Metaverse Is The Future! Well, Not So Fast Mr. Zuckerberg. Research Says Otherwise!
Of late, there has been a surprising amount of talk about the future of our digital experiences resting on the concept of the Metaverse. This was brought to a recent apogee by the renaming of FaceBook to META, and the extensive presentation of Mark Zuckerberg’s vision of the META version of the Metaverse. The Zuckerberg vision was followed in lockstep by a similar metaverse concept proffered by Microsoft known as MESH for Teams. Apparently, both Microsoft and Mr. Zuckerberg believe that metaverse systems will constitute the future of digital interfaces for the vast majority of humans. Well, not so fast, research suggests otherwise.
The Underlying Data And Research
The following analysis is based on extensive user experience research conducted in metaverse virtual worlds, extending over a period of several years. The research examined the virtual-world and real-world behaviors of roughly a million individuals as they registered for, navigated through, purchased in, and fled from a series of robust metaverse systems. The research was based, in part, on instantaneous tracking of avatar behavior across several virtual-world properties, collecting terabits of data, and subjecting such data to advanced statistical analysis. I point out that the virtual worlds examined did not vary in any meaningful way compared to that proffered by Mr. Zuckerberg in his recent vision for the META metaverse. What we learned from this research is that the current concept of the metaverse as constituting the future of digital engagement with our world is a fallacy. Let’s start at the top.
Metaverse Technology Allows META (Facebook) To Track EVERYTHING About Your Behavior at ALL TIMES When In The Metaverse.
For anyone involved in metaverse development, it is easy to understand instantly the staggering attraction that the metaverse has to META / Facebook. Should Mr. Zuckerberg be able to actually deliver at scale a viable metaverse, his ability to track your behavior improves on a level unimagined. Specifically, a metaverse designed by META virtually eliminates META’s biggest current business problem, which is tracking user behavior for the purpose of optimizing revenue-generating data. For those who may not understand the underlying technology behind a metaverse world, a simple statement applies: In the metaverse, the company can track EVERYTHING you do in a way that makes current online behavior tracking look like child’s play. In this regard, perhaps the META / Facebook concept is really a thinly veiled mechanism for finally having a complete understanding of your online behavior linked to your real-world behavior.
For Example, Consider This:
In the META metaverse, Facebook will be able to track everything you do with truly staggering precision and depth. We are talking about full behavior tracking at a sub-second level. For example, the metaverse software can provide META with highly accurate eye tracking of your Avatar as it navigates the virtual world. With this data, they can understand what you find visually salient, how long you look at that content, how you scanned the content and in what order, your return fixations, your total time to the first fixation, how much you read or viewed the content, and what you looked at just before and just after. This data can be aggregated into your in-world behavior profile that includes every step you take, every turn you make, every stop initiate, where you contemplate, every store you visit, every product you look at, from what view you look at that product, for how long, and who else on your friend’s list wears the same virtual brands. It can instantly capture every text message you send and receive and every virtual product you purchase. It can tell META where the other avatars you communicate with are at any time and what they are doing that is statistically relevant and useful. It can use this data to build your metaverse behavior profile that it sells to advertisers and others who wish to impact your behavior in ways that drive purchases and other even more important forms of decision-making. This is only half of it.
Emotional Connections Tracked and Monetized Across Platforms
By linking your metaverse behavior to your real-world behavior, it is possible to push products and services across both your real-world and meta-world with unprecedented frequency and focus. This linked behavior tracking will provide META with a vast treasure trove of data on which to track and impact your behavior across a wide range of categories, including friend selection, social status, spending, political participation, personal and family communications, and MANY other domains. In summary, the structure of the metaverse technology is first and foremost behavior tracking on steroids. They are totally new functions that exceed anything available before.
Should you utilize a highly attractive and functional real-time video communications feature, you will allow META the use of micro facial expression data, which basically captures your emotional response on up to 29 emotional measures as you engage with the vast expanse of metaverse user experiences. This means that META will have the ability to instantly capture and save to META data warehouses your real-world emotional state and response to all manner of in-world stimuli. Nothing like this has ever reached scale in the history of the internet, much less society in the real world. This is another way of saying your avatar is really nothing more than a means by which META can track your EVERY move…with no holds barred…full stop…your avatar’s behavior belongs to META and there is no place to hide. There is more…much more.
