The Metaverse Needs a Pandemic

Let’s be clear on one thing before we begin, here: I’m not advocating for widespread death and suffering. If it were possible to have a pandemic without all the pain we’ve collectively endured for the last two years, that would be the way we’d need to go with this, but odds are that there’s no such thing as a non-critical pandemic that would somehow cause massive society change.

The change I speak of is, of course, QR codes.

Yes, the same QR codes I railed against so many years ago. I was right then, and I’m not being revisionist. I’m being realist, which is how I got into this topic. Allow me to explain…

A little over three years ago, QR codes were still stupid. They were used in many places, but they were often forced. (I still think they’re silly to have on a banana sticker, though if you’re a producer, this is your chance to make that QR code point at a blockchain that links that specific banana to its shipping route, farm of origin, and production history. Just saying.) There were huge hopes from marketers that this strange little pixelated blob would make it simpler for people to achieve a marketing goal.

In that, those marketers weren’t wrong – QR codes do a brilliant job of that. Where the marketers screwed up? Why would anyone care?

The driver to use a QR code just wasn’t there. It was one of those “techie” things that other people cared about, not the average person. No need to use a camera when I can just type in a URL into my browser, just like on my laptop, right?

Behaviours are hard to change. To make people change a behaviour, there has to be a reason, internal (because it gives me a good feeling) or external (I’m not given any other choice). And that particular point is what COVID gave us: an external reason to use QR codes.

If you went to a restaurant anytime in the last two years, one of the biggest changes was a lack of menus. Especially in the early days, everything needed to be sanitized, constantly. And santizing menus was … well, not only difficult but often really icky. So most restaurants went the way of putting menus in storage and slapping QR stickers on tables that linked people with online menus.

It was a little awkward at first, and people without mobile devices naturally would struggle a little, but very quickly we all came to expect QR codes at restaurants and bars to give us shortcuts to what we wanted. QR codes went from being a mystery to being like a secret handshake that everyone knew. When you went into a restaurant, you looked for the code.

The COVID pandemic was our external force that essentially forced us to embrace QR codes at a wide scale. Whether or not we needed this (it can be argued that QR codes actually cause more headaches than ease them), it’s now here and likely to stay.

If we look at the long-approaching metaverse, we have a similar (and probably also highly debatable) “need”. The metaverse promises to bring together our physical reality with virtual realities (yes, plural) and … do something fantastical, I guess?

There have been some examples of this working, such as using existing technologies to augment our physical world with virtual information. The most popular version of this is Pokemon Go, where mobile devices “exposed” the hidden world of Pokemon. And while that was, briefly, wildly successful … it went away. It was a game. It was for other people, I’m not a fan, etc.

Companies have been pushing virtual reality in some form or another since I was a kid (and believe me, that’s a bloody long time ago, now). Big hype came when computers started to render the unreal, and we got movies like TRON, taking us places we couldn’t previous go. And they’re pushing VR, AR, and other mixed experiences because … they’re awesome (I guess?) and they make life better (I guess?) and … honestly, I’ve seen so much of this drivel that I see the same arguments that I did when people started pushing QR codes.

What the metaverse needs is COVID. Or something like it. Something that requires a massive, worldwide behavioural change to make people alter their opinions and their day-to-day ways and adopt (an easy to access with readily-available tools and technology) with a low barrier to entry. Or at least address a significant gap that hasn’t yet arisen.

Author John Scalzi actually addressed this in his book Lock In, where a cold/flu-like virus sweeps the planet, affecting some more than others, leaving some people in a seriously affected state. (Sound familiar? Scalzi’s research in epidemiology that led to eeriely predicting some of COVID’s spread was noted more than once). The most serious effect (other than death) was a state called “lock in” where the voluntary parts of the nervous system shut down and someone becomes trapped in their own body. Following a massive “moon shot”-style investment and study, the brain is mapped, and locked in people return to society via remote access into robots (hey, it is science fiction, after all) and through a virtual reality.

This is the kind of external driver that could force us to revisit the metaverse in a more holistic way. While I don’t believe we need to go to quite the level Scalzi envisions in his novels, the requirement for a metaverse to solve a widespread problem will be the thing that has to appear for us to truly need to embrace the metaverse. At the moment, I don’t see that. I see only a need to somehow augment social media-style interaction to provide a different layer or view of the same material. (One particularly loathesome example I’ve seen recently was a press conference held in VR, with the aesthetics ripped right out of Animal Crossing.)

The driver, whatever it will be, can’t be anything trivial, it will need to have some serious stakes, and consequences for not taking the path. Admittedly, not being able to order a drink is pretty damned trivial, but the driver – COVID – has proven to be nasty. So more than likely, whatever comes to change our opinion will be significant.

Of course, I could be just blowing this all up, and we could get another Steve Jobs come along and dazzle us with some dohickey that makes it all magically happen for only $799 and comes in rose gold. Maybe. But I wouldn’t want to bet on that.