What Facebook's animatronic dog gets right.
On the social role of consumer technology, what makes for a good ad, and the future of the Metaverse
I wanted to dunk on the
But the thing is… I actually think it’s a really good ad. I think this commercial reveals the first use-case for the Metaverse that might actually be worth the bother.
On one level, it’s a ridiculous ad. David Roth nailed the dystopian vibe with this tweet:
Oculus Meta Quest 2 Goggles through an ad where working at a knockoff Chuck E. Cheese in the 80s is as good as life can get. One of the most profitable companies on the planet is telling potential customers “life is misery. Log in. Tune out.”
But here’s the thing: I totally get it. I’ve been paying close attention to the Metaverse evangelists since my WIRED piece was published over the summer. And this is by far the most compelling vision of the Metaverse I have seen.
What is the Metaverse for? It’s for nostalgia. It’s a place where you can recreate some version of the good-old-day, alongside the people that made them good. And (if they can pull it off), it’s a much better way platform for having new fun with old friends than anything else that exists today.
I’m not sure if
Thursdays at Oberlin College were 1/2 price bowling night in 1997. For less than $10, you could rent shoes and bowl three games. During my freshman year in college, my best friends and I would go bowling on Thursdays basically every week. These were the guys who would one day be groomsmen in my wedding. The guys who supported me when life was hard and joked with me when life was easy. A few of us lived together for a year after college. It all kinda started with bowling.
(Yes, we were huge dorks. I was also in an a cappella group, and was the single person most responsible for building the swing dance scene at my college. People who were cool in college don’t go on to write free Substacks as respectable adults.)
I talk with the guys a lot less than I used to. It’s just one of those things that happens as you get older. My three closest college friends live in three different time zones. We all have small kids and jobs that keep us busy. Early in the pandemic, we got together for a couple of zoom chats. It was really nice to see them. But it’s hard to keep up with that sort of thing. We don’t have the type of routine hangouts that we had in college. We have fond, shared memories instead.
Facebook’s Meta’s animatronic-dog-falls-on-hard-times commercial, what immediately struck me was the Oberlin College lanes. Horizon Worlds is supposed to make it easy to create your own games. VR bowling is technologically pretty normalsauce at this point.
The tech isn’t quite there yet. I don’t trust
But, let’s say
I might be showing my age here. I discussed this ad with my students on Monday, and one of their immediate conclusions was that they were not the target audience. The commercial is clearly aimed at Gen X.
But my hunch is that the market for a better nostalgia machine could be very deep. The thing is, we do live in a dystopia. The past couple of years have been objectively bad for everyone. (I bumped into an old friend on Sunday. “How have you been?!?” “Oh, you know.” “Well, yeah, of course. But… considering?” “Yeah, good, I guess. Relatively speaking.”) Every one of us has lost something in the past two years. It’s a fair bet that there is a before of some sort that you would enjoy visiting at least a thin facsimile of. And no consumer technology provides that experience right now.
The Metaverse is for VR bowling on Thursday night with the guys. It’s not as good as the good old days. It’s not as good as it would be in-person. But it’s a lot better than the occasional zoom chat.
That’s it. That’s what the Metaverse could be for.
It’s a good ad.
Up until now, there have basically been two visions that Metaverse evangelists have promoted. Both are terrible:
(1) There’s the Metaverse as limitless game world — Fortnite meets Roblox meets Minecraft, plus virtual concerts and events. This is the version you hear from people who think Ready Player One is a great work of modern literature.
The upside here is obvious. Gaming is big business. It’s growing. Some mix of Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality sure could make for a cool next frontier in gaming. And maybe gaming can be an onramp for mass adoption — people buy the headsets for the addictive gaming experiences, then they learn to use them for everything else. Soon they make new friends through VRChat. And then movies and television plant a flag in the metaverse, since that’s where everyone is. AR games finally extend beyond the fluke success of Pokemon Go. The heads up displays become a digital overlay on our everyday environment. And from there, the possibilities are endless.
There are a couple of problems, though. One is that, unless we’re grading on a curve, VR games just aren’t all that popular. It’s been a few years and the biggest title is basically just a more-immersive version of Guitar Hero, but with a much smaller player base. VR headsets sold during the pandemic, when people were literally trapped indoors for months on end. But most of them are gathering dust on a shelf at this point. If VR games were going to be the killer app of the Metaverse, you would expect VR gaming to be a more addictive experience than console games or mobile games. We’re several years into the supposed VR revolution and the results so far don’t come close to the hype.
The other problem is that it isn’t clear how many people want to seamlessly integrate their video game/time-wasting behavior with the rest of their public, social, and professional lives. Blurring those lines is great for marketers and platforms. But is it appealing to the users?
(2) Then there’s the Metaverse that provides endless adventures and productivity tools for people who are just constantly killing it. This is how
Maybe there are some mid-level corporate managers who will get excited about the virtual meeting components. I personally know very few people who look back on the past two years of constant Zoom meetings and ask “can they just please be more immersive?” But I don’t know many mid-level corporate managers.
