No One Knows What the Metaverse Is and That's What's Driving All the Hype

Facebook | via Reuters
  • Phil Libin, the founder and former CEO of Evernote, says the metaverse is nothing more than a gimmick and most of the technology credited with being part of the metaverse has been around for years.
  • The metaverse has become one of the buzziest words in corporate America, with companies from Google to Ralph Lauren to Walmart all looking to plant a flag.
  • Microsoft recently cited the metaverse as one of the reasons for its $69 billion acquisition of Activision Blizzard.
Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive officer of Facebook Inc., speaks during the virtual Facebook Connect event, where the company announced its rebranding as Meta, in New York, U.S., on Thursday, Oct. 28, 2021.
Michael Nagle | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive officer of Facebook Inc., speaks during the virtual Facebook Connect event, where the company announced its rebranding as Meta, in New York, U.S., on Thursday, Oct. 28, 2021.

The day after Microsoft announced its intent to buy gaming powerhouse Activision Blizzard, the company released a statement saying the deal would "accelerate the growth in Microsoft's gaming business across mobile, PC, console, and cloud and will provide building blocks for the metaverse."

Every week, it seems, another company is planting its flag in the metaverse, scrambling to figure out how to make money in this next digital frontier. At the end of December, Walmart filed several new trademarks indicating that it intends to make and sell virtual electronics, toys, sporting goods, and personal care items. Last week, Ralph Lauren's CEO said the metaverse is the way to attract younger shoppers. Nike, Gap, and Urban Outfitters are just a few of the other companies that have looked to plant a flag in this virtual landscape.

But as with anything on the receiving end of breathless hype, there are skeptics. Phil Libin, founder and former CEO of Evernote, the note-taking app, and now co-founder and CEO of mmhmm, a startup that provides improved video chat tools, tweeted earlier this month that the metaverse is a "squishscammy word. If you include things like video games and, um, the internet, it's already a big success. AR has future potential. But I'm calling b.s. on a persistent, decentralized, skeuomorphic, interconnected 3D world, experienced primarily through VR."

In a recent interview he's predicted that "six months from now, it will be very rare to see the word metaverse used unironically."

Libin is no stranger to tech or the path to get new products and services accepted by the masses. Mmhmm, his latest venture, was spun up in the midst of the pandemic when he realized that better video chat tools could make endless hours of Zoom, Teams, and Webex video meetings less torturous. The company is nearly 18 months old and has raised about $140 million.

Jumping into the latest craze

The full-court press into the metaverse now playing out in interviews and company announcements is being driven, Libin says, by companies feeling a need to jump into the latest craze.

"There are legitimate technological advancements that are happening based on our reaction to Covid. Everything about the way we work has changed. The ability to talk to people on video, moving between synchronous and asynchronous, all of this is massively important and you don't need the metaverse for any of it," he says. "The Microsoft and [Activision] Blizzard deal would have happened regardless, and it has nothing to do with the metaverse. But because it happened now, p.r. people sprinkled some metaverse pixie dust on it."

While Libin has been among the most vocal in his criticism of the metaverse, he's not the only one questioning what it is.

In CNBC's Technology Executive Council survey at the end of last year, executives were asked to describe the metaverse. Among the responses were "online gaming," "socially awkward teenagers," "hype," and "Facebook trying to rebrand."

Still, there are others, such as Wendy Pfeiffer, chief information officer at cloud company Nutanix, who believe there are real business opportunities to be mined in the metaverse. Two that she is particularly bullish about center on the remote and hybrid work environment.

"I'm interested in the metaverse as a CIO because this is the environment into which the workers who are coming into my company are used to, especially Gen Z," she says. "This is how they show up as they interact with technology. They're already comfortable across virtual environments and they know how to curate a mix of these tools and services and technologies in order to interact and work."

In the fall, Cisco unveiled its next-gen hybrid work offerings including Webex Hologram that uses augmented reality headsets along with immersive 3D holograms. Jeetu Patel, general manager of Cisco Security and Collaboration, says a few years from now it won't be unrealistic for two people "sitting 10,000 miles apart having dinner together in full 3D and they're both seeing holographic images of each other at the table."

To which Libin says, why? "I recently went to a conference where I had to wear a headset and it was the dumbest thing I've ever done," he says. "I would rather chew my arm off than stand in my house by myself, wearing a headset pretending to be in an auditorium watching someone on a virtual stage."

Whether the metaverse is something long-forgotten in a year or our new way of being remains to be seen. Skeptics, like Libin, point to the seismic changes now taking place in the wake of the pandemic as issues that need more attention than outfitting avatars in the metaverse with designer clothes or spending real money on virtual real estate.

"We should be making actual reality better. We shouldn't be spending time making a different reality," he says. "Let's put more effort into making a world where you can work in a way that gives you time to have an actual in-person dinner with your family or friends, not having a virtual dinner in the matrix."

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