Where’s Planet Earth in the Metaverse?
How many Metaverse experiences map onto the four basic real-world coordinates of Planet Earth: latitude, longitude, altitude, and time?
Here’s a thought experiment for you. Whatever you’ve heard about the Metaverse and where it can take you — to fantasy game worlds, meetings and conferences, classrooms, hangouts and parties, and physical workout spaces — how many can accurately be mapped onto the four basic real-world coordinates of Planet Earth: latitude, longitude, altitude, and time? Most of the popular video games? Nope, they’re fantasy worlds. Your virtual home or office with idyllic backgrounds visible out the windows? Maybe, if it’s the North Shore of Kauai but not if it’s Planet Arrakis. Virtual workouts? To their credit, many advertise real-world tours and flyovers, such as “from the Galápagos to the Great Wall.” Outdoor Augmented Reality games like Pokémon Go? Yes.
So that we agree on terms, let’s call these Metaverse experiences “grounded” experiences. More on this in a moment.
It’s no secret that the captains of virtual reality are gamers. Oculus, the VR company acquired by Facebook for $2B acquisition in 2014, considered the birth moment of the VR industry, was founded by talented, proud, hardcore, “sky-bound” gamers. In October’s annual Facebook Connect opening keynote, CEO Mark Zuckerberg made it clear that most people’s first entry into the Metaverse will be through gaming.
Zuckerberg also emphasized that “immersion” and “presence” are defining properties of the Metaverse and that the primary means for achieving maximum and affordable immersion and presence will be through wearable headsets. Indeed, building an Imax theater or flight simulator in your home, or walking around town with powerful projectors on your back, doesn’t make much sense. But making grounded immersive experiences, experiences based around the real world, has significantly different values, cultures, and technologies than making computer-generated fantasy-based ones.
Let’s start with cameras, the most common way to visually capture the real world. Creating real-world camera-based experiences as a professional activity largely falls under the province of documentarians, anthropologists, ecologists, and activists — people with an interest and passion about the real world and its inhabitants. There’s a long, rich history of technical development of cinema vérité cameras for this purpose as well as artistic development by such pioneers as Dorothea Lange. Much of the functionality in your smartphone cameras is a result of such evolution. Building immersive real-world cameras has numerous additional challenges, also with a long, rich history, from French director Abel Gance’s 3-camera Polyvision created for his 1927 epic silent film, Napoleon, to Cinerama of the 1950s, Disney’s CircleVision, Imax and Omnimax, and a wide array of custom immersive theaters built for World Expos, theme parks, and other special venues.
Needless to say, and without harping on stereotypes, the real-world camera community is a very different culture from the gamer community, with often opposing values about such things as escaping from or connecting with the real Planet Earth. Are there exceptions? Of course. Noteworthy ones include “games for change” and “games for girls,” many excellent but non-interactive real-world VR documentaries, and a small but lively community of real-world scanning companies that make 3D computer models of places like heritage sites. The AR community also delves into the real world by necessity. Pokémon Go maker Niantic Labs recently announced a new open platform and a $20M fund to support “real-world metaverse” apps.” Still, the commercial VR industry, and a large portion of the AR industry, remain dominated making fantasy games for men.
Making immersive real world experiences shares some overlap with making immersive fantasy games, and both Google and Facebook have lively research programs around immersive camera hardware and computational photography. But it’s tricky: in 2017, Zuckerberg and a colleague toured hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico as “cartoon-like avatars” inside camera-based 360 degree VR videos of flooding and destruction. He was summarily slammed for being “tone deaf” with his “magical” VR tour. And it will get trickier as these companies release wearable headsets with cameras which build live maps of your world, both inside and out.
Groundedness, many believe, holds sacredness. Ask indigenous or First-Nations custodians of their land. It’s anchored like a stake in the ground and it cannot be moved. It can be large or small, pop or personal. A personal favorite is the John Lennon Imagine Mosaic in New York’s Central Park, never empty during daytime hours, with people waiting to place flowers and have their picture taken on it, sometimes with their naked babies, as if the spot has a mystical charge.
Perhaps it does. I doubt we can ever truly re-present this in any medium, yet we can certainly make uniquely engaging creative immersive experiences, visceral and poetic, as long as they’re not overly hyped as “just like being there.”
So what does it take to encourage more grounded immersive experiences in the Metaverse? Certainly bringing in more documentarians, anthropologists, ecologists, and activists directly into the process. Is there a market? VR has had so many false starts since 2014 that we largely know what doesn’t work, and AR is still recovering from AR headset maker Magic Leap burning through $3.5B with little to show and near-zero sales. The good news is that the technology continues to get better and more affordable. Now may a good moment for the captains of the Metaverse, with their sky-bound fantasies, to appreciate the horizon, where sky meets ground.