Review of 2021: Steady progression, and a metaversal pivot

metaverse review in 2021

2020 is similar to 2021, only with different labels slapped onto the year. Yes, immersive technologies such as VR and AR continued their steady progression. Companies sought new uses to using AR, such as the Picadilly Lights with location-based AR, and VR companies yet again released a slew of great immersive titles. I lean towards Smash Drums and Loco Dojo Unleashed a little, considering they were sponsors of the Immersive Wire, but both are great examples of how the medium continues to build on the base mechanics of VR and bring joy to players. 

The trouble with the year, however, is that the progression is now seen from a different perspective. VR and AR fell into the pervasive umbrella of immersive technologies (XR), where reality bled into virtuality. The new companies or innovations, from the HaptX gloves to the Varjo Aero, were seen in the perspective of its own niche field, like a cluster of blossoming flowers in a shady creek. Only this creek got a new sign hammered into its soil, and a wall of ill-informed journalists now crowd its space with an endless flow of photographs and paragraphs. ‘The metaverse’ reverberated across the industry, and our burgeoning corner suddenly had a cluster of headlights in our direction. (I also feel bad for Matthew Ball, whose excellent essays were likely cited without credit by thousands globally). 

Our industry reacted quickly to the changing framework. Alan Smithson lept to tell jokes about his company, MetaVRse. Named long before 2021, it held a new meaning that was easy to use and lean into. Others found that their products, which had no link to the metaverse, nevertheless fit into the conversation. Think of spatial AR that can contribute to the digitisation of the real world, or South Korean companies who are building VR worlds and slapping the metaverse as a label on them. None of this is necessarily bad – it makes sense to tap into a growing market opportunity to get a new perspective on the future. But it did clutter the conversation in 2021, and we need to enter the process of clarifying meaning and piercing light into the cluttered muck. 

While metaverse discussions comprised of theories, 2022 will be shaped by practice. Benedict Evans pointed out that the future is built by ruthless pragmatists; not the armchair theorisers who meander the forest of their own words, but the builders who get their arms dirty and build a product. The people may not get it right the first time, but it will be built regardless. If 2021 was full of people thinking about how neat the metaverse is, then 2022 will show a (very) early sign of the thoughts in action. 

While the spotlight is great, it is a shame that VR and AR are now seen in a different way, because some products can be strong without the association. I do not need a private virtual world to be linked to the metaverse; it can be strong on its own legs. Rec Room is great fun, without needing to connect with another like VRChat or Horizon Worlds. An AR activation as part of a campaign can be fun or useful on its own legs, instead of being connected to expansive mapping technologies. Rendever, a company providing tools for seniors in care homes, does not need to be connected to the metaverse to do good for the world. The sheer noise drowns out great pieces that crop up, such as the pieces of art from the Venice Film Festival, Raindance Immersive, or London Film Festival. Great products and ideas can exist without association. 

Conversations around the metaverse oscillated between sense and nonsense, while research continued quietly. Liudmila Bredikhina, a VR researcher from the University of Geneva, explored the behaviour in association with the metaverse which is truly fascinating. In Meta, a thousand engineers (in Europe at least) are working on the metaverse behind closed doors. And who knows what else is brewing within Silicon Valley. 

On the nonsense end, however, is NFTs. I have never seen such a swarm of conversations over something that bears such little resemblance to the metaverse. While the underpinning technology is sound, selling JPEGs has almost nothing to do with the future metaverse. Only a select few services contributed to metaverse discussions, my recent favourite being The Sandbox. When NFTs can be used to buy items with in-world utilities, such as a chair to sit on, then the discussion becomes more serious, But for now, it is sheer profiteering. I understand why companies like Spatial pivoted towards it, but I also see similar moves as profiteering over deliberate strategies. 

Otherwise, the year has been sound. Once again immersive training saw new gains, as companies sought new clients to help build them up. Make Real, Immerse, and Future Visual all continued their work and serviced where the training made sense. AR platform providers like Blippar, ZapWorks, 8th Wall and Spark AR continued to roll out new features for developers, with a seismic rollout from Niantic via Lightship. 

These little improvements will continue in 2022; but I hope the metaverse discussions will become more nuanced. I want the noise to die down, and for the great products and services to bubble up like foam in hot chocolate. I want talented artists to continue making VR and AR experiments, enriching the lives of people who experience their work. And ultimately, I want 2022 to be a better year for businesses ravaged by the pandemic, as we move beyond theories and explore hard examples. 

Let’s raise a glass to 2021, and let’s see 2022 with high hopes (even if not sober thoughts immediately into the year).