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The metaverse is ‘particularly hard to predict,’ says Unity’s AR/VR chief

According to Timoni West, humans are good at grasping some of the big themes of tech revolutions yet to come—and terrible at getting all the details right.

The metaverse is ‘particularly hard to predict,’ says Unity’s AR/VR chief
[Images: Tom Coates/Flickr; Rawpixel]

Timoni West was thinking and talking about spatial computing and mixed reality long before Mark Zuckerberg ever said the word “metaverse” in public. West’s company, Unity Software, is a go-to graphics engine in game development (while the company also serves the film, animation, and architecture industries). As the VP who oversees augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR), West is charged with making sure the Unity platform offers the tools and integrations developers need to create the mixed-reality experiences they envision. As developers figure out what the metaverse will mean for them, many will likely use Unity’s real-time 3D tools to build for it.

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I asked West to help me understand industry’s current push toward spatial computing, and how Unity is responding.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Fast Company: It may be a while before we see the kind of stylish AR glasses that we’ll want to wear into the metaverse. And yet it seems like the starting gun has already fired, and people are already investing heavily. Is there value in the current energy and excitement?

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Timoni West: One thing I do often is go back and read old writings about how people thought about technology in the past. And they’re never actually wrong. No matter how optimistic, they were usually kind of right. One of my favorite examples of this is an old article called “Will the Information Superhighway be the death of retailing?” It imagines this future of “sometimes you’ll go online and have a virtual assistant help you purchase goods using a networked computer.” And that’s exactly what happened. But the way they envisioned it was like this kind of weird pastiche of existing patterns on top of new technology. And of course now we have a completely different way of shopping online. You don’t walk down virtual aisles. You just go searching.

So I think right now we’re trying to envision what we’re going to do with this genuinely exciting tech. I think it’s really ramping up on what Web3 can mean and what “immersive” can mean, etc. But we’re kind of applying it in that way where we’re assuming we’re going to take this way of doing things, and it’s going to be like this or that–but it won’t. It’ll be something completely different. It’s particularly hard to predict. I think that’s where we’re at today.

A good example of that is how we meet in virtual spaces today and these attempts at realistic avatars. That’s a great example of something that’s not going to be the way we’re actually doing it in 20 years.

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On Zoom calls, you’re in a box, I’m in a box. We don’t care, it’s daily life for both of us. Did you ever see Blade Runner, where they’re literally making video calls from a bar, but they’re still going over to a payphone booth to make the call? They were exactly right that we were going to do this, but they were exactly wrong about how we were going to do it.

I have an idea that the metaverse will be something akin to the internet, where there are protocols that allow users to move back and forth between different virtual spaces in the same way they move between websites. My worry is that this vision is not aligned with the interests of the people who will fund this development.

[pullquote class=”topquote”]I think we’re going to go through exactly what the internet went through.[/pullquote]I think we’re going to go through exactly what the internet went through. Remember, in the early 90s, everyone getting AOL discs in the mail? And you open it up, and it’s this walled garden. Here’s your chat. Here’s your email. Here’s your portal to the internet, but there’s no other way of accessing it, right? I think we’re going to do that again. And I think that like last time, it will kind of implode: While all the companies are putting all their resources into getting their particular stronghold and making sure they can generate revenue, then it will get too big for any one company and it’ll kind of explode out again.

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I think nowadays people expect things to be open. They’re going to get annoyed; they’re not going to want the world to work like that [closed model], no matter how convenient it is.

If I’m going to pay somebody $600 for some mixed reality wearable that gets me into this world, just experiencing one company’s version of the metaverse is not going to be enough for me.

In fact, for the sake of innovation, you don’t want that, and that’s fine. Great innovation, great design, great user experiences, great new types of apps . . . all of this is happening all over the place right now.

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It’s interesting that we have this economic change in how people use content, not apps. So everything moved to subscription. Adobe Creative Cloud is a subscription, for example, on the software side, but then also Netflix is a subscription, and Hulu and Disney Plus. You can see the same thing happening in the games world with Microsoft buying Activision and Sony PlayStation [buying Bungie]. Both are actively trying to flesh out that streaming [service], because they want to have that really big content library. It’s the same kind of strategy we’re seeing with TV shows and movies.

But that also applies to a lot of stuff that’s in VR. How will that affect people making VR games or apps or other types of experiences? And how does that play into that idea of an open metaverse when half of the things that aren’t just games but, you know, fun places to go . . . or any of the other social VR specific places? How do apps like that fit in a world where everything is streaming? Or are they just always going to be kind of standalone things, and then you just pay your monthly fee just for access to them like you do with Zoom? I don’t have an answer for you; I just think it’s an interesting question.

Maybe the question becomes how many types of services could be bundled in with subscription services? How many XR services are complementary to a streaming model?

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Yeah, exactly. So the question is again, how does that work in a world where we want an open metaverse?

It doesn’t sound like it’s going to work very well if we’re all going to end up with this long list of subscriptions that end up being expensive.

And which [virtual space] are we going to meet in? You’re paying for this one or not paying for that one. I think one cool thing here is you can see a big space in the middle for new players to come in and do some really interesting work that will kind of tie together all of the different players in the space.

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The crypto connection

If Unity is one of the tools that will help build the metaverse, and if the currency of the metaverse is crypto, is Unity now in a position where it has to start forming a philosophy or a strategy around the blockchain and digital currency?

It’s something we’re talking about internally quite a bit. I couldn’t tell you what the official Unity position is, and I wouldn’t want to have us speak too soon about it. I think there’s a couple different intersection points here.

First, obviously, there is the potential economics of it, which we can’t ignore because this directly affects our developer community. And also the fact that a lot of our users do want to use it or want to use Unity as a tool for that, so we can’t ignore this user base. And then of course there is just elements of, can it help us be players in this new ecosystem? That I have seen even less clarity around, but we’d be fools not to talk about it and think about it.

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Computing in mixed reality, when your UX might be interspersed anywhere within the world in front of you, is going to be very, very different than the way we do it now, with little screens.

One thing I’m really excited about now is all this investment into technology that can track your movement, that really feels like digital object-centric systems, and that you’re in a real, different world. I think it’s moving computers toward mediums where someone can get [comfortable] very quickly compared to how computers are now, which is very flat, and I think it’s kind of unnecessary. It’s kind of like a teenage growth period–getting from janky computers that are usable by a few people, or that require a lot of teaching to learn how to use, getting toward a more humane kind of computing. So we’re very much in the awkward “everything is expensive, heavy, and doesn’t work that well” [stage]. But give it another good 20 years and a reasonable or amount of investment, and I think we’ll kind of bridge that gap and really be in that next era of computing.

Obviously I’m optimistic about it. I don’t see anyone slowing down, and I don’t see any reason to stop now.

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About the author

Fast Company Senior Writer Mark Sullivan covers emerging technology, politics, artificial intelligence, large tech companies, and misinformation. An award-winning San Francisco-based journalist, Sullivan's work has appeared in Wired, Al Jazeera, CNN, ABC News, CNET, and many others.

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