The Internet is Becoming Three-dimensional. How Should We Respond?
“What? Facebook changed its name to Meta?”
I remember thinking how bizarre this sounded when I first saw the news on my smartphone on the morning of October 28, 2021. The idea that one of the world’s most powerful companies was going all in on virtual reality - what it called the “metaverse,” a term coined by sci-fi author Neal Stephenson in his 1992 book Snow Crash - felt strange, and somewhat dystopian. Am I really going to put on a headset and live in a virtual game-like world, eschewing the physical world all around me? I furrowed my brow in confusion, returned to my coffee, and woke my kids up to get ready for school.
Less than a year later, Meta was in the news again - now, though, for investing billions in a mostly empty metaverse. Mark Zuckerberg’s big bet on the world bringing its social interactions to virtual reality - as it did with social media - seems to be fizzling at epic proportions. Some reviewers of the newly released Oculus Pro, Meta’s most recent virtual reality headset, said it’s good for gaming, but probably not much else. Sure, it has devotees in the gaming world, but after laying off 11,000 people and losing a staggering $800 billion in market value, I couldn’t help but wonder: is this just an enormous miscalculation of a tech giant, or is something else going on here?
For me, I had a hard time separating dystopian visions of virtual reality and what was really going on in the market. Hollywood hasn’t helped. Stephen Spielberg’s 2018 film Ready Player One, set in 2045, paints a picture of humanity living in OASIS, a virtual reality simulation used to escape the real world. More recently, Amazon has produced The Peripheral, a story about Flynne Fisher’s connection to the future through a virtual reality headset. Complete with decaying buildings, cunning villains, and a depressing vision of tomorrow, for a non-tech professional like myself, virtual reality seemed shrouded in power, wealth, and escapism.
When I started to dig in and pull back the veil, something far less sinister - and far more expansive - started to emerge. The metaverse refers to the world of computer generated extended reality, or XR, which contains augmented reality, mixed reality, and virtual reality (AR, MR, and VR). Users engage with AR and MR through apps, tablets and iPhones, and with VR through headsets. I experienced AR for the first time when touring Gaudí’s Casa Batlló in Barcelona. Looking at a tablet while walking around the house helped me envision everything from furniture to how nature inspired Gaudí’s art. Not exactly dystopian.
Extended reality technology has been emerging for years - and slowly improving. What seems to be changing is the tidal wave of interest from corporate America, and how businesses anticipate using virtual reality for the future of work. In a Time magazine article, Matthew Ball writes that in the first six months of 2022 the word metaverse appeared 1,100 in regulatory filings; the previous year saw just 260 mentions. McKinsey and Company estimates that corporations, private equity firms, and venture capitalists made $120 billion of metaverse-related investments in the first five months of 2022 and have the potential to generate up to $5 trillion in value by 2030. For the first time, in 2021, VR headsets outsold all video game consoles combined. Corporations like Marriott are beginning to advertise in the metaverse, and some restaurants are even using AR to tempt hungry customers.
Adoption may lag behind what Meta would like to see, but something is shifting, and it’s a shift all the tech giants are preparing for. Apple is planning its own AR/VR headset, now set to release mid-2023. Google is making major investments in AR and VR, seeing applications in everything from maps to students in the classroom. And Microsoft has been lurching its way through building its Hololens, its mixed reality tech for business. The metaverse may be unfortunately empty right now as a social world, as the European Union just discovered after throwing a very expensive party for no one. But the growing consensus is that virtual reality will change the way we work - and it could be sooner than we think. Gartner, a global consultancy, believes that 25% of people will spend at least an hour per day in the metaverse as soon as 2026. And a 2022 PWC study found 51% of companies already have a VR strategy, and 67% of business leaders say their metaverse experimentation will be fully integrated across their business in the next few years.
The future probably won’t look like the dystopian world of Ready Player One. But it also probably won’t exclusively look like laptops and web browsers. The merging of the digital world and the physical world is at our doorstep.
The question we need to ask is what kind of world will this be?
To answer that question, I went straight to the entrepreneurs and investors creating the metaverse.
The first person I spoke with was Quinn Taber, the Forbes 30 under 30 founder of Immerse, a metaverse platform that launched with a focus on language learning. When learning Arabic in 2017, Taber was introduced to VR and saw an opportunity: virtual reality could help foreign language learning and break down barriers to human connection rather than create them.
VR is best used when it’s contextualized, where you go somewhere, and where changing your persona can help learning
Taber believes that virtual reality doesn’t always make sense, but it can offer a significant level up from the 2D world of laptops when five qualifications are present. Taber calls these characteristics “the five affordances.”
- First, would it help to go anywhere? For example, would it be easier to learn about the moon on the surface of the moon rather than one-dimensional text and images in a book?
- Second, what could you learn if you could be anyone? When would it help to walk in the shoes of somebody who’s, say, a different gender or ethnicity than you?
- The third qualifier is manipulating the laws of physics. When would it help to, say, shrink yourself down to the size of a microchip or a red blood cell?
