Nearly half of these expert respondents said much-more-immersive virtual settings will not have significantly broader influence in people’s daily lives by 2040. Some said the buzz about extended reality (XR) is mostly what one called “typical tech hype.” A share of them said they expect this cluster of technologies is likely to make a few expected but fairly minor ripples in the stream of overall tech development. Many expect that there will be meaningful upgrades in gaming, entertainment and business/education communications realms by 2040, and a notable share agree that XR will progress steadily as interactive technologies continue to gradually mature. Many noted that while quite a few fairly-immersive augmented and/or virtual spaces already exist, those spaces have not attracted a large percentage of the public’s time and attention. This is proof, they say, that fuller immersion will remain uncommon.
Mark Nottingham, senior principal engineer at Fastly and a longtime leader in the Internet Engineering Task Force with expertise in internet and web standards, commented, “The ‘metaverse’ is a marketing confection with no basis in reality as of yet. Its proponents are focused on capturing a future market, not building new shared space without any single owner. There are no current efforts at interoperability, common standards, open governance or any other sign of creating what is being marketed – a peer of the web as a public, open space. As a result, what little that is emerging is lacks novelty; we’ve seen it before (e.g., Second Life). If it plays any role in future online life, based on what we see today the metaverse is likely to be 3D Facebook, more or less – a platform that a big tech company uses to monetise attention, in a winner-take-all marketplace.”
Steve Wilson, founder at Lockstep Consulting and a VP and principal analyst at Constellation Research focused on digital identity and privacy, said, “The metaverse is mostly hype. It is not well enough defined for us to make predictions about a ‘fully immersive’ experience being more important by 2040. I actually agree that metaverse, as advanced virtual reality, should be important. It’s not something that should be designed or rushed by commercial interests but rather may need to be allowed to evolve ecologically. I have been involved in digital identity since the dawn of e-commerce (1995) and I have seen how weirdly this field has evolved. The reasons are multifaceted, but some themes are clear and are important for metaverse:
- Most people underestimate what it takes to convert analogue life to digital.
- Digital assumptions/presumptions tend to be erroneous.
- A lot of work is based on false intuitions of what things like identity really are, at heart.
- Unilateral tech-driven analysis shuns decades of social science, humanitarian studies, political science, etc.
- There is overreach in digital, a personification of really mundane digital things, like IDs.
- There is an oversimplification or outright overlooking of risk because digital seems cool and antiestablishment.
“If we haven’t got digital identity sorted out already (now, after 25 years), then we will find ‘digital life’ much harder to sort out and it will take much longer. In a nutshell, any metaverse by Facebook will die for the same twofold reasons as the libra cryptocurrency by Facebook. Firstly, obviously and almost trivially – the commercial interest of the platform operator is blatantly clear. Secondly and more subtly, blockchain and decentralisation technologies are a waste of time in the face of extant administration [of these platforms]. It is better to have transparent human governance to keep networks administrators in check than to put faith in a novel, opaque, unstable, misunderstood and inexplicable technology that promises to do things in the human sphere that no technology has ever done before.”
A globally respected internet sociologist and best-selling author wrote, “The ‘metaverse’ is a bad idea being pushed by industry so of course it will have a presence, but it will not be adopted. It is a less intuitive, less useful form of connection. There will be less trust and more abuse.”
A tech developer and administrator proclaimed, “The ‘metaverse’ is straight up cyberpunk dystopian nonsense. If I’m wrong about it not being a thing, it is to our collective detriment as a species.”
Dave Karpf, associate professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University, observed, “I expect in 2040 we will have some very slick VR and AR head-mounted displays, but we won’t have anything that matches the grand ambitions of ‘the metaverse.’ VR and AR are instead going to look more like today’s wearable tech – nice computer products whose market reach and social implications are far more modest than their proponents and expert observers initially expected. The metaverse is not a new idea – the term was coined by Neal Stephenson in his 1992 novel, and it borrows heavily from the imagined futures of virtual reality pioneers in the 1980s. Technologists have been trying to build something like a metaverse since before there was a World Wide Web. The two things that make 2022’s metaverse push different from previous iterations of the concept are 1) it has now been expanded to include augmented reality and extended reality, and 2) the hardware and software offerings have gotten much better. One can now play fun VR games, chat in VR chat apps, even attend VR meetings in some circumstances. If the previous failing of VR/the metaverse was primarily a supply-side problem, then we should expect to be on the verge of turning a corner. But if it’s a demand-side problem – if people don’t especially want their gaming and their virtual meetings to be more physically embodied – then the technology will once again fail to gain traction on the mass scale. It is noteworthy, I think, that people have been promising this technology is going to change everything in the next few years since 2014, when Facebook acquired Oculus. We have now lived through eight years of tech evangelists insisting that the corner is about to be turned. At some point, we ought to start grading them on their performance instead of their potential. Even after the global pandemic lockdown year VR gaming is a niche activity. A few VR titles are now quite successful, but they are nowhere close to being the most popular or profitable games in the world. If gaming is supposed to be the killer app of the metaverse, then we ought to wonder why it still isn’t making a killing.”
Fred Baker, internet pioneer, longtime Internet Engineering Task Force leader and Cisco Systems Fellow, commented, “The ‘metaverse’ is a marketing program for the company that used to be called Facebook. Like most marketing programs, it will have its impact but it will not take over the world.”
An expert on the sociology of information technology responded, “None of this online stuff changes human psychology at all. The metaverse is just a marketing term being applied to things we already have, and we’ve already seen how those things have played out, that is: Second Life, massively multiplayer online games (MMOs) like World of Warcraft, and MUDS (multi-user domains), just to name a few. It’s mostly going to be like Second Life, which became populated by a lot of crazy people, sexists, racists, bigots and furries. Wired magazine was full of breathless articles every time some giant company decide to open a store in Second Life, but almost no one covered it when all of those companies quietly quit the platform since it was really quite problematic. So, yes, it is just a marketing term that seems flashy coming back and attracting the attention of young tech journalists and their public who have no idea that the metaverse is an old idea about ‘new’ worlds that will simply be taken over by really horrible people like those who have already taken over the tone of interactions on Facebook and Twitter.”
Johnny Nhan, expert in law, cybercrime and policing and associate dean of graduate studies at Texas Christian University, wrote, “For now, there is no perceived value-added in the metaverse. Maybe 15-30 years from now, people’s attitudes may change, but this is a case where the social is driving the technology and not vice versa. Socially, we have seen and documented the negative side effects of non-meta social media, and there has been a backlash on information sharing, especially with intrusive immersive technologies. They are not embraced as they once were, and devices like VR remain a niche. We tried earlier with Google Glass and augmented reality, and the social blowback from that undermined its success. Until we can get over the social factor, the metaverse will remain something that keeps getting reintroduced as something new and exciting but ultimately is a gimmick. The factors that contribute to this include privacy, safety, convenience, price and, most importantly, social acceptance. The last part is a difficult hurdle that may be decades out.”
Alexander Cho, digital media anthropologist and human-centered-design researcher at the University of California, Santa Barbara, responded, “There will be no duplicate reality in a digital realm mimetic to the ‘real’ – this is a fantasy of White male sci-fi writers that we keep buying into. Instead, what we will continue to see is the increasing interweaving of real and digital sociality, particularly the kinds and formats of sociality that are easy to monetize (pitched battles of affect, extremist content, algorithms driving experiences), with even-more-immersive ads. The real conversation should be less about shiny digital futures and more about the shocking gap between government regulators and the social technologies of today. The Federal Communications Commission should establish an algorithmic review panel, and social internet companies must be compelled to put together paperwork for government review whenever they want to change their algorithm in a way that might have disparate or disastrous effects, akin to review such as with the Voting Rights Act or an environmental impact report for new construction. That is what we should be talking about instead of being complicit in fantasies about the ‘metaverse.’ This current iteration of thought around the so-called ‘metaverse’ and its imagined futures is faulty for two main reasons:
1) It is a shameless and well-executed PR ploy by Facebook to deflect attention and drive discourse away from what we should really be talking about, the stark and galling disregard for basic democratic values, basic human dignity and basic ethical practices that The Facebook Papers uncovered – only to be buried by Facebook’s rebranding announcement. I can’t emphasize enough how successful this PR scheme was. Facebook was in hot water – one exec even capitulated to the idea that the government should be able to regulate their algorithm in an interview with the British press. And now where are we with that? Totally gone. We do not need to be talking about the ‘metaverse’ anymore, it is itself playing into Meta’s branding exercise.
2) It is completely ahistorical and unsophisticated/not informed by the decades of research we already have on internet and social media spaces. It is ahistorical in the sense that we have had many attempts and philosophies of this ilk before, from the disembodiment rhetoric of early internet thinkers and text-based chat rooms (and all their accordant raced and gendered baggage) to the fascination with Second Life. We need to ask, ‘Who has the privilege to be uncaring about the markers of their physical body?’ And, in that sense, it is unsophisticated because it perpetuates the idea that there is even a binary in this way.”
