Now You Need To Know What A “Metaverse” Is — 6 Reasons To Listen Up

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:

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Learning to Believe the Unbelievable: Fortifying Ourselves for a VR Future


The Cottingley Fairies

As humans, we are accustomed to suspending our disbelief. Indeed, we’re known to indulge in it. Each time we dive into a book, a movie, a video game, a TV show – even a spiritual flight-of-fancy – most of us are willing and able to disengage from the pedantry of our everyday judgment, and allow ourselves to be convinced by things that are less-than-absolutely-convincing…

This coaxing is a consensual arrangement. I allow you to present me with the improbable on the proviso that it is entertaining, or educational, or uplifting, or philosophical – i.e. my pay-off is that I am emotionally stimulated in some way. I don’t need to scrutinize a movie in its every detail, what is important when I watch it is that I enjoy it and it makes me happy (or scared, or angry, or sentimental!).  Continue reading

Why would I want a VR headset?


Earlier in the week I tweeted this:

“Genuine question: for what reason might an ordinary/modern household want a #VR headset? Assuming they don’t play video games or similar…?”

Now, I don’t have a very large band of followers (I’ve only recently started using Twitter with any purpose), but nevertheless I was shocked that the tweet was met with a stony silence (bar one “like”!). Even when I retweeted with a spectrum of related hashtags, I got nothing…

Perhaps it’s just that the limited number of bots that constitute my twitter following don’t have much to say on the matter, but I can’t help thinking that this isn’t the easiest question to answer. Virtual Reality still hasn’t taken off, and I’m reluctant to agree with “experts” and Zuckerberg on the sticking points: price and portability.

Though I agree that the price can be extortionate when the headset is coupled with appropriate hardware, it is still the case that lots of things are expensive. If the rise of technology – and indeed, consumerism – has shown us anything, it’s that people will pay top dollar for desirable items, no matter how frivolous.

It’s a similar story when it comes to portability. VR sets certainly look cumbersome, and somewhat 80s, but without being a VR expert I feel sure that this becomes trivial if the experience is suitably immersive and fascinating. I must admit, I’m also slightly confused as to why I might need to transport it with enough regularity that portability becomes an issue. The idea of taking something with me which, for it’s very purpose, is designed to carry me off elsewhere is quite a strange one.

A Gartner expert has thrown in the suggestion that wiring might putting potential buyers off, saying:  “I can only imagine what that would be like for my retired parents. Someone is going to break a hip for sure.”

What a strange image. Retired parents? What would they be doing on their VR machine? This is the question to which I cannot find the answer…

These thoughts had been percolating for a little while when, on a recent flight from Boston to SF, I came across this video from LinkedIn Learning named “Virtual Reality Foundations”. It was the single most boring video I have ever watched, narrated by a man who can neither move his facial muscles nor shift his vocal tone, but I persevered (through most of it…) in order to see what wondrous potential uses I had overlooked.

I was largely underwhelmed. Though the technology is undoubtedly impressive, the arguments for its incorporation into various business practices felt weak. It’s as though the focus has been squarely on its creation, rather than its use. The most convincing application I’ve heard about is its use in medical care, which is excellent but isn’t likely to spike mass market sales.

We’re told the future will be full of VR, but it has already been noted that AR is snapping at its heels. It’s not difficult to see why. AR games like Pokémon GO and applications like Blippar can be social, interactive…collaborative even. However, when I stick a VR kit over most of my critical senses, I am cut off from anything other than virtual reality. VR is socially isolating.

Therefore, I continue to push the question: “why would I want a VR headset?”, and I’m actually asking for more than the selling points of a product. Even if VR was somewhat helpful with my work as a journalist, or a marked improvement on my experiences as a gamer, is this worth the solitude it imposes? And for that matter, the vulnerability that comes hand-in-hand with being cut-off from the real world?

We are – perhaps laudably, perhaps accidentally – resisting totally immersive experiences at the moment. We are refusing to walk into entire worlds constructed by engineers working for Google or Facebook. This must be causing much frustration in their respective camps…

Though the internet is – as we can all vouch – an extremely beguiling arena, it’s 2-dimensionality at least allows us to keep our toes anchored in the sobering waters of real reality. This means that companies whose models are built on advertising (like Facebook) have to compete with our surroundings and their distractions. If they can coax us into a world which cuts away other sensory disturbances – as with virtual reality – then presumably their adverts and product sales will have to compete less, and will win our wallets over more often.