The Relationship That Real Users Have With Their Virtual World Avatar(s) is Exceedingly Complex and Subject To Serious Ethical Concerns
In one large study we conducted on metaverse systems, we examined the detailed psychological binding between real-world users and their metaverse avatars, which they created during the registration process and continued to manipulate and modify over their period of engagement with the system. A number of surprising insights surfaced that impact engagement with a metaverse system, regardless of business objectives. One of the most interesting findings was that a surprisingly significant percentage of users who move to the level of deep engagement within the metaverse become highly bound both psychologically and physically to their avatars. Users in this category of avatar engagement feel deep emotions when manipulating their avatars in a virtual world. They experience a sense of loss, wanting and social acceptance, and even social rejection by other avatars. In a surprising way, real-world users care a great deal about their avatar’s physical appearance in the virtual world and will go to great lengths to create a visual impression that they feel is aligned with their needs, expectations, and desired social impression.
Who Are We In The Metaverse?
In the metaverse, individuals utilize the look of their avatars to deliver both deception and confusion to others. When users create and manipulate their avatars they frequently change race, sex, and body type compared to their real-world embodiment. Many users will purchase, using real money, avatar clothes, accessories, hair designs, hats, eyeglasses, shoes, handbags, and all manner of other fashion accessories, in order to build their repertoire of visual impressions in the metaverse. They will purchase apartments with extensive closets in which to store purchased fashion items. They will purchase automobiles, bikes, scooters, trucks, or strange hybrid vehicles, which they use to traverse the metaverse. A certain percentage of users who progress to deep engagement will change their outfits multiple times a day based on where they are going in the virtual world or who they are likely to meet. Some avatars will engage in highly addictive buying behaviors, purchasing massive amounts of items to improve and/or alter the look and appeal of their avatars. Real-world fashion trends migrate to the metaverse for such individuals…Think of an $8,000 virtual Chanel Bag for your virtual avatar, which mimics your real-world desires. Because metaverse technology allows individuals to develop and adopt many different physical avatar forms, including assuming the presence of humans, robots, animals, aliens, and many strange and sometimes threatening versions of all these creatures, it is common for individuals to routinely adopt the implied behavior of their synthetic avatars based on what they are engaging in at any specific time in-world. To look aggressive in-world often results in being aggressive to other avatars.
Real Money For Virtual Cans of Soda
In one large study, we discovered that avatars will in fact purchase virtual-world products that are exact copies of real-world products. When we tested whether or not individuals would use their real credit cards to purchase a virtual, brand name soft drink, we were stunned to see that many avatars would do so, and in fact, they were asking for recycling bins in their apartments for the empty soda cans. When we executed another study on avatar purchase behavior, we learned that purchasing a virtual world soda or other junk food items impacted the individual’s purchase behaviors of the real-world version of those same products. This finding was not lost on major consumer brands that wish to dominate yet another advertising funnel for brand expansion and profit generation. These same types of brand transfers across platforms have been thought of as the holy grail of product marketing and brand management. The metaverse provides an unprecedented opportunity to achieve high levels of purchase behavior transfer due to the psychological and physical binding between the real human and their virtual avatar. This is uncharted behavior formation for which we have no peer-reviewed and validated research.
Metaverse vs. Addictive Engagement
All of these insights suggest that, for a certain percentage of metaverse users, their avatar assumes truly frightening levels of importance in their lives that can result in addictive behaviors likely never seen before in any online engagement system, other than possibly competitive video gaming. But the metaverse avatar engagement is potentially far more complex and damaging than gaming because the metaverse offers a different life that is subject to behavior tracking across a massive number of synthetic life events. Even the most aggressive and addictive video gaming system pales in comparison to the vision put forth by Mr. Zuckerberg when it comes to enhancing the psychological and physical binding between one’s real-world self-image and their in-world avatar. This is an exceedingly complex real problem that suggests we may be creating another dimension to our real-world ego, described here as the MetaEgo. Such a transformation can be manipulated in ways beyond troubling.
Metaverse Design Attributes Appeal to Children and Adolescents
One of the most troubling findings from our research was that the ability to manipulate one’s behavior through avatar creation combined with the visual design of the metaverse has an outsized attraction to young users, including children. This attraction is taking place at exactly the point in their development when they are struggling to build a coherent view of who they are and what behaviors reflect appropriate socialization and friendship creation. The impact on developing minds and bodies makes the current problem with Instagram look like child’s play. Yet, it is unlikely that such insights will find their way into the decision-making of those who develop metaverse systems, including META itself. It is very likely that acquiring a young virtual mind will be far less costly and more enduring over time. Will a child developing in such a synthetic world form a mental model of their real world embodiment or their virtual-world avatar…or some conflicting and complex combination of both? This makes the current impact of Facebook on adolescent development seem trivial by comparison. This does not sound like a good outcome if business performance is the driving mechanism for the META metaverse that at its core appeals to the young mind.
