Fascinating 3D and AR technology, NeRFs, and immersive virtual reality headsets like those from Meta have all emerged in 2023, but the oft-invoked Metaverse is still a long way off. Matthew Ball is one of the masterminds behind the Metaverse. In an essay, he looks at the state of affairs and analyzes why the vision of the future has not yet materialized.
As the author of the best-selling book “The Metaverse: And How It Will Revolutionize Everything,” Ball published a long piece on his website called “Why VR/AR Gets Farther Away as It Comes Into Focus.”
In it, he gives numerous examples from the history of XR to describe why the Metaverse seems so distant when the technologies have already made such great strides.
In 2016, Epic Games CEO and founder Tim Sweeney predicted that by 2023, wireless VR headsets would have the power of PC VR headsets in the form factor of sunglasses. As we know, nothing came of that.
In addition, the venture capitalist describes the achievements of Metaverse technologies. Over the past 13 or so years, there has been material technical progress. And we do see growing deployment.
XR is being used selectively in construction and industrial design, film production, assembly lines, and factory floors, he said. Some schools are using VR in the classroom. Ball pointed out the benefits of a virtual classroom, mentioning virtual Bunsen burners and virtual frogs for dissection, all overseen by a teacher avatar.
Virtual reality is also becoming popular for workplace safety training, especially in high-risk environments like oil rigs, according to Ball. Johns Hopkins Hospital has been using XR devices for more than a year of surgeries such as removing cancerous spinal tumors.
VR continues to have a tough time reaching the mass market. True, Meta Quest 2 has sold millions of copies. But game consoles like the Xbox or PlayStation still outpace VR headsets at the retail counter.
Ball suspects that consumer usage time also differs between systems. According to Ball, as of March 2022, the average PlayStation 5 owner uses the device 50 hours a month, or about two hours a day.
He is unable to find robust figures on VR headset usage. And while Xbox and PlayStation annual sales continue to grow in their third year, Meta Quest 2 sales are already declining in the second year after release.
Compared to our everyday devices, the processing power of a video game console was also so great that Japan even imposed export restrictions on its own beloved giant, Sony, and its signature PlayStation 2 console in 2000. The government feared that the PS2 could be used for terrorist purposes around the world, such as to process missile guidance systems.
In 2010, the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory built the world’s 33rd-largest supercomputer with 1,760 Sony PlayStation 3s. According to Ball, the project manager estimated that the “Condor Cluster” cost five to 10 percent of comparable systems and used 10 percent of the energy. The supercomputer was used for radar enhancement, pattern recognition, satellite image processing, and artificial intelligence research, according to Ball.
For Ball, this means that VR headsets have to master a much more difficult task compared to game consoles while overcoming greater technological limitations. An impossibility, concludes the American.
The essayist, therefore, sees major hurdles to the imminent breakthrough of the Metaverse. After all, there is a whole range of electronic devices to which we are already accustomed and that clamor for our attention. A clunky, expensive VR headset would have a hard time beating those lock-in effects.