About the author: Louis Rosenberg is the CEO of Unanimous AI, chief scientist of the Responsible Metaverse Alliance, and global technology adviser to the XR Safety Initiative.
Believe it or not, it was only a year ago that
announced its name change and strategic shift into the metaverse. Over the 12 months since, Meta Platforms stock has lost over 70% of its value, prompting Altimeter Capital to demand that the company cut staff by 20% and reduce investment in the metaverse by at least half. Meta said on Wednesday that it would cut 11,000 jobs. Those are not good facts, and the bread isn’t exclusive to Meta. Recent data from DaapRadar suggests that metaverse start-ups are struggling for active users and falling far short of expectations.
Does this mean the metaverse is dead?
No, but it’s deeply misunderstood. As someone who has been involved in this field for decades, I’ve lived through multiple periods of ridiculous hype followed by equally absurd winters. Still, I remain confident that the metaverse will happen and that it will transform our lives in the near future. That said, the metaverse that will become an ubiquitous part of modern society will not be anything like the current marketing videos that show creepy avatars congregating in cartoonish worlds.
To explain why, let me jump back to 1991. I was doing early research at Stanford University and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration on how to optimize depth perception in virtual reality. My most important insights came not from the academic results but from the countless hours I spent using early VR hardware. I found the experience to be remarkable in concept but unpleasant in practice, bordering on miserable.
Back then, everyone said it was just growing pains—the hardware didn’t have enough fidelity and was too heavy and too uncomfortable. They said not to worry—those issues would eventually get solved. Sure, I knew the hardware would improve, but I didn’t buy into the argument that VR would become the computing platform of our lives. It wasn’t image quality or physical comfort that troubled me. The reason I found VR unpleasant was because I didn’t like being cut off from the real world. Sure, it was great for giving demos, but for any extended period it felt claustrophobic and isolating.
What I really wanted was to take the power of virtual reality and splash it all over the real world, providing the benefits of immersive content without being cut off from reality. The idea was that the real world and the virtual world could be combined seamlessly into a single experience that was so natural you could perform normal tasks in the normal way with virtual content to guide, inform, and entertain you—not by replacing your real experience but by embellishing it.
So, I pitched the idea to the US Air Force and was lucky enough to get funding to explore the concept. This was before phrases like “augmented reality” or “mixed reality” were in use. Instead, I described the benefits from the perspective of a human surgeon who could perform delicate procedures while having realistic virtual fixtures and tools appear around the patient, even inside the patient, guiding and informing the doctor during real surgery.
That project was a success, resulting in the first augmented reality system that enabled users to interact with a mixed world of real and virtual. And it wasn’t just sight and sound, but also touch and feel. Users could move real objects into virtual objects and feel the collision. This created true suspension of disbelief, immersing users into a single unified reality where they could skillfully perform tasks.
But once again, it wasn’t the academic results that affected me most. The key insight for me was that not a single person climbed out of the system and said they felt claustrophobic or isolated or cut off from reality. In fact, it was the opposite—people told me that they could easily imagine the technology enhancing all kinds of tasks and experiences in the real world. The key word was enhancing, not replacing.
It’s now 30 years later, and VR systems are profoundly cheaper, smaller, lighter, and better. And yet, the same barriers exist. People don’t like to be cut off from reality for extended periods. Sure, VR is great for short-duration activities, like gaming, shopping, and exercise, but it isn’t going to become the computing platform that most people spend their days in. At least, not for a very long time.
Which is why the metaverse, when broadly adopted, will be an augmented world that allows us to live our normal lives while enhancing and embellishing our surroundings with magical immersive content. It will be seamlessly integrated into our activities, providing informative and creative content in the most natural way possible—as part of our physical surroundings.
As for the growing pains that some metaverse companies have, where they can’t seem to populate their worlds with enough users—that is solved by an augmented metaverse, as well. After all, the real world is already populated. What’s missing is stylish and comfortable AR eyewear from major brands. I believe that we will see that hit the market starting in 2024, and the true metaverse will finally take shape.
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