Where do you see the evolution of the metaverse leading?
I think about the metaverse as a continuation of where tech was headed prior to COVID-19—for example, with the upward trajectory of mobile, and the increasing connection of digital and physical in real life.
It’s kind of a parallel world. We have Instagram, we have email, and we have messaging. And then there’s the store, there’s our real-life friends, there’s the real-life activity we’re participating in. Sometimes there’s an intersection between those two. But when I think about a real-world vision of the metaverse, it’s really a union of the virtual and physical where they become much more deeply fused—where there’s a digital extension to everything that’s real.
I think the promise of augmented reality (AR) is when it becomes invisible as we perceive the world. It will almost be like an ‘enhanced sense,’ where we’re perceiving this extra layer of information in everything that we do, making the world richer to us. And we’ll become more powerful as human beings, because we’ll be seeing interfaces presented to us in real life through a digital interface—which will result in specific physical things happening.
What would you say are the major tech innovations needed to make this happen?
There are quite a few that need to come together.
We’re working on the mapping piece, a critical component to making this digital-physical connection ubiquitous and frictionless. As people, we have this ability where we can sort of show up anywhere in the world - and get from point A to point B without getting lost.
That’s not true of a device. You can’t put a robot anywhere in the world and expect it to navigate its way home, because it lacks the tools. We can get there, but it requires building that digital map. And because the world is viewed at that scale of pedestrian-level movement, it’s significantly more complicated. We need to know precisely where a person is and how their head, glasses, or camera is oriented to know exactly what they’re looking at. And that means a lot of data to process.
Other challenges include making wear-all-day glasses ubiquitous. Optics and power are really the big choke points there. Right now, you just can’t squeeze into glasses the required amount of computing power at a point close to where it’s needed. You’d need a belt pack and cables, and there are some constraints around the power side too. With optics, you’re dealing with physical constraints and physical manufacturing problems. And also the mobile networks aren’t yet robust enough and likely won’t be for a long time.
What’s your view on an open metaverse?
‘Open’ is how the internet started—an extremely decentralized concept from the beginning by design with less centralized control over user experience and data. But it evolved in a certain direction, and it’s evolved so far in that direction that people are recognizing the limitations of it. My feeling is that it is swinging back towards a more open model, where people will attain more sovereignty and control over their data and information.
To me, interoperability—which is related to openness but not necessarily the same thing—is generally the winning strategy. I don’t think this sort of monolithic, walled-garden approach is how the future should look, and I think it’s increasingly likely that it won’t. At Niantic, for example, we recently bought 8th Wall, a Web AR company that puts our computer vision and mapping tech into a web application stack, so any developer can build AR applications.
I also think a lot of the data tracking challenges we face today are related to reliance on Web 2.0 login authentications. That’s sort of a gateway to advertising and centralization of data. It doesn’t have to work that way, though. One of the things that Web3 is really good at is self-sovereign identity. It’s not reliant upon a centralized gatekeeper in that way, meaning that whomever you interact with will know it’s you that’s interacting with them.
Ultimately, this goes back to our human expectations about what’s private and what’s not. If I interact with a person or a company, I expect them to know whatever I do with them. But I don’t necessarily expect—or want—a third party to know about everything I’m doing.
What will it take to get to broader adoption?
A more democratic way for people to make money. There is a growing set of developers interested in and doing early work on the metaverse, and money has started to flow towards them from advertisers and media. I think games are a place people can make money, but that ecosystem needs to mature and grow.
One of the things that we’re working on is discovery of these real-world metaverse applications. There has to be a way to bring a large audience to something cool once it gets built. If the metaverse follows the app-store model that we have today, a person has to go through the trouble of downloading an app and clicking through a lot of permissions. It’s a pretty large amount of friction just to try something new.
Whereas, if you think about the early days of the web, it was surfing around, checking 20 different websites in a session. They weren’t things that kept your attention for hours or that you were loyal to for years. It was very easy for you to discover and try them. That sort of allowed the whole ecosystem to bootstrap and grow. And I think we need that kind of experience for real-world AR, and a real-world metaverse.