Human-centred decisions

Awooga! The metaverse was better 29 years ago

A man using a virtual reality headset being blocked by virtual squares

The BBC gameshow Cyberzone, first broadcast this week 29 years ago, is not fondly remembered — or even remembered much at all. But it is culturally relevant for two reasons.

Firstly, it is the origin of the 1990s catchphrase “awooga”. It is commonly attributed to John Fashanu from ITV’s Saturday night prime-time show Gladiators. But “awooga” was in fact first used as a gameshow catchphrase by Craig Charles in this geeky weekday teatime BBC Two programme. Amusingly, Craig Charles still bears a grudge about this catchphrase theft almost three decades on.

Secondly, and perhaps more pertinently, Cyberzone was the world’s first ever virtual reality gameshow. Famous sport stars played against adventurous members of the public in a computer-generated world-of-puzzles that resembled a barely-playable Dire Straits music video.

The concept was highly innovative, but not exactly a roaring success. The website UKGameshows laments:

This is a classic example of trying to utilise a technology in a TV show miles too early. Certainly, Cyberzone was without doubt the world’s first virtual reality game show. However, it may well have done more harm to future VR projects than good.

Three decades on, the talk of the technology world is a modern-day evolution of virtual reality: the metaverse.

The word metaverse originated in the 1992 Neal Stephenson novel Snow Crash.

But this 1990s idea has been thrust into the public’s consciousness by Mark Zuckerberg’s attention-distracting announcement that his company, normally known as Facebook, is pivoting to video — er, I mean, the metaverse.

Since then, metaverse has become the buzzword of buzzwords. But often it seems like a solution looking for a problem.

Many metaverse concepts seem to revolve around replicating the worst aspects of the physical world, without taking advantage of the real possibilities of digital. Most visions of the metaverse are pointlessly skeuomorphic.

A video purporting to be a demo of Walmart’s metaverse concept went viral on Twitter last week, prompting widespread derision.

In this video, a spooky avatar of a sales assistant relentlessly dispenses unwanted advice while the user clumsily grapples with virtual containers of liquid. Meanwhile a set of virtual supermarket aisles theatrically — and extremely slowly — rise up through the floor, as a way of moving from product to product. The scene is completed with industrial sound effects that echo through an infinite nothingness, as if to emphasise the complete pointless soullessness of the exercise.

It transpired that the video in fact originated in 2017, as a ploy “to impress influencers at SXSW”. According to the Verge:

…although the clip itself is not an example of contemporary metaverse visionscaping, the fact that it’s indistinguishable from this material is damning…

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.

In fact, Sainsbury’s had a similar virtual reality supermarket demo back in the 1990s:

The graphics may be more Sega Saturn than Xbox 360 (let’s face it, the Walmart demo doesn’t look up-to-date either). But in concept, the 1990s virtual reality Sainsbury’s isn’t so far behind the current metaverse vision.

What’s most surprising about the metaverse is just how lacking in ambition it is. This is a half-hearted rehash of a 30-year-old idea.

There have been other attempts at creating metaverse-like concepts in the intervening period. These endeavours showed us how much interest there truly is in the idea.

Second Life debuted in 2003. Like the metaverse, it was touted for a period as the future of online interaction. But Second Life didn’t prove to be quite so revolutionary.

It is estimated there are currently around 500,000 active users of Second Life, who are using virtual currency to buy items in the virtual world. This sounds like a relatively small number of people, because it is.

Yet, compare it to another current tech trend, NFTs. Only 360,000 people own NFTs. Moreover, the NFT market is dominated by a small handful of big players. Second Life — an 18-year-old platform regarded as yesterday’s news — is in fact around 50% larger than the market for NFTs.

As for the metaverse, it’s not clear how quickly any improvements on Second Life might truly arrive. Meta themselves admit that their metaverse is years away from being fully realised. In short, this made-up world is literally made up.

When Cyberzone was broadcast in 1993, virtual reality looked difficult to use, the graphics were low fidelity and it was a generally unsatisfying experience. But it was still an improvement on Mark Zuckerberg’s metaverse in one important respect: at least it actually existed.

The word “awooga” may still transpire to be Cyberzone’s greatest cultural contribution.

Original photo of virtual reality headset user by Minh Pham on Unsplash

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One response to “Awooga! The metaverse was better 29 years ago”

  1. David Pritchard avatar
    David Pritchard

    Given the comparable success and endurance of Robot Wars (featuring Craig Charles), this is surely a promising sign that my desired improvements to hardware are on the horizon.

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