There are at least three major potential definitions of the metaverse, this hot trendy thing that Facebook is investing $5 billion into and hiring 10,000 technologists for.
- First is Ready Player One: fully immersive digital life.
- Second is Free Guy from the perspective of Ryan Reynold’s character: a continuum from default reality to augmented reality to full immersion.
- Third is just … the internet: from its text-based origins decades ago to complete virtual reality.
So which is it?
I recently spent some time with Avi Bar-Zeev on that very 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, then sold it to Google as Google Earth. He helped Microsoft build its mixed reality headset Hololens, worked with virtual worlds 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 on products he won’t talk about, but can only be Apple’s coming metaverse product: VR goggles, smartglasses, or something similar but dramatically new.
One thing is clear: he hates people using 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 that one I would describe as a place to escape dystopian reality, to go become someone else anonymous. In fact, you using your real name would actually probably get you killed.”
In other words: Snow Crash is not a utopia to create, but rather a nightmare to avoid.
If Bar-Zeev lands anywhere on the question of what this nebulous thing we’re investing billions into actually is, he lands on “future internet.”
But he’s not crazy about the term metaverse anymore.
“There’s a whole other definition, which is the really broad one, which is it’s just 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 ones, that maybe we want to come up with a new name for this, because it is new and it’s more like what evolves naturally anyway … ten years from now, it’s something that’ll just be, it’ll just exist around us.”
That’s why companies like Facebook are investing billions of dollars. That’s why Apple is working so hard in secrecy to come up with 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 body to — perhaps a decade or two past smartglasses — something that is part of our body.
Three things are key to Bar-Zeev as we continue this chaotic evolution towards the next big thing.
Listen to our conversation:
One is privacy.
We built the internet on the back of advertising. Advertising is more valuable when accurately targeted. Accurate targeting requires data, and digital consumer data as we have largely built it to date is privacy invasive. Given that a metaverse internet existing in more immersive forms than what we ordinarily experience today would mix digital and physical realities, shaping not just the facts we see but the world we see, reality bubbles become a bigger problem.
And so does privacy, as we increasingly live in digital spaces.
“I really hope that whatever we do, we figure out monetization models that don’t rely on advertising,” says Bar-Zeev. “Hopefully we’ll have the right infrastructure and systems in place for the best outcomes to happen and not the worst. And the worst could be pretty bad. The worst could be basically virtual enslavement, where our devices are controlling what we see and implicitly controlling what we do, and we lose our freedom of thought. We lose our freedom to have our political views and whatever spectrums we want them to be. And so there’s a real danger there. And because this technology is so much more powerful than television or the internet has been, I’d say it’s another 10X more powerful.”
Another is parsimony.
When we think of digital immersion, we often thing of busy, noisy, in-your-face augments, with streams of data and metadata filling our augmented reality views. (Not to mention ads.) As Ready Player One IOI CEO and big time bad guy Nolan Sorrento says in the movie, “we estimate we can sell up to 80% of an individual’s visual field before inducing seizures.”
Not cool, says Bar-Zeev.
“Mostly you want AR to be fairly minimalistic. You want to introduce one or two new elements into the world, and hopefully these are things that enhance your experience. You know, augmented reality is really about augmenting people, augmenting your perception of the world. So if you give us too much stuff, we’re going to be confused and we’re going to be pulled out of reality.
That can manifest in simple ways during our Zoomed-out work-from-home lifestyles.
Watching someone’s face while videoconferencing means they’re seeing you look below their visual field, and the inverse is true for them. Performing some industrial light and magic with technology could make us both feel like we’re looking each other in the eyes … and maybe give us a meeting setting in Himalayas, or on the African savannah, rather than in my suburban basement and your downtown shoebox condo.
The third is interoperability.
The internet worked (and works!) because it is open. Decentralized by design, and engineered with standards of interoperability so that millions of servers and devices can both run the infrastructure and access the wealth of experiences living on it. That doesn’t mean everything works everywhere, but it does mean standard modes of engagement.
“I do think that interoperability is the key idea that the internet exists in thousands, millions — hundreds of millions maybe — servers, because we have some standards of interoperability that were established early on by people who were very forward-thinking in terms of how do we share bits of information,” Bar-Zeev says. “How do we share packets? How do we ask for things? And how do we put content out there? And that was a necessary component to be able to build what we call the web. And I think we do need the same thing. It’s not strictly required that every website or every 3D world interoperate with every other one, we don’t have to mash them up. But it is important that we can share some things between them, that there are ways of fetching content that are fairly standard.”
And 3D immersion?
Is that critical 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 have created it?
Not for Bar-Zeev.
Because the metaverse is more than three dimensional. It’s multi-dimensional and we simply can’t express that visually in three dimensions in a way that makes sense.
“We had GeoCities early on with the web,” Bar-Zeev says. “It didn’t make a ton of sense to try to put a 2D metaphor on the web, and I think making a 3D metaphor for the entire [metaverse] also — it’s way more than three-dimensional, that’s the problem. It’s very large dimensional and so links make sense.”
What does make sense is searching. Linking. Some three-dimensional spaces for social, entertainment, and certain types of work. But plenty of places that look pretty much like your flat computer screen right now. And others that have no physical dimensions.
When you ask Alexa to turn on the lights, you’re accessing the metaverse: a physical node close to you with sensors and radios, cloud systems with graph networks of intelligence, physical networks connecting that intelligence to other smart devices in your home, and connections to the “real” world to make things actually happen with switches and electrons and photons.
While we might use similar devices for both AR and VR, Bar-Zeev makes a distinct separation between the two. In this view, augmented reality is full-time, always accessible.
(We already have that today. Remember pre-Google and pre-smartphone days? Remember how “ignorant” we were? If we didn’t know something and weren’t in a place we could “look it up,” we would just have to chalk it up as something we couldn’t answer. Now, of course, most knowledge is a few Google searches away, and this is augmented reality. Not in the visual sense, of course, but augmented nevertheless.)
“AR is going to be all the time,” Bar-Zeev says. “It’s going to be 18 hours a day of wearing some convenient AR device, whether it’s glasses or maybe at some point in the future it’s contact lenses … it’s our interface to future computers. It’s our interface to future internet. It’s our interface to IoT. It’s our way of connecting with people in holographic telepresence.”
Full immersion? That’s less appealing as a 24/7 reality for Bar-Zeev, because that absents us from the physical reality around us. It’s invasive and demands all our attention: something that we’ll want perhaps only 1% or maybe 10% of the time, he argues.
What is all this technology going to be for?
For Bar-Zeev, a very human purpose: telling better stories.
“The first true AR demo was in 1968, which was the year I was born,” he told me. “The reason I got into this in the first place is I wanted to do fun stuff. I wanted to make movies and tell stories, and the tools were so bad that I’m like, okay, I gotta go start building the tools. And the hardware’s so bad, okay, I gotta go start building the hardware.”
“And hopefully at some point I get to actually go start telling stories again.”
Subscribe to TechFirst, or get a full transcript.