You can tell a metaverse newbie when they walk into a room, especially a digital one. And it’s often me. Last week I attended a meeting in MootUp, a fabulous 3D immersive environment that requires no additional hardware (like a headset) and runs on all devices.
While I loved the novelty of it, here’s the thing. First, I had to dress for the meeting. Changing my avatar’s pants, hair color, t-shirts was a blast, but I wound up looking like a Gen-Z, dressed one rung down from business casual. When I got to the room, the immersion was jaw-droppingly stunning, but I had to very publicly wind my way over to the tables and chairs reserved for our meeting. I approached my chair, but then found myself spinning like a top trying to get my butt into the seat. We had a lovely meeting replete with hand gestures and great audio. By thirty minutes later, I had wandered over other meeting rooms, the lobby area and other destinations I could get around, without looking too terribly spastic. Attendees high-fived and exited back to our respective realities.
The MootUp metaverse (which is now integrated with Zoom and is also working with Verizon on the BlueJeans platform) is ahead of the pack on integration, and not terribly dissimilar from others like Sinewave’s Breakroom on the Unity gaming platform, or Fortnite, built on the Unreal Engine. (It recently hosted a wild Ariana Grande concert there.). Then there’s Virbela that’s letting entire companies move their offices into the metaverse. Even Microsoft and Facebook are busily creating metaverses, the former catering (of course) to the enterprise, the latter to teleport its current user base to something new.
But last week someone called “Emperor’s New Clothes” on this nascent metaverse world. That was John Hanke, CEO of Niantic. Members of the press picked up on the term he used when he called the metaverse a “dystopian nightmare”. Hanke’s company, which created the groundbreaking augmented-reality Pokemon Go experience, differentiates itself from others by letting gamers explore their real-world streets and neighborhoods in search of their favorite Pokemon characters. Hanke says we should be concentrating on building a better reality, not alternative realities to what we have now.
I’ve long admired Hanke’s commitment to making the real world a more social, collaborative and engaging space. Even before the Pokemon Go stroke of genius, Hanke had started Niantic with a gamer-centric experiment called Ingress that used a mobile device’s GPS to locate and interact with “portals” in proximity to the player’s real-world location. It took acquiring the Pokemon license to launch Niantic to the next level. Niantic has also created a Harry Potter world and is working on a CATAN board game and a Nintendo Pikmin series. The idea behind each of these is to give a user a reason to get off of their couch, out into the real world (holding a mobile device of course) and interact with their neighborhood while enjoying the game mechanics of AR.
Hanke worries that the idea of sending digital avatars into an ever more realistic virtual simulation of reality positions the future as an escape instead of an opportunity to augment reality. It’s a profound difference, one that feels even more urgent given the climate crisis we learned much more about this week from the UN’s scary IPCC report.
In Hanke’s blog post, he writes, “At Niantic, we ask the question: what if technology could make us better? Could it nudge us get us off the couch and out for an evening stroll or a Saturday in the park? Could it draw us into public space and into contact with neighbors we might never have met? Could it give us a reason to call a friend, make plans with our families, or even discover brand new friends? Collectively, could it help us discover the magic, history, and beauty hiding in plain sight?”
I spoke with Greg Chiemingo, in his new role as head of tech and platform communications at Niantic. He framed the conversation for brands wanting to “go digital” as being about “taking baby steps” into the metaverse. And baby steps, he added, are more affordable for brands that want to experiment without having to create full virtual simulations of some world.
Hanke writes passionately about creating a better, not an alternate, reality. The technology he envisions with Niantic Lightship platform “synchronizes the state of millions of users around the world (along with the virtual objects they interact with), and ties those users and objects precisely to the physical world. “ For Hanke, the metaverse contrarian, we take the real world as the starting point and infuse it with data, information, services, and interactive creations, rather than use it to escape what may be an annoying or even scary reality.
We’re not Pollyannas here. Hanke is promoting his own company’s approach. Everyone is trying to sell us real estate in the evolving metaverse, and hardware and digital accoutrements to go with it. Even Niantic makes no secret about its plan for AR glasses. You can read Hanke’s full blog post / manifesto here. It’s worth it.