Virtual and augmented reality are the key technologies to enabling an immersive metaverse. They are still a work in progress, but Facebook is moving the ball forward. Oculus, which has focused mainly on the videogame market so far, sold nearly 3.5 million VR headsets last year—more than double its level from last year, according to estimates from IDC. That was credited mostly to the success of the new Quest 2 headset that went on sale in October. But VR is still a niche even within gaming. Sales for Oculus headsets since their first launch in 2016 have totaled 9.4 million units through the second quarter, according to IDC. Sony and Nintendo have sold more than 86 million units each of their respective PlayStation and Switch consoles in that time.

But visions for the metaverse go well beyond gaming. Facebook gave a peek of this last week, with an “open beta” test of its Horizon Workrooms— essentially, a virtual reality workspace using its Oculus Quest headsets. Mr. Zuckerberg reportedly dropped into a few demos himself—joining journalists as floating digital avatars without legs. The impetus behind the service after 18 months of pandemic-driven lockdowns seems sensible enough: Working remotely without colleagues can feel isolating, and brainstorming with others doesn’t feel the same if you’re not in the same room.


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But a world through VR also has plenty of drawbacks. For many, the experience can be hot, sweaty, and even nauseating. Even the popular Oculus Quest 2 has drawn complaints for its foam face pad insert that makes users’ faces red and itchy. Real world hair and makeup are frequently compromised. And much like social media itself, there is still ongoing debate as to whether prolonged use of VR is physically safe—especially for children whose eyes are still developing. Plus, there’s simply the weirdness factor for many: The percentage of the population keen to strap a device to their faces in order to interact with cartoon-versions of co-workers and friends is likely limited.

Mostly, though, a virtual world hands even more power to technology giants that many argue have already amassed too much. The last few years have laid bare the dark side to mobile computing and social networking. The contrast to tech executives’ sunny visions of the metaverse with the dystopian take of the source novel are telling: In the book, social status in the metaverse can be enhanced by coding skills, and Snow Crash is something peddled in the metaverse like a drug that can cause brain damage to users. Even while the protagonist is collecting marketable information for money.

Big tech can probably build the metaverse. But consumers will have to think hard about whether they want to be there.

Related Video

The Future of Your Office Is in a VR Headset
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The Future of Your Office Is in a VR Headset
The Future of Your Office Is in a VR Headset
With a virtual-reality headset and a virtual meeting platform like Spatial, you can meet up and collaborate with your colleagues as if you were in a real office space. WSJ’s Joanna Stern transformed into a holographic avatar and got in a virtual elevator to test it out. Photo illustration: Adam Falk

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Appeared in the August 28, 2021, print edition as 'The Real Problems Of the Virtual World.'

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