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World War “M” and the curse of the Metaverse

 1 year ago
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World War “M” and the curse of the Metaverse

Art from Microsoft’s Minecraft Earth, 2019–2021

If The Metaverse represents our digital future, who decides what “it” is?

Will it be standardized, open and extensible like the network it’s built on? Will it have the same security issues as the Internet or all new ones? Who owns and profits from which parts? What happens to reality?

I’ll join the growing chorus for open, extensible, community-supported standards.

What I’m really hoping to see is a more diverse coalition. Besides the self-interested tech companies and the crypto/sci-fi enthusiasts, I want to see Human Rights advocates, DEI (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) experts, LGBTQ+ activists and multiple veteran UX (User Experience) experts and social scientists who have already learned a lot of what not to do in XR and multi-player worlds. All of these have something valuable to add.

Whatever The Metaverse becomes, assuming we still call it that, it has to serve us all, including those too young to speak up.

But my concerns go beyond the diversity of ideas and stakeholders. I see a diversity of definitions of success, from collectivist to subversive.

Intellectual Property (IP)

It used to be that businesses could keep “submarine patentsunderwater for years. Other companies chart their course on open waters, perhaps winning more customers. Key concepts might get incorporated into standards that everyone builds on. And then the patent owner pops up saying, “You owe us x% of each item sold. Pay up or our torpedos will take you down.”

I believe that each person who buys an Android phone may be paying Microsoft more than it charged for the OS on its own phones.

That’s patent licensing fees. After 1995, in an effort to limit shenanigans, new patents in the US are published within 18 months. The term of protection begins immediately. That’s better.

[Maybe we can shorten it further and use the fact that two or more patents contain similar ideas to mean these should be rejected as obvious?]

Patents figuratively “on land” can also form a minefield. It’s likely that the engineers who hash out new standards don’t even know what IP their own companies may assert. We’re often told not to look at patents for fear of “triple damages” should we ever lose a case.

Do you remember when “Web 2.0” got trademarked?

Who owns the name “Metaverse” in all its forms?

A quick search of public database TESS shows 22 live trademarks that include it, several pertaining to XR. Trademark holders must enforce them or risk losing them to generality.

Mark Zuckerberg’s long-term strategic vision is that Facebook is a Metaverse company. He’s all in — and his lawyers are presumably also on the case. In 2017, Chan Zuckerberg Initiatives acquired meta.com (and .org). Facebook also has a nascent digital assistant code-named “M.” Short for what?

Before launching Kinect, Microsoft acquired several competing depth technologies. They more recently acquired AltSpaceVR and Minecraft, attempting to test one peculiar vision of the Metaverse with the latter. Microsoft has used the term“Mixed Reality” extensively, but the CEO recently invoked the phrase “Enterprise Metaverse.”

NVidia has applied the term “Metaverse” to its cloud-side offerings too. If you search for their US patent applications, none use the “M” word. However, if you look for “cloud,” you find 13 with that in the title and 225 overall. They typically use their software to sell chips, but licensing IP is big money.

Other companies [not mentioned here] have previously used terms derived from the word “Metaverse” in their commercial products and services.

Right now, we see so many CEOs claiming their starting spot in the Great Metaverse Race, or World War “M” as this might someday be called.

First Steps

The parties that own related trademarks and patents who want an open ecosystem will need to licensetheir relevant IP to the commons. Standards built on these ideas will likely become essential to economic life. Therefore the license must be 100% royalty-free for all uses, non-exclusive, worldwide, perpetual, covering everyone, not just companies who cross-license.

Electronic Arts recently did this with its accessibility patents. Kudos.

If Facebook is really intent on fostering an open ecosystem, they should be the first to step up to freely license their Metaverse IP. Will they? Let’s ask.

But What is “it” Really?

World War “M” also refers to the fight over definitions. Realistically, “it” will only be defined retrospectively, by the marketplace. Part of my day job is to guess what that will be. I’ll explain briefly how we got into this hot mess.