- The fourth situation where virtual reality comes in handy is high stakes situations. VR can help in training the operation of, say, heavy machinery or a fighter jet. (The military has used VR for years.) Finally, VR can be a helpful tool if you want to buy and sell digital goods. (You can now finally afford a Tesla, or a designer purse.)
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Early in his entrepreneurial journey, Taber realized language learning checked off each of those boxes. Learning a language in a virtual environment can immerse you in a foreign country, allow you to be, say, an Arabic teenager (rather than middle age white male), and interact with others in a low-stress environment while learning vocabulary and grammar - while getting real-time feedback from other users.
Taber believes virtual reality holds real promise for education, and it’s getting real traction. Immerse was recently highlighted at the Metaverse Summit, and plans to expand into brand partnerships, creating virtual worlds for advertising partners like Westin Hotels. Yet Immerse stays principally rooted in research about improving foreign language learning through VR. As the son of an Iranian mother and former worker with Syrian refugees, Taber says, “I always dreamed of creating a company that was scalable, profitable, and impactful.” Motivated by increasing access to language tools, Taber sees VR as an opportunity to serve those who otherwise couldn’t access quality, affordable language learning tools.
Renji Bijoy sees virtual reality’s strength not in education or language learning, but instead in transforming how we work. Bijoy, 29, is the Founder & CEO of the similarly-named Immersed, which allows users to work on multiple computer screens in virtual reality. Immersed is the only app in the metaverse used 40-50 hours per week because it centers on work rather than play. “Immersed allows you to work remotely more productively,” says Bijoy, which has been a major challenge at least since the pandemic.
For Bijoy, mixed reality (you can see virtual screens as well as your actual office) and virtual reality allow users to better focus. Popular initially with coders who need multiple screens yet few distractions to write software, Immersed got attention from Cal Newport, author of Deep Work and professor of computer science at Georgetown University. Newport wonders if VR may be a way to cut out the bells, red bubbles, endless emails, and other distracting features of the modern workplace. “When it comes to knowledge work,” writes Newport, “we long ago stumbled into the digital wastes east of Eden. Now that we’re here, we should be open to whatever might help us regain some clarity.” The “immersive” nature of a VR headset can be one way to cut through the non-stop noise.
Jake Thompson, managing partner at Sovereign’s Capital, a values-based venture capital firm that invested in Immersed, says, “You have to think about VR not in competition with reality, but with Zoom and web browsers. VR is not a substitute for real life; it’s about faithful presence to the tasks before us in this world.”
This potential for greater collaboration than a video call has some leaders experimenting with VR in unlikely places. “The metaverse could help us create one virtual campus,” says Joel Morris, the president of Union School of Theology in Wales. “It could enhance the virtual experience - not just connecting one-on-one, but a whole community together, collaborating, throughout the world.” After a donor gave a dedicated gift to Union School of Theology to help them innovate their online education, Morris is now experimenting with how the metaverse may improve training for ministers and church planters. And he’s not the only one. Ten universities, ranging from Morehouse College to New Mexico State University, are now testing classes in the metaverse, “traveling” the Underground Railroad or sitting on the judge’s bench deliberating the fate of Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird.
Josh Chapman is the co-founder of Konvoy Ventures, the third largest venture capital firm in Colorado, which focuses exclusively on gaming. Currently, he writes, VR is anti-social. Though he’s bullish on the future of virtual reality, as you can imagine, he believes the technology (as do others) has a long way to go. Right now, it’s too isolating and he believes it won’t be broadly adopted until the social experience improves. Yet, he, too, is hopeful that the technology could be improved to make it more social, for gaming applications as well as educational.
Could, for instance, a low-cost virtual reality solution be designed to help the one-third of Americans experiencing an anxiety disorder who can’t afford therapy? Could kids who hate math learn to love it through VR? Could an apprenticeship program teach a mechanic more effectively through seeing the location of a carburetor while wearing, say, Google Glass?
The technology, most agree, is still early. It’s not going to replace your Macbook anytime soon, and those virtual shopping malls are still mostly empty.
Those who are getting traction in the XR space are staying human-centered and market-responsive, focused on using technology to solve everyday problems - just what customers want. We may still be in the “wild west” of the future of a 3D internet. Yet with use cases from remote work and team collaboration to rethinking the online college experience, virtual reality is here to stay, and quite possibly coming sooner than you think to a company near you.
I once had a mentor who told me when I was dating my future wife, “It’s better to go into marriage with eyes wide open, and when you’re there, keep them half shut.” For new tech, however, I’d say it’s worth dating for quite a while (maybe forever), and honestly evaluate the benefits and drawbacks of the latest world-changing tools with eyes wide open.
Let’s start with drawbacks. First, it’s expensive. The Oculus 2, though getting cheaper, is around $400, and the new Meta Quest Pro is $1500. That’s a hefty price tag for those who could easily imagine life without a headset.