Tracking and Managing Avatar Abusive Behavior is Exceedingly Complex
In some cases, users will manipulate their avatars in ways that are both physically and verbally abusive to others in the virtual world, including well-understood forms of bullying behavior. They will undertake behaviors in the metaverse that they would never consider appropriate in the real world. Such behaviors can range from mildly aberrant to dangerously abusive, in some cases transferring to the real world. An especially troubling form of abusive behavior is virtual stalking, which is exactly what it sounds like. However, this type of behavior is very difficult to track and manage because movement in the virtual world is complex to structure in terms of proximity to others and whether or not such behavior is positive or damaging. Depending on how the user has identified themselves in the metaverse, aggressive and abusive behavior can become pro forma for their interactions in the virtual world. This leads to engagement and in-world behaviors that can be troubling and highly threatening to others. But imagine if you will how META or any other metaverse will manage avatar abusive behaviors This is an entirely different problem given that the palette of what constitutes abuse in a virtual world far exceeds anything seen in current online systems, which are based on text and image tracking of known abusive communications packets. Imagine now those who develop and manage the metaverse have to track not only verbal exchanges but all other important aspects of human behavior that can be undertaken in an actual simulated 3D world. The problem of abuse tracking and management may be the defining challenge of metaverse systems in the future. In this regard, the metaverse future is not what it used to be. This may be the first time for META/Facebook that scale does not solve all problems.
Staggering Early Adoption Drop Off Rates
All online platforms have to deal with user adoption drop-off rates, but in a metaverse, such rates are often staggering compared to other forms of social media platform adoption and engagement. In our research, over 90% of individuals who came to a metaverse for the first time, registered and attempted to create a basic understanding and operational fluency of the in-world experience, never returned even once. The reason for such abysmal initial adoption rates is that, regardless of first impression, the entry point for productive engagement with core functions is far more complex to achieve than anyone originally thought.
In this regard, virtual worlds promise simplicity but deliver complexity. This means that the First User Experience (FUE) is far more complex to create and manage than those employed in traditional web-based engagement frameworks. Even when we ran robust simulated enhancements based on detailed research, we were only able to boost initial adoption by a few percentage points. These findings mean simply that one must push vast numbers of potential users into the top of the funnel in order to ensure a workable engagement level. The cost of such effort is well understood to be massive, even for the likes of META/Facebook. This says nothing about the number of potential users lost to the system, who cannot be reacquired later, even at a greater cost.
Virtual World Usability Optimization Is Far More Complex Than Assumed, Requiring In-world User Instructional Systems to Support Deeper Engagement and Reach Scale
Regardless of the initial visual impression that a metaverse environment is simple to interact with due to the use of simulated real-world elements, it turns out that the primary interactive interface is wildly impoverished in terms of stimulus quality and flow. When UX designers create metaverse interaction frameworks, they must rely on interface devices and methods that allow the user to navigate and interact with others in the virtual world. These types of devices, including computer pointing devices, VR headsets, keyboards, 3D trackers, voice interfaces, and all manner of other NEW hardware interfaces, place a new level of operational complexity between the user and their ability to productively and easily flow about in the metaverse. Along with these new and existing control devices are visual presentation methods that do not objectively take into account the visual processing limitations of the user, including vestibular adherence and balance. In other words, UX designers routinely create entirely new interaction frameworks that have nothing to do with how the user assumes the system should operate given their real-world experience. This is known in human factors science as “mental model mismatch” or “negative transfer”.
Negative Learning Transfer and The Use of Unplanned Pop-ups
Users expect a virtual world to behave like the real world, when in fact, they never do align in a way that results in positive learning transfer. This problem of negative learning transfer from the real-world to the virtual world metaverse is a massive and non-trivial usability problem, leading to the need for far more robust in-world training systems, which are never accounted for in the initial metaverse UX design. This creates a massive and interesting dichotomy for those who create metaverse UX solutions. As major usability problems surface from interaction with the metaverse, UX designers are left with only one solution: They insert instructional pop-ups which disrupt the flow of the user experience and degrade engagement. The more real the virtual world looks, the greater the users’ expectations that the virtual world interactions will transfer from the real world! The reason for this is based on the science of skill acquisition and the concept of positive and negative learning transfer.