The director of a center exploring the future of knowledge infrastructure responded, “AI is in yet another hype cycle. It is unlikely that people will be that interested in virtual reality. Real reality is hard enough for most folks. Climate change, cyber warfare and actual warfare are much bigger concerns. AR, VR, etc., are likely to go the way of those sim worlds in which universities were buying islands a decade ago. We’re all tired of Zoom after two years of pandemic. A walk in the woods or even the city streets is much more attractive.”
Bernie Hogan, senior research fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute, commented, “Is the metaverse a representation of space or a reconfiguration of sociality? There is no doubt that social life will be reconfigured as ML/AI-based predictive technologies will continue to shape our experiences and constrain our choices. However, the representation of this data as being in a 3D environment or somehow requiring sensory immersion is as much of an artifice now as it was when social network sites conquered virtual environments a decade and a half ago. What’s more likely than trying yet again to skeuomorph or project a fantasy land is that conversational bots will get smarter, drones will get more autonomous, and generally our meatspace will get more datafied rather than simulated. Ultimately the most powerful tool for seeing is the mind’s eye. And in the mind’s eye we have already created vast social spaces of data, from text-based ones to our current feed-oriented social media systems. Virtual-reality spaces are likely to increase in popularity as a leisure time activity for some, but for others they will remain hopelessly inaccessible or too restrictive. Technologies for augmented reality may become increasingly popular in niche applications, but their social impacts and discomforts are likely to persist in everyday life. The real interesting feature will be how we choose to structure and encode life, not how we choose to represent these encodings visually.”
George Lessard, information curator and communications and media specialist at MediaMentor.ca, responded, “It’s marketing bull—- and I hope people will figure that out by then but probably not, just like it is now with Facebook.”
Gary M. Grossman, associate director of programs in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society at Arizona State University, responded, “There are several reasons why I don’t expect the evolution of the metaverse to be this far along:
1) This sector has always overstated the impacts of technology on human society. Technology will change some things in some respects, no question. Information technology has transformed many human activities. However, this has not happened in ways as imagined in, say, 1980. Fundamental human issues persist, regardless of the level of technology a society embraces. Human society of 2040 will look a lot like human society of 2022, with certain changes in certain sectors, just like it is now and as it was in 1980, in 1900 and in all previous times.
2) This anticipates a far more extensive access to the technology than is likely to occur in fewer than 20 years. I can imagine that certain strata in each society will engage some aspects of XR more fully, but for it to reach so far, so deeply and so quickly will involve many more issues than mere technological potential. We would have to accept far greater social, political and economic infrastructural change to accommodate it effectively, and I doubt very much we shall.
3) Implicit in the previous point, human society evolves as well. The vision of the metaverse is an idea from 2022. How it becomes incorporated into human society is the key.”
Kerry Rego, a social media and technology consultant based in California, commented, “I can’t think of any positives that come from this technology adoption, only inequities and negative impacts on physical, social and emotional health. The technologies used in the metaverse have been around for decades. The cost of the hardware has been consistently out of reach of the average buyer – not that some can’t afford it, but it’s beyond the comfort zone. Its development has been clunky and its usefulness is debatable. There will be some adoption, but not en masse the way it is currently envisioned by enthusiasts. It’s not that it’s not possible, but with the current players it is unlikely.”
Matt Schmidt, physicist and programmer at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, responded, “The metaverse seems to promise to bring a new era of economic exchange when in fact it should be considered only of use for its entertainment value. Many people are coming to the realization that cryptocurrencies, as well, serve no real purpose and have no intrinsic value. They are simply an investment piece as a speculative asset that will most likely not last in value.”
Neil McLachlan, consultant and partner at Co Serve Consulting, Australia, commented, “The current and likely next-generation technologies are no more capable of synthesising believable VR worlds than they were 20 years ago. The trip from, say, the first Skype release in 2003 to the clunky incompleteness of pandemic-boosted work-from-home technology such as Microsoft Teams is a reasonable approximation of what happens with interactive technology over a 20-year timespan. A lot happens but little real progress is made.”
Jesse Drew, associate professor of technocultural studies at the University of California, Davis, wrote, “While fundamental aspects of the so-called metaverse will be implemented, this experience will be relegated to a more trivial aspect of daily life, certainly not the deserving the hype that is being generated about it. Gaming, communications, household tasks and electronic control systems will be improved, but I see two forces that will curb its importance. Overall, the environmental appreciation/devastation now unfolding will render nature more important to us and help to trivialize our gadgetry. Reaction to blockchain will be part of this rejection, as was the case with nuclear energy in the 1970s and 1980s.”
William Lehr, an economist and tech industry consultant who was previously associate director of the MIT Research Program on Internet and Telecoms Convergence, said, “I think the vision of a fully immersive metaverse is important and relevant, but 2040 is 20 years is too soon. Reaching the goal of XR being ‘fully immersive’ is a tall order, and adoption by half a billion people globally suggests rapid takeoff. We aren’t going to be there.
“Metaverse is best understood as a vision of the horizon. It is a vision for a much more capable virtual world that will both augment and substitute for real-world activities and engagement. Moreover, once we have the basic capabilities to enable a much richer and comprehensive virtual world (one that extends beyond the ‘horizon’ of users embedded in the world), why should we think we would want or have only one? There are lots of potential forks in the road, and which of those forks that folks follow will be a result of both policy and path dependencies – I do not significantly believe that technical constraints will be the most important limitation (i.e., inability for AI systems and computing hardware/software to solve the necessary problems to enable a much more immersive and capable virtual world experience than we have today). With respect to the forks (and path-dependency issues), we do not know yet which forks we want to foreclose and whether we may be able to do so. Is the metaverse a good thing on balance? That is akin to asking if AI is a good thing on balance, and it is a silly question ultimately.
“Obviously, there are lots of good and indeed necessary things in AI, and the metaverse will enable that are good, but there are also lots of bad things that may come. It could be a tool for promoting equity, social justice and better matching supply/demand for more localized markets (where local is any difference that makes a difference). I believe that metaverse and the capabilities that will make it possible (and metaverse may mostly be about demand pull to create those capabilities – although I am not saying that, just suggesting it as a sufficient basis for seeing its development as positive) will prove essential for us to address climate change problems that pose an existential threat to the planet (aka, we need the AI and connectivity that the metaverse will need to sustain a shift to renewable and more efficient energy usage and other scarce-resource models).”
Glyn Moody, technology journalist and author of “Rebel Code: Linux and the Open Source Revolution,” responded, “Different versions of the metaverse will exist, but most will be fairly trivial and low-level – more like games than anything useful. But they will nonetheless appeal to many people who wish to while away their time.”
Ian O’Byrne, assistant professor of literacy education at the College of Charleston, commented, “The term ‘metaverse’ is currently a catch-all term for anything that will change with the Internet as it evolves over the next decade. The same is true of the use of terms like Web3. What is exciting about these changes and the maturation of digital spaces is that it appears that a general decentralization of places, practices and policies could be possible. Web3 may become an arbitrary evolution of digital spaces in which connections between users can take multiple paths. Perhaps digital spaces will be more distributed and, hopefully, users will have more control over their data, information and identity. However, it does seem like most of the solutions we’re seeing in terms of blockchain, distributed ledgers, the metaverse, NFTs and ‘what comes next’ may not turn out to be better than the current solutions. Still, it is exciting to think about possibilities of decentralizing power and decision-making. Add transparency in the model, and count me in.”
A tech developer and administrator proclaimed, “The ‘metaverse’ is straight up cyberpunk dystopian nonsense. If I’m wrong about it not being a thing, it is to our collective detriment as a species.”
One respondent expects there may be some new wrinkle by 2040 that will be much better than the metaverse. Jean Paul Nkurunziza, secretary-general of the Burundi Youth Training Centre in East Africa, commented, “In 2040, there will be more-efficient online platforms providing more-efficient solutions than the metaverse.”
And a professor of sociology based at a major university in Texas wrote, “There are competing technologies that will inhibit the widespread use of virtual reality and other component parts of the metaverse. Capitalism thwarts cooperation. The metaverse will be possible, but not a fully-functioning reality within the next 20 years.”
More expert responses by those who do not expect the metaverse to be widely embraced by 2040 follow below. They are organized in sections that help illuminate the four most-mentioned reasons for these experts’ doubts:
- The “metaverse” will not be seen as useful in most people’s daily lives.
- The technology needed to reach more people more often will not be ready in 2040.
- People will prefer living in layers of “real” reality.
- Public worries over the impact of surveillance capitalism and authoritarianism will slow or stop adoption.
A share of doubters about significant and widely adopted XR advances predicted that, unless people are required to do so – for instance, by employers, government agencies or health or other public services entities – most will not wish to spend their time, money or attention in more-immersive virtual settings. These experts point out that the public has not found the tech to be useful enough to become immersed in it. Second Life was often used as an example when respondents commented that the public has had the opportunity for many years to participate in a number of fairly immersive virtual spaces but has not broadly embraced them. This early VR metaverse platform emerged in the mid-2000s and has gradually been improved, but participation on it plateaued years ago.