Originally, The Metaversewas about escaping from dystopian reality into a fictional virtual world, adopting alter egos, and being more free.

Then came some folks who get really excited by the idea of dividing up the real world into virtual parcels and selling them for speculation. You can now “own” your annoying neighbor’s house, or perhaps the Brooklyn Bridge (which would normally suggest a scam). These folks realized that AR will be at least 10x bigger than VR. So they extended the Metaverse to annex AR, which is the opposite of the previous definition (whenever AR takes us out of reality, it becomes VR, by definition).

Then the Money People clocked in. VCs watched the growth of Epic, Unity, Roblox and the leading tech giants and formed new investment theories to explain what’s next. They mixed in some older disruptions: AI, IOT, toasters, fridges, robots, cars, and, well, everything digital as well.

Soon tech CEOs and standards groups felt pressure to explain their positioning relative to (or extending) The Metaverse. It’s now considered by some as the convergence of all things digital and real, which includesthe entire universe: real and imagined.

Can it get any bigger?

If a definition has no boundaries, no limits, then it ceases to mean anything. This term will someday go the way of Cyberspace: cursed and undead.

The only thing metaverse reliably means to me at this point is as a verb: “To adopt other people’s ideas without consideration,” as in: “Before someone metaversed AR, it already promised to be the best UI for IOT.”

Is The Metaverse a Place?

Presence is the sense of being in some place, and it’s critical to effective XR to more fully engage our brains. But part of my own big leap in understanding XR came from dropping the old assumptions of a single giant 3D place, as authors Gibson, Stephenson, Vinge, and I had once imagined (I wrote a novel with this idea too, but it wasn’t as good).

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A map of the Internet. Or at least the paisley part of it.

Ask yourself: does The Web need a map for us to get around? Did we place websites in a grid? Remember geocities?

The Web is too complicated for that kind of Cartesian thinking. It’s beyond 2 or 3 dimensional.

So we turned to search engines instead of maps or portals.

For XR, we’ll need spatial discovery enginesto find the stuff we want and filter out the near-infinite stuff we don’t.

Most of the overly broad re-definitions above barely mention the single most important shift. Zuckerburg gets closest, describing “an embodied internet.”

How might we put that in more human terms?

More and better Things and Places are wonderful, but what the Web still mostly lacks — and what we ultimately care about most — are People.

The Metaverse is Made of People!

Except for games, audio/video/avatar-chat, we rarely ever see other people online. We see the artifacts of people: photos, videos, icons, tweets. Facebook is the world’s largest social network (apart from our phones) and it is severely lacking in live people to spend quality time with.

We need to add thoughtfully architected 3D spaces — not to build one endless virtual shopping mall for all of humanity — but to interact with real people — mostly the people we care about, work with, or both.

Sure, there are great spontaneous social encounters to be had. We’ll see clubs, concerts and the equivalent of Google Earth VR to virtually travel the world.

But crowds of on-line strangers create the perfect storm of confusion and abuse, way worse than we see on social media today. “Griefing” (a term from MMOs for rampant harassment and abuse of mostly women) can’t be solved by only regulating conversations. Much of the abuse we see is non-verbal, pseudo-physical, even sexual. The victims are powerless to defend themselves. Such acts can be shockingly effective at causing real emotional harm.

Here’s what we don’t want The Metaverse movie tagline to say:

“In the Metaverse, everyone can hear you scream.”

In VR, there are some natural solutions that go against the “one big world” thesis. Imagine we say: “Let’s meet at the top of the Eiffel Tower.” Great. But now 1,000 other people have the same exact idea at the same time. In reality, it would become over-crowded and we’d likely wait in a queue. In VR, there could be unlimited copies of this same spot, one for each group, maybe adding some safe AI actors just for atmosphere.

