- The metaverse isn’t here yet, mostly because of scarce resources.
- Issues like lack of storage and bulky headsets are stymying progress.
- Shortages of precious metals is creating ethical issues and environmental concerns.
Metaverse has become the new buzzword, yet it doesn’t exist yet. Progress towards the digital utopia is slow, and with good reason: lack of storage capability, inability to create a fully immersive experience, and physical limitations like bulky virtual reality (VR) headsets are just a few of the roadblocks to the metaverse.
The Problem with Storage
For the metaverse to truly “exist,” users must be able to maintain a continuous relationship with the metaverse though a constant mobile device connection. This creates a problem of massive amounts of data, and—as you’re probably aware—mobile devices do not have unlimited storage. If everyone stores every experience in their device’s memory, whether it be a photo of Fluffy or logging a visit to a new pizzeria, at some point device memory will fill up. One possible solution is to identify important episodes in a user’s life and fetch those episodes more rapidly, similarly to how your internet browser caches a web page. However, humans have multiple personas, each of which is expressed different depending on who they are talking to and where; Currently, there is a lack of situation-specific modeling available to recreate human reality . Therefore, we don’t yet have the ability to catch and cache all of those nuanced life moments.
The Problem of Sensation
Another issue with replicating reality: avatars lack sensations like smell and taste. While many experiences in the metaverse are close to real life, we don’t have any major tech that can replicate the five senses. Most research has focused on a single sensation, and nearly all of it has run into significant problems. For example, tech startup Feelreal created a crowdfunded multisensory mask with hundreds of distinct smells, based on vaping technology. As the mask worked like a vaping device, it ran into problems with an FDA ban on flavored vaping products . In other research, a team at the University of Chicago attempted to recreate warm and cool temperature sensations by wafting chemicals up noses . It’s unclear at this point if the research will ever make it into production; if it does, it may meet the same FDA roadblock.
Those Bulky Headsets…
Virtual Reality (VR) devices are bulky and heavy. We could see the devices transform, like mobile phones, which shrunk from 11 pounds in the 1980s  to a few ounces in modern times. But decades of “shrinkage” might not be the best solution. Smart contact lenses are one alternative, but these come with the same significant risks of regular contacts, like serious eye conditions and infections that can lead to blindness . In addition, headsets and lenses can’t accommodate people with eye problems like amblyopia—which affects hundreds of millions worldwide; Even with prescription glasses, people with amblyopia cannot see in 3D using technology . Holograms are one potential to solve these issues, and there’s some progress with research. For example, Google’s Project Starline  allows lifelike, 3D holograms to appear in front of you, but its hefty price tag (tens of thousands of dollars) means that you won’t see a hologram of strider from Alyx in your living room anytime soon.
The Ultimate Loser: The Planet
While unlimited resources can be created in virtual worlds, scarce resources in the real world are creating logistical and ethical problems. For example, billions of lithium batteries are needed for a ubiquitous metaverse, and lithium production is already struggling to keep up with demand. Shortages in the supply chain have led to recent price increases of more than 50% , and reserves of cobalt and nickel — two other components in lithium batteries — is dwindling . In addition, mining cobalt is rife with ethical issues like child labor and corruption .
These problems are just the tip of the (melting) iceberg though; According to Energy & Capital’s Luke Sweeney, quoted in Forbes , lithium mining is “the trillion-dollar elephant in the room.” In order to tackle climate change, he states, we need to switch to carbon-free power and gasoline-free transportation, which “cannot exist without mining an absurd amount of lithium.” If we’re struggling to combat climate change, perhaps we shouldn’t be diverting these scarce resources to building a metaverse. The advent of the metaverse will lead to more datacenters and more blockchain, which together are already spewing out enough greenhouse gases to cause widespread alarm. And while the metaverse might enable you to dry on dresses or take that Tesla for a test drive, it won’t buy you a new planet.