Walmart’s 5-Year-Old Vision for the Metaverse Hasn’t Aged a Day

Walmart’s 5-Year-Old Vision for the Metaverse Hasn’t Aged a Day
Photo: Tim Boyle, Getty Images

On Wednesday, a Twitter user going by the name Homo Digitalis published a two-and-a-half-minute clip with the caption, “This is how Walmart envisions Shopping in the #Metaverse.” And that vision, I gotta say, is looking pretty bleak.

The clip features you, a disembodied shopper, walking through a virtual reality recreation of whatever’s on your grocery list that week. There’s virtual reality pasta sauce, virtual reality wine, virtual reality gallons of milk, all helpfully pointed out by the aggressively chipper Walmart associate projected onscreen. It’s basically just like non-metaverse shopping, but something just… isn’t right. There’s the sound of bustling shoppers around you, but the store is completely empty. The groceries are so low-poly that, from a distance, they barely look like food. At the end of the video — after you’ve paid — your shopping cart flies off into the parking lot, seemingly of its own accord.

In short: It’s eerie AF. Some Twitter users who watched the clip compared the concept to some sort of retail purgatory; others called it “unsettling” or “insane.” Others just asked how exactly this kind of haunted experience was in any way superior to the kind of online shopping we have right now.

If you pose that question to most people, the answer is “it’s not,” but if you ask Walmart, the answer is completely different; the company has called VR commerce more “immersive” and “social” than simply browsing through products on your phone, and has been tooting that horn for years. In fact, that video featured in the original tweet is from five years ago.

Walmart first debuted this short at the 2017 SXSW Festival with the help of a digital marketing and product development company, Mutual Mobile, which claims that the retail giant’s goal was to “impress influencers” in attendance. Whether Walmart succeeded back then is an open question, but from Twitter’s knee-jerk response, it’s safe to say that it’s not really succeeding now. For all of the poorly explained hype surrounding The Metaverse™, the examples we’ve seen of our impending VR future so far — like empty VR offices and empty VR malls — don’t feel particularly new or particularly exciting.

The fact that some random Twitter account promoted Walmart’s outdated video as something fresh and innovative, and the fact that so many people in the comments took that as fact, really hammers home how stale some of these ideas are.

None of this is stopping Meta/Facebook from ploughing ahead into all things Metaverse regardless, albeit with a few hiccups; while Walmart’s blast from the past was circulating on Twitter, the Information released a new report claiming that the company had scrapped plans to roll out a new software OS that was planned to power its Oculus devices. That OS, internally dubbed “XROS,” had been in development since 2017, and more than 300 people inside the company reportedly worked on it.

Those on the Facebook Reality Labs team, which encompasses all things augmented and virtual reality, show no signs of slowing down though. Shortly after the Information published its piece, Reality Labs’ VP of Engineering, Gabriel Aul, tweeted that the company is “still working on a highly specialised OS for [its] devices.

“We remain very much invested in this work and continue to dedicate the resources necessary to build this, he went on, adding a link to Facebook’s job portal with the quip, “We are growing this team, not shrinking it. Come join us =).”

Regardless of what the team is working on, if Oculus’s recent ad blitz is any indication, things in the metaverse are going to be just as uncanny now as they were in 2017.