Leah Lievrouw, professor of information studies at UCLA, wrote, “Ultimately, to succeed and be an acceptable and meaningful part of social life, the metaverse will have to be far more inviting, comfortable and relevant to the lives of a much wider range of people, communities and cultures and better-articulated with people’s real-world experiences and concerns than it is being positioned as now.”
Morgan Ames, associate director of the University of California Berkeley Center for Science, Technology, Medicine & Society, wrote, “We have already witnessed several hype cycles focused on virtual worlds, the most recent widespread one focused on Second Life more than a decade ago. One thing that every single one of these hype cycles has failed to engage with is the Achilles’ heel of virtual reality: how badly it integrates with patterns of real life. First, it is hard for people to have enough space in their physical environments to realistically move around in virtual worlds. Moreover, these virtual worlds tend to be solely visual and aural; relying only on these two senses is far from ‘immersive,’ and the many attempts to give tactile and other kinds of feedback have been crude at best. In addition, there is a significant portion of the population that continues to experience motion sickness, migraines or other debilitating physical symptoms in virtual worlds. While increased frame rates can help some with the last point, the first two are not going away. The comical lack of legs in Meta’s metaverse vaporware videos just drives this home! A vital element of this is virtual reality’s inability to blend with commitments and attention needs in real life. When we use our mobile phones or other devices, we still have ambient awareness of our environment and can generally be easily interrupted. This kind of use blends with caretaking duties and other practices of care that shape many people’s lives. Virtual reality, in contrast, removes that ambient awareness. Indeed, there are plenty of videos of people with VR headsets tripping over their toddlers, and the vaporware videos that Meta has put out about the metaverse exhibit this as well – even as they try to pitch it as a ‘plus’ for people to escape real life.”
Ben Shneiderman, distinguished professor of computer science and founder of Human Computer Interaction Lab, University of Maryland, commented, “I believe that there will be rapid evolution and improvement to immersive digital spaces, which will be used by many gamers, people seeking entertainment and some specialized users such as surgeons. The greater successes will not be what I would call ‘immersive.’ There will be improved versions of Zoom, Kumospace, etc., to make conferencing more interesting and video phone calls more enjoyable, e.g., allowing those receiving images to shift the view left, right, up or down. In 2040 immersive spaces which require users need to block out the surrounding ‘real’ world will be attractive only for some users and for some applications.”
Christine Boese, an independent scholar, wrote, “I’ve been re-listening to a recording of author Neal Stephenson’s ‘Snow Crash.’ His metaverse had its best chance with Second Life. Well, Second Life didn’t hold audiences as fully as the science fiction imagining of it. Nor has AR/VR proved as compelling as William Gibson cast it in his wide-ranging books. If communities and social postings can’t hold an audience in an immersive, virtual environment, how could virtual commerce reinvigorate the space?”
Jon Lebkowsky, a former CEO and founder of three tech companies, now an activist writer/blogger focused on strategic foresight, cyberliberties and digital culture at Plutopia News Network, commented, “My three decades of experience working and playing online has taught me that, in general, the simpler approaches prevail. For example, the strong preference of simple text messages for communication. A lot of people play immersive 3D games, but many more don’t. Second Life has had a pretty devoted set of adopters, but it never took off in a big way. I don’t see any evidence that people will prefer to spend time online in immersive 3D environments, which is really what the term ‘metaverse’ suggests. This is not to say that there won’t be meaningful advances and implementations in using mixed-reality technologies. But I think the technologies most readily adopted will be those that are more subtle and nuanced in their implementation, perhaps practically invisible.”
Thomas G. Dietterich, professor emeritus of computer science at Oregon State University and co-founder and chief scientist at BigML, which provides large-scale cloud-based machine learning services, commented, “While I can imagine their use for compelling art, entertainment, education and gaming, inherent limitations of virtual worlds will limit their use in other aspects of life. We have decades of experience with virtual worlds. They have attracted only a small fraction of the population. Why haven’t they been more popular? Let’s turn this question around and ask: Why would we expect them to be popular? For gaming and for artistic experiences, virtual worlds offer experiences that are not available in the physical world. One can also imagine virtual travel that would allow anyone to visit Pompeii or the great pyramids without the need for travel. But virtual worlds cannot replicate physical experiences. Virtual swimming is not physical swimming; virtual roller coasters are not real roller coasters; virtual displays (especially head-mounted) cannot replicate all aspects of visual experience. And, of course, virtual sex is not real sex. In addition, virtual worlds have increased risks of fraud and deception. In the physical world, you can at least see a person’s real face and read their actual body language. In a virtual world, this can all be fake. We already see many forms of fraud, including relationship fraud, happening without VR or AR. In addition, virtual worlds remove risk, and hence, are less compelling and less authentic. The risk of making yourself physically vulnerable to another person for courting or for fighting. The risk of sports. I predict there will be an ‘authenticity’ backlash against not only virtual worlds, but also Instagram. The hippies of the 1960s will seem clean and well-kempt compared to the authenticity seekers of the 2030s.”
Jason Hong, professor at Carnegie Mellon’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute, wrote, “This is, what, the third, fourth, fifth time that industry has tried to advance AR/VR? What’s different this time? Okay, we’ve got better hardware that is lighter and better battery life. We’ve got faster networking and cloud computing. But is this really enough? VR has been around for ages and works pretty well for some gaming situations, but what other use cases? Or, put more simply, will AR/VR offer enough value over existing smartphone + web, at a low enough ‘cost’ (price, usability, social acceptability, battery life) that it will take off? How many scenarios are there where AR/VR works better than a person whipping out their smartphone to get the same information? Sure, smartphone + web is not as dazzling or awe-inspiring, but it’s cheaper to make, easier to program and it gets you probably 80%-90% of the way there. I’m a huge skeptic of blockchain apps, too. It’s been around for 14+ years, and bitcoin is still the only compelling app. And bitcoin, so far, is only really good for transferring funds from one place to another (cheaper but probably not easier than Wells Fargo), buying drugs and other illegal things online, and ransomware. And it only takes the same amount of electricity as … I don’t recall, Iceland? Venezuela? to do these things. The first good webpages came out pretty quickly after Tim Berners-Lee invented the web. The first good applications came out pretty quickly after the PC and the smartphone. We’re still struggling with AR/VR as well as blockchain, despite many more years. I don’t see anything fundamentally changing here.”
Micah Altman, social and information scientist at MIT’s Center for Research in Equitable and Open Scholarship, responded, “To be sure, virtual world-building has the potential to offer rich, immersive social interactions that support a freedom of association that creates opportunities to build new communities and new types of communities. However, environments like Second Life and the even earlier text-based MUDs [multi-user domains] demonstrate that these benefits do not require sensory immersion. In some conditions social interaction can be enriched by sensory immersion. For virtual worlds to fulfill this level of potential however, the users themselves must be able to meaningfully shape them and the social affordances they provide – something unlikely to be part of Facebook/Meta corporate-owned unified metaverse.”
Eugene H. Spafford, internet pioneer and professor of computing sciences at Purdue, wrote, “The ‘metaverse’ may be useful in entertainment, but for many business uses it will be too much overhead for interactions. We have already seen some real fatigue for virtual meetings during the pandemic. Maintaining and using the avatars and environments will likely be similarly novel at first, then quite fatiguing for regular use. Problems with privacy, security and rejection of abuse (ads, trolling, stalking, etc.) will make it problematic for many users. Cultural differences also will mean that it will be a poor mechanism for international trade and communications.
An anonymous respondent commented, “I see the metaverse as a cynical ploy by tech companies to grow their margins. It is a product that lacks product-market fit. I don’t see the need to which the metaverse is responding. For niche applications like video games where immersion in an alternative reality is half the point, VR immersion can be cool. But removing physical attributes in work or social settings can actually hurt communication. Zoom meetings are bad enough; what would Zoom meetings with avatars add?”
Robert Y. Shapiro, professor of political science at Columbia University, said, “People will not devote the time needed for this. They have a life in the real world, barring future pandemics.”
Adam Peake, a longtime expert in internet policy who has been active in global policy circles at ICANN, IGF and the World Summit on the Information Society, wrote, “Unless people change their attitudes about body modification and the metaverse via implants, I can’t see people wanting to use the service. Just as many people today who have to wear glasses to see well do not get laser surgery – a well-established procedure – I can’t see such mass changes in attitudes happening.”
Howard Rheingold, pioneering internet sociologist and author of “The Virtual Community,” said, “Although the term ‘metaverse’ is being applied to ideas outside the scope of ‘fully immersive digital spaces’ (which I take to be a term for what is now known as VR), my experiences with VR and Second Life have led me to believe that while there will indeed be a significant and lively population in metaverse worlds, (think of how e-sports is already more lucrative than physical sports) it will not be a significant proportion of the human population.”
