Creating a digital fabric that supplements rather than displaces the physical world will ultimately enhance humanity.
The metaverse represents a potential new plane of existence, one where we can experience, build, and share previously unimaginable worlds with one another. It gives us the opportunity not only to create new environments, but also new pathways to experiencing them.
For many, the emergence of the metaverse is a foregone conclusion, a Web 3.0 version of manifest destiny. The problem with this thinking is that it removes our agency as developers, futurists, and more broadly, as members of society to stop and carefully consider what behaviors should be promoted in the metaverse, and what the best paths forward are for architecting this new stage of the human experience. But it is our responsibility to engage with these questions, and act accordingly.
When it comes to designing the metaverse, I believe that first and foremost, our guiding objective must be to enhance the lived experience of people. And the best way to do that is to advance augmented reality technology and applications first, rather than prioritizing fully virtual reality.
The power to shape worlds out of thin air brings up a number of thorny scenarios, and I’m not alone in feeling itchy about it all. John Hancke, CEO and founder of Niantic — makers of Pokémon Go — has been particularly outspoken about the potential harm a fully virtual metaverse could have on society. We already know that the way in which information is aggregated and distributed is having detrimental effects on the human experience. The metaverse’s promise of making the internet spatial and all-encompassing only stands to widen a number of emerging fault lines.
That’s why, if we want to build a metaverse for all, we must move forward with four existential risks — and their dystopian consequences — in mind:
- Experience silos: In a metaverse that invites us to spend hours in an endless and unlimited number of worlds, there is no guarantee that we’d choose to seek out, or ever be exposed to information that challenges our own biases. Such a siloing of experience can lead to one-dimensional perspectives, imagination-limitation, and ultimately, societal division.
- Malevolent data capture: The platforms and applications that power the metaverse will have access to significant data about us. This massive cache could be used to improve product performance and improve the human experience, or arm monopolistic entities with the tools to further manipulate our thoughts and beliefs.
- Lack of concern for the physical world: The climate crisis doesn’t go away when we don a pair of VR goggles. If the majority of our future experiences take place in fully virtual environments as opposed to augmented ones, would we care about preserving endangered species and habitats when we can just spin up a wetland or whooping crane out of pixels?
- Increased inequality: Access to VR devices and digital environments could be cost-prohibitive to wide swaths of people around the world or simply be restricted, further exacerbating social, cultural, and economic inequities.
Augmented reality as the primary mode of the metaverse
Through the careless adoption of VR as the primary vehicle for entering and accessing the metaverse, any of the dystopian consequences outlined above are possible, even likely. But choosing to use AR as our first systematic foray into spatial computing technology puts us on stronger footing.
At the center of such a digital environment would be a common world: the physical world, over which digital fabric is laid to enhance our lived and shared experiences. We can interact with one another with all the context we’ve ever gathered. We can see digital art displayed as we navigate through our physical realm. The ability to create and share would be democratized, and the world would be restored to a state in which people find their sense of wonder in the horizon and the space around them rather than the screen of a device.
These experiences would allow us to observe the effects of this new immersive technology and gauge its implications on the human experience, rather than mindlessly plunging into the black box of fully virtual worlds.
This isn’t to say AR won’t have drawbacks. Devices could still censor parts of the physical environment that reveal sometimes unpleasant, sometimes brutal truths about the world. Advertisers would certainly find ways to fill the metaverse with noise that scrambles our minds and makes it more difficult to focus. However, by starting every experience in the physical world, we preserve our ability to evaluate and structure our approach to virtual reality.
Building the AR metaverse
Developers already know that creating AR-based environments is more difficult than fully immersive virtual worlds. This is partly why VR is gaining momentum against augmented experiences. Companies are racing to put VR-enabling technology in the hands of users, rather than taking a more nuanced view of their metaverse endgames. But consumers have the ability to push companies toward advancing augmented experiences over virtual ones — not only via the devices they purchase, but the types of applications they use.
For brands operating in this new environment, the experiences they choose to create for their users will also help determine how AR is or isn’t adopted. If they choose to create entirely immersive experiences in virtual worlds, that is the market that will develop. But if they choose to make investments in designing augmented experiences that enhance customers’ lives and promote well-being, this will reverberate through the market.
The premature emergence of virtual worlds is not inevitable. If we take deliberate steps, we have an opportunity to design the next phase of our evolution. AR allows us to take this great stride while grounding us in what we know, so we can enhance the human experience rather than diminish it.
Farhan Khera is a Product Manager at Huge, and lives in New York City.