Prepare to step into the internet…(sort of)
Last week, the tech media treated us to the latest power move to promote a future of “visual search“, with social giant Snapchat pushing their Scan feature front and center on the app’s camera. Scan allows Snapchat users to detect and search for things they find in the physical world — clothes, dog breeds, food nutrition information, plants, wine, furniture, etc. And as the app opens in camera mode, this visual search feature is now available to 300 million daily users, which could see Snapchat evolving from a messaging app to a leading visual search engine (see full reporting from The Verge).
While this move toward visual search clearly presents commercial opportunities for retailers (note: Scan isn’t currently being used for ad targeting, but it’s not difficult to see how this is where it could wind up…), arguably there some advantages for users. For one, it could force us to drag ourselves out of cyberspace and into a healthier, more interactive relationship with the world around us.
After all, how many of us are guilty of disengaging from our surroundings in order to Google something that’s physically right in front of us? (*Raises hand*).
Yet, just as the merging of our on-and-offline worlds starts to look good for our vitamin D intake, we hear the noise of year’s buzziest of buzzwords being chanted more loudly in Silicon Valley: The Metaverse. If you don’t already know what it is, then you should know that it’s on its way to turn us all into washed out, disengaged husks of remote humanity. But here’s a more helpful description from the Wall Street Journal:
“The metaverse concept, rooted in science-fiction novels such as “Snow Crash” and “Ready Player One,” encompasses an extensive online world transcending individual tech platforms, where people exist in immersive, shared virtual spaces. Through avatars, people would be able to try on items available in stores or attend concerts with friends, just as they would offline.”
Or more briefly from the NY Times: “…a fully realized digital world that exists beyond the analog one in which we live.”
If that didn’t make it too much clearer, here’s why you should still sit up and care:
- It’s being promoted by powerful tech leaders
Mark Zuckerberg has essentially taken to using the word “metaverse” as verbal punctuation, mentioning it no fewer than 16 times on a recent Facebook earnings call. He explained to listeners: “You can kind of think about this as an embodied internet that you’re inside of rather than just looking at. We believe that this is going to be the successor to the mobile internet.”
The firm has put its money where its mouth is too, with a reported fifth of Facebook employees — nearly 10,000 in total — working on the kind of augmented or virtual reality project that would facilitate metaversal ambitions.
Zuck is just one of many CEOs touting the idea. Microsoft’s Satya Nadella also used company earnings to make the same prediction, saying: “As the digital and physical worlds converge, we are leading in a new layer of the infrastructure stack, the enterprise Metaverse.”
With the heads of big time tech firms jockeying for the mic on this one, the writing may be on the wall when it comes to a/the (?) metaverse succeeding the world wide web as a navigable space for information, work and play.
- It already (kind of) exists
If the whole concept sounds a little ridiculous, then you should know that — to some degree — nascent metaverses already exist (though the ultimate hope is that, like the web, we end up with just one). The NY Times explains:
“Video games like Roblox and Fortnite and Animal Crossing: New Horizons, in which players can build their own worlds, have metaverse tendencies, as does most social media. If you own a non-fungible token or even just some crypto, you’re part of the metaversal experience. Virtual and augmented reality are, at a minimum, metaverse adjacent. If you’ve attended a work meeting or a party using a digital avatar, you’re treading into the neighborhood of metaversality.”
There are also parallel worlds like that of Decentraland, where users can gamble in casinos (in the land’s own currency, MANA) or create art or other experiences for one another. And of course there’s the proto-metaverse, Second Life.
The issue currently is one of expansion and interoperability, but fear not, the Open Metaverse Interoperability Group are working on it.
Venture capitalist and metaverse sage Matthew Ball predicts: “…it won’t directly come into existence; there will be no clean “Before Metaverse” and “After Metaverse”. Instead, it will slowly emerge over time as different products, services, and capabilities integrate and meld together.”
- It could change how you do your job
If all of the above sounds a lot like things you associate with folks who LARP, then you shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss. There is every likelihood that you’ll first meet a metaverse-style environment at work anyway (if you work some variant of a “desk job”).
For example, Zuckerberg is extremely keen to push the awkwardly named Horizon Workrooms as a “Zoom” alternative. In the Workrooms environment, you can expect to communicate via a floating avatar in your own (approximate…) image and interact with colleagues in a virtual space.
As horrific as that may sound right now, the reviews are pretty positive and the features are fairly neat.
VentureBeat reports that, “…you can create a “mixed-reality desk,” where you sit at a physical desk, scan it into the room, and then enable other people to see you are sitting at a desk. They can grab virtual papers and drop them on your virtual desk” and “It has spatial audio, so you can detect from what direction a sound is coming and so more easily figure out who is talking.”
Commentators say it makes meetings and other experiences more memorable, which seems plausible.
And Facebook is not alone on this one, Microsoft also has an early stage work platform called Mesh, where avatars interact and even pass tools to one another, plus there is a number of lesser known competitors with ready-to-buy metaverse-like software, including Spatial, Virbela and Bonfire.
