There was a video posted on Twitter last week that supposedly shows “how Walmart envisions shopping in the #Metaverse.” In it, a virtual avatar browses shelves of virtual groceries, picking and tossing items into a shopping cart with all the grace of stop-motion skeleton in a 1950s adventure film. Reactions to the clip were suitably mocking, criticizing the VR experience for its pointless skeuomorphism and outdated visuals.
This is fitting, as the video is actually four years old.
A quick Google reveals that the clip was created for Walmart in 2017 by a digital agency to “impress influencers at SXSW” (an example of an obscure capitalist ritual known as a “brand activation”). So the video has nothing to do with the current wave of metaverse hype that is seeping through Silicon Valley, making criticism of it an example of the kind of knee-jerk, anti-tech cynicism that keeps us all from getting rich with crypto, right? Well, no, not really.
Because while the clip itself isn’t an example of contemporary metaverse visionscaping , the fact that it ‘s indistinguishable from this material is devastating.
It is an illustration of the fact that the metaverse itself is not news. It’s basically a stagnant concept: a re-hashing of decades-old ideas about how we might live, work, and socialize in virtual environments. Like that recent article in the New York Times that “Getting Married in the Metaverse ” touted as a new experience, it shows how much marketing and money has gone into selling the public on an experience at least as old as Second Life, the Linden Lab VR project launched in 2003. The reason people are willing to believe that a four-year-old video shows the best the metaverse can offer is that the metaverse hasn’t offered anything better yet.
Could it be different this time? Could new virtual worlds succeed, allowing us all to wear VR headsets to office meetings populated by clown, robot and cowboy avatars? Sure, maybe. The hardware has certainly improved since the 90s, and there is a lot more funding for this round of virtual dreaming. But as the reactions to the Walmart store clip show, no one seems impressed or energized by this revolutionary vision.
Life in virtual reality just doesn’t feel like the future anymore. It feels like a past that we’ve already given up.