But the rest of this vision is just a clusterfuck. No one who has ever played poker wants to be floating through space in the middle of a hand. A VR vacation is a vacation for people who have never taken an actual vacation (it’s about the shared journey, not the destination, ya dummies!) VRChat is all the worst parts of social gatherings (small talk with strangers!) with none of the good parts. VR mansions are a desperate cry for help. None of us actually live a life that Mark Zuckerberg’s presented Metaverse would mesh well with.
The reason why the Metaverse has deserved to be treated as a punchline is that some of the richest people in the world are trying to sell us a product that (a) they can’t describe and (b) we don’t want.
By comparison, an animatronic dog falling on hard times and then salvaging a shred of joy with old friends in a VR remake of their old stomping grounds is a warm fire on a cold winter night.
The ad works on another level too. The
Oculus Meta Quest 2 ad managed to focus attention on the social role of technology. That’s something that Apple used to do spectacularly well and few tech companies come close to pulling off anymore.
Take a look at the commercial below. It’s from 2010, for the iPhone 4. The iPhone 4 added a second, front-facing (selfie) camera. The second camera was the big innovation they had to introduce and make relevant to peoples’ lives.
What this ad does incredibly well is communicate the social role of the new iPhone. It answers the question, “What is the extra camera for? How does it fit into my life?” It lets the person you’re talking to see you, and see what you see. Why should you buy this new expensive gadget, when (if you’re in the target audience) you probably already bought a similar expensive gadget in the past couple years? Because you can see how it would fit into your life and make the rough edges of your daily routines noticeably smoother.
(Let me pause to note here that when I describe this as a good ad, I mean “good” solely in the narrow sense that the advertisement is effective at explaining the product. There are plenty of good advertisements for socially corrosive technologies. One could make a “good” ad for facial recognition technology, even though facial recognition technology is goddamn evil.)
Many of the early iPhone ads were a masterclass at demonstrating the social role of their new consumer products. One of the first ads, “Calamari,” showed how the integration of maps, web search, iPod video, and a phone would work. When Apple debuted App Store with the iPhone 3G, it ran a series of “there’s an app for that” commercials, explaining how apps like Shazam add myriad uses to the smartphone.
Conpare those early ads to this 2020 iPhone X ad. The iPhone X debuted the unlock-with-facial-recognition feature.
This ad is a mess. I mean, sure, it’s clever. But what is this new unlocking feature for? Uh… Well you can unlock the screen with your face. What social role is it meant to play in your life? Uh… I guess now your hands will be free. It’s annoying having to type in your passcode, right?
Part of what has changed is that consumer technology has kind of plateaued over the past decade or so. The graphics and cameras and processors keep getting fancier to justify new models and high prices. There have been advances in virtual assistants and machine learning. But the only meaningful difference between the iPhone 13 and the iPhone 12 is it can help you shoot professional-quality movies. The vast majority of iPhone consumers are not professional filmmakers.
Now take a look at the Larry David/Crypto Super Bowl ad.
On one level, this is a very fun ad. It’s Larry David doing Larry David things. It’s designed for viral sharing. It earned a bunch of free media as a standout Super Bowl ad. But as a consumer technology ad, it’s just a complete nothingburger.
What is FTX/cryptocurrency for? Well, y’see, it’s the next big thing. Don’t miss out!
What is the social role it is meant to play in your life? We told you. It’s the next big thing. Don’t miss out!
Okay, but really. What is it FOR? Shut up, hater. It’s the next big thing! Have fun staying poor, you #NoCoiner.
The reason people like me are convinced crypto is effectively just a ponzi is that, 13+ years after it was invented, the only social role of crypto is as a vehicle for speculative investments.
All the crypto advertisements at the Super Bowl this year felt deeply reminiscent of the dot-com ads in the 2000 Super Bowl. 2000 was the height of the dot-com bubble. Companies had huge valuations, no real revenues, and no actual business model. They were propping themselves up through a race for public attention, promising to figure out the business model someday, later, but in the meantime don’t miss out on this goldrush. E*Trade had a dancing monkey. Pets.com had a sock puppet. EDS.com had a bunch of guys on horseback, herding cats. It was all glitz, no substance. None of those dotcom ads could explain the social role that their products were meant to have in consumers’ lives. The dotcom crash looks obvious in retrospect.
If you weren’t into crypto before the Larry David ad, then you still aren’t going to be into crypto after the Larry David ad. The only thing it has communicated is that the people making money off of crypto have a lot of money to throw around. Crypto still seems sketchy as hell, because no one can explain what it’s for or how it is supposed to make money.
So the animatronic dog ad… good, actually!
The Larry David ad… “eh… it stinks!”
That one animatronic dog hasn’t made me a convert. I’m still a Metaverse skeptic.
There are still plenty of reasons to doubt the Metaverse — particularly the role that this company with this track record intends to play in it. And all of those reasons are still plenty relevant. My hunch is that it will ultimately be a huge money pit and will be abandoned in a few years for another shiny object. I also suspect we’ll generally be better off if it doesn’t work out. The Metaverse + surveillance capitalism is a recipe that only drives us into a deeper dystopian hole. It sure would be great if technologists would focus on helping to quit digging instead.
But, all that aside, it would be nice to go bowling with the guys again.