Our physical and virtual realities are becoming increasingly intertwined. Technologies such as VR, augmented reality, wearables, and the internet of things are pointing to a world where technology will envelop every aspect of our lives. It will be the glue between every interaction and experience, offering amazing possibilities, while also controlling the way we understand the world.
The building blocks of this are here. Perhaps it’s time to take the metaverse seriously.The biggest tech companies on the planet are.
“The metaverse is coming,” Nvidia CEO Jensen Huang declared last year. “If the last twenty years was amazing, the next twenty will seem nothing short of science fiction.”
First coined by author Neal Stephenson in 1992 novel Snow Crash, and elaborated by sci-fi like Ready, Player One, the metaverse is conceived as the next-generation internet.
“It is one where humans as avatars and software agents interact in a 3D space,” said Huang. “A VR successor to the internet.”
It might look like this, a short concept film made five years ago by Keiichi Matsuda called HYPER-REALITY. It presents a kaleidoscopic new vision of the future, where physical and virtual realities have merged, and the city (in this case Medellín, Colombia) is saturated in media:
Writer Dave Shapton describes the metaverse as “the convergence point of most, if not all, media, computing and communication technologies… a shared 3D space where users can see other people and share experiences. It can mirror the real world, or can be a total fantasy.”
Games building worlds like Minecraft and Fortnite are a taste of things to come.
“Though they seem like games today, inhabitants of these early metaverses are building cities, gathering for concerts and events and connecting with friends,” said Huang. “Future worlds will be photorealistic, obey the laws of physics (or not) and be inhabited by human avatars and AI beings.”
Game engine developer Epic Games, for instance, recently unveiled “Meta Humans” — photorealistic models of human beings that don’t require weeks of design and rigging.
Nvidia wants a controlling share of this online future by launching Omniverse, a cloud-computing environment powered by its GPUs for developers in any industry to fuse the physical with the virtual “to simulate reality in real time with photorealistic detail,” Huang said. “This is the beginning of the Star Trek Holodeck, realized at last.”
Nvidia’s ambition is similar to Magic Leap, Google and Apple which have also articulated versions of a 3D internet, populated by avatars (the idea is that any internet user would have their own CG representation) and governed by a new programming language for spatial or dimensional computing.
“Spatial computing is the ability to have content persist over the world geosynchronously and in flawless volumetric 3D,” former Magic Leap SVP Creative Strategy John Gaeta explained in an interview with IBC 365. “There will be various and infinite types of digital overlays on the real world. These layers or (uni)verses will bridge the physical and the digital worlds.”
Magic Leap even trademarked the term “Magicverse” to describe the layers which it thinks will populate the space between the real and the digital world.
“The metaverse will be an all-embracing fabric of interconnected services that appear to us either as a layer of data and 3D images to augment our visual field,” agrees Shapton, “or a completely immersive environment where we can indulge in fact or fantasy, or anywhere in between. It will be our choice how to engage with it.”
Apple has designs on AR goggles which will likely be a light years’ ahead of Google’s early Glass experiments or Microsoft Hololens but both companies remain highly active in this space.
Another significant player is Pokemon-Go mastermind Niantic. The company, which developed as an offshoot to Google Maps, is building a state-of-the-art planet-scale AR platform for current and future generations of AR hardware. The Niantic Real World Platform includes a massively scalable engine for user interactions. Importantly, it is being built to take advantage of 5G mobile broadband and Edge computing, both essential attributes for delivering massively multi-user networking.
Mixed reality headgear developer Magic Leap was the poster child of the metaverse. It garnered attention for attracting billions of dollars of investment from Google, Alibaba, AT&T and others but its eventual release of the Magic Leap One in 2018 proved underwhelming. It has gone back to the drawing board.
“Blended reality will be part of our everyday life,” Gaeta claimed in 2019. “So much so that we will create memories of incidents and people which are part real, part simulation. That experience will change the way we think, the way we work, how we interact socially and in turn, it will change the way artists create.”
Gaeta also helped devise the “bullet time” visual effect in The Matrix and believes that the future of Disneyland and that of every other theme park “will be a hybrid of beautiful CG environments and story-based characters intermingled with physical sets, living content and performers.”
While employed by ILM, Gaeta had even worked on proposals for wrapping Disney World in VR. “Disney’s vision of immersive and blended reality will move beyond the theme park into everyday life,” he predicts. “Smart cities will be architected, built and explored by citizens using blended reality.”
Now he’s a consultant to EON Reality whose mission statement is to propel human-computer interaction to new levels: A world where man and machine intelligence work together for mutual benefit and technology empowers people, rather than pacifies them.
“My exposure to the untapped power of immersive and experiential platforms has led me to realize that it is becoming possible to transcend many currently perceived human limits,” Gaeta said.
“Limits that have been fabricated by a world struggling to comprehend accelerated change and complexity, balance resources, educate people of all ages, evolve economies or grow intuitively into the future.”
The common thread running through all these evangelists is of a new age internet which is democratized, social, full of egalitarian opportunity and free for all. There’s an optimism, or naivety, about the more dystopian side of a world dominated perhaps even more than today by a handful of big tech capitalists who control all of our data for their own ends. Even in Ready, Player One our teen hero saves the day from the military-industrial complex.
Shapton claims it would be possible to nurture [the metaverse] as an overlay or enhancement to our everyday lives. “It won’t be necessary to leave our normal realm of existence any more than television replaced reality when it arrived,” he insists. “Instead, it became a (limited) visual portal into events (real and fictional) taking place somewhere else.”
Perhaps. Red pill or blue? Take the red, you stay in Wonderland and see how deep the rabbit-hole goes.