I just spent half an hour in a room full of people without pants. I didn’t put any either. I thought I might need pants because we were going sledding, but it turns out they’re not essential.
No, it wasn’t the real world. It was the Metaverse, the online world created by Facebook that you visit with your virtual reality headset. Got one for Christmas, and I’m here to recount what it’s like to bump into furniture and talk to strangers without pants.
There was an appreciation for art. I went to the National Gallery in London. You find yourself floating around the room, about 3 feet off the ground, which closely replicates the real-life experience of going to the museum with large helium balloons strapped to your body. However, you cannot walk through the galleries. You point and click and are thrown across the room to land in front of a painting. You can’t read small signs, so you miss things like this:
“The Stripping of Saint Ajax. 1673, Raphaelonini the Minor. In this depiction of the saint’s martyrdom, the artist has placed his subject in a Renaissance palace, where the artist’s patron, Giovanni Di Micodi, is seen , looking at the viewer, as if to say “Hey, it’s in the Bible. There’s nothing I can do about it.” On loan from the Fritz Foundation, though we think they’ve forgotten about it because no one has said anything in decades.”
Also, everything was a bit blurry, so it’s like saying, “Wait, before I go to the museum, I want to find the glasses I wore five years ago.”
There were games. The first thing I did was play something that helps you overcome your fear of heights. In fact, I’m not afraid of heights, unless I’m standing in a three-foot gap on top of an 80-story building and the wind is blowing. Unfortunately, this game puts you in a three-foot gap on top of an 80-story building and the wind blows.
I froze. I didn’t want to overcome my fear of heights because fear seemed an eminently reasonable reaction to this experience. I stabbed the EXIT button, my virtual house gathered around me, and I was safe. I sat down on my chair; or, at least, tried to sit down. I missed the chair and hit the ground, which made me think there’s probably a game in overcoming your fear of slipping on the pavement and shooting shards from your tailbone into your esophagus. I have to check that one.
There was a social aspect. The Metaverse is billed as a place where people can meet and chat, or attend concerts and other performances together. First, you teleport to a room where you check your appearance in a mirror. I had built a digital self that looked exactly like me, right down to the tall, muscular build and stout hair. (Cough)
But no pants. No legs, by the way. In the metaverse, your body stops around your belt line and everyone floats. Maybe in the future you can pay for legs, and I’m sure people will; customization is everything, and people will pay real money to be able to buy fancy shoes that don’t, in fact, exist. I’m sure Nike is setting up coding facilities in China to make the digital shoes.
When I walked into the main hall, there were half a dozen legless people walking around, trying to interact with other torsos. Everyone had the same blank cartoon smile. I headed to the comedy club, where a stand-up—a real person, thrown against a brick wall—was telling lame jokes.
Then I heard a voice behind me: “I’m in a comedy club, I think. Is it live?”
Everyone in the room turned around. There was a woman’s torso chatting to someone somewhere, unaware that we could hear her. Everyone in the room did the “shh!” thing, finger to lips. It didn’t matter. She continued to chatter, no one could hear the comedian, then she disappeared in a sparkling beam of light.
And there were movies. It was the best. Amazon Prime’s VR Movie setting drops you in a cinema, where you watch the movie on a virtual screen. It’s the closest thing to a real experience in the whole VR world. I enjoyed an old movie. When it was over, the lights came back on. I looked right, then left – there was no one else. Someone to talk to about the movie. Just me with this hot, hard, heavy thing on my head.
Do you know how it feels when you leave the movie theater and step back into the real world? There’s a lingering sense of euphoria, if the movie was any good. You feel like the real world you inhabit is somehow better, richer, for what you just experienced. Of course, it fades, quickly. But when the movie is over in the Metaverse and you take off your headphones and find yourself sitting alone in your real room, the feeling is different. It’s something akin to shame.
Why? Because the experience was so close to reality, and you liked it, and you know it will get better, and eventually everyone will stay home and look at fake worlds through their glasses, and the public sphere will fade, and you helped it happen.
Apple is working on its own set and has said no to any version of the Metaverse. Typical Apple: It’ll cost five times as much and do less. But I will be on the front line.