So very meta

During a commercial break while streaming the most recent episode of Would I Lie to You, I saw a new commercial for Meta (the company formerly known as Facebook). It concludes with the line, “The metaverse may be virtual, but the impact will be real.”

The jarring thing is the ad’s utter failure to imagine anything useful. It offers three examples of what’s coming. All of them involve people putting on goggles and gloves to enter virtual realities, which all feels very 1990s.

The first example is a virtual classroom, which is depicted as making students feel as if they are in a lecture hall with a professor. As we’ve all learned during the pandemic, there are lots of different modalities which on-line courses can take— but there would be no value added in reproducing the geometry of a lecture hall in this way.

Another example is letting students “watch Marc Antony debate in ancient Rome.” There might be value in a dynamic animation of whatever speech students are studying— but no extra value would come from making them feel as if they really were in the forum, allowing them to turn around and look at the pillars.

The other example is allowing surgeons to train without actually operating on patients. Admittedly, lifelike immersion would be valuable for this kind of training tool. So maybe the helmet and gloves could have some use. However, the training program would be its own private environment. The practice body would not exist in the same on-line world as a virtual lecture hall or a simulation of ancient Rome. That is to say, there would be no value in putting it in one metaverse together with the other examples.

I wrote a conference paper back in the year 2000 where I argued that the 1990s, helmet-and-gloves conception of Virtual Reality as immersion was deeply misguided. I concluded, “Call it by whatever name you like, but the real potential of VR is not merely the power to clone reality. Instead, new technology will make new reality as it finds a place in peoples’ lives, as it empowers them in new ways, and as it offers them new possibilities.”

I stopped working on the paper without getting it published because I felt like its time had passed. By the early 2000s, it seemed like my view had become commonplace. So it’s surprising to see, more than 20 years later, that Facebook is back with the idea that virtual reality should mean one immersive environment that feels more-or-less like the meatspace reality we already live in.

An actor dons a prop VR headset in the new Meta ad.

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