I’m extremely excited to have been chosen as a mentor and judge at the upcoming MIT Reality Hack, March 23-27, 2022.
Five straight days of watching students and creators come together to create XR projects – the last one (in 2020) saw 75 teams create projects that included climate change visualizations in VR, AR storyboarding tools, spatialized hashtags, VR accessibility toolkits, VR games and much more. Am curious to see what they come up with this year!
What follows is the transcript for a GIIDE entry, audio storytelling softward that makes audio fully interactive.
I’ve seen so many articles and posts and pontifications and prognostications and just, well HYPE, about what the Metaverse means, since Mark Zuckerberg brought the concept into the public eye last fall with the Meta name change. Linkedin has caught FIRE with all of the experts.
I’m generally speaking, hype averse – so have avoided adding my voice to the melee until now. As they say about opinions…everyone has one. And I certainly have my own – and thought, maybe, after all the initial hype has died down a bit, this would be a good time to actually say what I think it means.
But first, a short history. The concept of the Metaverse has been around for quite some time now, and the word itself was coined in the book “snow crash” by Neal Stephenson back in 1992 (30 years ago!). Basically he envisioned the future as a virtual reality-based successor to the internet, which in some ways spatial computing definitely is. In Snow Crash, people use digital avatars of themselves to explore the online world, often as a way of escaping a dystopian reality.
I have to admit – and this is HERESY in my world – I was never a fan of the book and have never actually got all the way through, as I’m not a fan of dystopianism. But it was a huge hit, and continues to be a name that’s often brought up.
So what is this “metaverse” we’re now talking about?
For me it’s not about virtual reality per se. It’s about a bunch of technologies, working together, to bring us another dimension of interaction about and beyond what our physical bodies can do. Virtual reality – or, complete immersion in an alternative environment – is one. And yes, with avatars that are extensions of ourselves.
But there’s also augmented reality: bringing things into the real world, and overlaying them onto it. Objects, sounds, information – all an extra layer or experience that enhances the physical. I’m personally a big fan of Microsoft’s term “mixed reality” because it really describes how it’s a spectrum of realities, that go from complete immersion to lightly overlaying the physical world.
Neither of these will seamlessly integrate into our day without artificial intelligence feeding how these things work in context; no one wants 1000 things jumping out at us as we walk down the street. There needs to be a layer that acts as an intelligent mediator, gatekeeper and general personal concierge; this is table stakes in this game.
AI will also facilitate intelligent conversation with a brand’s avatar ambassador, for example, who you will be able to chat with using natural language.
And finally – blockchain technology adds a transaction layer over (or under) all of these things, enabling you to credibly identify who you’re talking to, or let you buy and own things in the virtual world. Cryptocurrencies and NFT enabled digital items, built using blockchain technology, will allow you to personalize your virtual experience with items that are personal to you, whether it’s in a completely immersed space, or one that’s adding data to the world you see around you.,
That, to me, is where the metaverse lives. Not in one destination, a “let’s go to the metaverse” kind of a thing, but in the sum total of all the ways you interact with your spatial data. Everyone’s metaverse will be their own, personal one that they create by engaging with and permissioning various parts of this experience. Just as the virtual world is intangible, so will the magic web of additional data we weave around us be something amorphous – and personal.
We are so. far. away from this vision technically. So many companies are trying to put up walled gardens, and interoperability will be key to making this work. But As Tony Parisi said in his epic “Seven rules of the metaverse” it cannot be owned. And that’s because there is no one entity supplying it; it’s your choices that make it real to you. It exists, and always will exist, as a concept that describes an intangible extra dimension of experiences; and I for one love the idea that we can create a life that’s enriched with additional connection and experiences above and beyond the physical limitations that humanity has always had.
I was asked by a journalist to answer the question, “What do you see as the biggest trends in AR/VR/XR in 2022?” – and although I typically think a little further out than that, here are some of my thoughts on the matter. I took out the bits he’s using in the article, and will post links to that when it comes out – but these are what I think some of the most important short term trends for XR will be next year.
