This Is life in the Metaverse

Facebook parent Meta is spending billions of dollars each year to build what it sees as the next evolution of social computing. New York Times technology reporter Kashmir Hill spent two months in this immersive, three-dimensional world to find out why



By Kashmir Hill

Published: Thu 3 Nov 2022, 10:48 AM

My two young daughters are both crying as I tell my husband that he’s on his own because I’m going to the metaverse. Shutting myself in my home office at 7 pm on a Friday, I put on Meta’s $399 virtual-reality headset: the Quest 2, a bulky, white visor loaded with all manner of cameras, microphones, speakers, eye displays and sensors.

When I power it up, the cries of “I want Mama to do bedtime” fade away, replaced by the sounds of a gentle breeze and birds chirping. I am transported to a mountainside villa. I turn my head to gaze at a distant river and a golden sky dotted with hot-air balloons. This breathtaking spot (which I can change, like desktop wallpaper) is a glorified lobby, where I choose an app to load.

I could meditate, cardio box or kill zombies, but I am here for Horizon Worlds, Meta’s VR-based social network, where at least 300,000 people hang out as cartoon versions of themselves, building virtual mansions, nightclubs, gardens and theatres — known as worlds.

I choose a world with a four-story comedy club under a starry sky. When I enter, a man in a grey hoodie comes up to me. “Hello,” I say. He stares at me in reply, so I float away.

A baseball-capped avatar takes the stage and picks up the mic. “Want to hear a story about my school?” he asks in a youthful voice that suggests a tale of sixth-grade woes. “I do not want to hear this,” says someone who sounds as though he’s standing to my left, though I’m alone in my office.

Horizon is “Meta’s universe in the metaverse,” said Vishal Shah, the executive in charge of “the spatial co-present version of the internet” that the company formerly known as Facebook has staked its future on. Meta has an impressive track record, fundamentally changing the way its nearly 3 billion users socialise, share information and waste time.

Meta is estimated to have sold nearly 15 million metaverse-enabled headsets, and yet people remain sceptical of an immersive internet. Since Mark Zuckerberg, the chief executive, announced last year that he planned to spend billions of dollars bringing the metaverse to the masses, the company’s stock price has plummeted.

There is no shortage of sceptics mocking Meta’s plans, but how many of them have actually experienced the metaverse? I decided to try it out, defining, for my purposes, the metaverse as Horizon, Meta’s virtual platform for events, business meetings and user-constructed spaces.

My goal was to visit at every hour of the day and night, all 24 of them at least once, to learn the ebbs and flows of Horizon and to meet the metaverse’s earliest adopters. I gave up television, books and a lot of sleep over the past few months to spend dozens of hours as an animated, floating, legless version of myself.

I wanted to understand who was currently there and why, and whether the rest of us would ever want to join them.

One Saturday morning, my dog woke me up at a painfully early hour, whimpering to go outside. The rest of the family was sound asleep, so I pulled my headset on with hands that were out-of-control itchy thanks to a poisonous plant I had touched while weeding in the real-verse.

I travelled to the Plaza, the social network’s brightly coloured, central gathering place, where one can shoot hoops on a basketball court, climb treehouses, throw paper aeroplanes and play a floor piano’s rainbow keys — somewhat odd options for an app supposedly reserved for those 18 and older.

Perhaps because I am not a gamer, the first thing that always struck me as I travelled from world to world in Horizon was the sound of other people: a child complaining about being made to eat, say, or someone coughing, which made me flinch even though the real-world germs were very far away.

I moved around using a joystick on my hand controller. The first time I did this, I got motion sick and nearly fell over. I quickly realised that the metaverse was, with the exception of its games and exercise apps, best experienced sitting down.

I chatted with some Brits who had only just been able to join Horizon. Meta released the social network in the United States and Canada last December and is slowly rolling it out to the rest of the world, much as Facebook did with college campuses in its early days. I met Shy Boogie, a gregarious single mum from Southern California, who was part of a big tribe in Horizon: parents who had once enjoyed going out but were now stuck at home with young kids.

Shy Boogie got her headset in January and now visits Horizon regularly, where, she says, she’s met “cool people.” The only problem, she added, is the number of children who show up disrupting her time with other adults. As we spoke, avatars with childish voices kept interrupting us. “I’m using my mum’s headset,” one volunteered.

