It’s been a whirlwind year or two for the metaverse.

In 2021, Zuckerberg went all-in on using mixed reality technology to revolutionise how we interact with people. He felt so strongly about it that he changed the Facebook company name to ‘Meta’. 

Although, have you actually spoken to anyone who calls it that? No, me neither.

It was enough to give other tech giants such as Apple sweaty palms, leading them to back extravagant augmented reality projects of their own.

But, like Andy in Toy Story, the Zuck has already thrown his metaverse-shaped Woody to the curb in favour of a shiny new generative AI Buzz Lightyear. At the very least, it seems that the metaverse gloss has well and truly rubbed off for the leading developer in this space.

So where does this leave us? Where has Meta gone? Is Apple the frontrunner now? Does anyone still care about metaverses?!

Meta’s Metaverse Muddle

There’s a joke in here somewhere. Is Meta adopting a meta strategy to throw competitors off the scent of metaverses? By the sounds of it, the answer is no.

If you’ve watched the film ‘The Social Network’ or read anything about Meta’s issues around selling user data, you’ll know Zuckerberg usually follows the money. And the recent ChatGPT AI explosion is no different. 

Meta recently announced that they were pivoting to focus their attention on developing AI. Specifically, how best to use AI to tailor and create ads. Because what we really need is a more annoying system of targeted adverts. Yawn.

This all sounds a lot more boring than the promised land we were sold, which began with the now-flagging Horizon Worlds. With this online virtual game/experience, Meta took the first steps towards realising its vision; a mixed reality domain across which we could all work and interact. But since release, it has become largely irrelevant after initial bursts of interest.

Meta still chirps on about the metaverse on its website, telling us how great it’ll be for enabling creativity and efficiency, but actual developments on metaverse software have all but stopped.

The last remaining nugget of interest in this space for the company is the Meta Quest 2 VR headset, soon to be the Quest 3. The headset, formerly the Oculus Rift, is considered one of, if not the best, in its field. And, with the upcoming release, Meta intends to use their own custom-built mixed reality software to run it.

But they have competition…

Will Apple Glasses ever happen?

Ahh, the elusive ‘Apple Glasses’. So elusive that the name itself has been made up by speculative fans.

Every few months we hear faint rumblings from a far distant land that this wonder product is definitely maybe coming. Personally, I can’t see them going any other way than Google Glass. But the intention speaks volumes.

Apple’s leap into the VR/AR world is edging closer. It won’t be with glasses but with goggles. Mixed reality goggles to be precise, which are expected to be announced at WWDC23.

The headsets will be serious bits of kit. With two M2 processing chips, the Apple headset will become the most powerful on the market, alongside other specs to make it the lightest and most wearable.

If you believe Apple’s website, they are fully sold on augmented reality. But they deliberately refrain from anything to do with metaverses. Rather than create artificial worlds to live and work in, Apple wants to make AR useful and, most appealingly to the public, fun.

Both the headset and the glasses highlight this. Apple is keen to stress how great it could be to, say, design a building in 3D and see it blend in with existing surroundings. I’m not saying Meta doesn’t also want this, but they jumped headfirst into the deep end whereas Apple has restrained itself.

And this could be ominous.

Let’s be honest, Apple often becomes the market leader in things they release. So it is no surprise that Meta has cooled on grand metaverse dreams in favour of retaining their VR headset crown.

This focus makes business sense because a profitable metaverse at this moment is not really feasible. Right now, the public and businesses simply don’t care enough. The tangible benefits of AR, let alone a full metaverse, feel both unidentifiable and unrelatable.

Apple knows this and Meta has started to realise it too.

Nreal: the best of the rest?

But what of the dedicated AR/VR companies I hear you cry!

Well one of these, Nreal, has gained major traction with its sleek AR glasses. They look incredibly cool and have been praised for how they create a completely new way of watching movies and using your phone. 

However, reviews also suggest that the Nreals severely lack in their main USP; 3D augmented reality. Which is, I suppose, a bit of a problem. But hey, they’ve managed to put out a respectable, working product years before Apple’s ‘Glasses’ and where Google failed.

Well, they’ve actually got three different versions, including the Nreal Air so that’s three times more impressive. Crucially, they have played a major role in developing a technology that could feasibly lead to us all doing our weekly food shop in a mixed reality.

But it ain’t no metaverse.

There is a whole range of other companies that dabble in AR, but AR is usually where it ends. Even the Disney metaverse was completely shut down, barely two years into development.

There is one exception of course. Google.

That’s right, your favourite search engine is still aboard the metaverse train! And in a fairly major way.

Although not much is known, Google sees the future of human-computer interactions as a much more immersive experience. They want to remove the barrier of the screen to bring people inside of whatever they are doing, whether that’s video calling or gaming. 

Sounds a lot like Meta then? True, but Google stress that a metaverse can take many forms. Google’s will be mostly augmented reality, rather than pushing for a new, fully virtual dimension. People will still be grounded in the real world. A metaverse-lite if you will.

So, once more, a metaverse that is sort of there and sort of not.

Final thoughts – the metaverse in limbo

The metaverse isn’t dead. Although, it’s definitely not as trendy as it was a few years ago.

As a concept in different forms, the metaverse is still backed by some of the biggest companies, and there is real technological development ongoing.

I think perhaps the biggest question facing metaverses and AR development is how they will be used. At the moment, it all seems a bit gimmicky. You see someone walking around with AR glasses on and sure, it’s cool, but you’re still thinking ‘how is that improving anyone’s life?’

And maybe, just maybe, we don’t have a burning desire as a species to virtually sit in a room of people if we can do it in real life. Sorry, that’s the Luddite coming out of me.

But it’s a sentiment that rings partially true.

Until metaverses actually become useful for day-to-day life, they will remain in limbo, like Woody on Andy’s bedroom floor, begging for attention as we all play with something much more exciting.

Next: Mark’s verdict on the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold4!

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