- The first is Ready Player One: fully immersive digital life.
- Second is free man from the perspective of Ryan Reynold’s character: a continuum from standard reality to augmented reality to full immersion.
- Third is just… the internet: from its text-based origins decades ago to full-blown virtual reality.
So what is it?
I recently spent some time with Avi Bar-Zeev on that same question. You don’t know his name, but he’s been working on metaverse technology for 30 years: building the tools to tell the stories he’s wanted to share for decades. Bar-Zeev built Keyhole and then sold it to Google as Google Earth. He helped Microsoft build its mixed reality headset Hololens, collaborated with virtual world pioneer Second Life to help define its technology, built an AR cloud prototype for Bing, and VR experiences for Disney. And he’s consulted with Apple about products that he’s not talking about, but that could only be Apple’s upcoming metaverse product: VR glasses, smartglasses, or something similar, but dramatically new.
One thing is clear: he hates people who use Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash as an example of something they want to build.
“Every article always mentions Neal Stephenson’s snow crash,” Bar-Zeev told me in a… recent episode of the TechFirst podcast† “And I would describe it as a place to escape the dystopian reality, to become someone else’s anonymous. In fact, using your real name would probably kill you.”
In other words, Snow Crash is not a utopia to create, but rather a nightmare to avoid.
When Bar-Zeev ends up asking where this nebulous thing that we’re investing billions in actually is, he ends up on ‘future internet’.
But he is no longer fond of the term metaverse.
“There is a very different definition, which is very broad, which is the future internet,” he told me. “And I would argue that maybe we don’t even want to call that the ‘metaverse’ anymore because there’s so much baggage with the other, that we might want to come up with a new name for this, because it’s new and it’s more like what how then also evolves naturally … in ten years it will be something that will be common, it will simply exist around us.’
That’s why companies like Facebook invest billions of dollars. That’s why Apple is secretly working so hard to invent the next major computing platform, the smartglasses that will (perhaps) take the place of the smartphone as the computer continues its evolution from something in a room to something on a desk to something in our hand. to something on our bodies to — maybe a decade or two beyond smartglasses — something that’s part of our bodies.
Three things are key to Bar-Zeev as we continue this chaotic evolution toward the next big thing.
Listen to our conversation:
One of them is privacy.
We built the internet on the back of advertisements. Advertising is more valuable when it is accurately targeted. Accurate targeting requires data, and consumer digital data as we’ve largely built it to date is privacy invasive. Given that a metaverse internet existing in more immersive forms than what we usually experience today would mix digital and physical realities, shaping not only the facts we see, but also the world we see, making reality bubbles a bigger problem. become.
And so does privacy, as we increasingly live in digital spaces.
“I really hope that whatever we do, we come up with monetization models that don’t rely on advertising,” says Bar-Zeev. “Hopefully we have the right infrastructure and systems to get the best results, not the worst. And the worst can be pretty bad. The worst could essentially be virtual slavery, where our devices control what we see and implicitly control what we do, and we lose our freedom of thought. We lose our freedom to have our political views and what spectrums we want them to be. And therein lies a real danger. And because this technology is so much more powerful than television or the Internet, I’d say it’s another 10x more powerful.”
Another is thrift.
When we think of digital immersion, we often think of busy, noisy, in-your-face augments, with data streams and metadata filling our augmented reality views. (Not to mention ads.) As Ready Player One IOI CEO and major villain Nolan Sorrento says in the film, “We estimate that we can sell up to 80% of a person’s field of view before triggering attacks.”
Not cool, says Bar-Zeev.
“You especially want AR to be reasonably minimalist. You want to introduce one or two new elements to the world and hopefully these are things that improve your experience. You know, augmented reality is really about magnifying people, expanding your perception of the world. So if you give us too many things, we get confused and we are taken out of reality.
That can manifest itself in simple ways during our zoomed-out work-from-home lifestyle.
Looking at someone’s face during video conferencing means they see you looking below their line of sight, and the reverse is true for them. By doing some industrial lighting and magic with technology, we could both feel like we’re looking each other in the eye…shoebox downtown apartment.
The third is interoperability.
The internet worked (and works!) because it’s open. Decentralized by design and developed with standards of interoperability, so that millions of servers and devices can both run the infrastructure and access the wealth of experiences that live on it. That doesn’t mean everything works everywhere, but it does mean standard ways of engagement.
“I think interoperability is the main idea that the Internet exists in thousands, millions – maybe hundreds of millions – of servers, because we have some standards for interoperability that were established early on by people who were very progressive in terms of how we share bits and pieces. information,” says Bar-Zeev. “How do we share packages? How do we ask for things? And how do we get content out there? And that was a necessary part of building what we call the web. And I think we need the same. It’s not strictly required that every website or 3D world interact with every other, we don’t need to mash them. But it’s important that we can share some things with each other, that there are ways to get content that is fairly standard.”
And 3D immersion?
Is that crucial to the concept of metaverse?
In other words, do we need Ready Player One or Snow Crash before we can point to it and say, the metaverse exists, this is what it is, we created it?
Not for Bar-Zeev.
Because the metaverse is more than three-dimensional. It’s multidimensional and we simply can’t express that visually in three dimensions in a way that makes sense.
“We had GeoCities with the internet early on,” says Bar-Zeev. “There wasn’t much point in trying to put a 2D metaphor on the web, and I think making a 3D metaphor for the whole [metaverse] also – it’s much more than three-dimensional, that’s the problem. It’s very big dimensional and so links make sense.”
What does make sense is searching. To link. Some three-dimensional spaces for social, entertainment and certain types of work. But there are plenty of places that now resemble your flat computer screen. And others that have no physical dimensions.
When you ask Alexa to turn on the light, you gain access to the metaverse: a physical node close to you with sensors and radios, cloud systems with graphical networks of intelligence, physical networks that connect that intelligence to other smart devices in your house, and connections to the “real” world to make things really happen with switches and electrons and photons.
While we can use similar devices for both AR and VR, Bar-Zeev makes a clear distinction between the two. In this view, augmented reality is full-time, always accessible.
(We already have today. Remember the days before Google and before the smartphone? Remember how ‘ignorant’ we were? If we didn’t know something and weren’t in a place where we could ‘look it up’, we just have to write it down as something we couldn’t answer. Now, of course, most of the knowledge is a few Google searches away, and this is augmented reality. Not in a visual sense, of course, but supplemented nonetheless.)
“AR will be all the time,” says Bar-Zeev. “It’s going to be 18 hours a day to wear a useful AR device, whether it’s glasses or maybe contact lenses in the future…it’s our interface to future computers. It’s our interface to future internet. It is our interface to IoT. It is our way of connecting with people in holographic telepresence.”
Full immersion? That is less attractive to Bar-Zeev as a 24/7 reality, because it alienates us from the physical reality around us. It’s invasive and requires all of our attention: something we might only want 1% or maybe 10% of the time, he argues.
What will all this technology be for?
For Bar-Zeev a very human goal: to tell better stories.
“The first real AR demo was in 1968, the year I was born,” he told me. “The reason I started this in the first place is because I wanted to do fun things. I wanted to make movies and tell stories, and the tools were so bad I thought, okay, I should start building the tools. And the hardware is so bad, okay, I have to start building the hardware.”
“And hopefully at some point I can start telling real stories again.”