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Brewing with Pixels - Does Heineken’s virtual beer expose the limits of the metaverse?

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Beer is my weakness. It always has been. My father worked for a brewery when I was young and my mother would dry the leftover hops and hang them in the kitchen, so that very specific, slightly earthy aroma has been a part of me for as long as I care to remember.

I also love technology and have become particularly enamoured with virtual reality and the concept of the metaverse in recent years. So, anything that brings these two pillars of my being closer together should be welcomed with open arms, right?

In theory, maybe. But in practice, can anybody out there honestly tell me that “virtual beer” is worth getting excited about?

If anyone can do it, Heineken

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This week, just in time for St Patricks Day, Heineken launched its brand new, virtual beer, "Heineken Silver,” exclusively in its virtual brewery within the immersive digital platform, Decentraland. If this is the first time you’ve heard of it, join the club.

According to the press release: “Heineken is known for its uncompromising quality, refined from decades of brewing innovation. Now, the same brewing expertise that made Heineken world-famous is undergoing a high-tech transformation to take on the metaverse, one pixel at a time.

That’s the kind of bollocks I can live with but the next part really made me wince - “Heineken has always been passionate about natural ingredients, but in the metaverse, it’s all about the finest, 100% computer-generated ingredients.By ingredients they are talking about lines of code, right?

The spiel continues: “Our special A-yeast, usually brewed in horizontal tanks, has been replaced with A-Pixels. Forget hops harvested in fields, virtual Heineken Silver is brewed with Binary Coded Hops grown by NPC (non-player character) farmers. And of course, the whole virtual brewing process is overseen by Heineken’s dedicated Virtual Brewing Assistants.The cynic in me understandably wins out here.

Pushing the limits of the metaverse

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For me, this laughable endeavour underlines the fundamental flaw with the metaverse - some things we are never going to be able to experience virtually. Taste, smell and feel are all sensations that have yet to be replicated by ones and zeros, at least in a tangible sense. 

The great promise of the metaverse, as coined by Mark Zuckerberg, is that it would free us from geographical and economic limits. But while the metaverse certainly will have an important role to play in the immediate future I think it’s important that we acknowledge and appreciate its limits, lest we become over enamoured with the thing and start treating it like the boilerplate solution to all our ills.

The digital Heineken fiasco is, ultimately, little more than a throwaway campaign gimmick that never once pretends to be the future of the metaverse. But it unwillingly exposes the metaverse’s greatest flaw, at least as it exists today - tactility and true experience, or the lack thereof.

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It’s going to be many years before the clunky VR headsets of today give way to the sleek, wireless headsets of tomorrow. Even then, how are we expected to be able to taste, feel, smell and truly grasp anything concrete in a world built from numbers? 

The metaverse is truly a wonderful concept but it has its limits and even its greatest cheerleaders would do well to understand this. Otherwise, we could be looking at a future where we’re all pretending to enjoy something that doesn’t even exist.

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