Mark Zuckerberg’s announcement of a company name change was widely panned today, at least on the social media sites I use. On Twitter, people were mocking the new name (Meta), the VR and AR idea, and other things. On YouTube, commenters trotted out the usual jokes about androids and lizards, but many others were telling us that they’re concerned about the darkest sides of Facebook metastasizing into an oppressive and cruel virtual world we’re all forced to participate in.
You’ll find no shortage of commentators telling you about the potential downsides and how virtual worlds are going to go nowhere, but I wanted to give a more practical view of the challenges the Metaverse concept faces as well as the many gains society stands to make if people working on the Metaverse concept succeed.
Before I can get to that, I need to make sure we’re on the same page when it comes to the Metaverse concept, along with the challenges it faces and the things going for it.
Your Skepticism Isn’t Foolish, Given The History
If you watched the presentation or parts of it (embedded below) and haven’t been using any VR technology yourself, it makes a lot of sense to be a skeptic.
They promised some VERY big things. We’re supposed to be able to visit hyper-realistic virtual worlds, feel like we’re there in far removed places, and have other people feel like we’re there with them, too. It all seems like a science fiction movie, and doesn’t seem realistic at all.
Until very recently, VR technology has been highly disappointing. If you’re an older Millennial or GenXer, you only need to remember the flop that Nintendo’s Virtual Boy became. It was cool that it gave a form of 3D vision, but the crude graphics (red and black, instead of pea green and grey of the Game Boy), low resolution, and eye strain issues made it a huge disappointment to anybody who actually tried it. In fact, that’s exactly what happened to me when I gave it a try as a kid, and it ruined the idea of VR for me, like many others.
The technology in expensive VR hardware of the 90s wasn’t much better. Big clunky helmets, lots of heavy wires, and crude graphics plagued even the best of what the industry had to offer in those days.
A few years ago, I decided to give VR a try again. I bought a new Samsung phone from Verizon and there was an mail-in offer (yeah, I submitted my receipt online, but that’s what old people like us call these offers) to receive either a 256 GB micro SD card to expand the phone’s storage or an Oculus Gear VR headset.
For those unfamiliar, the Gear VR is basically a set of goggles that you click your phone into. It had two lenses that allowed you to focus on a portion of the phone’s screen even though it was just a few inches in front of your face. Half of the phone’s screen ended up working for your left eye, and half for your right eye. The phone’s motion sensors, GPS, and compass all worked to make sure the virtual environment moved with your head, which really helped with realism.
Really, this was just a slightly fancier version of Google’s Cardboard project. Cardboard headsets, which were often actually made of cardboard to keep them cheap, served as a cradle to keep your phone positioned in front of lenses. Unlike the Samsung/Oculus device, Cardboard devices didn’t have a touchpad or any other buttons. There was, at best, a little button that could swing a smartphone stylus-like tip to bump the top-center of your phone’s screen to provide basic controls.
A $5 Cardboard VR headset and the fancier Gear VR both suffered from the same problem: they relied on a smartphone. As we know, smartphones just aren’t really made to provide a good VR experience, and shoehorning them into that role gives you an experience that falls pretty far short of expectations and wants. The left and right eye displays are too close together, leading to some eye strain. Smartphone resolutions are also too low when you magnify them with headset glasses, so the experience is just too blurry for most users to really appreciate it. Even worse, the Gear VR would constantly overheat my Galaxy S7 (Samsung’s flagship phone at the time), and drain its battery far too quickly.
For many people, the disappointing experiences provided just 3-5 years ago by devices like Google Cardboard, Gear VR, and Daydream killed a lot of excitement for it. I gleefully gave a bunch of extended family members cheap Cardboard VR kits in 2016 for Christmas stocking-stuffers, hoping that they’d have a lot of fun with those with their kids. Even a week later, the novelty had worn off and the disappointment had set in.
When I bought my next VR headset last year to see if the technology had improved, none of them believed me that it could possibly be worth $300 to buy their own. The disappointment of the last free experiment in VR they tried had already ruined it for them, so I now have nobody to do multi-player games with.
Things Have Improved Drastically Since 2015
Late last year, I kept seeing ads for the Oculus Quest 2. At first, I was like, “Yeah, there’s no way that’s worth $300.” The Gear VR was $100, so there’s no way they’d make it much better, right?
It turns out I was completely wrong. While the basic concept is the same (small screens placed close to the eyes, with magnifying and refocusing lenses to make it work), they weren’t trying to press a smartphone into service powering the headset. Everything was built from the ground up to be a VR headset, and parts were chosen accordingly. With the Quest 2, each eye gets 1832×1920 resolution, placed in a much better way, and with up to 120-Hz refresh rates.
Another big advantage over the older VR headsets is that it has built-in tracking. It uses cameras to track objects around you in the environment, and allows you to “paint” a safe zone for you to move around in when you turn the unit on. This allows for wireless “room-scale” experiences where you walk around in virtual space like a real room instead of just sitting in a chair or standing in place. If you get too close to the edge of the safe zone, a virtual cage appears in the air in front of you to warn you that you’d better stop moving forward or risk breaking your TV or something.
Even with the limitations of what’s basically smartphone hardware (Snapdragon SOC, 6 GB RAM), you can get some pretty good experiences. Star Wars: Tales from the Galaxy’s Edge is very fun and somewhat realistic, and even the headset’s tutorial is a real blast (my kids play the tutorial just for fun).
But, that’s just the tip of today’s iceberg. In Part 2, I’m going to explore the more advanced AI experiences that are out there and explain how they give us a peek into the future. With the challenges and opportunities in mind, we can then take a realist look at whether the technology can help the environment and save lives in other ways.
Featured image: a screenshot from Meta’s presentation showing two men remotely playing chess in a park. One appears from elsewhere and looks like a Force Ghost from Star Wars. The other changed his avatar to have a lion’s head, for fun.