The Next Internet Could Be A Dystopian Nightmare
We’ve heard a lot lately about the Metaverse; the next evolution of the internet which we will experience in fully immersive 3D virtual worlds as well as mixed and augmented reality on top of our own world. Facebook has zeroed in on this idea so much they changed their name to Meta to reflect it. So let’s look at the potential for this future, the promises that it holds… And the dystopian nightmare it could become if we get it wrong.
Hi, and welcome to… this. Whatever this is.
I’m coming to you from a place that doesn’t exist, at least not in reality but it does exist in virtual reality. And of course what you’re seeing is a virtual version of me interacting in this space.
Even though I’m really at home, right where you always see me.
VR technology has been around for a while, obviously, most of you have probably had some experience in a virtual world at some point, there have been VR experiences in theme parks and malls, there were even VR gaming headsets going back to the 90s.
But it never quite caught on. Not in the way its early proponents expected. Sorry, Lawnmower Man.
I really wanted to be Lawnmower Man.
So why now is there all this talk about “the metaverse?” What even is the metaverse, and is it really going to be the next big evolution in the internet?
And maybe the biggest question… Do you have to strap a brick to your face to use it?
At the end of October last year during their annual Connect presentation, Mark Zuckerberg announced that Facebook was changing its name to Meta. And I, along with the whole of humanity, briefly lost my eyes as they rolled back in my head.
I even came up with this killer meme that I’m fairly proud of, one of the better things I’ve ever come up with.
This whole announcement was coming hot off the heels of a list of scandals longer than the t-shirt aisle of Zuck’s walk-in closet.
Everything from election shenanigans to conducting psychological experiments on unconsenting users to literally enabling religious genocide in Myanmar.
High profile whistleblowers came forward testifying to their pursuit of profits at the expense of society, their buying up of other properties reeks of monopoly, and their apps, especially Instagram, has been linked to depression and even self-harm in young girls.
The name Facebook has become synonymous with data mining and loss of privacy, misinformation, and holy lord the social polarization.
In fact, it seems the only thing everybody in the world does seem to agree on is that Facebook is the worst thing that’s ever happened ever.
They claim their mission is to bring people together, and in that sense anyway, they have been successful.
So hey, name change! That’ll fix it!
That’s how it came across. And how it was covered by people in the media. Including myself. And I stand by my baseless mockery.
But that announcement came at the very end of the presentation, it was their “one more thing.” In fact, he totally stole from Steve Jobs when he announced it.(1:10:30 in presentation below)https://youtu.be/sdqMvEZTxlILike copying his wardrobe wasn’t enough.
No, this came at the end of an almost an hour and a half presentation on the metaverse, where he laid out in stark detail what the metaverse is, what challenges there are to overcome, and how it’s going to transform the world as we know it.
All delivered through totally natural human conversations that sound nothing at all like the sponsored segments on your local news.
I watched the whole thing.
But if you didn’t have time to watch the whole thing, here were some of the highlights…
Zuckerberg talked about Horizon Home, their virtual space that users will own in the metaverse.
By the way, that word ownership will come up again later.
It’s a little virtual home that you can design however you like, keep and organize apps, entertainment, virtual assets and avatars.
And, as it was announced in the video, you can now invite other people over to your virtual home.
You can sit in a virtual home theater with your friends and watch movies or TV shows together in this 3D space.
A lot of it centered around how interacting in virtual spaces like this is more immersive and engaging than the video calls we’ve gotten used to – just a bunch of faces on a flat screen.
Which is why they’re also pushing Horizon Workspaces, which lets people work together in a virtual 3D office.
And if you just find it hard to believe that interacting through digital avatars can be better than a zoom call, he talked about the headset they’re developing called Cambria that will be able to read and mimic facial expressions, and the next generation of avatars that aren’t quite out of uncanny valley, but are much more photorealistic.
And he talked about augmented and mixed realities where virtual objects and art interact with the real world, basically creating a digital layer on top of our reality, and setting up virtual commerce so developers and creators can make money building out this world.
Basically the point of the presentation was to establish a vision for the metaverse and promote the tools they are building that will push things in that direction.
And, much more importantly, to get out front in the minds of the public as THE company behind the metaverse.
And let’s face it, it worked.
