Is the metaverse dying?

Disney shutters its virtual reality division amidst a 'metaverse winter'

(Image credit: Illustrated/Getty Images)

Maybe the metaverse isn't the next big thing after all. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg rebranded his company in 2021 to "Meta," with a promise that virtual reality was the future of his social media company. "The next platform will be even more immersive — an embodied internet where you're in the experience, not just looking at it," he said in an open "founder's letter" to the public. But there are fresh signs that the project might not have have legs.

Disney is eliminating its entire 50-person metaverse team, The Wrap reports, and "it's on the trailing end of enthusiasm that's already fizzled." Indeed, a number of other tech firms are "letting disappointing VR experiments quietly expire or peter out in obscurity." Media reports in February suggested that Microsoft was pulling back on its own metaverse efforts, Sony reports that it is selling fewer PlayStation VR2 headsets than it expected. Walmart just shuttered its "Universe of Play" on the Roblox metaverse platform. And even Meta is doing a round of layoffs.

The metaverse is facing a "cooldown moment," Fran Velasquez writes at CoinDesk. But it's also possible that this cooldown moment is a retrenching toward future growth: After all, brands like Dolce & Gabbana, Balmain, and Tommy Hilfiger just participated in a "Metaverse Fashion Week" that featured digital models strutting on a virtual catwalk. But news of the metaverse's struggles is inspiring some schadenfreude — including from Elon Musk, who has some problems of his own. He greeted news of the Disney layoffs with a tweet: "Nature is healing."

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What are the commentators saying?

The "metaverse winter" has arrived, Derek Robertson writes at Politico. But maybe that shouldn't be a surprise: Building the metaverse is a "capital-intensive project of building an entirely new computing platform" that was "bound to take a major hit." But there's still the possibility that "grassroots enthusiasm" from individual users — particularly gamers — could quietly drive wider adoption: "Rather than push into the metaverse, giants like Disney might be just as comfortable letting it come to them."

The metaverse is "quickly turning into the meh-taverse," Meghan Bobrowsky writes at The Wall Street Journal. It's not just big companies that are pulling back: "The price for virtual real estate in some online worlds, where users can hang out as avatars, has cratered." That's partly because "glitchy" platforms have slowed user adoption of virtual reality. Bobrowsky quotes Matthew Ball, a venture capitalist: "What many people are coming to realize is that this transformation is farther away."

But "farther away" doesn't mean "never." Rumors of the metaverse's death "are greatly exaggerated," Spatial's Doug Griffin writes at VentureBeat. A phenomenon known as "Amara's Law" suggests that tech innovations can be overhyped in the short run but underestimated in the long run. That's probably the case here. One analytical firm is still projecting one-quarter of us will be "studying, shopping and socializing in a shared virtual environment" by 2026. Which means today's scoffers may be tomorrow's eager metaverse enthusiasts: "So will we participate? The answer appears to be a resounding and eventual yes."

What's next?

If the metaverse is looking shaky these days, it's far from dead: Apple is expected to unveil its own virtual reality headset in the next few months, The New York Times reports, and the new product is considered an industry "bellwether for virtual and augmented reality." But that news comes with a caveat — there is considerable skepticism within the company about whether the project will pan out. "There are concerns about the device's roughly $3,000 price, doubts about its utility and worries about its unproven market." The iPod and iPhone filled clear consumer needs, but Apple's internal critics say "the headset hasn't been driven by the same clarity."

If the metaverse isn't the next big thing, what is? Probably artificial intelligence. Gizmodo points out that Meta's Mark Zuckerberg is pivoting yet again. "Now, the CEO has stated that AI won't just be a facet of Meta's work going forward, it will be the focus." The company spent more than $1 billion on virtual reality development in 2022. "Now though, that balance seems liable to shift."

Just don't tell Meta's executive that the metaverse isn't the future. Bloomberg reports that Meta's Nick Clegg is promising the company is still dedicated to virtual reality. "We're going to stick with it, because we really believe, all the early evidence suggests, that something like this will be the heart of the new computing platform," says Meta's head of global affairs. "But it's going to take a while."

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