There’s a rapturous term thrown around by VR enthusiasts: “The Metaverse.” It is a term that comes from the seminal Neal Stephenson science fiction novel Snow Crash, where it described a kind of embodied virtual reality. Instead of clicking around on order forms, for instance, virtual shoppers would visit a virtual mall in avatar form. Those avatars were creative reflections of the user’s soul, not the crude matter we poor meatspace dwellers are cursed with.
Those who follow the VR boom have heard the term fall from the lips of Oculus founder/wunderkind Palmer Luckey a thousand thousand times. The dream at Oculus isn’t just of kick ass games and immersive cinema, the dream is to bring the Metaverse to live.
Now Oculus’ biggest rival for the shape of the digital future—the Ft. Lauderdale, Florida based Magic Leap—has wooed the Stephenson, he who coined “Metaverse,” into their camp to become “Chief Futurist.”
Stephenson tells the story best himself at a blog post at Magic Leap. I mean, what else are you going to do when the founder of WETA Workshop, Sir Richard Taylor, shows up at your door with a legendary sword from Middle Earth and asks you to be Tony Stark but say yes?
This hire changes the emerging battleground between Oculus and Magic Leap in subtle ways. While the later company’s technology has still only been seen by a handful of people the list consists of major tastemakers in technology and entertainment. Google, Qualcomm, and Legendary Pictures are all part of the half-billion dollar plus funding round that took place this year for the almost impossible sounding technology.
At this rate, either it works and is amazing or the South Florida company has access to the best LSD on the planet and I’m willing to violate an old oath to try some. Judging by the talent they’ve brought on board it’s probably not LSD.
Oculus has the popular groundswell of development from the past few years of its very public beta and the first mobile VR device—the Samsung Gear VR—already in the hands of curious enthusiasts. In this they have a head start on the imagination of enthusiasts and creatives. Companies like Jaunt VR are already making big strides in delivering new forms of entertainment to the masses: an Android app that works with Gear VR and Google’s Cardboard features VR video of Paul McCartney playing Live and Let Die in San Francisco.
The virtual reality content that is being published right now isn’t so much tectonic shift in the way that entertainment is made and enjoyed so much as it is the pinnacle of convergence. VR cinema is merging film and theatrical events into experiences that take the best of both worlds. The intimacy of film, such as the close-up which gives the viewer insight into the performer’s soul, is put into the physical context of a live production. Agency is given over to the viewer—such as where to focus the “camera”—thus bringing the innovations of decades of video games into the mix.
The kind of Augmented Reality experiences that Magic Leap promises are something else entirely. What reference points we do have for AR are, well for the most part they are lame as hell. Google Goggles and it’s ilk are awkward. That’s one of the things that made Google Glass interesting: it promised to bring AR into the mix without having to wave a cellphone around. Turns out, however, that hardware strapped to the face is more obtrusive than that which we hold in our hands.
We don’t know that Magic Leap’s hardware will be any less dorky than Glass, or than the Oculus Rift for that matter. At least the latter isn’t meant to be worn out and about in public (aside from the big VR meet-ups that have been popping up around the planet.) That “deeply uncool factor” is one hurdle that Magic Leap will have to clear. (What, you thought I was going to go for the obvious pun? This isn’t a radio piece.)
The bigger question for Magic Leap are the health issues involved in blasting images onto the retina. Which is what everyone assumes that Magic Leap is doing since there is so much talk about physicists and biologists being on the company’s team. Even with pressure from Google-powered lobbyists we can expect to see a few regulatory hurdles placed in the path of the technology before it is possible to legally buy a device that let’s you hallucinate tiny elephants everywhere.
A public unveiling on Magic Leap is supposedly set as early as July of next year, at the Manchester International Festival in England. Putting my rampant speculation Mouse Ears on for a moment—they’re the Darth Vader kind—and looking at the roll-outs of Oculus and Glass as measuring sticks and I’d guess that we could be looking at 2-3 years at least before a commercial version of Magic Leap was on store shelves. So Christmas 2016 or 2017.
That would give VR head mounted display makers—from Oculus to Sony—as much as two years of development refinement and market share before the out there Magic Leap had a chance to redefine that which was just redefined. It’s a rate of change that is consistent to what we’ve seen and are pretty much used to at this rate. Regulatory hurdles could slow the shift down, but the first question is if the promise of something altogether more revolutionary would keep the mass market from adopting VR.
Put aside for the moment whether or not Magic Leap’s AR would be more of a paradigm shift in display technology, and deal with the fact that it is being sold that way when only a small group have seen it. This kind of PR campaign can effectually salt the earth for rivals, the way that Sony masterfully destroyed Sega’s Dreamcast with the promise of the Playstation 2. They didn’t need to keep all early adopters away from Sega’s machines, just enough to prevent a critical mass from forming.
This is a fate that Oculus might face, and that it comes in part at the hands of the founder’s patron saint has to burn a little.
There’s another alternative, of course. A little bit “to each their own” with a touch of “everybody wins.” It could very well turn out that the experiences of Magic Leap’s AR and the Oculus-led VR are so radically different that two new mediums emerge. A little like Blogging and Podcasting. They inform and feed off each other and are in each, in their own way, the children of earlier media.
I’ll admit: that possibility strikes me as too optimistic. My money is on an all-out, no holds barred format fight ala VHS and Betamax. The kind of hardware spec battle that gets driven by price, content, and the savviest of hype people. What we can remember from the VHS/Beta war is that the system which was considered the most technologically advanced did not win the day. Nor did the even more advanced Laserdisc format have any real impact on the home video market. The “best” technology is the one that can be distributed the widest at the lowest cost.
Will that be a version of VR which is cross compatible with dedicated hardware like the Rift and Sony’s Morpheus alongside the mobile versions or a proprietary format like Magic Leap, whose makers hold all the cards at present? Could Magic Leap just a little too ahead of the curve?
What’s fun about the next year is that a lot of the answers to those questions are going to begin to come into focus. Along with even more important societal questions about the role of this technology in our lives. i09’s Charlie Jane Anders had this essential question for Stephenson in an interview published today:
Could the rise of pervasive augmented reality worsen the digital divide, by creating a world where wealthier people see a vastly different version of reality than poor people? Stephenson says it’ll be more like cellphones. Nowadays, a few people are too poor to own cellphones, but still, “cellphones have achieved a huge reach, economically and geographically.” They’ve gone from a status symbol to being “widely disseminated.”
Here’s what I know for certain: the 1999 me is barely going to be able to recognize the world the 2019 me lives in. And the 2014 me wishes that world would get here already.