Avatar Manipulation Rapidly Becomes Frustrating and Lacks the Required Fluidity to Drive Deep Engagement
The entry point for achieving productive engagement with the metaverse is first-person avatar navigation and manipulation. Users either assume first-person visual orientation or view themselves through their avatar’s location viewpoint, which can be over the shoulder or other views. These views lead to a complex set of frustrations on the part of users as they attempt to manipulate their avatars inside the virtual world. Again, our primary research finding revealed that users expect their virtual world avatar to behave with similar fluidity, purpose, response time, and resolution as their real-world behaviors. Yet, given the nature of the interface control devices noted above, it is instantly clear to users that manipulation of their avatar is at best attenuated, awkward and clumsy, which leads rapidly to outright frustration and degrading engagement. This has been described by users in our research as feeling like their avatar is made of concrete. Manipulation of one’s avatar never approaches the automaticity found in human gait or whole-body movement. It does not resemble our ability to engage the fine motor control systems or our ability to interface with hand-held objects of all types. In fact, the virtual worlds proffered by META and Microsoft are overwhelmingly whole-body-centric and ignore entire control frameworks that allow avatar manipulation at the fine motor control level. It is interesting to note that manipulation of the environment through engagement with hand-held devices is an area of human productivity that has driven our evolutionary development. Without such capability, no virtual world will ever achieve large-scale adoption and routine deep engagement. This is another way of saying that pushing a concrete avatar around a virtual world is not going to happen, when the real world offers far more opportunity for productive engagement with our surroundings.
The Lack of Environmental Richness Leads To Rapid Decline in Utilization
While one’s first impression of a typical metaverse environment can be interesting, it is vital to understand that, when compared to the real world we inhabit, the metaspace is a highly impoverished environment in terms of visual richness and salient details. What we mean by this is that much of the typical metaverse environment is based on solid modeling of planar surfaces, which are manipulated in near real-time by software to give the impression of visual and conceptual richness. However, there is a serious limitation in how much surface rendering can be undertaken in a typical metaverse, while still maintaining reasonable response time, a critical factor in giving an impression of interface flow. One can see this in the fireplace burning behind Mark Zuckerberg in the opening scene of his recent video. The flames are, at best, simple approximations of what one experiences in the real world. Taken as one element in a virtual world, this would not be a problem, but that is not the case.
In order for the metaverse world to actually work on the RANGE of users’ computers, the visual structure of the metaverse must be simplified graphically so that many objects lack a visual richness, including proper shading, reflected light, detailed textures, subtle motions, and other visual cues that make the real-world visually robust and information-rich. Users of virtual worlds do not explicitly articulate this as a problem, but instead, describe their longitudinal experience with metaverse environments as boring and lacking a sense of LIFE. When one decomposes such statements in interviews, it is clear that the lack of visual environmental richness is at the root of what users are saying. This complaint is common among those who dramatically reduce or entirely eliminate the use of metaverse systems. This problem is not going away anytime soon because reaching the level of scale that META is talking about (a billion users) demands the design of a metaverse that runs on a very wide range of user hardware platforms, internet connection speeds, and input devices. It is one thing to produce a visually robust presentation, but something entirely different to create a robust experience for users with less than optimized IT setups…of which there are billions.
About 2% of The User Base Drives 90% of Deep Engagement and E-Com Purchases
In the end, our research showed the most troubling factor to be the staggering drop-off rate in avatar participation across all virtual worlds tested. In fact, we saw consistently that about 2% of the user base that reached deeper levels of metaverse engagement accounted for over 90% of the in-world purchases. This very small group also accounted for a very large percentage of distance traveled, verbal exchanges, new venues visited, clothes changes, new friend requests, products purchased, reports of abusive behavior, and willingness to continue to engage with the metaverse. This means simply that one can spend billions of dollars on a robust metaverse without realizing a workable or profitable level of in-world engagement measured purely by SCALE. One can argue that better technology will improve the likelihood of deeper engagement, and the power of scale will drive a new business model for a META metaverse. However, one is still stuck with the problem of how to make such systems viable on the vast majority of impoverished computer hardware and software the world over. This does not sound like a winning recipe for the future of any business unless you are selling virtual soda.
Author: Charles L. Mauro CHFP / President / Founder / Mauro Usability Science (1975-Present) / LinkedIn Condensed Expertise Profile
Other articles of Interest: The Human Factors Science Behind The 737MAX MCAS Problem and Why The MAX Should Be Scrapped.
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