Peter Rothman, lecturer in computational futurology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, responded, “The current metaverse concepts fail one key point: There’s no reason to use them. Sure, entertainment spaces – previously known as online games – will continue and extend to include persistent worlds, economies with real value, etc. However, in order to be a metaverse worthy of the name people would need to operate in and literally live in the metaverse on a daily basis, much like they use social media today. See the 2007 report from the Metaverse Roadmap project.”
Dmitri Williams, associate professor of technology and society at the University of Southern California, wrote, “The metaverse or metaverses will be very robust by 2040, but I don’t think the metaverse as seen in some fantastical visions will be a part of daily life for a majority because it doesn’t fulfill the roles and functions we expect in daily life – conducting business, managing friendships, getting information, etc. It will become more important as entertainment for those who enjoy that kind of interface and like playing a participatory role in imaginary content. This has been a vibrant niche since the 1980s, and I don’t see that fundamentally shifting. I expect the same kinds of shifts and effects we’ve seen in the transformation of streaming TV and games, and likely not on a much larger scale. Those functions are already at maximum penetration for most of the world, and so we have to take on the zero-sum perspective: New technology always prompts people to say, ‘What is this new thing doing to us, or for us?’ but that’s not the right question. The right question is, ‘What is this new thing doing to or for us more or differently than what it replaces?’
“Games had to be viewed in terms of their relative merits and harms compared to TV, not just on their own. So, metaverses will be the same. We’ll see loads of the types of predictable values-and-concerns questions outlined in the 1980s by media effects researchers Wartella and Reeves: What is this new wrinkle in communications stopping us from doing that we value? How does it harm us physically? How does it harm us socially?
“I don’t think the answers to these questions will be a lot different than what we’ve seen over the last 30 years with video games and the Internet. For what it’s worth, this was my dissertation topic: I foresee old wine in new bottles. The positives and negatives are the same as with games and the Internet: There are some small harms in regard to aggression but more harms in regard to being social and experiencing communities in real space, being less present and less connected with each other. There will be some positives in regard to individuals’ self-expression and the ability to transcend location to make new connections and experience new cultures and ideas.”
Meredith Goins, a group manager connecting researchers to research and opportunities at U.S. laboratories, responded, “I have yet to hear a compelling story as to why I should be interested in joining the metaverse, I have a hard enough time keeping up with my current physical world space, I don’t need another space to maintain. Heck, I am barely on social media anymore as it is too divisive and time-intensive and rarely pertinent to my daily needs.”
An expert in large-scale systems and networks commented, “Overall, I find the metaverse narrative unconvincing. People want to connect to each other, but it is not clear that they want to connect mediated by 3D virtual reality. I suspect many people will prefer to connect in person for rich interactions, and that 3D virtual reality will be limited to more-narrow or specialized uses.”
George Capowich, retired associate professor of sociology at Loyola University-New Orleans, wrote, “The technology will not evolve as quickly as its advocates expect. It has a long way to go before it is more than a way for people in different locations to play games together and meet. People already do those things with their computers. Its influence on daily life will definitely take time to develop. Google Glass was introduced in 2013 as an early form of augmented reality glasses and it bombed with the public. The capacity it gave people – showing them an information display in eyeglasses – was limited and in many cases unnecessary. People who used them seemed awkward to people they encountered, who often thought they were acting oddly and perhaps a little spookily (i.e., what is that person with the glasses looking at while talking to me). It takes time for optimal uses of new technologies to emerge. The microwave oven was first introduced in 1947 and billed as a revolution in cooking that could save time and completely eliminate the need for ovens and stove tops. Over the many decades it took to finally be widely adopted, we learned that microwaves are useful but in more-limited ways. They’re great for warming leftovers, cooking frozen meals and making popcorn. We still need ovens to make family dinners and stove tops for sautéing meats and vegetables. The metaverse is in its early days and will be for a while.”
Randall Mayes, journalist, author and instructor, responded, “The positives are not obvious. People are not saying if we had a metaverse, we could do this and do it better. Internet entrepreneurs are presenting a vision of the building of a rather ambiguous cyberland and will let others figure out what do with it. There are two distinct ways to look at the metaverse. Some see a revolution or paradigm shift to a new era some are labeling as ‘Web3.’ I am more in line with the line of thinking that it is not a move into a virtual world or space, it is simply a continuation of the evolution of the mobile internet. The way the internet looks in 2040 will depend on how the metaverse’s different products, services and capabilities integrate over time. For gamers, the benefit is recreational and perhaps feeding their addiction.
“In order to inspire broader adoption, tech startups and established businesses will have to integrate products and services that can provide benefits by outperforming other digital technologies. However, because this evolutions does not have a well-defined conceptual definition or legal infrastructure, investing large amounts of money in virtual real estate and business transactions is risky. McDonald’s recently announced that in the future customers will have an option for ordering food from their virtual McCafe using digital coins and rather expensive hardware in the form of a headset and have it delivered. This will help eliminate paper money and coins, but does it really have an advantage over a credit card order?”
John Lazzaro, retired professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of California, Berkeley, wrote, “We already ran this experiment with Second Life. Wagner James Au, author of ‘The Making of Second Life: Notes from the New World,’ makes a compelling case that the asymptotic endpoint of metaverse communities is a multidimensional niche: People of a certain age group, willing to spend a limited amount of time in the medium, to do a narrow set of activities. I read an interview with him conducted by Parmy Olson in the Bloomberg Opinion section and he makes his case well. I’d recommend that people interested in the topic track down this interview on the web and decide for themselves.”
A veteran principal engineer who has worked at several major tech companies wrote, “Its success will be all about what it can do to enable and coexist with actual human factors. The metaverse is an area that can continue to enable better and more-complete remote collaboration on a variety of different fronts – telemedicine, remote work, social interaction, customer service, training/school, even things like virtual shopping – trying on clothing to see how they fit you personally, testing how you fit in a vehicle, virtually touring a home or apartment and trying out some art or a new paint color in your space. While it is true that there are some experiences that do not translate well to the virtual space and continue to benefit from physical presence, there are also many that will benefit from a better representation of physical space in the digital domain so that humans can interact more naturally with one another – the virtual bar, watercooler, meeting space, etc.
“There can be a better representation of things like social cues, facial expressions and the like. This will be critical for the metaverse to become something better than a glorified Zoom call. We’ve gotten a lot of experience over the last two years on what it’s like to have much more of our day-to-day interactions be in the virtual domain – what works, what doesn’t, how to make it feel more natural. We have to learn from those experiences to have this be something other than another Second Life clone that is only ever adopted by a subset of society that already takes well to existing in primarily-virtual spaces. If ‘normal’ people can’t see this being an acceptable substitute for physical presence in a variety of applications, it will fail.”
A UK-based expert in virtual environments, digital media and the social science of the internet said, “As someone who has studied virtual reality for 30 years, with two books, edited books and many papers in top journals on the topic, I can definitely say that the metaverse concept is complete bull—-. VR goes through waves of enthusiasm and disappointment and will evolve toward niche uses of immersive plus widespread videoconferencing and various mixed applications.”
The technology needed to reach a lot more people will not be ready in 2040
A share of respondents said they believe the needed developments in software, hardware, user interfaces and/or network capability will not be advanced enough within the next 18 years. They cited various reasons, including that the network infrastructure will not be sophisticated and built out enough to handle it; the gear will not yet be user-friendly; and there are cost and accessibility issues.
Vint Cerf, Internet Hall of Fame member and vice president at Google, wrote, “I am unpersuaded that we will see the same proliferation of headsets as we see with mobiles and laptops. It is possible that 500 million may actually have headsets by 2040, but the ‘network effect’ might require much denser proliferation before people will feel compelled to acquire them. If inhabiting the metaverse involves physical movement to move about in the VR, this would have to be done in facilities especially designed for that purpose to keep from running into walls, windows, etc. Virtual conversation will be very artificial because the headset obscures actual faces. Manipulation of virtual objects may be interesting and useful (3D whiteboards for example). Concurrent occupation of a 3D space could allow interesting simulations to be undertaken, models to be examined. If the concept does catch on, there will be interesting business opportunities selling virtual clothing, objects, tools, avatars, etc., and the difference between real and fake will continue to shrink.”
Eric Burger, who recently worked in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and as chief technology officer at the FCC, now on the computer science faculty at Georgetown University, responded, “The metaverse will pan out like remote-controlled self-driving cars or roadable aircraft: almost here for decades yet structurally unlikely for decades. The use cases for fully immersive experiences have a small niche that, for economic reasons, is unlikely to grow into a global phenomenon for decades to come.”
Leah Lievrouw, professor of information studies at UCLA, wrote a comprehensive response that covers several of the issues that are likely to slow development of a more-sophisticated XR metaverse. She wrote: “The estimate of a half billion metaverse users by 2040 is a relatively small fraction of the world’s population, which is currently nearing 8 billion and will be nearing 10 billion if current growth rates continue. To support smooth-running, broad-based accessibility and ease of use, digital infrastructure would need to evolve and innovate at a much quicker rate by 2040 than it has done over the last decade or so.
