The metaverse needs a reckoning.
Like the term itself, the space feels shrouded in ambiguity, garnering far more questions than answers.
Amidst the fog, sentiment is low and the skeptics are out in full force (albeit with horribly narrow and shortsighted takes…). A classic trough of disillusionment.
If we’re going to climb out, we need to shift the narrative, because the current one is rather uninspiring, plagued by legless avatars, dormant VR headsets, Hollywood-grade fraudsters, and a notion unrelatable to most: an entirely virtual world to take us away from the real one we so adore.
To that end, this essay proposes a new framework for defending the metaverse. It’s designed to arm you with better talk tracks for educating and inspiring your friends, your colleagues, and your customers.
The framework consists of three pillars:
- The ‘what’ (a more simple and refined definition)
- The ‘why’ (why this future matters)
- The ‘how’ (how we’re going to get there, and the progress thus far)
We’ll cover the first two in this Part I of the series, then tackle the all-important how in Part II. And while I’ll lightly touch on Web3, this essay is largely focused on my area of expertise; what we at AWS call ‘spatial computing’.
Think of spatial computing as a spectrum of immersive technology, ranging from real-time 3D, to augmented reality, to virtual reality, and all the wonderful experiences they bring to bear, e.g. simulations, games, digital twins, virtual worlds, 3D e-commerce, the list goes on.
We’ll also tease out spatial computing’s ultimate pairing: generative AI and large language models (albeit a topic worth an entire essay in itself).
Without further ado, let’s jump straight in.
As a first order of business, we need a less hand-wavy definition of the metaverse; one that focuses on what it more practically is, versus how it might theoretically manifest (because that’s quite hard to predict).
The metaverse is just the internet, with an upgrade at two layers of the tech stack: the data layer and the experience layer.
At the data layer, it’s an evolution towards more open, immutable databases, allowing for digital ownership, provenance, persistence, and portability. These ‘ledgers’ lead to the ‘personification’ of digital objects, imbuing them with real-world properties and allowing them to become first-class citizens within the economy and our culture.
The experience layer is an evolution towards more spatial and intelligent interfaces, with increased immersion, shared presence, and more natural and intuitive interaction (e.g. our voice, hands, eyes, and mind).
Visually, these interfaces conform to how our brains have evolved as humans, to interpret and reason about the world in full dimensions. They also merge the digital world with the physical, bringing our attention back to the real world, and to each other.
As for intelligence, generative AI and large language models catalyze a true merging of mind and machine, bringing the digital world to life in the form of the ultimate co-pilot; automating, predicting, and interpreting our every need.
More simply stated: the metaverse is the internet, with better visualization, intelligent applications, and more empowering forms of data storage/transfer.
Because we already live in the metaverse, it’s just half-baked and leaves much to be desired.
We already find love in virtual spaces (Bumble, Hinge), forge friendships in virtual worlds (Fortnite), shop in virtual stores (Amazon.com), work in virtual rooms (Zoom, Slack, etc), and shape geopolitics in virtual town squares (Twitter).
But this half-baked version has its flaws. Be it our obsession with phones and the ensuing consequences, e.g. dwindling attention spans, cricks in our necks, the general disconnection from those around us. Be it the learning curve for building, creating, and using software. Or be it the feudalism that comes with massive, closed repositories of our data, trapped within the databases of a few megacorps, beholden to their terms of service with unfair and unpredictable take rates.
If anything, it’s this current version of the internet that is holding us back, with back-end architectures and interfaces that constrain in so many ways.
The metaverse is our attempt to change this and bring the internet full circle, properly integrating the existing digital world with the ‘real one.’
Success looks like the internet you already know and love, but more experiential, more tangible, more accessible, and more human, with the same properties and liberties that create prosperity in the real world; ones that connect us deeper with all the ‘real world’ things we love most, largely culture, and all of the intangible value locked within; brands, narrative, memes, music, art, etc.
Properties like nonfungibility, and the liberty to own, transport, transform, and transact.
Properties like shared presence, eye contact, and voice interaction, liberate us from tiny rectangles, the need for fervently dexterous thumb, and the need for a computer science degree to code/build.
Now don’t fret. This future won’t entail a brick on your face and complete immersion into a virtual world.
While VR is cool and great for entertainment, it won’t be how most people prefer to access the metaverse.
The preference will be AR and natural language, via a sleek and fashionable pair of glasses that will be advantageous in so many ways.
And no, you won’t have to wear AR glasses all-day long (although, some most certainly will). But you will use them to enhance and enrich particular moments throughout your day, injecting your perceptual system with limitless agency, in any environment, and any situation.
This could be increased agency as a storyteller in the classroom, as a parent sharing a memory, a doctor during surgery, a front-line worker doing maintenance, or a designer creating the perfect home.
It’s these ‘moments’ that will be the more impactful and lucrative version of ‘the metaverse’; one that blends immersive experiences more naturally and contextually within our day-to-day activities, rather than forcing you to escape and become completely immersed.
At the highest layer of abstraction, consider AR the ultimate tool for communicating any idea; augmenting language with visuals and digital information to improve knowledge transfer and cement understanding (between both humans and machines/LLMs).
Think of AR as ‘Language +’. Or what Terrence McKenna calls, ‘the embodiment of language’.
McKenna is most well known as a pioneer in psychedelics and peak experiences, but he was also one of the metaverse OGs. Here’s a throwback of him waxing poetic about communication in cyberspace.
He says, “Imagine if we could see what people actually meant when they spoke. It would be a form of telepathy. What kind of impact would this have on the world?”
This question is even more pronounced today, amidst two backdrops. On one hand, we have extreme social and geopolitical polarity, with both sides of all issues continuously talking past each other. On the other, generative AI, turning our language into media, action, and knowledge.
McKenna goes on to describe language in a simple but eye-opening way, reflecting on how primitive language really is.
He says, “Language today is just small mouth noises, moving through space. Mere acoustical signals require the consulting of a learned dictionary. This is not a very wideband form of communication. But with virtual/augmented realities, we’ll have a true mirror of the mind. A form of telepathy that could dissolve boundaries, disagreement, conflict, and a lack of empathy in the world.”
Of course, we shouldn’t discredit language. It’s the most powerful technology we’ve created to date, created in the presence of our second most important technology: fire.
The combination of the two brought our ancestors into communion, circling around a campfire to connect, tell stories, teach, make plans, and merge minds. The outcome was the application of humanity’s most powerful ‘inner tech’: our imagination.
Augmented reality and generative AI are creating humanity’s next-generation campfire. This combo will produce shared context, enhance the stories we tell, and enliven the lessons we teach; all while keeping us in flow through maintained eye contact, mutual wonder, and shared digital experience.
Human imagination has gotten us pretty far to date. But now, with this next-gen campfire, the limits to realizing our imagination will be removed, our misconceptions about the other will dissipate, and our ability to turn dreams into reality becomes limitless.
We’ll pause there and pick up the narrative next week in Part II of the series, diving into the “how.” Meanwhile, further reading on this topic can be seen in the following pieces.
Evan Helda is Principal Specialist for Spatial Computing at AWS, where he does business development, product strategy, and go-to-market strategy for all things AR, VR, and real-time 3D. You can check out more of his insights at MediumEnergy.io, or follow him on Twitter @evanhelda. Opinions expressed here are his, and not necessarily those of his employer.