How Important is VR to the Metaverse?

At this stage, pinning a definition onto what the metaverse actually is is a mostly foolhardy endeavour. Variously the next, decentralized generation of the internet, individual virtual world platforms or an augmented version of the real world, the fact is that until the metaverse is actually built, there won’t be an agreed-upon definition. Look around at depictions of “the metaverse” in popular culture, however, and you will be flooded with one common theme: accessing the metaverse requires wearing a virtual reality (VR) headset.

The idea that the metaverse and VR are inseparable is well-founded. The earliest formulation of the term, in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 science fiction novel Snow Crash, described a virtual space accessed by VR displays. That dystopian vision of the metaverse is very different to the one that is being sold today, and yet the core fact of it being accessed via VR lives on in platforms such as Somnium Space or Horizon Worlds. But is it true that VR is a prerequisite for entering the metaverse?

Just look at two of the most popular virtual worlds in the form of The Sandbox and Decentraland. Both have described themselves as “metaverses” and they offer virtual spaces which users can interact with in the form of virtual avatars. What they don’t offer is a way of embodying that avatar in virtual reality as of yet, instead favouring a more traditional, game-like experience.

VR Headset
Image credit: Shutterstock

The Videogame Template

There are signs that this approach will lead to the development of the metaverse, at least in the short term. As an example, when Microsoft acquired videogame publisher Activision recently, it framed the move as helping it enter the metaverse, suggesting that it sees the metaverse in much broader terms than some. It’s possible that the virtual worlds we are currently more familiar with, in the form of videogame maps, maybe the engine for making the metaverse go mainstream. 

“Gaming is the most dynamic and exciting category in entertainment across all platforms today and will play a key role in the development of metaverse platforms,” said Satya Nadella, chairman and CEO, Microsoft, discussing the acquisition. “We’re investing deeply in world-class content, community and the cloud to usher in a new era of gaming that puts players and creators first and makes gaming safe, inclusive and accessible to all.”

It’s no surprise, then, that some of the biggest metaverse stories of recent years have come from traditional games that have introduced methods of repurposing their worlds for more social pursuits. Just look at the NIKELAND space created within Roblox or the music events taking place within Fortnite.

Videogame firms as a whole are seeing the metaverse as a tantalizing opportunity, with Bandai Namco the latest to announce plans to enter the space. Outlining a plan for the next few years, the company equated its metaverse offering with other traditional forms of entertainment, saying: “One of [Bandai Namco’s] strengths is the ability to foster connections with both digital elements, such as games and the metaverse, and physical elements, such as amusement facilities.”

The Embodied Metaverse

That gaming-led conception of the metaverse serves as a counterpoint to the kind of social, embodied, virtual reality experiences others are pioneering.

Indeed, the VR-led approach to the metaverse is showing some signs of weakness. Just look at the recent travails of the company formerly known as Facebook, Meta. Despite renaming itself to show its confidence in its VR-led approach to the metaverse (with its Meta Quest 2 headset and social platforms such as Horizon Worlds) it was revealed in early February that its Reality Labs division lost over $10bn in 2021. Added to poor performance in other parts of its business, such as its daily active users falling for the first time in its history, the news sent its share price tumbling by over a quarter.

Perhaps recognizing that a change in approach might be necessary, Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg said on an earnings call with investors: “This year, we plan to launch a version of Horizon on mobile too, that will bring early metaverse experiences to more surfaces beyond VR. So while the deepest and most immersive experiences are going to be in virtual reality, you’re also going to be able to access the worlds from your Facebook or Instagram apps as well.”

None of this is to say that virtual reality doesn’t have a significant part to play. Platforms that currently don’t support VR could always add such functionality in the future. And the association of the metaverse VR will be hard to overthrow, in part because it is so ingrained In fictional depictions of metaverses. After all, immersive technology is nearly always necessary to access virtual spaces in works depicting metaverse-like experiences, from the visors and haptic gloves of Ready Player One to the cybernetic implants that connect people to the simulated reality of The Matrix.

Of course, in the much longer term, this opposition of traditional and VR experiences may become a moot point as technologies such as brain-computer interfaces come into play and we can plug into our very own matrix (just without the killer robots), rather than requiring the intermediary of VR devices.

The Future

The shape the metaverse ends up taking will be driven by market forces – with a lower barrier for entry meaning non-VR metaverse experiences have a distinct advantage. While a killer VR app might yet come along that gets your grandparents into the metaverse, in the short term it’s a safer bet that much of the heavy lifting to get the masses onto the metaverse will be done by more traditional experiences.