“Today’s devices are increasingly loaded with features and sensors, etc. – smartphones, watches and other personalized tech are essentially always-on surveillance tools – and networks/‘clouds’ carry and capture a lot more data, but people mostly use the same smartphones, tablets and laptops for everyday internet use that have been around for a generation, and the internet runs on the same (still robust) protocols.
“Today’s quirky and cumbersome headset or haptic-type devices for VR, AR, etc., have not gotten a lot of uptake – they’re intrusive, disorienting (even nauseating). More powerful desktop devices are still required to support full-spectrum, intensive gaming, data analysis and visualization, perhaps especially blockchain technologies, and so on. All require mind-boggling inputs of energy and natural resources (minerals, water, non-recyclable materials).
“This is itself a separate matter from real (social, economic, geographic, etc.) accessibility to high-speed digital networks, which is extremely and persistently uneven as a result of market pricing and monopolization and the near absence of public service obligations or consistent regulation that would ensure competition.”
Steve Jones, professor of communication at the University of Illinois-Chicago, said “The extent of development of technology to make some kind of virtual reality better than the next best thing to being there is out of reach in a 20-year time period.”
Daniel S. Schiff, a Ph.D. candidate who studies the governance and social and ethical implications of AI at the School of Public Policy at Georgia Tech, offered an even more comprehensive view of a number of issues tied to the tech needed for fuller AR and VR functionality and adoption. He said, “Today, a decade after Oculus had a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign, adoption of VR and AR headsets and accessories remains limited. Headsets continue to be bulky, clunky and often difficult to use, especially for individuals without significant technological literacy. Setup is challenging, often involving the use of high-powered and currently hard-to-access video graphics cards, base stations for tracking, sufficient room space and wired connection to high-end computers. Less-advanced VR systems rely on presently inconsistent wireless connections or offer less graphical capability while also presenting challenges in terms of battery capacity and interoperability. Meanwhile, the cost of these systems often remains in the high hundreds to low thousands in U.S. dollars, an inaccessible price point for most of the public even in high-income countries, much less for individuals in low-income countries or regions. This alone presents a significant barrier to global adoption on the scale desired by the metaverse’s advocates.
“Many of these barriers might be surmounted over the next decade or two. To solve these challenges, developers will minimally need to take advantage of wireless technologies perhaps two or more paradigms further along, improve battery capacity and visual fidelity, improve internal or cloud-based graphical processing power and simultaneously decrease the size and increase the comfort of VR devices. Moreover, they arguably need to address all of these challenges together rather than trading off between them, and they must do so while reducing costs by almost an order of magnitude. Such advancement not only requires generational leaps in VR/AR technology directly; it also depends on broader trends in computing, battery and wireless technology adoption, and will be sensitive to challenges such as supply chain stability, rare-earth mineral availability, cryptocurrency mining, energy usage and environmental concerns and regulations surrounding privacy or misinformation. Challenges with interoperability may come into play as companies compete to ‘own’ the metaverse.
“The broader public is the audience that is critical to the development of an actual metaverse. The phenomenological experience of embedding oneself in a virtual space arguably requires a deeper shift in paradigm as compared to the shift in adopting computers, smartphones and wireless internet, and such a shift may require generational change. It will be hampered by intolerance of older generations and parents/guardians of youth. These changes are not likely to occur seamlessly. It seems possible that many tens of millions of individuals will enjoy VR spaces for activities like simple conversation, digital shopping and digital tourism or other entertainment activities. However, even these basic activities come with possible discomfort from headsets, motion sickness or eyestrain, wearing a VR headset, goggles or gloves for hours at a time.
“The further expansion of widespread multi-environment or user-generated approach to the metaverse (the Second Life, Roblox or Minecraft model) and its use in training settings is plausible. To become more broadly populated, the metaverse may need to replace current social media (the Facebook or TikTok model) to truly reach hundreds of millions of people consistently. Overall, then, while it seems likely that hundreds of millions of individuals may engage with VR/AR technologies in the next decade, my suspicion is that most uses will be targeted in nature, rather than reflect a societal-wide shift toward a shared metaverse or metaverses as a staple of daily life.”
The biggest stumbling block to rapid high-resolution, low-latency, real-feel VR immersion is the cost of creating a global network that can support this vision
Randy Marchany, information technology security officer Virginia Tech – he previously worked with the White House Partnership for Critical Infrastructure Security – wrote, “Universal high-speed internet access won’t be ready by 2040. You need fat pipes to handle the traffic, and not everyone will have equal access to the net. High-speed Internet infrastructure is the key to allowing these new technologies to work.”
Neil Davies, co-founder of Predictable Network Solutions and a pioneer of the committee that oversaw the UK’s initial networking developments, commented, “There are fundamental network constraints relating to both the amount and timeliness of information that has to be exchanged, irrespective of the amount of local storage and computation. Those limits are fixed, some of them are physical (timeliness being the main one), some of them technological (capacities of non-wired connections), many of them economic (computational power need to create and maintain an environment, whether the statistical multiplexing needed to make deployments cost-effective can ever be reached).
“There will be niche uses – but to affect daily lives in the hundreds of millions? For that to happen it will either be a low-grade experience (not that immersive) or only for the few (so not much of a global society). Will it be a new digital divide? The question that needs to be addressed is what are the set of experiences that can be effectively distributed? If the digitally-mediated ‘reality’ is one that does not allow the user to enter ‘flow’ then it is not going to be usable/used (and may even be deemed harmful – this concern is already present in other areas). Distributed haptics (as needed to emulate remote sensations of touch) is already a barrier – a 1 millisecond variance between what the user ‘expected’ and what they ‘experienced’ is sufficient to create cognitive dissonance. It creates a visceral uncertainty that jars people fundamentally. Think missing the bottom step on a staircase or similar.
“When it comes to distributed-ledger technologies in regard to metaverse development, again the fundamental constraints above are going to create the limits. The global distribution of information for ledger updates takes a non-trivial time. Combined with the information density that such global distribution requires means that they will hit two fundamental limits: timeliness and economics. I am all for the breaking down of hegemonic barriers and creating high-value distributed interactions, it is just that approaches being promulgated are ignoring the fundamentals and are only going to disappoint. This doesn’t mean that fortunes can’t be made along the way, but it does raise the question of whether those pushing this future understand – are they unaware or just blowing up the next bubble?”
Stephan G. Humer, sociologist and computer scientist at Fresenius University of Applied Sciences in Berlin, said the focus of network development the next decade will not be on enabling widespread XR. “The war in Ukraine,” he said, “will strongly influence the further development of digitization. As a result, we will see a strengthening of, among others, cyberdefense, resilience, disaster management, civil defense, civil digital competence and critical infrastructure. As a result, other aspects of Internet development such as the metaverse are likely to have to take a backseat to those needs, if not bow to them.”
A share of respondents said the metaverse will not be broadly popularized unless its level of ease of use can match the natural feel and convenience the public has been experiencing with smartphones.
A longtime leader in IETF and principal architect at one of the world’s top five tech companies said, “The current metaverse ecosystem has inherent limitations that will prevent it from becoming a mass-market phenomenon. One is cost: The headgear requires the computing power of a high-end smartphone or game console. Unlike games, which can be streamed from the cloud, attempts to support the metaverse on smartphone platforms (e.g., Google’s Daydream View) have not caught on. Unless the cost problem can be addressed, widespread adoption within developing nations will be precluded.
“Another issue is intrusiveness: The current generation of goggles, unlike a smartphone or smartwatch, or smart glasses, interferes with daily life. Instead of tackling these basic issues head on, Meta is attempting to bring Oculus headsets to the mass market via brute force: attempting to unload them by the truckload at Costco, and spending huge sums on developing the metaverse ecosystem to drive demand. This effort has been an unprecedented failure, destroying a third of Meta’s market capitalization as soon as the debacle became clear to analysts. At this point, the only likely potential prospect for bringing the metaverse to the mass market lies with Apple. Microsoft is focused solely on enterprise with HoloLens, Google has given up on Daydream and Meta needs to refocus on competing with TikTok.”
Daniel S. Schiff, Ph.D. candidate at Georgia Tech, responded. “Though norms can and do change, continued challenges with social acceptance and feasibility of use could significantly limit the penetration of the metaverse. For example, while primary and secondary school students can easily access a smartphone to use traditional text, image or video-based social media services, it seems highly likely that it will be more difficult to pull out a VR headset in a classroom or school hallway, for functionality and safety reasons, and given limited tolerance of authorities. The same applies to individuals waiting in line at the grocery store, doctor’s office or in the workplace generally. If the metaverse is then relatively relegated to protected entertainment time in dedicated spaces at home, its overall penetration could be significantly undermined. Considering that persistent usage of smartphones across all spaces of one’s life is associated with social media’s ‘addictive’ qualities, a lack of persistent usage of VR headsets inversely implies less adoption.”
