December 03, 2021 by Romain Bouqueau

The metaverse - alternative thoughts

The metaverse is a 2x innovation with a 1000x cost. It will take time to take off - if it ever does.

Introduction

Everyone seems to have an opinion on the Metaverse since Mark Zuckerberg expressed himself during the summer 2021. I like reading opinions and debate about them. But I thought that most comments from individuals, companies, and analysts were pretty unsatisfying.

The comments focused much on the short term annoucements and not so much on a long-term technical movement.

Also the metaverse is a portmanteau word. It does not mean anything precise. So most comments are about a not-well defined concept. Everyone seems to refer to a novel (that no one read) and to a popular dystopian Hollywoodian movie.

Why I have an opinion on the subject

As some of you know I used to be the CTO of a company called VideoStitch circa 2012. Our goal was to make a realtime 360-degrees stitching GPU-accelerated software for videos. However our fate changed in 2014 when Facebook bought Oculus for $2bn. We renamed ourselves Orah, moved to the U.S., raised ~$20m over 6 years before running out of cash.

For me this is no coincidence that graphics pioneers like John Carmack or Michael Abrash took part of the Oculus adventure. I read Abrash's books (this one) and tried to replicate Carmack games in my teenagehood. However their opinions on the metaverse is far more balanced than enthusiastic.

More recently (2017-2020) Motion Spell took part of a social VR project called VR Together. We based our experiments on three axis: realtime, photorealistic, social. This proved to be incredibly hard to achieve and to scale.

Immersiveness is good

There are several aspects which make technology incredible. One of them is to map our physical reality into a virtual reality. 3D games, Google Maps, or Pokemon Go are successful examples in this area. The ability to project ourselves in a virtual environment is incredible.

People engage a lot more when their brains believe what they see. There a lots of studies about what makes people engaged into an activity. As usual the VR technology is not only pleasant but it may also improve productivity. But let's focus on the consumer space.

If I were to summarize the different VR waves trying to reach the consumer space:

  • First wave (1991): Sega VR
  • Second wave (1998): MPEG-4
  • Third wave (2003): Second Life
  • Fourth wave (2010): Ready Player One
  • Fifth wave? (2021): Facebook becomes Meta

It is unclear if Meta actually belong to any wave. At least I don't see any change to support that claim.

Technology should bring us a sixth sense

Ubiquitous computing should transparently make our life better. Technology was not intended to make us dependent on it. I already wrote that what makes us dependent is a combination of greed and monopolies.

Some people stated that what is happening is the consequence of free people's acts. As a consequence it would be people's responsibility to change what's happening. I don't think so for three reasons:

  • The GAFAMs, who strived on interoperability, now operate in closed gardens. They protect fiercely these gardens.
  • The dopamin effect is not something most people control effectively. Meta/Facebook is algorithmicly made to exploit your emotions. They predict at a mass level contagion's effects.
  • The liberal self-organized communities are a myth. As an open-source project maintainer, and to my greatest despair, this is also my individual experience.

The metaverse is not new

To the people who think this is rather new or inspired by the dystopian Ready Player One, I'd like to share a few thoughts.

The metaverse already exists. It is called the Internet. It is mostly text-based.

The metaverse with VR is just a far-fetched improvement over the existing textual version. The metaverse is not attractive because VR is not yet attractive. Headsets are not attractive. Alternatives are not ready yet. The best proof is that porn and sports are not well versed into VR yet - but bets are, which is a first step.

Video games lead the VR way. Tracking devices (like the Tobii eye tracker) allows to avoid the use of headset but the volume is still limited (NB: the Microsoft Kinect also tried at a higher volume but with a limited success due to some limited device capabilities).

The metaverse with AR may be a nightmare.

The metaverse will be programmed with text

That's looks really naive but text is mightier than the metaverse. We have video calls, we like them, but we prefer texting. We've mastered images but we still search using text. We could chat but we still massively use emails. We spend millions in movie but "the book was better" is what we invariably hear. The metaverse will be programmed with text.

John Carmack, Oculus CTO, warns that we should build applications, not a platform. Others say that Roblox or even Minecraft are existing metaverses.

Romain Bouqueau

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