For a lot of people, this was the first time they had ever heard of a metaverse, and it was coming from robot supervillain Mark Zuckerberg, who changed the name of his company around it… This is clearly their baby, no thank you.
Is it not enough you screwed up the world, you’ve gotta create a whole new virtual world and screw that up too?
A lot of people see a company that has plateaued. They’ve reached the saturation point, in fact, their numbers shrank in January for the first time, which caused their stock to plummet on February 3rd. They lost $230 billion in one day.
All of that was after the name change but still, the writing’s on the wall. They’re not the cool social media anymore, and with Apple’s new privacy features and various new government regulations around the world, they’re grasping at straws.
Add on top of that all these public scandals and the timing is just right to, you know, kinda change the narrative.
All of which is true, and a fair thing to say. But Facebook has been working toward this for a while. They bought Oculus in 2014, so 8 years now, way before the scandals started to hit.
Was Zuckerberg on to something? Have they been quietly laying the groundwork for the biggest thing to ever happen to the internet this whole time?
Or is this just a company nobody likes offering a product nobody wants to solve problems nobody has?
So here’s the thing… Meta is not the Metaverse.
The idea of the metaverse has been around for a while now, and there’s a lot of different people with their own ideas of what it can be and how it will work. And they say in their video that they’re building FOR the metaverse, not that they’re building the metaverse itself.
Zuckerberg just co-opted the name. Like he co-opted his outfit.
The term “Metaverse” was first coined in the Neal Stephenson book Snow Crash in 1992.
In the book, the metaverse took the form of a city street, longer than the circumference of the Earth with virtual real estate branching out from the street, creating whole neighborhoods.
And this idea of a virtual, online second world is nothing new either, in fact massively multiplayer online games have been around since 2003 when Second Life went online.
Second Life, Roblox, Minecraft, Fortnite, all of these allow people to inhabit avatars of their choosing, be social, throw parties, have relationships, and buy and sell virtual goods for actual money.
You could probably go as far as to call each of these “protometaverses” and for sure they feature a lot of the fundamentals that describe the metaverse… But the metaverse takes it further.
Metaverse expert Matthew Ball sums it up by saying:
“The metaverse is a massively scaled and interoperable network of real-time rendered 3D virtual worlds which can be experienced synchronously and persistently by an effectively unlimited number of users with an individual sense of presence, and with continuity of data, such as identity, history, entitlements, objects, communications, and payments.”
He has a nine-part series about the metaverse on his website that I’ll link down below if you want a deeper dive, it’s worth checking out if you really want to get your head around all this.
But to keep things simple here, let’s bullet point some of that quote and take a closer look.
According to Matthew Ball, the necessary features of the metaverse are:
Massively scaled Interoperable Real-time rendered 3D virtual worlds Synchronous Persistent Unlimited number of users Individual sense of presence Continuity of data
Most of these are self-explanatory so let me focus on the ones that aren’t.
Like interoperable, what does that mean, well it means basically that all the parts of the Metaverse have to work together.
For example, you can go run around in Second Life and you can shoot things up in Fortnite, but those are two different platforms run by two different companies, they don’t work together in any way.
In a metaverse situation, you might have doors in your virtual home that if you walk through one door, you’re in the Fortnite world, walk through the other door and you’re in Second Life.
Or the two could work together, or the metaverse world itself would be fully encompassing of both. Assets that are bought in one room can be used in the other one.
In the metaverse, any store, game, or experience online will have to appear by default, there can’t be silos created by different companies. It’s like imagine if some websites only appeared on Google Chrome, some on Microsoft Edge, some on Firefox?
The metaverse has to have that same interoperability but in a virtual 3D space.
SYNCHRONOUS is another feature worth commenting on
Meta’s Chief Technology Officer Andrew Bosworth describes the metaverse as “a largely synchronous experience,” meaning most of what happens there will be produced and consumed in real-time, by everybody.
Like what I’m doing right now is asynchronous. You’re not hearing me say this right now, you’re hearing me say this days and weeks later. We are not experiencing this at the same time.
Even if I was doing a livestream there would be a 30-second delay. A very annoying 30-second delay.
Multiplayer games and social media are synchronous, so that’s closer to what the metaverse will be, it’s a virtual world that we all experience at the same time.
And finally, CONTINUITY OF DATA.
Sounds boring but it’s actually super important.