From a security and privacy perspective, we need to be very careful with boundaries and information flows. People need to be able to move between spaces without leaking private information vs. the way that websites with trackers shamelessly violate your privacy today. Anonymity doesn’t work.

So how does The Metaverse protect our privacy?

The people who compare the Metaverse to the Internet are right in this respect. Spatial content will be referenced and downloaded from many on-line sources. But interoperability is almost always first cobbled together and evolved from existing standards, not something entirely new.

For purely AR experiences, I expect it’ll resemble a multi-verse more than a meta-verse. There will be too much content to experience it all spatially at once. So we’ll need to filter based on personal context and intent (hence the need for substantially better privacy and discovery engines).

Think about a basic AR navigation app. Does it draw the same blue arrows on the ground for everyone around us to see? No. Not even if they’re going to the same place from different directions. These are individual contextual cues. Same goes for the wearables that show your heart-rate and step counters. If we get holographic 3D video calls, does everyone nearby need see and hear the remote person? Ideally no, unless they’re also in on the call. Newer ideas in AR, like what Niantic is building, will also help build community IRL.

Great AR experiences are more subtle, adding or removing just the right information to enhance our activities.

Dispelling the Meta-curse

The term Metaverse has gained so much mind-share this year that almost everyone has felt the need to add in their own ideas. The curse is that by extending it so much, no one knows what you really mean. The cycle repeats.

John Hanke, CEO of Niantic, makers of Pokemon Go, bravely faced the meta-storm. He put it perfectly when he wrote that “the Metaverse is a dystopian nightmare.” We should be figuring out how to live, work, and play better in reality. I wholeheartedly agree. But even Hanke couldn’t entirely escape the term, labeling his company’s platform a “Real-World Metaverse.”

So what can we do now?

Mostly, let’s make reality the Betterverse (as my colleague Jay Wright has called it). We’ll eventually have the power of AR at our disposal. Making reality better is literally what AR is meant to do.

One idea may help explain this. Joe Cheal’s essay “What’s the Opposite of Meta?” is quite helpful. He suggests that “meta” is defined as going beyond or outside. In this case, the Metaverse is a world beyond our own. That fits.

But he suggests going “mesa” (Greek for ‘inside’) is the more fruitful path.

Ask yourself: are the answers to life’s questions more likely to be found in a fictional universe built around entertainment and virtual commerce? Or, should we look within reality, maybe even within ourselves for answers?

If it’s the latter, thenThe Mesaverse could be the real foundation of AR — a set of contextual and highly personalized experiences representing a deeper connection with reality, the environment, and ourselves. Great AR seeks to improve human communication, understanding, and real-life community.

I hope we can get the best of both verses for some time. But what if it ever comes down to a choice: Metaverse vs. Mesaverse?

Going meta, we’ll live in a virtual world, beyond and apart from reality, selectively unconstrained by physical laws and the norms of social interaction (see related articles).

Going mesa, we’ll seek to enhance and improve reality, our experience of it and each other. At first, this option seems a bit weaker to some of us.

But let’s put it in context. The real world, especially our place in it, is more at risk now than in all of recorded human history. At the same time, we’re richer and more resourceful than ever, even if it is increasingly disproportionate. We’ve proven that we can solve every problem we face, but only where we work together; never when we run away or turn a blind eye from the truth.

Reality always wins.

The biggest questions facing us now are whether we will be corralled and dulled by a few hyper-capitalists into docile “consumer nodes,” disconnected from reality, but always coupled into their network, searching, like undead zombies for any signs of life.

Or will we band together, throw off our various sociopathic landlords, and work together to fix what’s broken?

World War “M” describes a fight, not just among tech titans, and not just between monied interests vs. those seeking openness and accountability, but between two opposing world views, with two very different futures.

What’s your choice?

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The UX Collective donates US$1 for each article we publish. This story contributed to World-Class Designer School: a college-level, tuition-free design school focused on preparing young and talented African designers for the local and international digital product market. Build the design community you believe in.

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