It’s okay to be confused about the metaverse. Pessimists can point to the Meta’s struggles over the past year, convincing us that we’ll all be inhabiting this immersive 3D realm. Optimists can point to Meta’s new $499 Quest 3 virtual and mixed reality headset announced Thursday, and a competing headset Apple is expected to unveil in just a few days, as evidence that the tech giants still support the idea of immersive digital kingdom.
Put Neal Stephenson, whose 1992 dystopian sci-fi novel Snow Crash coined the term metaverse, in the optimist camp.
“Just in the last few years, it feels like a bunch of things have fallen into place — the prerequisites that we need to have in place to really start building a metaverse,” Stevenson said Wednesday in a talk at the Augmented Reality Expo.
Stevenson’s personal interest is simply not in his novel. He has worked at several startups since the 1990s, including augmented reality headset maker Magic Leap, but his current effort, Lamina1, is working on building a metaverse that he hopes will lead to an open foundation on which for developers to easily upgrade and for people to visit.
It’s going to be a tough sell. The buzz about the metaverse in 2021 has died down considerably. Facebook renamed itself Meta, but investors lambasted its ambition to capitalize on the metaverse. And the Web3 movement, which aimed to build “decentralized” tools for the metaverse that would reward those who create salable goods in the metaverse, suffers from persistent problems. This includes fraud, security vulnerabilities, and “carpet pulling” where project promoters advertise cryptocurrency, then pay out, leaving investors with priceless assets.
Creative Strategies analyst Olivier Blanchard is a skeptic and mainstream taker of computer-generated virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), which mixes computer images with the real world, and the umbrella term covering both, mixed reality (XR).
“Once the AI gold rush cools and Apple finally gives some sense of direction, it’s going to have to decide what it wants to be when it grows up if it has any hope of ever attracting mainstream users,” Blanchard said. “Metaverse and XR will need to clearly communicate to consumers how their solutions will actually make their lives better, not just more expensive and complicated.”
But maybe the metaverse or at least that hard sell soon.
Apple’s anticipated headset, which has been in the works for years and is likely to appear at the company’s WWDC developer conference, could help convince developers to build mixed reality apps. Apple has successfully wooed mobile developers to write millions of apps for the iPhone and iPad. And Meta’s Quest 3 XR headset has a video pass mode that will give it AR capabilities.
The metaverse has a long way to go before it reaches the widespread acceptance of today’s web or the metaverse in Snow Crash.
Snow Crash is a thrilling novel that uses humor and adventure to take the edge off its dystopian vision. The metaverse plays a central role in the book, but Stevenson lays the blame for the dystopia on human society more broadly. With the metaverse, Stevenson wanted to represent a technological realm that encompassed a wide range of human activity.
“Our initial exposure to the metaverse is kind of a very huge, lowest-common-denominator market of … the worst of television,” Stevenson said. “But later, as we get further into the book, we see that people have used it to make beautiful works of art. There are some people… who have put a lot of time and care into creating homes in the metaverse that are fine works of art, both visually and in that sonic environment.”
That metaverse was all about VR, but today Stevenson embraces a broader definition, “a three-dimensional virtual shared environment” that includes AR. Although Snow Crash is known for its metaverse, the real world of the book also features “gargoyle” characters, super-techies hidden behind AR glasses that constantly eavesdrop on data feeds.
Stevenson said he was impressed with the progress with VR, AR and XR, particularly with game engine tools like Unity and Unreal Engine, which are widely used for 3D graphics and games. But so far there isn’t enough reason to hang out in the metaverse.
“If we’re going to have a metaverse that’s used all the time by millions or billions of people, then there have to be experiences in the metaverse that are worth having,” Stevenson said. Lamina1’s goal is to improve metauniverse tools so that developers and other creators can create these experiences. This includes blockchain and NFT technology, which has lost much of its luster as cryptocurrencies have lost much of their value since their 2021 peak.
Lamina1 is working on partnerships to flesh out the metaverse. One is with Mira scanning the real world to create a virtual version, but several others are with game developers.
Stevenson helped co-found Lumina1 in 2022, but has stepped down from some. He is still chairman, but in 2023 he resumes writing novels, he said.
At the Augmented World Expo, AR fans abounded, including show organizer and AugmentedReality.org CEO Ori Inbar, who shared the stage with a near-life-size virtual version of himself appearing in a telepresence box created by ARHT Media . Inbar spent much of his 20 minutes on stage at the show defending the technology, arguing that it is thriving even as the tech world’s attention turns to AI.
“We won’t rest until everyone is using XR, everywhere, all the time.”