Christian Huitema, a privacy consultant, 40-year veteran of the software and internet industries and former director of the Internet Architecture Board, asked, “Can virtual reality really appeal to most people? We see people glued to their phones and we might imagine them lost in their VR helmets, but the human interactions for VR are very hard to design, as shown, for example, in the absence of legs in Facebook’s 2021 avatar prototypes. The current technology can capture facial movements and transport them to the head of an avatar, but managing the whole body is lot harder. People using VR equipment cannot move much without risking bumping into walls, knocking over flower vases and possibly hurting themselves. A fundamental limit to acceptability of virtual games is that movements in them have to be generated through interaction devices. This is also a potential reason for market fragmentation, with different virtual games experimenting with different user interfaces. This is one reason augmented reality is likely to be much more acceptable than full virtual reality.”
Alex Gekker, a senior lecturer in communications at Tel Aviv University who first described the assetization of top-tier video games which is leading to investment in the metaverse, commented, “Most stakeholders building the metaverse seem to have very little experience in virtual worlds, the tech is cumbersome and unappealing, and it all goes against the logic of the highly interpretable, casual media use that has successfully been pioneered by smartphones and embraced by the public.”
Jennifer deWinter, a professor of interactive game theory and VR and AR game production and management at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, wrote, “The majority of humans in the world today can easily and affordably access online communities on phones, even in the U.S., yet the metaverse is imagined on more-costly PCs that have significant processing power and graphics cards. When I imagine the positives of the internet we will see in 2040, I see that they will still be found in the distributed-knowledge communities that are already accessible. This can be knowledge work, of course (school, work, research), but it can also include community formation and the identity knowledges that emerge from that (LGBTQ+, diasporas, BIPOC communities and the like). Location is not as significant a barrier to access in the best-case scenario. We are already in a computer-mediated, networked society. Problems arise from how Western nations are conceiving of the metaverse – often as virtual reality, augmented reality or data-intensive.”
Adam Peake, a longtime expert in internet policy who has been active in global policy circles at ICANN, IGF and the World Summit on the Information Society, commented, “I don’t think the technology required to access ‘the metaverse’ will be developed by 2040 in a way that would make it attractive as a mass-market product/service. The headsets and other user interfaces will remain clunky things that will not be useable for long periods of time. Even if they manage to shrink optical head-mounted displays, for example, to an evolution of Google Glass, they will not be socially acceptable for many reasons.”
Robert Bell, co-founder of the Intelligent Community Forum, wrote, “I have great difficulty believing in mass adoption of a technology that requires you to strap goggles across your eyes that block your view of the real world and wear haptic gloves that dull your ability to touch the real world. The times that I have been introduced to the current generation of VR, I have felt a visceral fear because my key senses had been purposely blinded so that I could have a virtual experience. The technology will be eagerly adopted by niche audiences. Gamers are one. Real pornography devotees are another, especially if the haptic devices become … really haptic.”
Rosalie Day, independent technology policy consultant, said, “Conversion rates to immersive digital spaces of older Millennial, Xer and Baby Boomer generations in the next decades will be low through 2030, primarily because of the extra equipment which is both expensive and cumbersome. Fully-immersive digital spaces in the next decade will create more divisions in society along the lines of technology adopter and nonadopter. The current subset of population who are gamers, not solely phone gamers, and future cohort adopters are likely to be strong users of immersive technologies for leisure activities.”
Kerry Mark Meyer, network development senior principal engineer at Dell EMC, responded, “While computer technology is capable of providing a rich visual and aural experience for users, there are limited possibilities for the other senses. This makes creation of a ‘fully immersive’ experience a stretch, if not an impossibility. I do believe, though, that the metaverse will be a much more refined and well-functioning aspect of daily life for many people by 2040.”
A researcher at Meta (Facebook) whose work is focused on helping the public understand and deal with social media effects commented, “The immersive technology needs to improve substantially, and costs need to come down in order for billions of people to take advantage of it. Internet will be required in all spaces. I believe the metaverse will be an integral part of gaming and other experiences but will remain a complement to real life and not an integral part of it.”
An award-winning AI ethics expert commented, “2040 is too soon. Adoption of AI will accelerate as cloud adoption will accelerate, too, in the next five years. AI will be a key foundational element as technology matures into the metaverse – a convergence of technology trends enabling users to experience our digital world in a new way and with a new level of autonomy and freedom. By itself, data can’t create much value. It needs to be organized, analyzed and used at scale – which AI can do. For this kind of AI investment to really pay off, it needs to be embedded in application systems that can work 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. These systems, in turn, need cloud-based computing power that can scale up and down to cost-effectively meet ever changing demands. With these imperatives, it’s clear why leading companies increasingly invest in and manage data, AI and cloud (DAC) as a unified whole.”
A principal scientist at a major center for accessible technology wrote, “While many technological issues have been resolved with respect to the ‘metaverse,’ there are still prohibitively difficult problems in delivering a truly immersive experience that is natural, organic and has no side effects for all users. Secondly, there are also environmental and infrastructure prohibitions in delivering a truly immersive experience in environments where wireless networks may be poor or insufficient.
“If we think about the proliferation of cellphones and eventually smartphones, the growth of adoption for cellphones was firstly a progression to environments that could support the required infrastructure (like transition from the earliest mobile phones in cars and the first in developed nations where cell towers were installed). Right now, we are in the age equivalence of the earliest cellphones people installed in cars. And, in my opinion, this is a technology that will never be as ‘justified’ in adopting than mobile phones ever were in terms of utility, urgency and need to overcome barriers to adoption.”
A longtime engineer and internet pioneer who works as an open-source consultant commented, “It will take more than 20 years for various players to converge on a standard. It will require that two or three of them grab 30% of the mindshare, and then they will still FAIL.”
People will prefer living in layers of ‘real’ reality
A share of the experts predicted that even if the tech becomes more streamlined and affordable, most people will continue to find full immersion in VR unappealing because they prefer being absorbed in the real world.
Matt Moore, a knowledge management entrepreneur with Innotecture, based in Australia, asked, “What does ‘virtual reality’ even mean? Could it be sending a text message to someone? Answering an email? Being on a Zoom call? Getting absorbed in Wordle? Getting absorbed in ‘Hearts of Iron 4’? All of these things are absorbing, and we are immersed in them, but they aren’t what is talked about when we discuss ‘immersive digital spaces.’ Human beings quite like ‘real’ reality, and the only way we will spend most of our time in digital worlds is if we screw up this real reality so badly that we have nowhere else to go. Then again, there is a good chance of that happening, so maybe we will all become refugees from reality in the metaverse. That’s a really depressing thought.”
Christopher Fry, chief language officer at Haddington Dynamics, responded, “I was involved in VR research in the 1980s. Others preceded me by decades. Certain tech directions seem ‘obvious’ but they’re not. We humans have severe cognitive biases that prevent us from understanding complexities about ourselves and physics. VR happens to be one of those things.”
Eduardo Villanueva-Mansilla, associate professor at Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú and editor of the Journal of Community Informatics, wrote, “Unlike current social media services, the metaverse demands free time and dedication that is not necessarily available to many people. While especially young users spend significant amount of time using social media services, the attention span required for those is shorter, the sensory overload is distributed among many different options and the possibilities of sharing are varied. The metaverse is designed not as much as an option for immersive experiences but as a full experience, demanding a subsumption of cognitive resources that would be too time-consuming and expensive in technical resources to become that attractive to the same number of people that are currently using social media. Also, control over the experiences would be perceived differently, and autonomy of experiences – the metaverse demands interaction in real time with other people – may be hindrances.”
Michael H. Goldhaber, author, consultant and theoretical physicist who wrote early explorations on the digital attention economy, wrote, “VR will never be of much importance to most Internet users. It will not change society nearly as much as the current Internet, smartphones and social media have so far. If we look at the history of 3D in movies, with repeated attempts starting in the early 1950s, we see that it never really caught on in any permanent way but remained a fad with occasional reawakenings in new formats. In any of the multiple formats that ensued, the extra dimension could never add sufficient realism or drama on an ongoing basis. Humans actually perceive the world normally in just over two dimensions; the third doesn’t add much.
“Similarly, but perhaps even more, VR will be simply too much added trouble for too little gain. Of course, some gamers will use it, and it occasionally might be advantageous for people discussing specific projects. But most of the time, even when VR could be of use, such as displaying data in more than two dimensions, it will be just as easy to use ordinary perspective plus time-unfolding to reveal the same without the need for VR. Consider the video used by Zuckerberg when he changed the Facebook company name to Meta. It’s purely a novelty act that would take normal people too much time and effort to set up to be very worthwhile. Good for children’s parties, perhaps, but not most web interaction. I suspect the fundamental draw of the Internet and social media will remain competing for attention. VR is just an inefficient way to do that, for most of us, most of the time, and that can’t really change. We don’t need to be showing our bodies in 3D or in elaborate disguises to get attention, except as a rare novelty.”
