Friday, November 11, 2022

Some random thoughts on VR and the "metaverse"

Stuck at home with COVID (I'd managed to avoid it for 2 and a half years) and reading too much about Twitter and Facebook's general stupidity each day, I felt it was time for me to (needlessly) weigh in on my thoughts about Virtual Reality (VR) and the "metaverse" (god, what an awful name for a pure marketing ploy). And the debut of Meta's Quest Pro 2 (which I have not used and don't plan to) is the perfect time to talk about a couple observations/thoughts about the whole techno-mess of VR/AR.

1) To think that there is enough of a work-purpose for expensive VR headsets seems to misunderstand what many/most people do for work. I sometime think that tech companies think that every human on the planet works for a tech company. I can't imagine that a VR/AR headset will ever be useful in the vast majority of fields. Whether it is brick and mortar retail, education (which I work in), health-care, or many other fields, we need to interact with actual human beings in front of us. If you think that education can be improved with technology and VR classrooms then you really haven't learned anything about what makes education work over the past 300,000+ years. Suffice it to say that VR classrooms are just the next wrong-headed thing like No Child Left Behind's testing accountability implementation was. And in so many other places, we need real people around us. I could go grocery shopping in a robot staffed grocery store, still feel and see the foods with my own senses, but would I ask a VR headset wearing staffer who is in their living room, god-knows-where, to point me in the direction of something in the store? Maybe, but that seems a hell of a lot worse for both parties than just having a staff who actually works in the actual grocery store I'm shopping in for help. It seems like VR technology creates a need for itself and ancillary technology for no real benefit in most scenarios. Most things are just easier to do in the real world with other real people.

2) Why would I want to wear something on my head all day? Maybe it's vain, but that's got to leave some bad "hat hair" when you take it off. And I've worked hard for my voluminous hair!

3) I wear glasses, I need glasses, I need special classes with a unique base curve, which will make it very hard for me to ever use VR comfortably. I don't want contacts and I don't want laser eye surgery. And what about all the various people with a variety of intellectual and physical disabilities for whom access to this technology will be challenging for many reasons?

4) Why would I want a poorly animated cartoon avatar to represent me? Why would I want to look at other people's poorly animated cartoon avatars? Teleconferencing with Zoom/Teams really has been a game changer in efficiency and communication. Love it. Good job technology. I will take a 2D low-res video of an actual human being over an avatar any day for work purposes. Don't forget how much is lost in texting when you don't have body language. I imagine it would be just as bad with avatars. And for those who would say that the technology is in it's infancy and eventually we'll have in-head-gear face-tracking to make your avatar have full non-verbal cues...we already have that, but better, right now with Zoom where we see the actual person's actual face's facial cues!

5) When I used to think about what I would want in a video game, I wanted something truly immersive where I could be who I really wanted and connect with people the way I always dreamed. I think that's been a lot of what has been pitched with the social side of the "metaverse." As I saw representations of that (such as in Sword Art Online, Ready Player One, etc...) I was mildly intrigued. Hell, I loved making my avatar in Second Life. (growing up I always played as the female characters and made female avatars) But then something wonderful happened. I came out of the closet, completed my public transition, and started living my life as who I actually was...IN THE REAL WORLD!!!! (gasp). And in the three years since, as I've built my real life to be what I always wished it was, it turns out I'm not interested in living in an immersive fantasy life. I'm now connecting with REAL PEOPLE the way I want and I'm feeling better than ever. In no way am I trying to minimize what fun others might have with immersive gaming. But I think there has been a subtle undercurrent of "escaping" the awful mundanity of the human condition that has been a lure for VR. Turns out, when we improve our real lives, some of the attractiveness of giving up time in real life for time in VR dissipates. I'd much rather see Meta take that $10 billion they've spent on the Metaverse and instead put it to revolutionizing low-cost universal health care, or clean drinking water around the world, or green energy, or literally any of the useful humanitarian things that technology could have a profoundly powerful affect on (see, I'm not a luddite). Improving actual real people's real lives would be infinitely better than creating an imaginary world for people to live in to escape the real world and all it's social, political, and health ills.

6) The more things require high-tech interactions, the greater the upfront costs are to every day people. A couple examples: As much as I support (greatly support) the need for greener transportation solutions, what we've seen is that EVs cost a ton more than internal combustion engine vehicles and that makes it harder on low-income individuals to have individual transportation that those with greater economic stability who take owning cars for granted. In a country with piss poor public transit (in part because of how geographically large and spread everything is), EVs are furthering the economic gap. If we look at the evolution of internal combustion cars we see they keep adding more and more features and so the least expensive small cars getting to the point of being barely affordable. I'm glad for the safety innovations of these vehicles,  and I get that supply chain issues etc... but why does a civic cost $28,000 now vs. $15,000 a decade ago? (I made up those numbers - don't yell at me, I'm making a point over here - however in 2009 I bought a Mitsubishi lancer that was 3 years old, had $40,000 miles on it for only $9000 out the door - can't do that anymore). What real value add is there to justify the cost? And again, those cost increases will further divide the haves from the have-nots. Why the car talk? Because as the tech sector pitches ever more expensive "solutions" to problems that don't exist and get fawned over so much that they become the new expectation, we continue to drive economic disenfranchisement and exploit the wealth gap.

VR/"the metaverse" is a solution without a problem. While there may be some very small use cases (robotic surgery), AAA video games, military operations (think drone operators), the vast majority of people just don't need to spend $1500 on something (likely every few years) that doesn't do anything better than the real world already does. Unlike cell phones, VR/"the metaverse" hasn't shown any potential to really replace or improve any existing technology or use cases. To that point, I'll admit I like my cell phone. It's replaced an expensive land-line, a car gps, and made texting a communication medium that I truly value. And that's not to say all the other simply nice conveniences of having a full fledged portable computer in my pocket at all times (a luxury to be sure, but a useful one). (We can talk more about the social and economic implications of cell phones - good and bad - on social equity another time.) VR/"the metaverse" simply doesn't have anything it improves on. It's a fake world, replicating the real world, but worse.

UPDATE 11/12/22: additional thesis: We live in a space, at all times, we are bound by the room or environment we are in. We have, have created, and manipulate things in that environment and we are evolutionarily very well equipped to do so. Why would we need to create an artificial environment to do what we can already do in a real environment? No matter how good technology gets with visual, auditory, olfactory, touch input, it will never improve upon nature. When I think about how I zoom, I have three monitors, one for the zoom, two for working, plus papers and books, and reference manuals all over my desk. I frequently work on one thing while zooming on another (and I am very sensitive to what my camera is seeing and not seeing me do, how would that work if everything is in a virtual world or if I'm having to do things in the real world while also VR-ing with a group? Sounds cumbersome). I also like to thumb through things and add written notes, and no amount of digital books or digital note taking in margins of digital books will ever improve on the real thing for me. So from a work standpoint, I don't see VR/AR as an improvement no matter how refined it gets. I want real things in the real world to touch and see and manipulate. The convenience of zoom plus google docs (or the Microsoft equivalents) have made working with people all over very convenient. I feel like strapping a thing to my head and controllers and whatever else to do what I can already do now is a downgrade (and expensive). So outside of some niche use cases, I just don't see it as an improvement on the actual environment we have and the physical tools we've designed for those environments (pen, paper, books, screens, etc...). END UPDATE

I hope that just like how Twitter's new owner (won't say his name in my blog) is likely to sink Twitter (wipe that bastion of hate off the internet please), I hope the "metaverse" sinks Meta and Facebook. Good riddance if it happens.

🚺

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