The metaverse has virtually disappeared. Here's why it's generative AI's fault

Everything's gone quiet when it comes to virtual worlds. But even with the growth of generative AI, you shouldn't give up hope on the metaverse just yet.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor
City in metavere
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If a year is a long time in technology, then two years is practically a lifetime. At the back end of 2021, everyone was talking about the metaverse. Two years later and practically no one is talking about it (except, perhaps, Mark Zuckerberg). So, what went wrong?

One of the big issues is hype. It can be tough to deliver on the massive excitement associated with a new technology. Just ask the people who worked on the blockchain.

Also: 4 ways to detect generative AI hype from reality

In many ways, the metaverse's fall from the front page is just par for the course, says Gartner Director Analyst Samantha Searle to ZDNET.

"It's basically going through the Gartner Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies," she says. "We've had the hype and now we're seeing the reality. The metaverse was capturing people's imagination. But we're still looking for proven use cases that are going to generate value."

Searle's assertion that the metaverse is suffering a familiar fate to other over-hyped technologies is certainly one explanatory factor for the drop in interest in the metaverse. But another huge contributory factor is the rapid rise of artificial intelligence (AI).

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Twelve months after virtual worlds were dominating the news agenda, a new hyped technology -- OpenAI's ChatGPT and a host of similar generative AI tools -- bubbled up and stole the media's attention in late 2022. Those who had a dabble found something out quickly: Using generative AI is easy.

Anyone can go online, log in to ChatGPT, and receive instant answers to their questions. From essays to images and onto program code, it's possible to generate content in almost real time.

For most users, these experiences are simple and fun, says Sasha Jory, CIO at Hastings Direct -- and that's a big break from some of the hyped technologies of the not-so-distant past.

"This isn't going to be like blockchain, where it's all hype and then it goes nowhere. Generative AI has got legs because it's democratized. Anyone can use it -- it's everywhere," she says to ZDNET at the London leg of Snowflake's Data Cloud World Tour. "Your youngest kids can get on ChatGPT and use it. Whereas blockchain, for example, was something you needed to be quite highly skilled at to understand."

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Of course, the rapid take up of generative AI isn't the only narrative in this story; there's a whole series of potential concerns, such as hallucinations, plagiarism, and ethics, that need to be dealt with sooner rather than later. But if you want to impress your family and friends with a tool that seems to work like magic, then generative AI is the one.

On the other hand, the metaverse -- just like the blockchain before it -- feels a bit like a rabbit that's stuck in a magician's hat. Entering the metaverse often isn't as easy as its proponents have promised. Most people have still to enter virtual environments. Users who have, including myself, are often left disappointed by the experience delivered by the hardware and software.

Adobe CIO Cynthia Stoddard told ZDNET her company hasn't found the right use case for the metaverse yet. "We've been experimenting with VR headsets," she says, referring to her company's explorations. "We don't have a solid use case for our business as yet. But I think the headsets have a real application in some verticals, because in the past, I came from transportation and logistics, and I can see a lot of applications in different verticals."

That's a sentiment that resonates with Gartner's Searle, who says it's important not to give up hope just yet. "We do see a lot of potential use cases for the metaverse," she says. She says financial services firms are often keen to explore how the technology can be used to deliver customer services.

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Searle refers to JP Morgan, who bet big on the metaverse being a trillion-dollar opportunity and opened the first bank in a virtual world. But even in finance, some organizations are taking a more cautious approach.

"I think the metaverse isn't something that's an immediate priority," says Kavin Mistry, head of digital marketing and personalization at TSB Bank, said to ZDNET. "I do see value in metaverse-type technology, but I think it probably needs to mature, so we can understand the correct way to make it real for customers. And I don't think the market is mature enough yet to make an informed decision about the right way to go."

Gartner's Searle also recognizes that the point of maturity for the metaverse is still some way off. "We know with some of the underlying immersive technologies that there are still things to be addressed in terms of form factor and being comfortable," she says.

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From using headsets to creating life-like avatars and building enjoyable virtual environments, Searle says there's a lot of construction work that needs to be finished. However, these building sites could still lead to some exciting developments, especially given that tech giant Apple has started to show an interest in the area. 

What's more, recruiter Nash Squared's recent IT leadership report revealed that 26% of digital leaders are at least actively considering the metaverse.

Bev White, CEO at Nash Squared, said in an interview with ZDNET that more organizations are beginning to think about how virtual worlds present a new business opportunity.

"It's definitely alive and kicking," she says. "The metaverse provides a fantastic opportunity to run your business in a way that interacts with your customer base very differently. It actually creates a whole new platform because customers can pick things up, look at them, and experience them."

That's an approach that chimes with Lalo Luna, global head of strategy and insights at Heineken, who says his firm has been busy exploring virtual worlds.

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"One of the main projects that I led during the past 12 months was about understanding the future of socializing -- we were understanding how technology is going to take a role in social spaces. And, of course, the metaverse is going to be one of these things." He told ZDNET that perspective is crucial -- the metaverse isn't going to be built overnight.

Just as generative AI is the visible manifestation of years of research and development work, Luna expects the importance of virtual worlds to grow during the rest of this decade. And he says smart professionals are already exploring how to put a stake in the ground.

"Heineken was one of the first brewers that opened a bar and a brewery in the metaverse. We are really taking these developments very seriously -- we are trying to be where we need to be," he says. "Of course, we are exploring, we are in an experimentation phase. Some of our big brands are really into technology. They are jumping fast into different kinds of platforms, and not just the metaverse. Heineken as a company has a curious and experimental mind -- and I think that's crucial to success."

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