Roblox CEO and would-be metaverse trailblazer, David Baszucki, told the NY Times: “Just as the mail, the telegraph, the telephone, text and video are utilities for collaborative work, we believe Roblox and the metaverse will join these as essential tools for business communication.”
- It will create its own economy
If you don’t want to silently weep in secret envy of people with more money than sense look away now, because earlier this year Bloomberg reported that a digital version of Gucci’s Dionysus bag sold on Roblox for $4,115. That’s more than the actual physical version of the bag.
Further, Balenciaga presented its Fall 2021 collection on the platform, Ralph Lauren has a clothing collection available for purchase on Zapeto, and musicians Travis Scott and Ariana Grande have reportedly earned millions from fees and merch after performing in Fortnite‘s virtual realm.
The Washington Post implied that Zuckerberg was positively salivating at the riches to be made on a recent call, noting that: “Zuckerberg hinted, this robust user base would prove an adverting boon: “hundreds of millions of people” in the metaverse “compounds the size of the digital economy inside it.”
The CEO of L’Atelier BNP Paribas, John Egan, has corroborated this, saying that the virtual economy is “one of the greatest economic opportunities of our generation. It represents a huge opportunity for companies in any sector. Sports, tourism, entertainment and especially finance. New financial products, designed for digital lives, are only a couple of years away.”
And he should know.
- It’s going to lead to a big hardware push
Although some of this stuff can be viewed via our existing devices (smartphones, tablets, laptops), it would be naive to think that selling virtual reality equipment wasn’t the ultimate goal. So far it’s been an uphill struggle, with the audience for VR headsets beginning and ending with hardcore gamers. The issue has always been making a case for the daily use of VR kit — and Zuck & Co. think that the metaverse is key.
Speaking specifically about Horizon Workrooms, prolific tech founder Ben Lamm told VentureBeat: “At its core, it’s also a sales tool to expand Oculus 2 hardware sales and make people more addicted to the Facebook universe.”
However, there is pretty well-documented reluctance here. This recent report found that we’re a tough crowd — 49% don’t like the idea of using VR at work, and 44% don’t even like it for gaming! So either the metaverse will need to have to offer us something with irresistible and broad appeal, or its architects will have to accept that we’ll only access it via less immersive devices.
In The Washington Post, Dalvin Brown commented: “…for a robust virtual universe, everyone needs to want and afford VR headsets. The technology would need to be stylish and minimal enough to interest more people and sophisticated enough to work seamlessly. That hasn’t happened yet.”
- It comes with its own threats and problems (not just vitamin D deficiency…)
Some time ago, this blog wrote about the ethical problems facing virtual reality more generally, but the metaverse has its own set of problems.
Many of them are familiar. Most evidently, this presents yet another opportunity for commercial businesses to control our information environment — and in an even more psychologically potent way. Further, there are also worthy concerns about data collection, privacy, as well as understandable worries about things like harassment.
With reference to Zuckerberg as a leading light of the metaverse revolution, VentureBeat‘s Sage Lazarro writes: “…many founders, executives, and employees are wary, citing objections to Facebook’s data privacy practices and known issues with misinformation/disinformation, hate speech, and violence-inducing content.”
Currently, there are next to no regulations or agreed standards for this space. Rabindra Ratan, a professor of media and information at Michigan State University told Yahoo!News: “Think about all the data they can be tracking. They can identify you by nonverbal gestures and height. They can use machine algorithms to predict your sexual orientation based on the way you look at different people in the virtual world. I worry about privacy becoming even more limited in these Metaverse experiences.”
However, NY Times notes that, “In fiction, a utopian metaverse may be portrayed as a new frontier where social norms and value systems can be written anew, freed from cultural and economic sclerosis.” Indeed, CEO of Epic Games, Mike Sweeney is eager to paint a charming picture of our life in this parallel universe, commenting: “In the metaverse, you and your friends and your appearance and cosmetics can go from place to place and have different experiences while remaining connected to each other socially.”
And this is the drum proponents are very keen to beat — especially since we all became experts in isolation — namely, that it’s a social experience. It’s a social world. We can be together again, in a very social kind of way.
But before you grab the animated hand of the nearest avatar and run through fields of computer-generated corn, it’s worth remembering where you’ll actually be, i.e. in a room, on your own, with all your major senses blocked to the world around you, disconnected from any flesh humans (maybe that’s what we’ll call them….) by some sweaty, overpriced headset.
Not very social at all.
So there you have it, and you can fully expect to hear much more. If you expected digital evolution to liberate us from our devices then it seems the opposite might be true. We can already see the glimmer of a new world that wants to draw us in much more deeply than ever before.
Not content with constructing and controlling our internet news feeds, search results, and shopping experiences, our tech masters have set their sights on architecting whole new realms for us — their subjects — to inhabit.