Shy Boogie kept making other users uncomfortable by asking for too many details about their real-world lives.

“Where you from?” she said to a mustachioed 17-year-old in a suit.

“Oregon,” he said, after a pause.

“Yeah, but what town?” she pressed.

Meta forces Horizon users to design avatars that look like real people — no giant bananas or huge robots — and many people choose to look as they do in real life, but pseudonymity is still part of the appeal.

I, however, did use my real name and told people that I was a New York Times reporter who was recording my experience with a tool built into my headset. This POV camera was a little creepy, because it didn’t notify others when it was turned on. When I revealed I was recording, people would sometimes shout, “She’s a fed!” and run away.

When Shy Boogie floated off for a private tête-à-tête with a male avatar who’d been flirting with her, I realised that my itchiness had disappeared. I knew that virtual reality therapy had been used to treat serious conditions, like trauma and chronic pain. In my case, the metaverse was far more effective than hydrocortisone cream.

Sam Ferrer, 25, an illustrator based in the New York metropolitan area, wears golden, owllike spectacles just like her avatar, Lil Nihilist. She told me that the metaverse had helped her through a difficult time in her life. “If I never picked up a VR headset when I did, I might be dead now,” she said one night in the Plaza.

Ferrer graduated from college at the beginning of the pandemic and moved across the country to where she had no friends. In December 2020, isolated and lonely, she walked into an Amazon 4-Star store and spontaneously bought a Quest 2. She started social networking in virtual reality almost every night, first on the apps AltSpace and vTime before moving to Horizon.

“I like from 1am to 3am,” she said, of when the metaverse is at its peak. She lies under a weighted blanket in her bed, with a snack and a drink, spending hours chatting with friends in Horizon. She plugs her headset into a wall outlet so that the battery doesn’t run out, ending the session when she is too tired to continue.

This pattern is extremely common among the metaverse’s early adopters, who don’t want to be limited to the two hours allowed by the headset’s built-in battery. The World Health Organisation says electromagnetic fields emitted by electronic devices such as smartphones do not pose a health risk. A Meta representative said the headset was safe to use while plugged in.

Though I am not a night owl, and had to significantly alter my sleep schedule to go to the metaverse in the wee hours, that is when I had the most interesting conversations, with artists and technologists from across a wide sweep of time zones. Many of them were there for long hours at a time. A beret-wearing avatar named I Love My Cat expressed concern about how long people wore their headsets. She was a “community guide,” one of the many moderators hired by Meta to hang out in the Plaza, answer questions and enforce the company’s code of conduct. She took a break every hour or so during her eight-hour shift.

“I was talking to someone once who had been on for more than 12 hours,” she told me. “I don’t know how they do it.”

It’s easy to lose track of time in Horizon. Like a casino, there are no clocks on the walls. Ferrer said it was what she did now instead of watching TV or scrolling TikTok.

When my Quest 2 first arrived, I did something I’d never done before: I read a product safety manual in its entirety, or at least from the front to the spot where it moved into French — 40 pages of caution about the pound of machinery I was about to put on my head for many, many hours.

It warned me about possible side effects, including nausea, seizures and blurred vision. It said not to use the headset while under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or while very tired, and it instructed me to set up a “safe play space,” away from walls, furniture, televisions, ceiling fans, stairs and windows, because once a user puts the headset on, it can be easy to forget real-world hazards.

It also said children under the age of 13 shouldn’t use the headset, while those over 13 shouldn’t use it for “prolonged periods,” because it could interfere with “visual development” and hand-eye coordination.

Wearing the headset, I thought I looked like a failed version of the future, but my 5-year-old was captivated. She begged to try my goggles. Eventually, I relented and let her play Bogo, a game in which she cared for a cute baby alien. After a few minutes, I tried to remove the headset, but she liked it so much that she ran away from me — and straight into a wall. (She was fine.)

Despite Meta’s warnings, every time I went into the metaverse, I inevitably ran into children. During one of my first visits to the Plaza, on a Monday afternoon in July, a guy in a grey blazer named Dustin excitedly told me that he had joined Horizon the day before and had spent eight straight hours there. He invited me to play a zombie-shooting game in a shopping mall. When tiny versions of the blocky, green zombies appeared, I exclaimed, “They’re little kids!”

