Simultaneity is Holding Back the Metaverse

Synchronicity: The true secret of the Internet explains a lot about the metaverse’s troubles. It’s a short web essay from 2000 arguing that the internet is useful because of how it relaxes time and space constraints on communication. Technology has dramatically reduced costs to communicate at a distance, across time, across languages, and to large groups. In comparison, real-time, in-person, and one-to-one communication has become expensive.

The most compelling visions for immersive 3D experience online all involve synchronous communication with acquaintances. We imagine attending concerts and playing sports with friends. But users of Horizon Worlds, Meta’s virtual “land,” near-universally comment on the uncanny loneliness of virtual presence. At best, they feel alone in a crowd. This is because Meta has failed to address the coordination costs of real-time meetings – which is not a technological problem at all.

Social media’s biggest successes revolve around asynchronous communication. Users of Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp post content and view others’ posted content. There’s no requirement that two friends use the app at the same time. Perhaps the reason these services (and other web experiences such as online shopping) do not already try harder to mimic a feeling of physical presence is because it would highlight how alone we are when surfing the web.

Scaling adoption of more immersive technologies like VR goggles will require compelling solo use cases. Existing use cases for synchronous online communication, like video chat and group video gaming, represent a tiny share of online activity.

The arrival of convincing AI may provide the answer with simulated real-time interaction. Video games have always used non-player characters (NPCs) to simulate interactions. Blurring the line between interaction with NPCs and real people is a clear application of AI. Rather than restoring fidelity to our communications with other people, the metaverse might replace it entirely – each of us chatting all day with a virtual hive mind. Yikes.

Written on February 19, 2023