Clunky headgear, walled gardens and tech cul-de-sacs: the metaverse won’t have these bugs fixed until at least 2042, according to a chief scientist at software developer Unity.
Timoni West, who oversees augmented reality and virtual reality at the real-time 3D tools company, is refreshingly honest at not having a concrete vision for how the metaverse will pan out.
“We’re trying to envision what we’re going to do with this genuinely exciting tech,” she told Fast Company senior writer Mark Sullivan.
“We’re kind of applying it in that way where we’re assuming we’re going to take this way of doing things, and it’s going to be like this or that — but it won’t. It’ll be something completely different. It’s particularly hard to predict.”
A good example of that, West said, is how we meet in virtual spaces today with attempts at realistic avatars.
“That’s not going to be the way we’re actually doing it in 20 years,” she says.
She makes an analogy with 1982’s Blade Runner in which Deckard makes a video call from a bar, “but goes over to a payphone booth to make the call. [The filmmakers] were exactly right that we were going to do this, but they were exactly wrong about how we were going to do it.”
“It’s kind of like a teenage growth period — getting from janky computers that are usable by a few people, or that require a lot of teaching to learn how to use, towards a more humane kind of computing.”— Timoni West, Unity
Unity recently acquired Weta Digital, but Sullivan doesn’t appear to have asked West about the new acquisition. Nor does he follow up on the most intriguing line of enquiry:
“I have an idea that the metaverse will be something akin to the internet, where there are protocols that allow users to move back and forth between different virtual spaces in the same way they move between websites,” he comments, adding, “My worry is that this vision is not aligned with the interests of the people who will fund this development.”
If he’s referring to Meta, West isn’t prompted for any additional thoughts, or what can be done about it. By implication, he seems to vote for more openness and interoperable standards.
However, West also thinks the internet’s next phase will include a period of proprietary portals just like the walled gardens of the early 1990s.
The Metaverse: Risks and Opportunities
By Abby Spessard
Still in its conceptual form, the metaverse isn’t here yet but it’s already becoming many things to many different people (and brands). Not so fast, argues computer science and psychology student Anke Hao, who points out that, as future users of the metaverse, we don’t necessarily have to accept whatever definition of it we’re handed.
“If we can understand what the possibilities of the metaverse are, we can begin shaping our own definitions of it, and by extension, build a version with standards that protect our rights and open up new opportunities,” she writes on Medium.
Hao breaks down the opportunities the metaverse represents, along with many of the risks.
First up is education and training. Not only is virtual reality already used to aid certain surgical procedures, but it’s also used in various skill simulations. It’s “cheaper, more objective, and more accessible than traditional methods,” she explains. VR provides the opportunity for more practice and training in a range of fields, in any place, at any time, and however many times it’s needed.
Digital doubles and simulations present the next-biggest opportunity. “Digital twins are already saving us from expensive mistakes in manufacturing, administration and policy,” Hao explains. For example, “a digital twin of the Hong Kong International Airport was created to simulate the flow of passengers and how it changes with maintenance, runway backups, and other issues.”
The third opportunity Hao examines is digital experiences. Brands are taking advantage of the new marketing medium. “Digital experiences is where most of the consumer awareness centers around,” she says. As a new medium, the metaverse provides the opportunity to not only interest people, brands, and companies, but to craft “experiences that can eventually surpass what is physically possible in the real world.”
Data privacy is one of the biggest risks Hao identifies, especially considering the widespread security issues inherent in our current Web2. In the metaverse, a “headset might have eye tracking and emotion recognition” — it could even track your health or what grabs your attention, giving companies even more data points to use.
Identity theft powered by deepfakes and synthetic voice technology is also a major hazard, leading to mistrust of public figures and institutions. “These same tools can be used to take away the identity of people in other contexts,” she says. “Without awareness of how to detect and counter these false identities, people will be hard-pressed to know what is real and what is fake.”
Asset ownership could additionally be risky for consumers, Hao maintains, because eventually we may all own digital assets. “If so, we should understand the degree of our ownership before investing our real-world assets into digital ones.” There have already been instances where digital ownership has been thrown into question — spoiler alert: it’s the companies running the platforms.
The solution to dealing with the risks the metaverse presents is to become “architects and educated citizens.” Hao underscores that we only get a say in the development of the metaverse if we clearly understand its possibilities, limitations, and threats. In her eyes, either we become the architects in charge, or the educated citizens controlling our own information, identity, and assets.
While we may not know what form the metaverse will ultimately take, regulation and safety are still a good place to start. The metaverse is primarily made for us, Hao underlines, “so if we’re not at least keeping an eye on how the metaverse will impact our rights and opportunities, we should be the ones joining in on creating and influencing it ourselves.”
“I think we’re going to do that again,” she says. “And I think that, like last time, it will kind of implode: While all the companies are putting their resources into getting their particular stronghold and making sure they can generate revenue, it will get too big for any one company and it’ll kind of explode out again.”
West believes this is in part because “nowadays people expect things to be open. They’re going to get annoyed; they’re not going to want the world to work like that [closed model], no matter how convenient it is.”
The metaverse may be a wild frontier, but here at NAB Amplify we’ve got you covered! Hand-selected from our archives, here are some of the essential insights you’ll need to expand your knowledge base and confidently explore the new horizons ahead:
- The Metaverse is Coming To Get You. Is That a Bad Thing?
- The Metaverse Opens the Door to New Creative (and Commercial) Possibilities
- Does Anyone Actually Care Who Controls the Metaverse?
- How Do We Make Sure the Metaverse Is Equitable?
- Neal Stephenson: Who Cares About the Metaverse When We Have Real-World Problems?
As head of AR/VR, West is keen on developments that can track a person’s movement in real-time. Such “digital object-centric systems” will be important for creating the illusion of immersion but this tech has a long way to run.
“It’s kind of like a teenage growth period — getting from janky computers that are usable by a few people, or that require a lot of teaching to learn how to use, [towards] a more humane kind of computing,” she says.
“We’re very much in the awkward ‘everything is expensive, heavy, and doesn’t work that well [stage].’ But give it another good 20 years and a reasonable amount of investment, and I think we’ll kind of bridge that gap and really be in that next era of computing.”