This week, Facebook (the company, not the website) announced that it was rebranding as “Meta,” which would be the new parent company for Facebook (the website), WhatsApp, Instagram, Oculus (which will be renamed Meta Quest), and all of the other stuff that Facebook (the company) has acquired in its seventeen years in existence. Why “Meta”? Because the sort of people who run Facebook are also the sort of people who grew up reading cyberpunk novels like Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, which coined the term “metaverse” to describe a virtual reality–heavy version of the Internet. In the nearly three decades since Snow Crash was published, building the metaverse has long been a dream of the nerds who build our future, and Facebook has claimed that dream as its own, and stamped a new logo on top of it.
Meta has a Twitter account (just like Twitter has a Facebook page), and on it, the newly restructured corporate entity is busy trying to make friends with other corporate entities by tweeting at them. Which entities? Honestly, it seems pretty random: the list includes karaoke app Smule, cheugy social media platform Pinterest, Sweet Baby Ray’s barbecue sauce (which appears on a bookshelf [!!] [??] in Mark Zuckerberg’s home in the video the CEO made to announce Meta), luxury fashion label Balenciaga, and also H-E-B.
On the one hand, it’s cute to see that a brand-new corporate behemoth with a market cap that outstrips the GDP of all but seventeen countries wakes up to the world the same way the rest of us do: confused, lonely, and thinking about barbecue. On the other hand, the dawning realization that the people who made Facebook are devoting a large portion of their immense resources to building a future in which they’ll be involved in our grocery shopping is kind of a bummer. Still, they asked a question. We ought to try to answer: what will ordering groceries in the metaverse look like?
H-E-B, for its part, declined to so much as tweet a cheeky, brand-friendly response back to the company. (Smule suggested a song for a metaversal duet.) This is the sort of dignified reaction that has long endeared Texans to the grocer, but it doesn’t give us much to work with. However, what we do know is that H-E-B has been busy in the e-commerce space over the past several years. It acquired Austin-based delivery app Favor to more robustly pursue that project—one which only grew more urgent amid the pandemic—and while we would expect that the company’s primary focus is still on finding more efficient means to serve customers who are using the internet of today to purchase groceries for curbside and delivery, as big-picture dreamers who also grew up on Snow Crash, we have ideas about what a metaverse version of buying groceries online might look like.
It will probably involve wearing enormous headsets strapped to our faces. This is a basic truth of virtual reality: even in the biggest-budget imaginings of our VR future, the basic mechanics are still a big headset (which starts at around $299 for an Oculus Quest 2), strapped to a face, with maybe a glove to simulate touching things. How does that compare to the current approach of typing “tortilla chips” into the search bar on HEB.com that we use right now? Seems like a bit of a hassle, honestly.
Once you’ve got the thing strapped on your face, though, we’ll assume that typing what you want and then clicking on it will be passé. Any old dummy in the non-metaverse can do that, and we’re building the future here, baby! We can imagine a future of wandering virtual supermarket aisles from the calm of our own living rooms, which will come with both pros and cons. (Pro: you won’t have to hear Counting Crows’ version of “Big Yellow Taxi” during your trip, a virtual guarantee if you set foot inside an H-E-B. Con: you will have to make your own butter tortillas, or at least light a butter tortilla–scented candle, if you want the rich, buttery aroma to waft into your nostrils during this visit.) Perhaps you’ll be wearing a glove that gives you some sort of tactile feedback when you touch things in this VR supermarket. Maybe you’ll walk on a treadmill? Who can say for sure; the future is unknowable.
At any rate, metaversal grocery shopping will probably look a lot like regular grocery shopping, except more whimsical, and perhaps with some greater utility drawn from the immense amount of data that Meta already has about you (and which it’ll continue to refine, as it starts analyzing stuff like how your eyes move when you walk through a virtual supermarket). You could maybe ride a unicorn while you traverse shelves that are arranged to feature the products and brands you tend to purchase! Maybe you will be the only customer in the virtual H-E-B, or maybe the metaverse version of online shopping will determine that users are creeped out by that, and the virtual H-E-B will populate with other shoppers, so you can watch someone else, who will perhaps look exactly like Spider-Man, pick out their favorite products at the same time. Or maybe that sort of interaction will create the possibility of a negative brand experience (what if Spider-Man starts trying to radicalize you or sell you LuLaRoe leggings?), and the virtual supermarket will instead be full of AI shoppers who look like real people, but are actually mere figments of a computer’s imagination, picking out peanut butter from behind dead, soulless eyes.
The open-ended nature of Meta’s question to H-E-B is meant to tease the endless possibilities that our new digital frontier unfurls in front of us. But it also reveals something that the past twenty months of life have made fairly clear: right now, there are basically two ways to purchase groceries. You can physically go to a store, or you can sit down with your device and add the things you want, which someone else will pick out and bring to you (either in your car, in the parking lot, or directly to your home, for an extra fee). The metaversal promise is that the future will split the difference: your experience will feel like you are at the supermarket, but there won’t be other people around, and you won’t have to leave your house. Over the past two years, however, leaving the house and being around other people have been revealed to be their own rewards, and in situations in which we’d rather not do them—because there’s a disease spreading in our communities that make it unsafe to do so, or maybe just because we’re feeling lazy—trying to approximate the experience is as likely to feel uncanny and gross as it is to feel like “the next chapter of social connection,” as Meta’s Twitter profile describes the company, in “a future where people have more ways to play and connect in the metaverse.”
All of which is to say that if Meta or H-E-B wants our input as to what ordering groceries in the metaverse should look like, we would suggest, “Pretty much like it does now.” Not because we are Luddites—we love strapping big headsets to our faces to play video games, and look forward to doing it in order to see our distant friends and family rendered with painstakingly accurate detail and/or as Spider-Man!—but because the difference does not need to be split. Shopping for groceries in person is a socially rewarding activity. It is useful and utilitarian when done online with the efficiency of an ordering system like H-E-B’s. There are a lot of experiences that can be improved through our inevitable VR/metaverse future, but if we are going to wander H-E-B aisles, we want to smell real tortillas while we do it.