We need to fix the problems that already exist on today’s social platforms, he says.
If anyone has an eye for where the tech industry is headed, it’s probably Tony Fadell.
During his time at Apple, he led the team that developed the iPod (RIP) and the first three generations of the iPhone. Then, he co-founded the now Google-owned smart home company Nest, which raised the bar for how connected appliances should look and feel. With that kind of track record, it’s no surprise he has a strong opinion on the metaverse — a nebulous term that tech executives have used to describe the future of the internet.
But his opinion might not be the one you’d expect from someone as closely tied to progress in the tech industry as Fadell. His exact words when recently speaking with Wired’s Steven Levy were “fuck the metaverse,” an opinion that hasn’t gone unnoticed.
It’s not that simple. He sees potential in the technologies that are often brought up in the context of the metaverse, like augmented reality, virtual reality and mixed reality (XR), which falls in between the two. He just doesn’t think the metaverse is the social internet revolution it’s being made out to be.
“I’m not against the technology,” Fadell said in an interview with CNET following the launch of his new book, Build: An Unorthodox Guide to Making Things Worth Making. “I’m against the application; the way it’s been buzzed about. It’s not a problem that needs solving.”
The metaverse is a catch-all term that generally refers to online spaces where people can gather virtually, typically through digital avatars. You might be wondering what makes the metaverse so different from a Zoom call or a video game. My colleagues Scott Stein and Andrew Morse describe it best. Unlike a video call, spaces in the metaverse don’t disappear when you log off. Many have pointed to games like Roblox, Minecraft and Fortnite as being examples of how the metaverse exists today.
Tech giants see the metaverse as being a critical component of the next phase of the internet, impacting how people work, play and socialize. But Fadell thinks there should be a bigger focus on fixing the problems plaguing today’s social networks before moving on to what’s next. Meta is already struggling to combat harassment on its virtual reality platform, as CNET’s Queenie Wong reported.
“I don’t want to hear about a new social hangout without hearing [about] the new content moderation that’s going to happen,” Fadell said. “And let’s fix the ones we have.”
The idea of the metaverse isn’t new, but tech companies have been making it a larger part of their businesses recently. In October, Facebook rebranded itself as Meta to reflect its larger focus on building the metaverse. CEO Mark Zuckerberg called it “the next frontier” and has evangelized the metaverse’s potential to make virtual interactions feel more intimate. Microsoft agreed to acquire video game giant Activision Blizzard in January to “provide building blocks for the metaverse.” Samsung has also started holding events in the metaverse.
Companies in other industries have also started to take notice. A recently announced partnership between Kraft Heinz and Microsoft will allow the food and beverage giant to create “digital twins” of its manufacturing facilities to test processes before they hit the plant floor. Microsoft’s Judson Althoff used the term “industrial metaverse” in a press release detailing the partnership. Disney also appointed an executive to oversee its metaverse strategy in February.
Fadell thinks there are more important problems to solve besides the metaverse — such as the climate crisis — but there’s another reason why he isn’t buying into the hype. Many of today’s metaverse experiences put users in the shoes of an avatar, resulting in social interactions that don’t feel authentic. “I can’t see your facial expressions,” Fadell said. “I can’t connect with you.”
He’s not the first to cast such doubts. Snap CEO Evan Spiegel recently said the word “metaverse” is never used in the company’s offices because it’s “ambiguous” and “hypothetical,” according to The Guardian. But companies like Snap are investing heavily in augmented reality, which blends digital graphics with the physical world and is often associated with the metaverse. Snap unveiled a pair of AR glasses last year, and Apple is rumored to be working on augmented reality eyewear as well.