For a few years seemingly everyone thought 3D television would become the next big thing. Networks raced to create 3D programming and while it all looked cool, it turned out that two dimensions were plenty for most people and 3D television essentially disappeared.
You can make a next big thing argument for 3D printing, smart homes, voice assistants, and a few other things. All of those exist, but they’re largely niche products. Now, Mark Zuckerberg, creator of Facebook and CEO of what’s now called Meta Platforms (META) has bet a big piece of his company’s future that people want to be in the metaverse.
This has been followed by a lot of retail brands and fast-food chains creating metaverse properties. The problem is that a virtual world can solve some real problems — a meeting in a virtual boardroom might be a better experience than a Zoom meeting — but the metaverse is not a better way to get a coupon for a Wendy’s value meal.
Non-fungible tokens (NFTs) have followed a similar path. A lot of companies have jumped on board and major sports leagues and a lot of major entertainment players see digital collectibles as a revenue source. But, people actually may want to want to own physical collectibles as actually buying an NFT sort of feels a lot like buying nothing.
Real Might Be Better Than Digital
Meta and the other companies working on practical metaverse solutions may actually solve some problems and create some valid uses. A doctor, for example, might be able to take part in a complex surgery without actually being there and the job interview process may take advantage of something that’s more personal than a video call, but less expensive than flying candidates in.
For actual human interaction, however, it seems possible (maybe even likely) that people want actual in-person experiences. Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, and social media in general are generally built on people actually doing stuff.
You can’t really post a video of yourself eating virtual ghost peppers or at a digital enviable location. Much of social media is “look at me,” and well, you actually have to be doing something for people to want to look.
NFTs are similar. We can call them original and collectible, but isn’t the point of owning a collectible being able to show it off? Yes, there’s the possibility of an NFT going up in value, but whether its baseball cards, Beanie Babies, pogs, Pokemon cards, record albums, or anything similar the market was generally short-lived.
Both McDonald’s (MCD) and Wendy’s (WEN) have spent considerable money on creating a presence in the Metaverse. The problem — and it’s a really big one — is that you can’t actually eat in a virtual world. That’s the core value offered by fast-food chains. You give them money and they feed you.
Some percentage of their customers might want to battle Hamburglar for a discount on a Happy Meal or make virtual baked potatoes in a pretend Wendy’s but that audience seems like it would be pretty small. Both the Metaverse and the NFTs have logical uses. Taylor Swift fans will probably buy an NFT tied to her new album if it offers exclusive content or an edge in buying concert tickets, but most NFTs are probably not that.
Most collectibles make sense to own if you get more joy from owning the item than what it cost to buy. That’s not a calculation that’s easy to quantify, but in most cases,
“I’ll sell this later for more than I paid for it,” is a really bad reason to buy most things.
When a company that’s not a tech company says it’s creating a metaverse property, I question whether management is simply chasing the next squirrel. Zuckerberg may be right or he might just be building the product that he thinks people will want. He was, of course, very right about that with Facebook, but not every sequel is a hit.
Zuck might have his own “Empire Strikes Back” or “Rocky II,” the metaverse feels a lot like he’s betting a lot on “Speed 2: Cruise Control,” “Next Karate Kid,” or even the truly lamentable “Blues Brothers 2000.”