Work: The work at home will continue in 2022, and companies will increasingly realize that distributed workforce can work in many situations and for many industries (and is cheaper than paying for office space). Zoom fatigue is real though, and 2022 will see companies trying out the new VR collaboration spaces like Spatial.io, Arthur, Engage and others to foster a remote yet together sense of camaraderie and collaboration.
Look to see some of the bigger names in the industry announcing official “virtual” offices. This will in turn bring new consumers to try VR, where they might not have been willing before; see this in turn spur the creation of a bunch of new VR applications that are not about gaming. Avatar customization will in turn be a hot area of development; expect an announcement in 2022 for cross platform avatars that will allow consumers to create avatars they can use on multiple platforms.
Advertising: Brands will continue to explore what augmented reality can add to the existing marketing funnel, and the experiences that can enhance the brand-customer relationship. People are already getting used to AR through Snap and other lenses; a few advertisers have started integrating XR into their advertising campaigns, expect to see this trend continue and grow.
In addition to just fun, social AR will start to be explored, building on the momentum around existing fandom or mega experiences (such as Pepsi did at the SuperBowl this year) – and brands will explore different paths to brand engagement via AR and packaging, including small games that may include a social component as well.
Retail: In-store retail has seen huge strides in using augmented reality to help sell makeup; expect this both in-store and as part of ecommerce – expanding to include other products such as jewelry, shoes, and accessories. Although there are huge strides in virtual try-ons, I see the focus in the next year being more on items that don’t have sizing /fit requirements.
Socializing and attending events in virtual spaces will expand from being a somewhat niche thing to something that enters the mainstream. Fortnite has dedicated a virtual space to concerts, while performers are able to perform “live” in front of crowds of avatars via Holoportation from around the world; Reggie Watts performed live stand up in AltspaceVR, and Jean Michel Jarre performed a live concert in VR while in a reconstructed Notre Dame.
Look for more of this in 2022, bringing live concerts to people without worrying about location and the logistics of putting on a live event are two very strong incentives, particularly given the continuing issues with Covid-19.
Cross industry partnerships will continue to surprise, and blur boundaries. Entertainment companies have already started partnering with gaming companies, apparel companies with gaming companies (albeit so far, mostly luxury brands – other than Nike’s latest Roblox partnership, which is a harbinger of more to come). In 2022 I expect to see announcements around entertainment companies (Netflix – particularly since they just launched a game platform for mobile – as well as the more “traditional” networks) partnering with retailers and brands as what we watch and what it on screen merges with what we can “experience” and ultimately, buy. That “interactive television” we’ve been talking about for 2 decades now will become more of a reality, as AR will provide the 3D digital interface to bring the products we’re watching to our living rooms, and enhance the watching experience.
Some of this will be fueled by NFTs / digital assets. I expect more consumer brands to jump on the bandwagon and start selling branded art, apparel and accessories for use in virtual worlds (2021 will be too early to see much adoption of wearing of virtual items in the real world via AR – I think that will happen when we see viable AR glasses that we wear throughout the day). I think they hype will die down a bit although NFTs as a mechanism to track digital authorship, ownership and authenticity is here to stay. I’d love to see that combined with a mechanism that actually permanently and immutably digitally watermarks items a la what Adobe is trying to do so the ownership information isn’t separately on a ledger somewhere, but permanently tied to the digital asset – but that is for another post.
And finally – Facebook (Meta) has brought the concept of the Metaverse to the average consumer, creating a lot of curiosity about what that means. Although the concept is not new, it does seem on everyone’s mind now, not just people in the industry. Until we have interoperability standards for hardware and software, content will continue to be siloed. Given people’s increasing dissatisfaction with Meta’s data and privacy issues, I believe there will be startups focused on providing experiences – both AR and VR – that are NOT part of the current walled gardens system, but will attract the curious there.