This week, Mark Zuckerberg unveiled what he calls the world’s first augmented reality platform, a way of layering digital effects atop anything we see through our smartphone cameras. Eventually, he says, this platform will even let you “pin” digital objects to locations in the real world, allowing anyone else who comes along to see them too—assuming they’re also using Facebook. If this effort plays out like Zuckerberg says it will, the real and the digital will merge the way they do with Pokemon Go—only on a much larger scale, and within the confines of Facebook.
But if Zuckerberg is looking that far ahead at the social and creative possibilities—he showed off an AR art installation pinned to the outside of Facebook headquarters—it’s also worth looking just as far ahead at the potential pitfalls. Namely: What if the reality built by you and your circle of friends separates you from other circles—kinda like Facebook filter bubbles already do in the (purely) digital world? What if Apple builds its own augmented reality platform? And Google, Microsoft, and Amazon? Could these competing layers of reality separate us even further? And won’t they all start serving us ads?
Brian Blau, a hardcore virtual reality veteran who closely tracks the development of VR and AR at Gartner, a tech research firm, calls this the meta-verse problem. “It’s something that people first talked about years and years ago, when VR and AR first came around,” he says. “How many meta-verses will there be?” And indeed, how will meta-verses separate us from real reality? Or even from each other?
If AR takes off, these questions will become increasingly urgent. As the New York Times explains, Zuckerberg has always lamented that Apple and Google beat him out in building the world’s dominant mobile phone platforms. Now he’s racing these old rivals and others to the next technological beachhead. “All these companies want to turn the physical world into a digital world,” Blau says.
Just as Google and Facebook want your attention when you’re on the internet, they will seek to capture your attention when you’re doing anything else, anywhere else. That was the implicit goal of Google Glass, which wasn’t ready for the mainstream. Zuckerberg is now looking for a shortcut to the same point. Microsoft is making its own play with an AR headset called the Hololens, and reports indicate that Apple is exploring similar areas. If all those companies are in the mix, you can bet that Amazon will follow as well. In the process, the online dominance these companies enjoy will creep farther into the offline world.
For all these companies, the potential benefits are enormous. Initially, AR technology will provide a new way of playing games and tinkering with photos and videos. But eventually, AR and VR could serve as the most direct way yet of getting from digital ad to making a purchase—digital creations that let you purchase in a brick-and-mortar store or in a simulation of a virutal store. The path between ad and transaction becomes all the shorter. “Will people buy things in VR? Yes, they will,” Blau says.
At the moment, Facebook says, it’s not all that concerned with the business end of AR. When building a new platform, explains chief technology officer Mike Schroepfer, “we make sure people are enjoying it before we start thinking about building a business model.” The company’s history bears out that assertion. But in this particular case, there are other issues to address. Is Facebook thinking about the meta-verse problem? Is it considering the possibility of driving a wedge between us and reality? That’s less clear.
‘All these companies want to turn the physical world into a digital world.’
“We start with: What is the compelling consumer experience?” Schroepfer says. “We can talk about the philosophy all we want, but if people don’t enjoy it—don’t want to do it—then it kind of doesn’t matter.”
But Schroepfer will say he believes in making sure you can pass between competing corporate meta-verses. If other companies do build their own platforms, they can also build ways of sharing digital objects between these platforms, he says. “There are lots of ways to collaborate on this, just as you can take a photo on Facebook and share it on another network,” he says. Indeed, cross-platform AR doesn’t seem to be a major technological hurdle. But even if Apple and Google and Facebook play nicely with each other, that compatibility doesn’t overcome the greater concern about shutting ourselves off from others inside a digital space encroaching farther than ever into the physical.
Today, we have our differences, but at least when all share the same world, the same physical space, the same reality. But if we start tinkering with this reality and share changes only with certain people, the world starts to split. The possibility is a long way off. But we should consider it now.
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