When we say “data” what we mean is personal identity. Your identity has to be the same in all of the places.
Like one thing that’s always been different between real life and online life is we often take on different names and pseudonyms in various places online. But imagine if it worked that way in real life, and every time you went into a different store you had to use a different identity. That just totally wouldn’t work, and it wouldn’t work in the metaverse either.
There have to be systems in place that make proving your identity in the metaverse as easy as showing your drivers’ license in the real world – and safeguards to make sure it can’t be stolen.
So yeah, just like the internet isn’t run by one company, the metaverse can’t be either. Despite how much Facebook wants to own it.
And while you don’t HAVE to experience the metaverse in VR, it is kinda the best way to get the potential across.
Just a personal note here, I got this Quest headset toward the beginning of the pandemic as kind-of an experiment, I was wondering if since I was holed up in my house if there was any psychological benefit to VR, like is it immersive enough to actually virtually get me out of the house.
And I don’t think I actually used it enough to tell but I will say what sold me on the potential of VR was a Star Wars game.
There’s a few Star Wars games called Vader Immortal and long story short, there’s a scene where Vader walks up to you and threatens you and guys… I almost crapped myself.
Like I’m old enough to remember when Darth Vader was scary, and then we saw him as a whiny kid in the prequels and then Disney bought it out and now he’s dancing to You Can’t Touch This at Disneyworld.
Anyway, he stopped being scary.
But in this game he walks up to you and he’s like 7 feet tall and this wide and he’s just like towering over you and I was like Oh MY GOD.
VR made Darth Vader scary again for me. So yeah… It’s got some potential.
The question is… will people want to strap a device like this on their faces for hours at a time? I’ll be honest, it’s not the most comfortable thing in the world. But there’s a lot of work going on in this department.
At the time of this recording, the biggest names in VR today are Meta, Sony, and HTC.
Sony has new VR headset in the works for the Playstation 5. HTC released its latest offerings, Vive Pro 2 and Vive Focus 3, last year
These are refinements on earlier headsets which obviously move the needle a bit but probably won’t draw VR newbies in on their own.
I mentioned earlier that Meta’s working on a new headset called Cambria that will track facial features better. It also promises to have a better passthrough mode.
Passthrough is when the headset uses the cameras on the front to let you see the room around you, which I have to say is very well done on the Quest 2.
I can step outside the guardian and walk around the room without taking off the headset, and the depth perception is almost perfect. I can grab a drink or move an object like I’m just using my eyes.
And this actually sold me on the idea of augmented reality or mixed reality.
Like, with the Quest, you build a guardian barrier, this is to make sure you don’t walk into any walls or anything, and as you approach the barrier, you see lines appear to let you know that it’s there.
But when you step outside of it, you see this curtain interacting with the real world. Imagine if that was a TV display or digital art or a virtual bookshelf that holds all your favorite books or a virtual jukebox where you could play music.
AR AND MR
These are the promises of AR and MR, to enable a digital layer on top of real life.
This is actually something Apple has heavily invested in over the last few years, embedding AR functionality into their iPhones, including a LIDAR sensor, which helps with facial recognition, but also makes it possible to map out spaces.
And over the last 5 years or so, they’ve quietly bought a handful of companies that are working on AR tech, like VRvana, Polar Rose, and Akonia Holographics.
And you can see some development on synchronous avatar tech with their animojis.
But they still haven’t really come out with any VR or AR gear… yet.
And that might be because, if you want to operate in a mixed or augmented reality space, a VR headset with high-res passthrough might do the job, but it’s doubtful that people will want to spend a majority of their day with this brick attached to their face.
As long as you have to wear a big clunky device on your head, the metaverse will just be a place you step into from time to time. It’s like the internet before smartphones. You could access it… if you were sitting at a computer.
Smartphones allowed us to take the internet with us, to integrate it into our lives, and the apps gave us the ability to never get lost, to find food, information… and Pokemon.
Ah yes, Pokemon Go, the OG of AR.
For the metaverse to become a part of our daily lives, we’ll need something more sleek and streamlined than a VR helmet. For that… we’re gonna need smartglasses.
Smartglasses have passthrough built-in. Since, you know, they’re see through.
You can use them to transport you to fully immersive virtual worlds or present a virtual digital layer on top of reality.
So far smartglasses have been… less than impressive?