Henning Schulzrinne, Internet Hall of Fame member, co-chair of the Internet Technical Committee of the IEEE and professor at Columbia University, commented, “Adding virtual reality by itself seems unlikely to be a be transformative unless it makes the activity significantly more productive or enjoyable. Given the much higher mental and physical engagement needed for VR, I see this as a very time-limited activity for most, where one might spend an hour a day in the immersive environment, but the remainder of the workday or entertainment activity is lower-intensity, lower-engagement. After all, nobody likes a full workday of back-to-back Zoom meetings – and there, you can turn the camera off. Just as the transition to online video meetings during the pandemic has made people more aware of their home office decor, you might see the same for digital spaces. But the novelty of fake bookcases and green screens wore off quickly, with people returning to simple backgrounds and blurring. I wouldn’t be surprised if people in professional settings quickly placed themselves in generic digital office cubicles and meeting rooms in the metaverse.”
Joshua Hatch, director for digital platforms and audience at The Chronicle of Higher Education, responded, “The adoption of digital technology has happened when and where it has solved problems or made ‘real-life’ tasks easier – reading the news from distant locales; downloading movies in an instant; having real-time conversations with dispersed loved ones. The metaverse is an alternate method to doing those things, but nothing about it suggests it makes any of it so much better or any easier. In fact, it appears to make those things worse and harder. Perhaps I’m not imaginative enough to envision how it could work with technology so streamlined as to be nearly transparent. Even then, though, I struggle to see what value it brings.”
Bob Frankston, internet and software-innovation pioneer, wrote, “Shared visualizations and other experiences will become increasingly important as enhancements but not as substitutes for the larger reality. I typically turn off my audio and video during a meeting (a term increasingly used to mean online) unless my presence is needed. My attention is too valuable to be at the mercy of a metaverse. I look forward to the new technology, but emulating the past seems to be a simplistic view of the future. Concepts like ‘immersive digital spaces and digital life’ are already with us, but we tend to use the richness of words rather than just pictures. And it is enriched by allowing asynchronous interactions. We’ve seen recurring efforts to do programming by drawing diagrams and the use of icons in an attempt to reproduce the physical world digitally. Yet programming has moved away from diagraming approaches. It is telling that supposed pictographic languages like hieroglyphs quickly become abstract and phonetic because we need abstractions to understand and communicate.”
James A. Danowski, president at Communication and Technology Sciences, predicted, “Humans don’t need additional bandwidth for interacting with other humans for most kinds of work. By 2040, the metaverse and social media will have faded from daily life. Direct interaction through digital means will continue to be important, but there is already sufficient or even perhaps too much social presence with current video apps like Zoom.
- As social media declines so will the metaverse built on it.
- The net effect of the metaverse on how we think about our world and ourselves will be a renewed emphasis on direct interpersonal interaction that is unmediated by avatars.
- Consensus will develop that social media and the metaverse have created more social problems than benefits and their use will be restricted.
- By 2040, the new digital world order with China at its center will see the widespread global effects of Chinese paternalistic leadership and digital authoritarianism.
- Like Second Life and current VR, metaverse platforms will only be attractive as niche entertainment spaces. They will not be the dominant activity on the net.”
Mark Crowley, an assistant professor of computer engineering at the University of Waterloo whose research seeks dependable and transparent ways to augment human decision-making, responded, “The real world is far richer and more important than virtual reality and it always will be. I believe the limiting factor to fully immersive activities will be that they are unnecessary. Some people may think they want this or that they can make money from it. I know a great deal about this, I’m an AI researcher myself and I have read most modern science fiction predictions about different types of metaverse, as well as having used Second Life and other previous attempts at VR worlds. The more advanced we become, the more we must realize that our connection to the real world is important. Also, no matter how advanced the options that are available to us, people always seem to gravitate to the primary expressive forms that ground them in reality: text, images, videos. The rise of Instagram and TikTok are prime examples. But, for me, one of the most compelling reasons is the frankly shocking enduringness of ‘ancient’ communication paradigms such as IRC chat commands, VI keyboard shortcuts and basic emoticons. Human beings did not evolve communicating and telling stories via three-dimensional storyboards.
“I have no doubt that dedicated and creative people, artists and engineers, will continue to spend huge amounts of time and create incredible content in these new realities. But the average person will limit themselves to text, images and the occasional video edit. Sharing remade videos and memes is nothing new, that kind of thing has always existed in different media, but creation is hard. The metaverse requires everyone to create and to communicate in ways that go beyond any natural inclination, and what you then end up with are incredible interactive galleries and event spaces, where the vast majority of people still simply text, chat and video call with each other. So why bother?”
Patrick Larvie, global lead on the workplace user-experience team at Google, pointed out problem areas that are another likely factor in the bulk of the public preferring living their digital lives using current interactive options. “The metaverse will remain relatively cordoned off, separate from most realms of digital life. Significant privacy and data-management issues will persist and prove daunting to commercial services. Further, ‘fully immersive’ is not necessarily a positive. Many aspects of ‘fully-immersive’ environments will be shown to have psychological, social and physical downsides, some of them significant.”
Adam Holland, project manager at Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society, wrote, “1) No matter how good, the virtual reality spaces will be too clunky and annoying. They will improve but remain a niche thing. Living in Second Life – really living in it as your real reality – sounds awful. Reality is hard enough; we don’t need an overlay. 2) Climate change and coping with it are going to make anything power-hungry useless or prohibitively expensive to all but a few.”
John L. King, a professor at the University of Michigan School of Information, said, “The experience of Second Life is instructive. It’s still around but is not what many thought it would be when it first appeared. The necessary ‘real-world’ social controls, conventions of etiquette, and so on cannot evolve within a few years. The metaverse might function in 2040 as it does now – with sufficient suspension of disbelief, which usually means distortion of reality – but it will feel like a game for a long time.”
Alan D. Mutter, consultant and former Silicon Valley CEO, wrote, “While the Metaverse undoubtedly will be more refined and more widely used by many in 2040, I find it difficult to imagine that humans will forsake personal interactions in favor of virtual contact. The metaverse may be useful tool useful tool in many applications, but will it rule the world? Perhaps. But I hope not.”
Kenneth A. Grady, futurist and founding author of The Algorithmic Society blog, wrote, “Enthusiasm and anticipated economic riches tend to drive predictions about technology more than sober estimates of technological evolution and societal acceptance. The past two pandemic years have given us real-world insights into technology adoption and its pitfalls. We saw rapid uptake of video conferencing and other online communication tools. At the same time, we saw increases in user discomfort with the alienation brought by the dramatic increase in using online tools. We also saw significant gaps between what technology could deliver and what users desired. Users wanted real-time communication that was as smooth as in-person communication. But the reality was a huge decrease in the information needed for smooth communication. Visual cues that enable users to know when to start and stop talking, shift communication style, clarify, stop overcommunicating and adapt to multi-party discussions were missing. The missing visual cues (and, to some extent, filtered auditory cues) hindered communication and reduced the humaneness of the conversations.
“Now, as people resume in-person interactions they are finding that their social skills have become rusty. They missed the spontaneity of unfiltered interactions and enjoy the fullness of being in the same room with others. Compounding the problems of planned interactions, the metaverse will have great difficulty replicating unplanned interactions. The accidental meetings on the escalator at a conference, the shared taxicab ride to the airport, the fortuitous adjoining tables at a restaurant. These types of experiences, though they may substantively result in nothing most of the time, bring joy to the participants. Only the unlimited enthusiasm of the technophile and the similarly unlimited desire of technology companies to expand markets suggest that the metaverse will rise to meet such challenges.”
An expert in the evolution of knowledge creation at a time of accelerating technological change responded, “The barriers are not primarily technical but social, psychological and experiential. I find it hard to imagine wanting to live in an augmented and disorienting world, especially given the likelihood that based on the current ecosystem (in both VR/AR and in the normal app space) there would be limited ability to move between platforms and apps without constantly changing identities, avatars and experiences. When I shift from my email identity and interface to my Facebook identity and interface, I have to follow a different set of interaction rules and have a different facet of my identity on display. If I was trying to do that in an augmented space, it would be completely jarring and undesirable.”
Philip Salem, distinguished professor emeritus of communications at Texas State University, responded, “There are too many other competing diversions, thus I don’t believe there will be rapid adoption of the technology by 2040. Development may actually slow.”
Kelly Bates, president of the Interaction Institute for Social Change, wrote, “I don’t know if humans of all generations will adapt that quickly to moving so many aspects of 360-degree human interaction online. One positive of its positive evolution would be that if the world has more catastrophic events it could offer more alternatives for business, the economy and human communications. On the negative side, it will foster less of the in-person human interaction necessary for collaboration, cooperation, peace and quality mental health. I could see the metaverse happening sooner, but to be responsible it must be aligned with a global plan, commitment and principles of necessary physical human interaction. I would be interested in helping with that.”