“So am I,” he said, before adding, “Well, not that little.”

Dustin told me that he was 11, squarely in the camp of people whose brains were more threatened by the device than by the undead. As other journalists have discovered, there are tonnes of young people running around Horizon. On the upside for Meta, this means the company finally has a product that appeals to the generation that has largely rejected Instagram and Facebook. Though Horizon is an 18-and-over app, community guides told me that they kicked out only users younger than 13, and only if users explicitly revealed their age.

My headset notified me that its battery was low, and so I bade Dustin and the other players farewell. “Why don’t you plug and play?” one asked. I cringed at hearing a cutesy expression for a behaviour that struck me as unhealthy. I resolved never to plug in my headset while it was attached to my head.

“Too ‘Matrix’ for me,” I joked, and then wondered if the young Dustin would understand the reference to a 1999 science-fiction movie about pale humans encased in goo and plugged into a simulated reality machine.

At 4:30am on a Sunday, during my 20th hour in the metaverse, I got a shock to the system. When I arrived in the Plaza, I saw a group of male avatars playing on the big rainbow piano. A guy in a green flannel shirt cautioned me.

“Don’t go over there,” he said. “They weird, bro. Just trust me.”

So I kept my distance, floating over instead to three people silently shooting hoops.

But then the four men came over and got in my face.

“Damn, what’s up, Kash?” said one with spiked hair and a popped collar. A hairy guy in glasses started slapping me five over and over again, making loud clapping noises. One threw paper aeroplanes at me. They all started jumping and talking at the same time. Two humped each other. It was not exactly threatening, but it was certainly unpleasant.

The metaverse is a new frontier for trolling. One popular YouTuber named Ethan Klein streamed a session last month when he tried to be as sexually explicit as possible while surrounded by kids in the Plaza. (He got kicked out and barred for two hours.)

Meta’s chief technology officer, Andrew Bosworth, has said the company wants “almost Disney levels of safety.” Horizon has user tools designed to deter virtual assaults and threatening behaviour, including a personal boundary that keeps other avatars from getting too close; a “safe mode” that allows a user to escape into a solitary confinement cell; a mute function that can silence another avatar; and a polling function that can gauge whether a group feels a disruptive user should be kicked out.

Meta also asks Horizon users to consent to having their audio recorded. (If they refuse, they can’t talk in Horizon.) Audio is stored on a user’s headset, according to the company, and sent to Meta only if someone files a report, about harassment, for example. Users can be barred for a few hours or even for a month, based on those captured conversations.

Rather than heading into safe mode or filing a report about the guys who surrounded me, I laughed off their behaviour and told them that I was a reporter, recording them (and not just their audio). This had a civilising effect.

Wide-awake after the encounter in the Plaza, I went to the Soapstone Comedy Club, where a woman was stumble-floating around and slurring her words. A guy in a suit and a red, MAGA-style baseball cap was onstage asking if anyone wanted to hear racial or ethnic jokes. The crowd groaned, and his avatar went into sleep mode, potentially booted by a club moderator for violating the house rules against derogatory jokes.

The Soapstone Comedy Club was created by Aaron Sorrels, who goes by the handle Unemployed Alcoholic. After quitting a marketing job to deal with his alcoholism, Sorrels became a comedian. When the pandemic hit, and he could no longer perform stand-up in his home state of Michigan, he was adrift until hearing that Zuckerberg was spending billions on the metaverse.

“This is going to be something, and now is the time to get involved,” Sorrels recalled thinking. He bought three Quest headsets with plans to beam in comedians, but he found more success building a world for amateurs to take the stage.

His club now gets up to 13,000 visitors weekly. He accepts donations from supporters, who get access to a private lounge, and he is among a small group of creators who Meta allows to monetise their worlds. Zuckerberg recently name-checked the Soapstone during an appearance on Joe Rogan’s podcast, which has millions more listeners than Horizon’s last confirmed tally of hundreds of thousands of users. Sorrels said running “a cartoon comedy club in a pretend land” was now his full-time job.

I started chatting with a man sitting next to me in the club named Malefic, who had a goatee and earrings, though his real-world self, Joe Cronin, had neither. Six hours earlier, Cronin, 30, a married programmer based in Pennsylvania with two small children, had been playing video games online with friends. When they went to sleep, he came to Horizon, his headset plugged into the wall, to decompress and socialise after an adrenaline-filled session. Horizon is where gamers go to chill out, like skiers at an après-ski bar.