Google Glass came out in 2013 to mixed reviews, some people called it ugly while other people hailed it as remarkably stupid.http://prod-upp-image-read.ft.com/be408ffc-c094-11e1-982d-00144feabdc0
And this is still kind-of what comes to mind when people think of smart glasses, it’s just this dorky thing that only tech bros wore and didn’t really do much except make people stare at you.
It was basically just a tiny little screen that would show you images and information with minimal user interface, they’ve gotten more functional over the years but this is more like a different implementation of a smartphone than VR glasses.
Snapchat released Spectacles in 2016, which was basically glasses with built-in cameras to take images and post on the app.
These didn’t exactly take off with consumers, I don’t remember hearing much excitement around them and honestly, I’d kind-of totally forgotten about them… Until I was researching for this video.
Turns out they’ve made some giant leaps with this product. Last year, they debuted a new version of Spectacles that have AR functionality.
I don’t think they’re actually selling these to the public yet, it’s really for developers, but the glasses work along with the Snapchat app to add AR graphics in real-time.
And Snap is pretty well positioned for this because they pioneered real-time filters and lenses that are, essentially a kind of augmented reality. This just puts them in glasses that you wear.
There’s still a long way to go, the battery life is apparently terrible and it only has a narrow field of view, but it’s pretty major progress.
Last year, Ray-Ban collaborated with Facebook, now Meta, on Ray-Ban stories, which allow you to record videos and live chat with people on Facebook.
They’re still in the “extension of your phone” phase, but it’s a start.
At CES 2022, just a month ago or so, a company named Vuzix announced the Vuzix Shield, promising a real AR experience but this is not really for consumers, these are for professional use cases, and will be priced as such.
But this is the closest that we’ve gotten to real AR smartglasses.
So there’s still a way to go on this.
I feel like I would be remiss if I didn’t mention a couple of other contenders in this field and that’s the Microsoft Hololens and the Magic Leap One.
These aren’t smart glasses as much as AR headsets and both were making some big splashes back around 2018, but Magic Leap unfortunately kinda folded and the Hololens…
Well the biggest purchaser of HoloLens to date has been the US Army.
They issued a second generation in 2019 and there were plans for a HoloLens 3 but those seem to be cancelled….
Or is it…?
The point is, there is progress here. Hell up until just a couple years ago, most quality VR headsets were tethered, you had to be connected to a computer.
It really won’t be long until someone cracks the code and produces a high-quality, easy to use and relatively inexpensive pair of glasses that will make the ultimate vision of the metaverse a reality.
And when this happens I truly think it will be the most transformative tech gadget since the iPhone, something that will fundamentally change how we interact with the world. And that company is going to bank. Hard.
Imagine it, a pair of glasses that when you put them on shows you a whole level of reality that you couldn’t see before
Computers and TVs might become irrelevant because you can put a screen up anywhere you want in the house.
Imagine navigation showing up as arrows floating in space ahead of you, pointing you in the right direction.
Imagine billboards and ads that interact with you as you walk past them. Walking into stores and buying real life items sitting on a shelf right next to virtual items, which by the way, NFTs kinda make sense in a virtual world like this because if you buy something you want to know that it’s authenticated in some way.
Or… you could teleport from your home as an avatar to a store and buy virtual goods, and purchase real goods to be delivered to your home.
Imagine virtual paramedics that can be on the scene of an emergency instantly as an avatar to assess the situation and walk you through any triage that’s possible before the ambulance arrives.
Imagine going back in time and visiting virtual recreations of ancient Rome or New York when it was still New Amsterdam, or ride on the Titanic.
Imagine a friend calling you and when you accept the call, they just appear, either as an avatar or in 3D, right in front of you.
Like, holograms in the future is just like a trope in science fiction, we’ve always imagined we would have that someday. This is pretty much that. It just requires glasses.
Imagine a world like the one in Free Guy, where once you put on the glasses, the world becomes a first person video game where you can interact with virtual players from all around the world, virtual bullets flying everywhere, virtual cars flying off of virtual bridges while a virtual volcano explodes on the horizon, the only limit to reality will the the limits of our own imagination… Yeah, does anybody really want this?
I mean, could this essentially take all the worst parts of the internet and bring them into living reality?
We’re already so immersed in our online presence that it’s damaging us, mentally.
