Last week, Meta showed yet another cringeworthy product of its $10.2 billion investment in the metaverse: a demonic VR porcelain doll of Mark Zuckerberg that looked worse than a Second Life avatar from 2003. Hastily released in response to yet another round of universal mockery from all over the internet, it was still only marginally more expressive, and slightly more alive, than a Ken doll.
The worst part is not how bad it looks, but the fact that it is a symbol of how badly Meta is managing expectations for the metaverse. Anybody expecting that this metaverse thing will end up being a real-life version of the book and film Ready Player One is in for a huge disappointment. And so is Zuckerberg, when he finally realizes that only an insignificant fraction of enthusiasts are going to buy into this awkward dimension.
Catching up on the metaverse drama
Here’s what happened. On August 16, Meta showed the Mark Chuckyberg 3D figurine against a rather sad 3D rendition of the Eiffel Tower and La Sagrada Familia to announce that Horizon Worlds—the metaverse world Zuck’s company is building—is now available in France and Spain.
To be honest, I found the avatar pretty accurate compared to the real Zuck: the same dead eyes, the same delicate skin. But Twitter exploded with sarcasm and caustic mockery, from “Looks great!” to “Come work for Meta, where the most brilliant technologists of the day have achieved 1995 level graphics.”
The backlash was so intense that Zuckerberg was forced to release another version on Instagram just four days after the original.
“Major updates to Horizon and avatar graphics coming soon. I’ll share more at [our conference] Connect,” Zuckerberg posted like a kid who hasn’t done his homework making up a bad excuse. “Also, I know the photo I posted earlier this week was pretty basic—it was taken very quickly to celebrate a launch.”
It was an embarrassing correction and yet another fumble in Meta’s path to a metaverse that is nothing like we imagined.
Mismatched metaverse expectations
When the first Zuckerberg avatar came out, Kevin Roose of the New York Times pointed out: “It’s genuinely puzzling that Meta spent more than $10 billion on VR last year and the graphics in its flagship app still look worse than a 2008 Wii game.”
Fair. But also, was Roose expecting the high bar set by imaginative sci-fi like Snowcrash and The Matrix? Or a version of Westworld rendered with Red Dead Redemption fidelity?
This is one of the main problems with the metaverse. We have a complete mismatch of expectations between what each of us imagines in our heads and the reality of what’s possible to support hundreds of millions or even billions of players online. I have a hard time believing that with any near technology we can get the metaverse ideal that science fiction sold to us and that Zuckerberg is failing to deliver.
Metaverse-lite games like Fortnite and Roblox trade the high-fidelity textures and grit you might see in Call of Duty so that more people can play these ever-changing worlds on more platforms, ranging from powerful PCs to cheap Android phones. That’s because their metric for success is the number of people playing at once—the metaverse of people, so to speak—and not simply the world’s graphic fidelity.
This principle only gets more complicated as you venture from a 2D screen into virtual reality. VR goggles require more intensive graphic processing to ensure the wearer doesn’t get sick. And their form is simply still too much of a physical barrier for the majority of the population. They are also so awkward that I have a very hard time believing that most people—even tech-native TikTok teens—wouldn’t feel stupid wearing them, moving in their offices or homes like drunk French mimes.
We need another user experience
The fact is that wearing an unnatural device on your head completely breaks the illusion of this ideal of “living” or “connecting with others” in an alternative “world.”
People already connect with one another using games and cameras on their phones. Does talking to a Zuckpuppet or a Cookmoji wearing a VR headset really add anything to what we have now? The fact that I have to wear anything automatically makes the entire premise a terrible user experience from the jump.
Meta overestimates the power of VR in its current form, as does anyone criticizing Meta for not being immersive enough. Right now, a chat on Tinder using a smartphone can feel a lot more engaging than using VR goggles to communicate, simply because our brains fill in so many of the blanks in that conversation. We imagine the face of the other person, rather than seeing a representation that can’t possibly convey the full spectrum of human emotion.
This same phenomenon happens when you play a good game with an immersive story and gameplay: Even if the graphics are 8-bit sprites, game designers know that our imaginations compensate, providing a more powerful experience.
I remember when I visited Lego and I asked about a pet peeve of mine: “Why did you change the classic minifig face?” They didn’t give me an official explanation, but one employee admitted that the older mining face was a better design.
Kids’ imaginations could make anything out of that generic smiley face. It was a blank canvas to tell their story. Any emotion and any gender, hero or villain, happy or sad, despite the smile. Nowadays, minifigs are limited by their fixed printed emotion.
But I digress. The point here is that having to wear a device on your face to interact with a clearly synthetic representation of a human raises a sort of uncanny valley for our empathy. And, as with the uncanny valley, we will never bridge it until technology gets us there. In the case of rich metaverses in which people can live full, alternate lives, I believe that requires 100% graphic fidelity, convincing physical sensations, and no headsets.
Regarding the first hurdle, Zuckerberg promised in his Instagram post that “the graphics in Horizon are capable of much more—even on headsets—and Horizon is improving very quickly.” I believe him. But better graphics alone—even 100% realistic—won’t do everything needed to make the metaverse any more appealing to the majority of the population.
Like media scholar Ethan Zuckerman wrote in The Atlantic when the Facebook CEO first announced Meta, “The metaverse was terrible 27 years ago and it is still terrible today.”
The truth is that it will be terrible until we figure out a way for the entire user experience not to suck, no matter how good the graphics get. The fact is that the metaverse’s Big Bang—the point in which everyone and their grandma will jump in like they did with smartphones—requires something that technology and design may not be able to deliver for a very long time.