchases.

The gaming industry is not known for missing out on an opportunity for bigger winnings, and it too took the subscription path. Playstation’s PS+ and Microsoft’s Xbox Game Pass started the trend, and now Google and Facebook are taking their subscription-based cloud gaming services one step further. So you’d expect the newest frontier of gaming, the metaverse, to follow suit with the same experience, wouldn’t you?

Interestingly, the most notable claim to the metaverse implementation to date, Meta’s Horizon Worlds, is not a subscription service. It’s a free app that gamers can use on their Oculus headset, which isn’t subscription-based hardware either. And, like any other VR game or application, it’s not exactly streaming-friendly, as VR games tend to be computationally intensive.

So assuming cloud gaming is a trend — and it looks like it is, despite the apparent fiasco of Google’s Stadia — metaverse goes against the grain. Cloud gaming moves the computational work to data centers, which stream the game to the user’s device. VR and metaverse experiences should instead rely on client-side devices to perform at least some of the computing involved.

The reliance on edge computing may seem like the Achilles heel of the metaverse as built by Meta, but the reality is more complex. It is true that the user base of VR gear is not really huge, but there are at least two solutions here. The first lies in relying on smartphones as the edge devices, as they still have some punch even now and will only get more powerful over time. The second is to make VR headsets as ubiquitous as smartphones, which would probably take as much effort, research and design ingenuity as turning a bulky and expensive piece of plastic into a computer you can hold in your palm.

Fundamentally, the success of the metaverse depends on two questions. Neither has much to do with the headsets and hardware, as we noted, but both have a lot to do with the core functionality of the metaverse as such. These questions are quite simple and somewhat interrelated: what can I do in the metaverse and what can replace the metaverse?

The distinction between them comes down to the “things you can do in the real world that do better metaverse” and “things you can’t do in the real world that you can do in the metaverse.” Oddly enough, Meta’s metaverse struggles with both. On the first front, Meta can show off its corporate VR meetings or show off the prospect of bringing your PC to your virtual office, but you might as well use Zoom and laptop. This is hardly the groundbreaking functionality that allows anyone to connect to the Matrix.

On the latter, Meta seems to rely on users for content by giving them an interface to build their own experiences, including simple visual coding tools. It’s a fun sandbox to play with, but it takes a lot of time, skill, and investment to deliver a polished and fleshed out experience akin to an AAA video game. This in turn limits how cool the Metaverse can get.

An example from the distant past points to what needs Meta’s metaverse, and any other metaverse for that matter, to get off the ground. In the early days of radio, the travelogue, a creative narration about a distant place, emerged as the dominant genre. The genre was equally popular in the nascent cinema and on TV. Like the metaverse, a travelogue would take its listeners or viewers to another place, a place they would probably never visit in real life.

But it wasn’t just about virtual (in the sense of the time) travelling. Personality mattered too: a good storyteller would carry the show and make it an experience that had even more to offer you than the actual journey. After all, it’s one thing to dine out at a three-star Michelin restaurant, but to dine there with Elon Musk is quite another.

This personal, intimate involvement in something that could never happen in real life should be the real selling point of the metaverse experience. It has to be about the human bonds, about the personalities, about the common human experience and the things that bring us together. It’s about big shot makers, the people who already generate dozens of headlines a day and send themselves to your living room. A digital soccer game with Ronaldo, a Spiderverse get-together that brings you and your friends together with Tom Holland, or even just concerts where you and your date are part of the show.

As popular as the topic is, the metaverse in its current form largely doesn’t offer much beyond basic experiences. Polishing up those experiences with better software and more advanced hardware is only half the equation, because ultimately the digital realm needs people to bring it to life. It takes personality, character and human-to-human interaction to attract everyday users, just as it already attracts investors. Without the former, the latter will not get their money’s worth.

Bob Reid is CEO of Everest.

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