The metaverse, the concept of an alternative, shared digital world that originated in sci-fi, has bubbled up to the surface of tech chatter during the later days of the pandemic. It’s a concept that a number of Big Tech and gaming companies, most notably Facebook, Roblox, and Epic Games, are trying to make real.
One of the technologies that may be used to interact with a future metaverse is augmented reality, which intermingles digital content with the real world through a smartphone screen right now and AR glasses in the future. Niantic created the game that introduced many people to AR, Pokémon Go, which means that the company has a vested stake in its own version of a digital reality. Niantic said Tuesday it had acquired a 3D scanning app called Scaniverse, which it will use to crowdsource images from the smartphone cameras of game players. Those images will form a map that will allow Niantic to anchor digital objects to real-world places.
A number of people have pointed out that early conceptions of the metaverse in novels by William Gibson (Neuromancer), Neil Stephenson (Snow Crash), and Ernest Cline (Ready Player One) have been described in dystopian terms. Niantic CEO John Hanke believes things could easily go in that direction. The technology used to experience the metaverse matters a lot, as do the business motivations of the companies that build it.
I spoke to Hanke about why and how the metaverse could become, in his words, a “dystopian nightmare.”
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Fast Company: It’s a bit bizarre to hear the word metaverse suddenly become so commonly heard and read. I’m not sure what people imagine when they hear that term.
John Hanke: I think it’s a pretty important fork in the road between the metaverse as an über-VR escapist alternative to reality, and technology going down the road of wearables and things that support us when we’re out in the world being human beings. I really think it’s a big issue.
We’re squarely in the camp of technology becoming more invisible and less prominent. It’s just there supporting us and serving us and helping us. But it’s not the thing that is taking over our interactions.
Ubiquitous computing, which is a Xerox PARC concept from the ’80s, has been around for a long time, but the trajectory that was painted was one where computing would just melt into the surfaces around us.
We would have what we needed. It’s not like we would go back to walking up to the airport and getting a paper ticket. But things would just seamlessly be there, so we might be able to log in and we might see a path that tells us where we need to walk, and we might be able to electronically get our boarding information, but it would just happen and, done. I think there are a million ways that technology can make our lives better that way.
Our thesis as a company is that gaming will be one of the frontier technologies. [We] have this concept of reality channels—this idea of games that transform the world around you in an almost passive way that just enhances it and makes it more interesting, makes it more fun and [puts] some adventure and excitement into it.
It’s almost like an Instagram filter that’s always on, basically with Pokémon Go-like embedded gameplay. That’s our vision of one of the transitionary applications as we go towards this idea of a real-world metaverse.
And then there’s this other conception of the metaverse where it’s like you can disappear into this other world, like an escapist thing. And that’s very different from the AR approach you describe.
Yes, and I think that’s the philosophical divide. I’m a cyberpunk fan, so I read Stephenson and Gibson and Cline when they first came out . . .
I also helped build one of the first 3D MMO games and that was back in the 1990s, that idea of an online world that you would go to. It was all very exciting back then. But I think we’ve seen the darker side of the technology now when it usurps the human stuff that we do, when it gets in between our relationships and all of our information and it takes the place of the town square or the neighbor or the walk in the park.
Reflecting back on the pandemic, there was certainly a lot of delivery food and Netflix and Amazon shopping done, but there was also a huge amount of walking—people getting reconnected to their neighborhoods. So it was both extremes I think.
If a preview of the metaverse is, I’m plugged in and I’ve got all the Netflix I could ever want and all the video games I could ever want and food on demand, which is the model depicted in the Ready Player One novel, I just say count me out.
You talk a lot about how your games encourage people to get out in the world and walk around.
Over the past few years of working on AR at Niantic, I’ve gotten pretty deep into the science around walking and the brain. [Walking] is so wired into our neural pathways from evolution. Our brain comes alive in a number of ways when we’re out moving through the world in a three-dimensional environment. That’s real, and it’s more than just a visual perception thing. There’s this whole debate over whether your mind is just in your brain or is it in your whole body. And there’s a very strong argument to be made that really your neural sensing and cognition happens throughout your entire body.
So the notion that you can just slap on a headset and shoot some photons into your eyes and somehow that takes the place of that whole-body experience that you have in the world—it’s false.
There’s this concept of an avatar, or a digital twin, representing you within a digital space. How does that figure into Niantic’s vision for the metaverse?
It’s not as big of a part because when you meet other people in the game you are physically standing in front of them. In some of our games, like Pokémon Go, there is an avatar and you can see your own avatar. We don’t actually even show you other people’s avatars in the game unless somebody has taken over a Pokémon Go gym, and then there’s a version of their avatar that’s standing there, like Marcus Aurelius or something, like the champion of the gym. So you would get to know people a bit through that.
It’s the same for chat. Chat is such a huge part of most of these [virtual] experiences, and by chat I mean online text chat. And it’s never really been a big part of our games because it’s so much easier when people are playing together just to talk to the person next to you. It’s faster and higher bandwidth.
And that’s where the enhanced-vs.-replacement idea comes in. So just making the normal biological stuff better—enhancing or augmenting it. So I sure hope we can affect the industry and get it really fully headed in that direction. I feel like it’s inevitable, like it’s just a better, more natural way to use tech.
How should different metaverses connect with each other? Or are we headed toward a future where everybody’s in maybe two or three dominant metaverses?
I think it’s a different question when you’re talking about the Snow Crash version, where it replaces reality, because then it really is your reality. And if there’s one version that you’re in, and there’s another version that some other set of people are in, you may never meet.
If you’re talking about AR . . . let’s say Niantic has 100 different experiences that you can do in San Francisco, and so there are a bunch of people whose paths are crossing in Union Square or down on the Embarcadero. They’re thematically experiencing the world a bit differently, but they’ll [all] end up standing at the same taco stand in the farmer’s market. So there’s that common anchor of reality that frankly I think takes some of the sting out of that.
Our first effort to come is to move towards a way for people, regardless of what experience they’re having, to bump into one another, and to have a shared social interface with one another. We’re building this common social layer that shows up across all of our games and exists as a stand-alone app.
That means that if I’m out playing Harry Potter and you’re playing Pokémon Go or doing any of our other experiences, that we can still talk to one another and trade things and share screenshots and highlights and stuff with one another.
It’s very interesting to think about the next generation of social networks being built on top of a new technology like AR. Do you think an AR-based social network, if done right, might correct some of the serious problems with the social networks we have today?
I think that social, when it’s about connecting people with one another, is pretty much all good. [But] what we call social today is really not so much about social. It’s about consuming this curated, suggested stream of content that’s being fed to us so that ads can be inserted into it, which is a long way from where those companies started. That’s not what Facebook was about originally. That’s not what Twitter was about originally.
So it’s probably a disservice to the word social to think about the way that those apps have evolved into media purveyors. It’s not really about social anymore. I don’t know how much of Facebook’s traffic is about sending a message to your friend, versus just going through the feed of everything it’s throwing at you. But I do feel like there’s a distinction there.
Real social [is] designed to connect people who are far away—grandmas with their grandkids. We need that. That’s a wonderful thing that the internet can do for us. It’s a shame that that world has to now get confused with getting viral misinformation and weird political stuff.
We don’t want to become that, and it probably doesn’t even make sense in AR, that media driver. We’re about talking to other people and making plans together.