When we think of the Metaverse we imagine almost exclusively a digital world populated by happy avatars interacting with each other. Some versions of the metaverse have better graphics (Fortnite and The Sandbox), while some others have terrible graphics, but for some obscure reason seem to work (Roblox); and some more have terrible graphics and don’t really work (Decentraland).

But even if we consider the most advanced metaverses, we should take into account  that they are rather primitive compared to what the future will bring. In terms of “primitive” I mean comparing 1970s videogame “Pong” with – say – “Zelda: Breath of the Wilderness”. The current system is limited in all possible senses.

Notwithstanding all the efforts of creators, the range of expression of avatars is dramatically limited. They can do the usual stuff like walking, jumping, running or maybe crawling. On Fortnite you can also push some buttons and have the avatars performing actions such as dancing, making magic tricks, or vandalizing walls with graffiti: they are called “emote” and can be purchased on the Fortnite store.

But although some of the emote can indeed be quite interesting – if not really fancy – they are just a primitive imitation of what an actual human being can perform. Of course, most people will never be able to perform the sophisticated dance moves of some emotes. Still, in general terms at best you can repeat the same dance move over and over again. It is not a real means of expression, if not just a standard one, just a tick more elaborated than a smiley.

If you want to meet someone on the Metaverse for business, it is fundamental to read the other person’s reactions to what you are presenting. If such meeting were to happen in a current version of the Metaverse – be it Decentraland or Fortnite – the only reaction you could have would be that of a poker face. All the subtle reactions like eye movement, raising eyebrows, a smile: they would all be lost behind a digital mask. One could make up for it by showcasing his best pre-programmed dance move, but it is not the same. A traditional zoom meeting is preferable.

Can this limit be overcome? It is not just a matter of programming, but rather of hardware. We would need some device able to track our expression and body movement: something similar to the (now discontinued) “Kinect” devices sold by Microsoft from 2010 to 2017. This kind of hardware could be made even more sophisticated, so that it can read your facial expression and reactions.

The problem is that such devices would work against one of the top selling points of the Metaverse: its simplicity of use. The success of the Metaverse above virtual reality depends upon the fact that you don’t need complex devices to explore it. What would happen if you will need some complex sensor to measure your Metaverse reactions? Possibly, it would also feel quite strange to have some device tracking you every instant – also because, as we have seen, the use of this data might open serious ethical questions.

It is not by chance that in February 2022 former Evernote CEO Phil Libin labelled metaverse plans (and in particular those by Mark Zuckerberg) as an “old idea that never worked”. At the time he gave this interview he was heading videoconference company “Mmhmm” and he claimed to just hate Meta’s product for metaconferencing, “Horizon Workrooms”.

One of the problems of Liblin is that he tried Horizon wearing VR goggles – without even mentioning the fact that the workrooms can be safely accessed through a normal, flat pc screen. Still at least for working purposes – it is yet to be proven how meta solutions can provide an efficient alternative to normal videoconferencing.

But the main point is: meta-working cannot be compared to videoconferencing. It would be like comparing a telephone to a TV. They are meant for different uses. Of course, if you need to talk with some people it makes perfect sense (and is more efficient) to organize a zoom call. But if you need a physical space for creation, then the Metaverse could be the go-to platform. It can suit the needs of architects wanting to interact live creating 3D sketches of their ideas; or for artists; or for performers; or for visual creators; and even for musicians. 

And possibly, if Mark Zuckerberg presents his Horizon Workrooms where people meet in the form digital puppets working with tiny digital PCs in a digital world, he is also missing the point. It doesn’t really make sense to enter the Metaverse to perform duties that you can comfortably do outside – and maybe with an actual cup of coffee on the side.