“When you hear the birds chirping, you know you’re in trouble,” said Cronin, who liked the ability to “go out” via his Quest 2. “You don’t even have to get up and get dressed and get yourself all primped up. You just put on your headset. I’m legit in pyjamas right now.”

As Cronin and I chatted, people started gathering around us, to enthuse about the metaverse. It’s so fun to party in here, said a guy in a beanie. But, he added, it’s “hard to smoke a bowl with this headset on.”

Despite Meta’s warnings against using the headset under the influence, every night many people are drinking, dancing and otherwise having a good time as music blasts in worlds like Party House and Ace of Clubs.

But the parties can’t get too wild. Each of the more than 10,000 worlds that users have created in Horizon can accommodate only a couple dozen people at a time. That’s because of the computational power required to project a virtual shared space across multiple headsets. If a world fills up, you’ll end up in a copy of it, like an overflow room.

I got the low-battery notification from my headset, so I encouraged Cronin to perform, sensing he wanted to. He took the stage and told an extended joke about how having children changes you, because of the way they lock eyes with you while they poop. It doesn’t sound funny relating it here, but it cracked up the people assembled in a virtual room at 6:11am on a Sunday. I guess you had to be there.

Finding the time to go into the metaverse outside work hours was challenging. At one point, I wore my headset while exercising on a stationary bike. I managed it for 40 minutes, though my eye display fogged up, and I was breathing more heavily than I generally preferred to do when meeting new people. What I was not willing to do was to clock hours sleeping in the headset.

“Oh, that’s me. I sleep in my headset,” said Sam, a redhead in a blazer, one night in the Soapstone. “Imagine waking up in the most amazing place in the universe.”

I thought she was kidding, but she insisted that she was serious. “What does your bedroom look like? Is it where you want to live the rest of your life?” she asked.

I told her I liked my bedroom. She persisted: “That’s where you want to die?”

I said that I didn’t want to die anytime soon but that I did like my bedroom. “That’s depressing,” she said. “You should aspire to better things.”

This reminded me of Neal Stephenson’s 1992 science-fiction novel, “Snow Crash,” in which the term “metaverse” was introduced to describe a digital space where people could escape their dismal realities. The book’s protagonist, Hiro, is a laid-off pizza deliveryman who, with his roommate, lives in a storage unit. But he’s a warrior in the computer-generated world he visits wearing his goggles.

“The metaverse has been unfolding over decades,” said Matthew Ball, a tech entrepreneur who recently wrote a book about how the metaverse would “revolutionise everything.” It is not, he added, “something that’s going to radically alter our lives this decade.”

Meta-trepeneurs

One Thursday night, I fell asleep putting my kids to bed and woke up past midnight full of energy. I decided to hop into the metaverse, but I hadn’t charged the headset, which meant I had to break my self-imposed rule. Yes, I plugged and played.

My internet connection was slow, so I moved to my husband’s office, closer to the Wi-Fi router. He had a couple of weights strewn about for workout breaks. The only accessible outlet was on the floor. Also, the room was very cold. So, I huddled under a blanket, on the floor, with a computer on my head, tethered to a wall, hoping not to bang my hand on a dumbbell.

It was a low point in the real world, but, in the metaverse, I was Iron Man, zooming around a popular world called the Superhero Sandbox, where users don the costumes of Marvel superheroes and assume their powers. As I flew to the top of the “Avengers” tower, I wondered how it was that Disney had not yet blasted this world out of existence with a copyright-infringement cannon. Then, as I threw Captain America’s shield, I whacked my hand so hard against a coffee table that I cried out in pain.

I had hurt myself before. Blindly swinging my controllers these past months, I hit a TV, a bed, a desk and my 2-year-old’s head (no lasting damage). So, I was surprised when I checked the federal government’s consumer injury database and found only one report of a serious incident involving the Quest 2 — a 34-year-old woman had cut her mouth on a console table while ducking virtual danger. Most of the other reports were of people, from 6 years old to 66, who had developed rashes on their faces.

