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Big Tech is building the metaverse of its own dreams. You don't want to go there

No country for old menus

Opinion A year ago, corporate VR sucked deep on the hype pipe and offered it around. We weren't convinced. All that investment, all that technology, to recreate a drab pastiche of the very environments we'd gratefully escaped in the magical world of WFH.

Without imagination, without soul, with no humanity, who would want to visit?

Since then, the billions have continued to pour into the Metaverse Money Dematerialiser that lives in Zuckerberg's basement. The VR revolution seems no closer. The CEO himself celebrated  the launch of Horizon Worlds in Spain and France with an in-world image of a dead-eyed robot selfie against a landscape of mid-'90s clip art. It was as awful as a year ago. Where is the cash going? The question is only hard to answer if you're human. Think like a big organization. 

Here's one answer: fighting user privacy. One of the first steps towards protecting your VR identity across sessions, an open-source academic project called MetaGuard, is already reporting counter-measures. Because that's what matters to the creator gods of the new universes. 

MetaGuard works by injecting noise into the signals sent to the world servers. Random tweaks to your voice, shifts in your location, enough to make the machinery uncertain that it's you again when you come back for more. It's a noble but doomed effort, and not just because the usual arms race will kick in. VR needs those signals to be fully immersive, and it needs to be fully immersive to justify your adherence to the walled garden model. That offers companies two things they can't get on the plain old internet: total surveillance and total control. 

In the days before internet service providers, that was the norm. CompuServe and AOL ran their own networks of dial-up access points that connected your computer to their computers and their computers only. You paid by the month straight into their accounts, you accepted their services, and you talked to other users on their system.

The internet messed that up just as online content started to get good. The Facebook service is a valiant effort to rebuild those days, but you can escape those walls with a single click as easily as turning a page in a book.

With VR, the equivalent click is literally dislocating. The more immersive the environment, the greater the cognitive burden on the user of flicking away. Within that environment, you are under total surveillance: you have to be. Immersive VR has to respond to you as if it was reality responding to the physics of your body and senses, which means it has to track those as closely as possible. You're in a body scanner, and the output is feeding Zuck's AIs. If you fuzz or spoof it, you'll increase their uncertainty, but you'll also lose some of the immersive fidelity, and that's rather the point of VR. But you already know improving fidelity isn't the reason countermeasures evolved so quickly, just by looking at the place.

For corporates, the metaverse is a canvas not to create better worlds for us, but one on which to realize their deepest desires. We can see that in the billions spent on dullard chores, in the desire of lock-in and complete capture, in the chance to build a universe where every corporate wish is granted. 

That won't be a place anyone will want to go. It's bad enough on the flat earth of the internet, where we do have the freedom to click away, we can install ad blockers and tracker defeaters, and we can configure our experience, if we choose, as we choose. In the metaverse, actual information and the sort of controls needed to access it are displayed on virtual screens within the space – and good luck doing anything with those the corporate sponsor does not want. No off-menu ordering in this restaurant. 

We've been there – at least, anyone online in the CompuServe years knows what it was like when the internet became an option. When it did, we ran. The closed gardens turned to deserts, even though the companies behind them had more experience in online services than anyone else. They had access to the best technologies, and every opportunity to build spaces competitive with the raw internet. Many, like Microsoft with MSN, tried very hard. All are dead now. 

Which is no reason to write off VR as a whole. The insane investment has at least produced some almost affordable hardware. In the same way that early investors in railways lost their shirts but left behind useful infrastructure, there's opportunity for better ideas to build on. Lots of people quite like VR games, and things like virtual conferences do seem to be better if you're aware of, and can interact easily with, fellow attendees. Neither of these use cases will power a corporate universe worth a penny. 

Good. To be trapped by dint of platform in an environment under total control would be hellish. With Microsoft trying to sneak adverts into desktop UIs, think what they'd do with an immersive space where no naysaying is allowed. Which of the Big Tech companies would you like to give control over your walls, doors, windows, and space in your room? Which do you think wouldn't grab the opportunity with both tentacles? 

That's the reason corporate VR is going to be a glorious flop. By offering deep-pocketed tech firms the ability to indulge in their own virtual reality where they can have everything they wish, it exposes their complete inability to envision anything worthwhile. That lack of imagination so evident in the experience of the worlds they make is revealed to run through all the things they want to do. By magnifying their desire, it showcases their banality. If the whole world is you, you've got nowhere to hide. ®

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