The Metaverse is a Bad Idea
‘Ready Player One’ described a dystopia. Why did we forget that before beginning to build a world of headsets and solitude?
The Metaverse is not a bad idea not because it can’t be built. It’s totally doable, though challenging with dozens of very complex and exciting risks that require solving for: human perception, haptics, foveated rendering, extremely lightweight optics and compute, low-latency network interconnects, and edge processing of a massively sharded but contiguous world. The depth of rich and exciting components make it an absolute field day for technologists who enjoy inventing the future and who are very good at their craft.
My first real post-college startup job was at There.com, where we were building the Metaverse; one of the other employees even had “SNWCRASH” or similar as his license plate. I built an MP3 jukebox that streamed audio from a Shoutcast server and rendered the audio in 3D so you could use your ears to walk to the nearest party. It was fun. The company cratered so hard one of the other engineers on the project, Eric, founded The Lean Startup movement to make sure nobody else ever wrecked a company that hard in that way again. (Not that I think Eric’s against the Metaverse, just against companies being 5+ years in super stealth mode.)
We shouldn’t build the Metaverse because that universe is one in which people would be unhappy.
I don’t think most people want to be sitting by themselves all day long with a headset glued to their face, having virtual experiences, going on virtual tours, spending virtual money, and playing virtual games. I think real human beings made out of meat enjoy doing things that social-oriented living creatures enjoy doing: walking in nature, sharing food with friends, feeling the sun on our skin, breathing fresh air, getting good sleep, hugging and kissing and high-fiving and tackling each other. These are experiences of being present in life and that lead to happiness and fulfillment.
We’ve had about a decade of running a grand experiment of gluing a computer display into the hands of a meaningful fraction of the world’s population. There are inarguably many amazing and magical and wondrous things this has enabled, but I think it’s also hard to look at the impact that has been had on the whole — especially on childhood — and come to the conclusion that gluing that screen to our eyes would lead to a net improvement on the human condition.
You’re not going to wear a VR headset around others. It’s just awkward. You can’t make eye contact and you have no idea what the other is experiencing. So you’re not going to wear it on the couch with others in the room. Or on the bus. Or in an open-plan office. You’ll wear it when you’re in a small room, alone. This limits the utility of VR to a handful of point applications of brief usage.
AR is a natural counterpoint to this concern, but has some other issues that don’t seem to be well explored. AR is “rude” because of the information asymmetry it engenders — you and I no longer have a shared experience of space and time. If you’re looking above my shoulder, maybe you see a beautiful bird, or maybe you’re reading your email. In real life, we follow each others’ gaze as an indicator of where attention is being spent. Meaningful eye contact between speaker and listener is a strong signal of closeness and focus; it doesn’t seem likely that technology will change this fundamental instinct. So someone wearing a headset and looking around may be referencing material we’re talking about to bring up in conversation…or maybe they’re playing a video game where dragons eat my arms off. Who knows? It’s like having your phone out and staring at it with every conversation.
Social acceptance is critical for new device adoption and yet seems imperfectly accounted for. Google Glass failed not because the cameras weren’t high quality enough or the processors beefy enough. Glass failed because others in a room didn’t want a camera recorder pointed at them (even when off). It disturbed social norms and therefore people wearing them became “Glassholes”.
Conversely, fitness bands (and later Apple Watch) succeeded because having things around your wrist has been socially acceptable for a while; while glancing at your wrist may be a sign of mild distraction or boredom, I’d argue that it’s a lighter signal than pulling out your phone to go scroll.
Technologies that want to be socially accepted will have to fit into social norms of how humans want to interact with each other. Technologies that are Good will nudge people toward experiences known to make humans happy and healthy and fulfilled. AR/VR/“XR” do none of these.
It’s more exciting — and perhaps even more challenging — to think about technologies that are subtle, that fade into the background and gently nudge us: to connect with friends and family, to stand up, to take a moment to breathe. Imagine giving everyone a magical secretary that knows when to bother you about something and when to avoid interrupting, that can suggest delightful encounters, activities, and exercises, that helps you learn about new subject areas, and that helps you reflect on the quality of your decision-making through guided introspection. A world of true “user agents” that can help us become the people we want to be, and live happy and fulfilled lives. This is a direction where technology can nudge us toward self-realization and utopia. This is where I hope we can focus. Not headsets and solitude.