It will be interesting to see if we, as a society, relent in the way tech companies hope. It is difficult to envisage it happening in the near future. Why do I need a VR headset? What for? Until the answer to that question is tantalizing enough to eclipse the isolation and vulnerability aspects of VR, we will (hopefully) remain in the real world, with all it’s helpful perspective.

Six ethical problems for augmented reality


This week the BBC reported that the augmented reality (AR) market could be worth £122 billion ($162 billion) by 2024. Indeed, following the runaway success of Pokémon GO, Apple and Google have launched developer kits, and it’s now beginning to look as though the blending of real and virtual worlds will be part of our future.

Although we get excited at the prospect of ‘fun and factoids’ spontaneously popping-up in our surrounding environment, it’s also important to ask where the boundaries lie when it comes to this virtual fly-postering. Does anything go? Here are just a few of the moral conundrums* facing those looking to capitalize on this new market channel:

  1. The hijacking of public spaces

Public spaces belong to us all, and firms could easily upset the public if they use brash augmentation to adorn cherished local monuments or much-loved vistas. Even if your AR placement isn’t overtly controversial (remember the storm over the insensitive placement of Pokéstops?), it could be characterized as virtual graffiti if it isn’t appropriate and respectful. Though AR is only accessible through a device, we might see a future where the public can veto certain types of augmentation to preserve the dignity of their local environs. This will be especially pertinent if all AR ends up sharing a single platform.

  1. Parking up on private land

A business wouldn’t throw up yard sign on a family’s private lawn without asking, so why should AR be any different? Though the law may take a while to figure out its stance on AR, there are sentient ethical concerns that shouldn’t be ignored. Should a burger chain be able to augment a house where the residents are Hindu? Is it okay to transpose publicly available census information onto private houses? It seems as though private owners could have rights over the virtual space that surrounds their property.

  1. Precious anonymity

The free-to-download Blippar app already boasts how it can harness “powerful augmented reality, facial recognition, artificial intelligence and visual search technologies”, allowing us to use our phone cameras to unlock information about the world around us. At present, they encourage us to look-up gossip about famous faces spotted on TV or in images, but there is clearly the very real prospect of AR technology identifying individuals in the street. If this information can be cross-referenced with other available records, then AR could blow holes through personal anonymity in public places.

  1. Who should be able to augment?

Many distasteful things lurk on the internet, from extreme adult content to unpalatable political and religious views. At the moment, such sites are outside the direct concern of the general public who are rarely, if ever, exposed to their exotic material – but AR could change this. If many different AR platforms start to evolve, ordinary folks could find themselves, their homes, their neighborhoods, and their cities used as the backdrop for morally questionable material. Are we okay with any type of image augmenting a nursery or a church, so long as it is “only virtual”?

  1. Leading users by the nose

The Pokémon GO game has led to a number of high profile incidents, including the death of players. So much so, that there is a Pokémon GO Death Tracker which logs the details of each accident. Though it might be a stretch to hold game developers responsible for careless individuals and avoidable tragedies, to what extent should companies using AR be compelled to understand the environments they are augmenting (where their product is location specific)? Should they know if they’re leading users into dangerous neighborhoods, onto busy roads, or to places where the terrain is somehow unsafe?

  1. Real or faux?

Though we might be a little way off yet, if AR experiences become the norm we may see accusations of deception in cases where the real and the virtual aspects of the experience become indistinguishable. Should there be some way to indicate to users which parts of an AR experience are fake if it isn’t entirely clear? What if convincing or compelling augmentation leads to serious confusion amongst vulnerable members of society (e.g. children and the mentally disabled)?

We might be on the cusp of something newly useful and thrilling (imagine being able to uncover facts about the world around us just by pointing a phone camera!), but it’s important that those developing AR think through all of the implications for individuals and society before a virtual Pandora’s box springs open.

*Some of the ideas here are inspired by an excellent paper by the philosopher Erica Neely.