Second, we’re still learning how extended use of VR affects the body. It’s safe to say that 24 hours straight in the Metaverse is a bad idea. But how much is ok? How does it affect the brain long term? The data is still coming in (and the bad hairdos from wearing something on your head all day).
Third, it can feel isolating, which may cause mental health issues. As we noted, isolation helps block out workplace distractions, but for most Americans who are getting more and more lonely, that’s no good. VR has a long way to go to make it truly a communal, social experience.
Fourth, we live in a physical world. Bright philosophers like Matthew Crawford have noted that virtual reality makes us believe we can overcome the laws of gravity or the realities of having flesh and bones. Yet, here we are, in a physical world made up of engines, tables, trash bins, mountains and bodies. Even as the digital world continues to blossom, we must learn to live in a physical world that resists our will.
Fifth, virtual reality can be used - like any technology - for all sorts of evil things. Preying on children, stealing money, spying on employees in order to control rather than serve. Web3, virtual reality, and the metaverse will require a whole new set of regulations to keep bad actors in check.
Finally, the biggest critique of virtual reality is that it’s escapist. America (and other countries like Japan) already has a national crisis of men disengaging from work, family, and education. If VR makes this even worse, we’ll have to ask hard questions about how technology can help to re-engage rather than retreat.
Fair enough. Virtual reality has potential drawbacks.
But there are real benefits, too. Take, for example, education. A biology lab at Arizona State found that student learning and engagement significantly increased when using virtual reality. This makes sense: what student wouldn’t want to swap dry, technical textbooks for swimming around in the body to see first-hand an aberrant protein that is making a person sick? Or learn Latin in ancient Rome from Julius Caesar himself? I’m no futurist, but I predict that early experiments in higher ed and VR will expand rapidly, and one day push out pre-recorded lectures, Zoom screens, and threaded discussions as the future of online education. The underwhelming experience of pandemic-isolated students learning at home in front of Zoom will one day bow to a 3D, immersive classroom. And that future may not be all that far off; Immerse had 45,000 VR users download their language learning app in the last six months.
Early innovators like Immersed are showing that virtual reality has the power to transform the workplace, too. The implications for, say, training new workers are promising. From electrical safety training to forklift operations, companies are preparing to make a major leap forward to training and developing their workforces through virtual reality and augmented reality. It’s not just for Pokemon Go anymore. The future of work will employ extended reality to produce, connect, train, and educate. Indeed, even today, giants like Koch Industries and Wal-Mart are already using VR in worker training.
Eventually, virtual reality will create new markets, and with that, new jobs and economic growth. Entrepreneurs should now prepare for the future of business, and social reformers should be asking how to include low-income workers in the digital economy of tomorrow. (And on a lighter note, VR may finally herald in smell-o-vision. Watch out, WoodWick candles.)
Some aspects of virtual reality I personally find odd, like church in the metaverse. Why not just walk down the street and brave meeting a real-life person? Church - like all of our most precious human relationships - requires being in the flesh. But if I could get my fourth grade daughter interested in math, or find help for my own anxiety issues at a fraction of the cost of going to a prohibitively expensive therapist, or help frontline employees develop new skills in order to spur on career advancement - isn’t it worth experimenting with a new technology - albeit, with eyes wide open?
Who Are We Becoming?
Your vision of virtual reality really comes down to your philosophical view of technology. There are, in my view, essentially two poles to avoid. One is technological determinism, or the view that technology has a mind of its own and is actually deciding our culture’s values for us. Every evil-robot movie you’ve ever watched is playing on this fear. The fear is that as AI or other technology gets more powerful, we’ll simply be pawns and find our world ruled by machines. The natural response here? Smash the machines. People have been doing this since the industrial revolution.
The opposite view is instrumentalism - the idea that technology is just a tool or an instrument, without any inherent purpose. The phrase “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people” expresses this view. Since the beginning of time we’ve had new technology such as, say, shovels, that we can use to either dig an irrigation canal or knock a neighbor on the head. Don’t blame technology for human choice, so goes the argument.
I think we miss the point, however, if we see virtual reality and simply double down on our pre-existing anti- or pro-technology biases. New technology is generally neither a cure-all or a cancer. It’s an extension of human potential - and human morality. We should neither fear new technology nor be enamored with it.
The question we need to ask is: what is this technology for? I mean that not only in the sense of “what problem does this solve for a customer?” but what does this technology help me become? Isolated or connected? Productive or lazy? Addicted to a game-world or educated for my future?
Though widespread adoption of virtual reality may not be immediate, I do think it’s coming. We can either avoid it or ask better questions.
Around dinner last week, I asked my four daughters what they thought of virtual reality. My oldest had played a game on the Oculus at a sleepover with her middle school friend. Between bits of meatloaf she shared her enthusiasm for the experience. “It was awesome. It was like you were really there!”
After some healthy banter over the benefits and drawbacks of VR, I then asked, “When this technology comes to your school or a sleepover with friends, how do you think using virtual reality will shape your character?”
That is the question the tech giants need to ask - and keep asking - as we open the windows to a brave new world.