Malefic suddenly appeared in a “Black Panther” mask, the first time in the more than 24 hours that I had spent in Horizon that I encountered a user whom I’d met previously. Around 3am, a foul-mouthed 11-year-old began attacking everyone with Thor’s hammer. Someone polled the room, and the kid was removed.

“Let the adults play with the superhero toys,” said Malefic, who then recommended hopping to a new world, Black Magic Comedy Club. (Comedy is popular in the metaverse.)

A sign at the club’s entrance warned: “Not for easily offended” and “No racism.” A guy, MoistPB, smoking a digital blunt, immediately cornered me to talk explicitly about the kind of woman he liked. I hurried away.

Inside the club, I met Elite, a volunteer bouncer with a Fu Manchu and white hair in a bun. “I chose the avatar because I like kung fu flicks,” said Elite, a New York City-based engineer who is of Portuguese and African descent. “I look absolutely nothing like this.”

Elite, who for privacy reasons asked that his full name not be used, has established himself as a “world breaker.” He looks for bugs and glitches, sometimes as an official, paid tester. He is among a group of entrepreneurs investing their time in the metaverse, hoping to eventually make real money there. I also met Tannless in the club, whose avatar had close-cropped blond hair just like his real-world self: Tanner Rulli, 26, a graduate student in Michigan who hopes to one day sell the worlds he is building.

Networking in the metaverse, said Rulli, “becomes very normal, just like anything that you do outside the plastic.”

Is This the Future?

When I told my friends and family about my experiment, they all asked the same questions: What is the metaverse like? Is it fun?

Putting on the headset was annoying, but once I started chatting in Horizon, I had a good time and was reluctant to leave. I liked meeting people spontaneously without the increasingly heavy-handed algorithmic intervention of traditional social media platforms.

But explaining the metaverse through the lens of Horizon feels akin to unpacking the potential of “the web” by surfing AOL chat rooms in the 1990s, during the days of dial-up modems. Meta’s VR social network is an early and singular part of what could become a large technological shift.

Near the end of my experiment, I met in a Horizon conference room with Shah, the vice president of Meta’s Metaverse. (The Meta employees who had arranged the meeting looked visibly relieved when our avatars made it there without kinks.) Shah, in silver glasses and a short-sleeved button-up, said the company wanted to make the headset more comfortable but also to let people visit the metaverse without one, though it was unclear how that would work.

I asked Shah how often he wore his headset each week. “A couple of hours, doing work, and then a couple of hours for fun,” he said. “There are things I cannot do in the physical world that I can only do in headset.”

That sounded promising, the fruition of Meta’s very expensive gamble on this technology. Then, Shah began to tell an anecdote about a team meeting at which Meta employees shared stories from recent vacations.

At first, I thought that he was going to say that his employees had captured their trips around the world with VR cameras and that everyone had leaped from the virtual conference table into the best moments of their colleagues’ exotic travels.

But it was a more banal revelation.

“If you’ve been on a big Zoom call with, you know, a bunch of faces, this is awkward,” Shah said, describing the who-goes-next roulette many remote workers know well. “But, we were all in a Workroom. I told my story. I looked to my left. The next person went. And then there were head nods and acknowledgement. And then we just kept going around the room.”

This sounded nice, but it didn’t seem like a killer use case. When Mark Zuckerberg waxes poetic about the metaverse, as he did on Rogan’s podcast, he talks of the headset eventually getting very small or even disappearing, and of the internet coming to surround us, accessible perhaps at the snap of a finger. “One of the thought experiments that I like to do is thinking about how few of the things that we physically have in the world actually need to be physical,” Zuckerberg said to Rogan.

For now, though, the company is still constrained by the physical world, and by the fact that most people, apart from those currently in the metaverse, aren’t keen to spend hours and hours of their day “in the plastic.”

Meta is working on making its headsets more appealing, and is expected to announce a sleeker, more expensive model at a virtual event called Connect. The new headset will have even more sensors aimed at the face, so that if you do find something to smile about in the metaverse, your digital avatar will smile along with you.

– This article originally appeared in The New York Times


More news from
Trump's a bully, ignore him

Opinion

Trump's a bully, ignore him

The person being ignored will find himself alone on a battlefield he created, with only his own voice bellowing around him. Linger on that image for a moment — Donald Trump all alone in the wilderness, with only his own voice to keep him company

Opinion