Kerry Mark Meyer, network development senior principal engineer at Dell EMC, responded, “There are many other aspects of daily life that the metaverse will probably never replace, at least as the preferred option to the ‘real’ thing. As an example: While I personally participate in a form of virtual reality for bike riding (via bike training applications and a bike trainer designed to work with them), it will never be as fully immersive an experience as riding outside. It’s great for a rainy day and other situations where an outdoor ride isn’t practical. But I don’t expect that it will ever provide the sensations of wind blowing by me, carrying the changing scents of flowers that are blooming today and the synchronized sensations of acceleration going down hills or around curves.”
Public worries about the impact of surveillance capitalism and authoritarianism will slow or stop adoption
A portion of these experts said they expect that the general public will not be willing to invest their time and energy in virtual spaces or use virtual tools if they perceive that it will subject them to being further manipulated and surveilled by corporate and/or government interests.
Seth Finkelstein, consulting programmer and Electronic Frontier Foundation Pioneer Award winner, commented, “I’m hardly the first person to bring up all the old hype about Second Life, and how ridiculous all of that looks now. But the point isn’t to be reflexively skeptical. It’s to ask, why did that fail, and what reason is there to think that this latest iteration will succeed? The metaverse promotion strikes me as being mired in the basic idea that multiplayer games are really cool, and if you could somehow push more of real life into an online game, that would be like printing money (literally) for the company that manages to do it. While the conclusion does indeed follow from the premise, the execution leaves something to be desired. It’s like an Underpants Gnomes format joke: 1) Online game worlds are awesome. 2) Some aspects of real life can be simulated online. 3) What? 4) PROFIT! Also, I see blockchain as a bad fit for metaverse applications, being almost entirely opposite in terms of architecture. Blockchains so far have one real type of application, for relatively powerful entities with complete mutual distrust but all of which want to avoid an even more powerful regulating entity (e.g., very wealthy people who want to avoid government restrictions on capital flow, currency controls). This isn’t decentralization, it’s narrower, akin to the conflicts of feudal lords against a king.
“Metaverse, however, is purely a lord/serf relationship. Some of the largest corporations in the world run services involving huge resources of computation and bandwidth where every individual has negligible power. I presume there will be a bunch of punditry about the possibility of portable identity among different domains. This is the standard data-portability issue. None of the lords has any incentive to let the serfs move freely.”
Morgan Ames, associate director of the University of California Berkeley’s Center for Science, Technology, Medicine & Society, observed, “There is too much suspicion around the surveillance practices and the commodification of our everyday lives by large corporations like Meta. There is really nothing that’s compelling enough about virtual reality for people to be willing to submit themselves to that level of surveillance and commodification. Most virtual reality depictions in science fiction have been situated in a dystopian world. This, I think, is telling. The real world would have to be a pretty hellish place for most people to want to spend a lot of time in what will always be an impoverished experience that is subject to heavy surveillance and commodification.”
Guenther Goerz, professor emeritus of AI at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, Germany, commented, “It is a nightmare to see that finally Baudrillard could be right. The so-called ‘metaverse’ is the latest business trick of digital platform capitalism. I hope people will be wise enough to realize the difference between real (social) life and computer-game-like simulations aimed at financial gain for the benefit of a few of the super-rich. They are eliminating the social contract, democracy and the success of enlightenment. People’s online activities should be embedded in real social life in the service of a better and peaceful life for the whole world population and a sane environment. Instead, many become addicted to temptations which are beyond their control. So, I hope there will be no metaverse transition whatsoever. In terms of the mindset of global dictatorship where the metaverse ideology finally may lead, the difference between Mark Zuckerberg and other Silicon Valley supercapitalists and [Chinese President] Xi Jinping and colleagues is smaller than you may think. So, resistance is the motto, not adaptation.”
Felix Stalder, researcher, lecturer and activist in the field of social implications of ICTs at Zurich University of the Arts, wrote, “I imagine the scope of the metaverse to remain limited, and have a strong backlash. It will be limited because of the ultra-commercial focus that hampers radical experimentation and the problematic behavior and position of the major companies prompting a social backlash that will further limit its application. It will be a collection of specialized settings, such as remote work, conferencing of all sorts, gaming and shopping.”
A Canadian teacher and multimedia journalist commented, “It is shocking the speed with which the metaverse is being considered to be an acceptable extension of the digital world, given the dangerous problems it currently hosts. Regardless of the speed with which investors secure footholds in new revenue-generating ways to exploit human curiosity and naivety, the metaverse is poised to deepen current dangers, such as mis/dis/mal-information, discrimination, bullying, sexism, racism and more. It will ensnare generations more in more digital manipulation.”
Adam Peake, a longtime expert in internet policy who has been active in global policy circles at ICANN, IGF and the World Summit on the Information Society, said, “I can’t see individuals, companies, etc., trusting Meta (Facebook) or any organization with the data generated in a fully immersive setting.”
Jonathan Taplin, author of “Move Fast and Break Things: How Google, Facebook and Amazon Cornered Culture and Undermined Democracy,” said, “The metaverse is just another version of the Big-Tech Surveillance Economy. It is an attempt by the billionaires to escape from the very real problems that confront our society like the climate crisis, the mental health crisis and income inequality. It solves none of the urgent problems of America.”
Janet Salmons, consultant with Vision2Lead, responded, “If the metaverse is owned and run by Mark Zuckerberg, it is a nonstarter. I don’t think this kind of surveillance capitalism will continue, as we already see from defections from Facebook.”
Simeon Yates, director of the Centre for Digital Humanities and Social Science at the University of Liverpool, UK, wrote, “Do we really want the socio-political cesspool that is much of today’s social media replicated in 3D VR? We already live in an incredibly complex high-fidelity immersive space – the real world. It is both beautiful and brutal (see Ukraine and Myanmar just today). The metaverse is another example of libertarian tech bros looking for a space to hide from this real world. I would rather they spent their billions on climate change, food supply and hunger, education, vaccines.”
An award-winning computer scientist who spent most of her career working at a top-five U.S. technology company wrote, “It will take a long time, if ever, to get to a state where the metaverse is king. Already the increased intermediation of technology between people has had a range of negative consequences, leading to more depression, suicide, more economic imbalances (often along racial lines), more polarization and so on. I don’t see any hope that the metaverse will solve this. Some of the darkest science fiction I’ve read basically explores the metaverse and its effects, some of it way ahead of its time. But as we get closer to making the science/technology work, I see us no closer to preventing the evils that will follow. The internet didn’t take off until a huge proportion of our society had access, and until a critical mass of businesses were online and could start to automate. The motivation for them to make the switch was clear – reach more customers, then recognize more efficiencies. As prices tumbled, everything steamrolled. It’s not clear to me that the metaverse will offer the same value. It may offer more-enriching experiences – a chance to better differentiate yourself, as today a better website or app does. But will it really help businesses reach more clients, or become more efficient? Even when you can be immersed through a device the size of your phone, will you want to be? Especially if that device costs more than a phone that provides today’s level of access?”
Dave Karpf, associate professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University and expert on the digital transformation of political advocacy and activism, said, “The metaverse has a demand-side problem. It will not develop by 2040, because it will become clear over the next five to 10 years that people do not want the product that Mark Zuckerberg and his Silicon Valley peers are trying to sell them.”
A program manager for privacy and public affairs at one of the world’s top five tech companies said, “There will always be multiple modalities of online presence. Email, chat and video conferences will not go away. Most people will spend most of their time online outside of fully immersive, persistent virtual environments. There are too many trade-offs to being in those spaces. A fully-immersive, persistent virtual environment probably will not offer benefits offsetting the hardware, power and privacy trade-offs.”
Laurie Orlov, principal analyst at Aging-in-Place Technology Watch, commented, “Metaverse is a hype term wielded by the ultimate hype company, Facebook (now hiding behind Meta). This conjures a dystopian view, enlarging the percentage of a lifetime spent in front of a screen or device. One can hope that there is a backlash against the company and the concept.”
A professor of sociology expert in culture, race and ethnicity responded, “There is no way this is a good idea with the amount of surveillance these technologies are allowing. We give up so much privacy already with all of the technologies we are being forced to use out of convenience, yet we don’t know exactly how the data gathered from these technologies are used and who they are shared with. The costs, in my opinion, outweigh any benefits of a digital society. In fact, studies show children need less time on devices and more social interaction in person. I hope this does not come to fruition.”
A North American sociologist wrote, “The idea put forward as the metaverse is the latest in a list of over-hyped suggestions of the role of technology. This view of what is possible is driven more by the desire for profit, rather than by any objective developments.”
A scholar and professor based in Singapore responded, “It is hard to see the benefit of a metaverse at this time when the harms from being online are becoming better known. Internal research by Facebook itself has uncovered much evidence of harm, too. The whistleblower was blowing the whistle on precisely this matter. I do not see this transition at all.”
The director of a center focused on computational analysis of social and organizational systems commented, “Global wars, the increase of authoritarian rule, the lack of funding for key research and increasing distrust of everything cyber will keep this from being a daily activity for most people.”