Let’s Meet in the Metaverse
I really wasn’t expecting to write about the Metaverse again so soon, after discussing it in the context of Roblox last March, which itself followed a look at Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney’s vision for the Metaverse last August. But darn that Mark Zuckerberg!
Not many noticed when Mr. Zuckerberg told Facebook employees in June that the company would become focused on building a metaverse, but he got some attention when he expanded on his vision for The Verge in late July. Then last Monday Andrew Bosworth, Facebook’s head of AR/VR, confirmed a product group had been formed to bring it about. And, finally, in an earnings call last Wednesday, Mr. Zuckerberg and his executive team couldn’t stop gushing about the importance of the metaverse to the company, and the world.
So, yeah, the metaverse is in the news. And, once again, I worry healthcare is going to be late to the party.
I won’t go into too much detail about what the metaverse is; for those who want a deep dive, there’s Matthew Ball’s nine part primer, or you could just read Ready Player One. Mr. Zuckerberg described it to The Verge as follows: “you can think about the metaverse as an embodied internet, where instead of just viewing content — you are in it.” In the earnings call, he clarified: “The defining quality of the metaverse is presence — which is this feeling that you’re really there with another person or in another place.”
Depending on your age/preferences, the concept of “an embodied internet” is either chilling or thrilling. Maybe both.
It’s potentially a big deal. Gene Marks, writing in Forbes, says, “business interactions will forever change.” The Conversation’s Beth Daley goes further, stating “creating a virtual world for users to interact with their friends and family is not just a fancy vision, it is a commercial necessity.”
It’s not VR, it’s not AR, it’s not 3D internet, although all those may be part of it. It’s not gaming, it’s not entertainment, it’s not social network, although all of those will be part of it too. Mr. Zuckerberg promises: “It’s going to be accessible across all of our different computing platforms; VR and AR, but also PC, and also mobile devices and game consoles.” Not to overstate it, but he sees the Metaverse as the “next generation of the internet.” Mr. Zuckerberg also described it as “the next computing platform.”
He is openly telling people that the goal is for Facebook to transition to a metaverse company, “within the next five years or so.” Analysts on the earnings call pressed Facebook to confirm an estimate of a $5b investment, but only got an admission that, yes, the investment was “billions.”
Significantly, for Facebook, Mr. Zuckerberg believes: “this is going to be not something that one company builds alone, but I think it is going to be a whole ecosystem that needs to develop.” As Mr. Zuckerberg said in The Verge interview, “Hopefully in the future, asking if a company is building a metaverse will sound as ridiculous as asking a company how their internet is going.”
This will require interoperability; “People are going to want to reach the people they care about no matter what service they’re on and be able to move between these.” In other words, “it has to have the sense of interoperability and portability.” These are not the kind of sentiments words we’re used to hearing from Facebook.
Nobody, not even Mr. Zuckerberg, thinks we’re going to see a metaverse right away — perhaps five years, maybe ten, possibly more — and no one is really sure where the money will be. It may become a “huge economy,” with “entirely new types of work” and plenty of virtual goods, as Mr. Zuckerberg predicts, but, admittedly, the concept is still not well defined. The Next Web warns: “The hype train has arrived.”
That article, by Thomas Macaulay, goes on to add:
There is some merit to the hype. Technological advances in fields like VR and AI are rapidly making virtual worlds more immersive and layered. Their escapist appeal has also grown during pandemic restrictions.
In the short term, however, buzzwords rarely live up to the hype. But once the underlying tech matures, effective strategies develop, and realistic objectives emerge? It has the potential to be truly transformational. Just don’t expect it to happen overnight.
Tech companies, you see, are deathly afraid of missing “the next big thing.” They’ve been the beneficiaries of previous next big things, and they know both how fragile their perch is and how quickly a newcomer can ride that next wave past them. Just ask AOL, MySpace, Netscape, Kodak, Nokia, or Wang, to name a few.
Microsoft famously was late to realize the importance of the Internet, Google was flummoxed by the introduction of the iPhone, Facebook didn’t take mobile seriously enough initially, and Apple is still well behind its peers in cloud computing. Each survived, even prospered, but none wants to miss the metaverse too.
Not so much in healthcare, though. The incumbents just keep rolling along. For all the adoption of EHRs, they still are not living up to the promise of better care and shared data. For all the ballyhooed gains of telehealth during the pandemic, they’re already starting to dissipate. For all the investment in digital health, there’s no real sign that it saves money or improves health. Healthcare takes new technologies and kludges them into submission.
Let’s face it: healthcare was late to computers (well, at least to PCs). It was late to the internet. It was late to mobile. It still doesn’t understand the importance of social media or gaming. It isn’t even thinking about the metaverse.
I don’t know what health care might be in the metaverse. I doubt anyone does. But, for example:
· Your digital twin could see your doctor’s avatar (or an A.I. doctor!), for a virtual in-person visit;
· You could connect with others with similar conditions/interest in a much more personal and robust way than Zoom or Facebook allow;
· You could immersively educate yourself about health (and other) topics of interest.
More importantly, new uses will be found as people get used to the technology, just as we found new uses for smartphones and the internet as more people started using them. This will happen in health care too.
Ignore it at your own risk.