Like you don’t hear a lot of mental health experts saying we need MORE internet these days.
I mean a lot of these future visions with the holograms everywhere are pretty dystopian.
Think of all the websites where 90% of the screen space is just ads and popups and imagine what it would be like walking through a store with those glasses on.
As you try to walk out of the store a popup comes up saying, “Wait, before you go! Shoes half off!”
The world could be chaos, filled with digital panhandlers crawling over each other for your last shred of attention. This is what reality could be in the future if the tech companies have their way. Which is why many believe that if the metaverse if going to happen, it’s going to have to be a new kind of technology. A whole new kind of internet. Something that goes by the name of Web3.
THE NEW WEB
The Internet as we use it right now is called Web2. Or Web 2.0 but that’s a pretty outdated term, Web2 is dominated by social media and user-generated content.
Web1 was the early days of the internet where people put up pages and other people read those pages. It was mostly text and sometimes called the “read-only internet.”
So Web2 was all about engagement and interactivity. Web3 will be more about ownership; I mentioned that earlier. And this is where blockchain technology comes in.
Blockchain allows the metaverse to be decentralized, not owned by any one entity. And digital assets will need to be singular items that can’t be copied. Or… Non-fungible.
Like I said before, NFTs kinda make sense in a metaverse environment.
The thought is that in Web3, blockchain technology will be used to enhance creator rights, so that posting digital assets will grant you a stake in how the asset is distributed.
And your identity wouldn’t be wrapped up in a Facebook or Google account, you would own a secure, personal identity that you can share however you see fit.
If you want to buy something on credit, you can show your financial records to the creditor, no need for a bank or a credit agency.
Instead of countless logins and passwords, you can visit a website or virtual store and they’ll know it’s you.
A virtual contract signing will become a handshake.
Like the metaverse itself, Web3 is still an amorphous, ever-evolving thing and an entire video could be made on that alone, in fact, I’m going to link to some great videos and podcasts about it down below.
But that’s an example of how there are several different types of technologies that are maturing at the same time that could make the metaverse happen – whatever it turns out to be.
And Facebook – or Meta – is just one of dozens of companies who are trying to get in there first. It’s literally a virtual land grab.
Think about all the companies and even industries that went kaput when the internet came around. Well if the metaverse really is the next internet, if it really is Web3, nobody wants to be caught on their heels when that happens.
So there’s that fear of not being able to adapt fast enough, and then there’s fear of missing out, FOMO.
Add in the greed and speculation that accompanies any gold rush, and it’s easy to see how all this hype got built up around it.
But this really isn’t going to be happening any time soon, these technologies are coming together fast, but there’s still a pretty long way to go. Or, as Zuck himself said…(Play the Connect clip from 1:10:13 and slowly zoom in on his awkward hands. Then cut to Ricky Bobby saying, “I’m not sure what to do with my hands”)https://youtu.be/M8PP3QU7wjIIt’ll be interesting to watch and as a content creator, I definitely have my eye on it, it could really shake up the creator economy, in probably good and bad ways.
But it’s not something I really worry about because I mean… you can always take the glasses off.
And just one more contrarian point before I go… I think it’s possible that this entire conceit, that people want a more immersive, synchronous social experience through the internet… might be flawed.
I think we might actually be moving in the opposite direction.
As our communication technology has evolved, we’ve gone from having to answer the phone when it’s ringing or we’d miss it entirely to someone can leave a message on the answering machine and we call them back when we want, to not calling at all and just sending a text message, which is the most popular form of communication today.
Hell you could say we’ve moved from text messages to just sending emojis and gifs.
We’re reverting back to hieroglyphics!
I mean I don’t know about you but I barely even answer the phone anymore because I’m always in the middle of something and I hardly ever answer the door, even though I have a smart doorbell that allows me to talk to them through my phone, instead I’m hiding behind the couch so I don’t have to deal with the scary Girl Scouts outside. Like a man.
Technology has given us the gift of connection but it’s also given us the gift of control over our own time. And we seem to be valuing that more.
So the idea of being always plugged in to a virtual world… I don’t know. It might not be as popular as the tech bros think.
But what do you think? I know this was kind-of a high-level overview and there’s a lot that isn’t included here that adds a lot of nuance, feel free to chime in with anything I missed down below.