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Virtual reality, the metaverse and faster horses

Virtual Reality and the metaverse are going to change the world as much as the car.

But before that happens we need to talk about faster horses.

“Faster horses” is famously what Henry Ford thought people would have said they wanted if asked. Humans are habit machines and struggle to on board new concepts that conflict with established ones. Take, for instance, peoples' hopes for their mobile devices.

Mobile devices are now the main way in which people interact with content (58% of time spent online is via mobile) - an incredible revolution in media consumption in little more than ten years. Yet ask people what they want next from mobiles?

Yes, it’s faster horses: leading the pack is the 51% who want more storage, followed by 48% plump for both faster charging and more power (Source: GWI).

People struggle to extrapolate a future that’s little more than a jacked-up present: a small set of assumptions and established habits can eclipse the huge potential of the future. That is until events, social pressure or through necessity, they’re forced to engage.

Reaction to the explosion in video calling during the Covid-19 pandemic is a good proxy for VR adoption. At the start of the pandemic, most people viewed video calls negatively: perceiving the need to establish new social norms or get to grips with new technology as not worth the effort.

However, forced into using them, the benefits became clear and usage became the established norm. Now a normal voice call seems strangely outdated and lacking in depth of communication.

In the next five years VR and the metaverse will face a similar trigger moment that activates the mass adoption of the technology. It could be another pandemic that reduces travel, a sharp reduction in travel due to energy prices or eco-concerns, or a product innovation that removes friction from fast adoption.

The benefits of VR and the metaverse - which will previously have been eclipsed by established norms of how content should be consumed (2D, distant screens, buttons on remote controls, keyboards and mice) - will suddenly become clear.

So what are those benefits? They’re pretty insanely good. VR and the metaverse offers the closest you will ever experience to teleporting and time travel. You will be able to feel present anywhere, past or present - probably in some decent simulacrums of the future too.

You will be able to interact with physically & temporally distant objects and events. And you’ll do all of this just as humans are meant to: with eyes, ears and hands - even your nose - not tapping on screens or keyboards. Communication will be richer and more natural: after all, 93% of communication is non-verbal.

Over time, this will reshape how we live, how we work and how we design cities (for the better): people will be able to live more localised lives, reducing need for roads, cars, pollution. The car undid the nuclear community and extruded it into suburbs: VR and the metaverse will reverse this, giving people the freedom to live locally whilst experiencing rich, global lives. The change will be profound and hugely beneficial.

Of course, naysayers will mock the limitations of the current technology and experience. It’s easy to pick apart the current limitations of both VR headsets and metaverse experiences: the future is often expensive, cumbersome, inconvenient and easy to mock when it first arrives.

The future is often expensive, cumbersome, inconvenient and easy to mock when it first arrives.

Image credits L-R: Gorthmog/Clemens PFEIFFER/KKPCW

Philip Rosendale, Co-Founder of Second Life (the metaverse before the metaverse, in the 2000s) attempts a comprehensive take down on the idea of using Meta Quest Pro for meetings in this post. This however ignores the advances being made by AI within VR technology, which promise to introduce full body tracking without the need for additional sensors.

The speed at which the core VR technology is moving, along with associated technologies such as AI (now moving faster than Moore’s Law) means that the VR and metaverse experience will soon breakthrough these initial negative perception barriers. Andrew Steinwold gives it 36 months for radical changes to impact - I’d say 5 years for mainstream adoption. Even now, progress at the premium end of VR with companies like Varjo, show the potential that is about to be unleashed (check out their which car is real post).

“The future,” wrote William Gibson, is already here: “it’s just unevenly distributed.” VR and the metaverse are the future: they will change society in profound ways. Saddle up your horses and get ready for a wild, and perhaps faster, ride.

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