The metaverse could be a “dystopian nightmare”
The metaverse, the concept of an alternate and shared digital world that has its origins in science fiction, has surfaced in tech gossip in the final days of the pandemic. It’s a concept that a number of Big Tech and game companies, including Facebook, Roblox, and Epic Games, are trying to bring to life.
One of the technologies that can be used to interact with a future metaverse is augmented reality, which mixes digital content with the real world through a smartphone screen right now and AR glasses in the future. Niantic created the game that introduced many people to augmented reality, Pokémon Go, which means that the company has a vested interest in its own version of a digital reality. Niantic said on Tuesday it has acquired a 3D scanning app called Scaniverse, which it will use to stream images from the cameras of gamers’ smartphones. These images will form a map that will allow Niantic to anchor digital objects in real-world locations.
A number of people have pointed out that the early conceptions of the metaverse in William Gibson’s novels (Neuromancer), Neil Stephenson (Snow accident) and Ernest Cline (Loan Player One) have been described in dystopian terms. Niantic CEO John Hanke thinks things could easily go in that direction. The technology used to experiment with the metaverse is very important, as are the business motivations of the companies that build it.
I explained to Hanke why and how the Metaverse could become, in his own words, a “dystopian nightmare.”
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Fast business: It’s kinda weird to hear the word metaverse suddenly become so commonly heard and read. I don’t know what people imagine when they hear this term.
John Hanke: I think that’s a pretty big bifurcation in the road between the metaverse as an über-VR escape alternative to reality, and the tech that takes the route of wearable devices and things that support us. when we are in the world as human beings. . I really think this is a big deal.
We are squarely in the camp of technology which is becoming more and more invisible and less important. It’s just there to support us, serve us and help us. But that’s not the thing that takes hold of our interactions.
Ubiquitous computing, which is an 80s Xerox PARC concept, has been around for a long time, but the trajectory that was mapped was one where computing would simply blend into the surfaces around us.
We would have what we needed. It’s not like we start walking to the airport again and get a paper ticket. But things would just be there seamlessly, so maybe we could connect and we could see a path that tells us where we need to walk, and we could maybe get our boarding information electronically, but that would happen. quite simply and finished. I think there are a million ways that technology can improve our lives in this way.
Our thesis as a company is that gaming will be one of the leading technologies. [We] having this concept of reality chains – this idea of games that transform the world around you in an almost passive way that improves it and makes it more interesting, makes it more fun and [puts] a bit of adventure and excitement.
It’s almost like an Instagram filter that’s always on, basically with Pokémon Go-like integrated gameplay. It’s our take on one of the transitional apps as we move towards this idea of a real-world metaverse.
And then there’s this other conception of the metaverse where it’s like you can disappear into this other world, like an escape thing. And it is very different from the AR approach that you describe.
Yes, and I think that’s the philosophical divide. I’m a cyberpunk fan, so I read Stephenson and Gibson and Cline when they first came out. . .
I also helped create one of the first 3D MMO games and it was in the 1990s, this idea of an online world you would go to. It was all very exciting back then. But I think we’ve seen the darker side of technology now when it usurps the human stuff that we do, when it comes in between our relationships and all of our information, and takes the place of technology. town or neighbor or walk in the park.
Thinking back to the pandemic, there were certainly a lot of Netflix and Amazon food and grocery deliveries, but there was also a huge amount of walking – people reconnecting with their neighborhood. So it was the two extremes I think.
If a preview of the Metaverse is, I’m plugged in and have all Netflix I could ever want and all the video games I could ever want and food on demand, which is the model depicted in the Loan Player One novel, I just say count me.
You talk a lot about how your games encourage people to get out of the world and walk around.
In the last few years of AR work at Niantic, I have delved into the science around walking and the brain. [Walking] is so hardwired into our evolutionary neural pathways. Our brains come to life in several ways as we move around the world in a three-dimensional environment. It’s real, and it’s more than just visual perception. There is all this debate about whether your mind is right in your brain or right in your whole body. And there is a very strong argument to be made that your neural perception and cognition is really happening throughout your body.
So the idea that you can just put on a helmet and shoot photons in your eyes and somehow replace the whole body experience that you have in the world is wrong. .
There is this concept of an avatar, or digital twin, which represents you in a digital space. How does that fit into Niantic’s vision for the Metaverse?
It’s not as important because when you meet other people in the game, you are physically standing in front of them. In some of our games, like Pokémon Go, there is an avatar and you can see your own avatar. In fact, we don’t even show you the avatars of other people in the game, unless someone has taken control of a Pokémon Go gym, and then there’s a version of their avatar standing there, like Marcus Aurelius or something, like the gym champion. So you will get to know people a little bit through it.
The same goes for the cat. The cat is such a large part of most of these [virtual] experiences, and by chat I mean online text chat. And that’s never really been a big part of our games because it’s so much easier when people play together just to talk to the person next to you. It is faster and higher bandwidth.
And that’s where the idea of improvement or replacement comes in. So, it is enough to improve the normal biological elements, improve them or increase them. So hopefully we can influence the industry and really move it in that direction. I feel like it’s inevitable, like it’s just a better, more natural way to use technology.
How should the different metavers connect with each other? Or are we heading towards a future where everyone is maybe in two or three dominant metaverse?
I think it’s a different question when you talk about the Snow accident version, where it replaces reality, because then it is your reality. And if there’s one version you’re in, and there’s another version that other groups of people are in, you might never meet.
If you are talking about AR. . . let’s say Niantic has 100 different experiences you can have in San Francisco, and so there’s a bunch of people whose paths cross in Union Square or on the Embarcadero. They experience the world thematically a little differently, but they [all] meet at the same taco stand at the farmer’s market. So there’s this common grounding of reality that, frankly, I think, takes part of it.
Our first effort to come is to move forward towards a way for people, whatever their experience, to cross paths and have a shared social interface with each other. We are building this common social layer that shows up in all of our games and exists as a standalone app.
It means if I play outside Harry potter and you play Pokémon Go or do one of our other experiences, that we can still talk to each other and swap things and share screenshots and highlights and stuff with each other.
It’s very interesting to think of the next generation of social media built on new technology like AR. Do you think an AR-based social network, if done right, could correct some of the serious problems with social media we have today?
I think social, when it comes to connecting people to each other, is about all good. [But] what we call social today is not so much social. It is about consuming this stream of selected and suggested content that is provided to us so that advertisements can be inserted into it, which is far from the origin of these companies. This is not what Facebook was originally. This is not the subject of Twitter originally.
So that’s probably a disservice by the word social to reflect on how these applications have become media providers. It’s not really about social anymore. I don’t know how much of Facebook traffic is messaging your friend, instead of just going through the feed of whatever they send you. But I have the impression that there is a distinction there.
True social [is] designed to connect distant people, grandmothers with their grandchildren. We need this. It is a wonderful thing that the Internet can do for us. It’s a shame that this world now has to be confused with viral disinformation and weird political stuff.
We don’t want to become that, and it probably doesn’t even make sense in AR, that multimedia pilot. We talk to other people and make plans together.