There were several interesting announcements this week about the Rise of the Metaverse. Depending upon who you talk to, it’s the next big thing, Internet 3.0, Snow Crash careening into Ready Steady Go, with vibes of Tron thrown in for good measure. It’s Virtual Reality 2.0. And it’s coming to a screen near you tomorrow … or maybe in fifty years. You can never tell with these kinds of things.
There is a certain innate similarity between virtual reality and self-driving cars. To hear the press releases from either 1999 or 2015, VR and autonomous vehicles were literally just around the corner, an engineering problem, not a conceptual problem. By 2021, the first truly consumer autonomous vehicles were supposed to be coming off the assembly lines, and VR should have been achieved by now. Instead, AVs are still at least a decade away and truly immersive, fully interactive VR should be a thing.
Now, anyone who games regularly can tell you that immersive realities are definitely here – so long as you’re very careful to constrain how far out of the box someone can go. Anyone who’s played Halo or Overwatch or even Dead Red Redemption can tell you that the games are becoming quite realistic, and arguably games such as the Sims (version x) attest to the ability to have multiple individuals within a given simulation.
As with AVs, the challenge ultimately isn’t engineering – it’s social. Second Life explored the themes of virtual reality in a social sense. What happened afterward was simple: people discovered that virtual conversations and virtual sex with virtual avatars was, at the end of the day, boring and more than a little creepy. It was like going to a bar without any alcohol.
We enjoy games precisely because we are, to quote Terry Pratchett, narrative creatures. We are natural storytellers, and we love both being told and participating in stories. We love pitting ourselves against others, seeing ourselves as fighting the good fight or solving deep mysteries that would have stymied Sherlock Holmes. Psychologists also talk about the dangers of escapism, but games are attractive primarily because most IRL stories are not very exciting.
There’s some significant money to be made in Extended Reality (XR), but it’s important to understand there is that for it to truly work, XR needs to concentrate as much on the metadata, the story, as it does on the various communication protocols and representations.
The latter is not insignificant, mind you. The virtual world is the quantum cognate of the real world. Identity and uniqueness are intrinsic to the physical world, and creating duplicates that travel through real space and time is a nearly insurmountable problem. In the virtual world, however, uniqueness and identity are simply abstract concepts, and creating copies that can persist for any significant length of time can prove difficult at best (this is what blockchain is supposed to do, but we’re discovering the very real energy costs in even approximating uniqueness).
Yet, ultimately, the real challenge will come when the various players in this space recognize that without compelling content where immersion means that people become a part of the narrative, not simply an avatar walking around stiffly in a pretty landscape, XR will fail. I’d also like to believe that ultimately it will take agreement on standards for all of the fiddling bits, like identity management, concurrency, data flows,, and so forth, to all come together so that moving from one narrative to another becomes feasible (or even makes sense), but I suspect that will only come once the landscape has become nearly irrevocably fractured. There are too many people with dollar signs in their eyes at this stage to expect any difference.
What does this mean to data science? Easy – a game is simply a simulation with a better plot. AI is intimately tied to the concept of Metaverse, and will only become more so over time.
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In media res,
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