While nice in theory, the metaverse is a form of escapism that will be limited by human biology. It’s augmented reality that will truly revolutionize human lives, says behavioral engineer Nils Pihl.
“Let’s imagine, for example, that you and I were walking through a forest,” my interlocutor proposes mid-way through our conversation on the future of augmented reality (AR), his area of expertise.
I do as instructed. A golden fall foliage my mind conjures up is a reflection of the outside world. “Hey, look at that beautiful couch,” he then tells me. And there it is – I can now see a couch, a comfortable three-seater under the heavy branches of surrounding trees.
It’s late afternoon, and I’m talking to Nils Pihl, a behavioral engineer and CEO of Auki Labs, an AR company. He is currently in Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, and we are connecting via a video call.
Pihl says he hopes to turn Zagreb into the world’s first fully AR-mapped city along with Hong Kong, where he lives and runs his company. He says that the little mind experiment we just did shows that language itself is AR.
“As soon as I said ‘couch,’ you now see it in your mind. I've changed how you perceive the world just by putting a different label on the object. And I think this impulse to communicate and help each other see the world in different ways is why humans evolved language and why AR is completely unstoppable,” Pihl tells me.
He believes AR is the technology that will truly revolutionize humanity’s way of living by adding another layer to our communication through smart glasses, contact lenses, or perhaps, eventually, a neural interface that would make any notion of handheld or wearable devices redundant.
“That opens up a lot more real estate for you to operate in,” Pihl says, imagining intuitive command schemes where we use our entire bodies to control things in 20 to 30 years.
Cold water on the metaverse
Growing up in the late 90s and early aughts, Pihl belongs to a generation that spent a lot of time online before the emergence of social media. “The internet was a very different place back then,” he says.
Hanging out in chat rooms, he argues, created a sense of digital identity where traits like skin color or gender did not matter. Kids would hang out in digital spaces unconstrained by their biological “lottery ticket.”
“I think we had a metaverse in the early 2000s, but we don't have a metaverse now,” Pihl says. Simple text was enough to feel “present” in the digital realm.
“With the rise of social media, the human behavior patterns around the internet changed. And now the internet is not mainly used for presence anymore. It's asynchronous communication,” Pihl says.
Following this logic, Facebook has contributed to the demise of what it is now working so hard to recreate in its own vision. It’s clear that its founder Mark Zuckerberg is a firm believer in the metaverse – so much so that he renamed his entire company to reflect that.
It’s also clear that it’s still a matter of debate about what the metaverse is. Meta’s vision includes pricey virtual reality (VR) headsets that critics say raise serious privacy concerns.
Its latest, Meta Quest Pro, has a price tag of almost $1,500 and will start shipping on October 25. Unveiled last week, it was met with lukewarm enthusiasm, which is reflective of the industry’s waning excitement over the vision of the metaverse that Zuckerberg is trying to sell.
Apple’s CEO Tim Cook is so far the highest-profile figure to have joined the growing chorus of critics. “I’m really not sure the average person can tell you what the metaverse is,” he told the Dutch publication Bright earlier this month.
Similarly, Snapchat’s Evan Spiegel dismissed the idea of the metaverse as “ambiguous and hypothetical.” Both Cook and Spiegel bet on AR as the technology that people will struggle to imagine their lives without – just like we do when we think of the internet.
“I think it’s a lot more likely that the people that are investing in AR have a healthier long term vision of where technology and humanity is headed,” Pihl tells me, when I ask him about the ongoing debate. He narrows it down for me to two main arguments: do people want to improve the world that they're in, or do they want to escape it?
“I think the philosophical debate will be settled by the biological necessity of people to be out in the real world,” he says.
Today, it is still a numbers game. It is a lot easier to make $1 billion in VR than in AR, Pihl says. It makes sense. VR sounds just a tad more exciting at this point due to its association with the metaverse but also because of its practical appeal to industries as varied as gaming and healthcare. When I think of AR, I think of Pokemon GO.
“Because it is so hard to have proper positioning between people in augmented reality, it's easier to make good VR experiences today than good AR experiences,” Pihl explains. While GPS can show your approximate location, it cannot pinpoint your exact whereabouts. It’s a problem for AR as it needs to know the difference for a shared experience.
When it comes to VR headsets, companies like Meta are trying to solve this issue through visual positioning. Hence, they bet on cameras as a way to compare what the user sees to a database they have of what the world looks like.
“In theory, these guys can already see what you are looking at, not just what your home looks like, but what you are looking at, and how you feel about looking at it. Because they can gauge your facial expressions, they can understand your posture,” Pihl tells me.
Which makes approach to privacy another “big philosophical difference” between companies that rely on ad income coming from leveraging user data, and those that provide a paid service.
“Companies like Google and Meta, their business model is very much around owning data. That's how they make money. And Apple is quite different there because Apple doesn't make its money off of data,” Pihl says.
It’s sure bent on making money of its rumored mixed reality headset, which is expected to combine the best of both worlds.
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