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Get Ready for the Battle of the Metaverses

Get Ready for the Battle of the Metaverses

As the pixels settle after Apple’s meticulously planned rollout of its Vision Pro headset, battle lines have solidified in the war for a new reality. Multiple tech powers—and some rising upstarts—are developing headsets and other gizmos to digitally augment or replace the world our raw senses perceive. But there’s a clear split in philosophy over the role these mixed-reality devices will play.

Suddenly, that schism matters. Only a year ago—in those palmy days when we weren’t fixated on AI writing our essays and maybe wiping out humanity—tech’s big obsession was the metaverse. Every company seemed to have a strategy for this upcoming paradigm. Disappointing sales and the rise of generative AI shunted that discussion to the background. But Apple’s splashy entry has revived interest—and challenged the way that one-time undisputed king of the metaverse, Mark Zuckerberg, is pursuing mixed reality. Other players in the field will choose between these paths. Even giants like Microsoft. When I spoke recently with its CEO, Satya Nadella, he reaffirmed his commitment to the pursuit of “presence.” (Then we continued talking about AI.)

Nine years ago, Zuckerberg’s exposure to VR by way of the Oculus headset—then a bare-bones Kickstarter concoction—was like a lightning strike to his cranium. In an instant, he became convinced that digitally generated reality was the platform of the future. Predictably, the founder of the world’s dominant social media company divined that this new technology would be social. In 2014, he bought the startup for $2 billion. Even though progress was slow—his original roughly 10-year timeline is almost up—he’s never lost faith, even changing the name of his company to Meta to reflect his commitment. Embracing the term “metaverse,” the name novelist Neal Stephenson gave to the concept of an alternative digital world, Zuckerberg has the long-term goal of providing the tools to make us go somewhere else—and socialize there.

Long-term, indeed. Meta’s headsets, dubbed Quest, are the most popular VR rigs, but they’re far from ubiquitous. Zuckerberg’s path to change is paved with immersive activities like gaming, fitness, and VR social spaces where people are represented by cartoonish avatars. Silly as this is, I’ve found that these avatars can actually foster a semi-lifelike sense of connection. But Meta’s flagship social app, Horizon Worlds, is still clunky and tiring. Last year, a Meta executive had to scold employees for not using it for their meetings. Nonetheless, the company is spending billions in research to improve the technology, convinced its approach is the right one.

With its $3,500 Vision Pro headset—lighter and more sophisticated than Meta’s Quest devices— Apple has chosen a different course. As I wrote earlier this month in my first impressions of the device, the company sees its operating system, VisionOs, in the tradition of earlier advances in natural computing interfaces, like the graphical interface, and pointing devices like the mouse or touchscreen. James Wagner Au, author of the new book Making a Metaverse That Matters, says, “It makes more sense to think of Vision Pro as the successor to the Mac Pro—a device for high-end content creators who would find it appealing to have a single device where the multiple screens can be subsumed into one device or reality.”

Not once during Apple’s event was the word “metaverse” uttered. Instead the company’s wordsmiths said the device was a foray into “spatial computing.” The Vision Pro is primarily a solitary device that allows you to work or watch a movie. The most social component is that when a human being gets close to you in the real world, the digital display consuming your consciousness dims enough to let you know someone’s approaching, perhaps to ask you for a stapler.

Neither company is relying exclusively on its particular vision. Apple’s demo included standard VR tricks, transporting us lock, stock, and eyeball into crazy situations, like a tightrope walk between mountains. And Meta has its own vision of a digital office with multiple screens.

But Apple’s passion was clearly directed into redefining work and expanding popular apps, like a mindfulness tool that relaxes your breathing and, presumably, your soul. Instead of calming your inner being with a soothing image on a flat screen, Apple delivered a full-body embrace in the form of flower-petal-like shapes oozing toward you and ultimately surrounding you in a blast of om-itude. And Apple’s workplace simulation dazzled with graphic fidelity and an endless flow of display screens controlled by ridiculously intuitive finger motions. Meanwhile, its social aspect was relatively lackluster, relying on uncanny-valley-ish Facetime representations of your friends and colleagues. Conversely, Meta’s workplace ambitions seem stalled—future versions of the $1,500 Quest Pro, the higher-end headset that ran its (somewhat uninspiring) productivity software—have apparently been scuttled.

It will be fascinating to see which of these worlds manages to pull us in. Or whether any of them do. Are we ready to leave reality—the one humans have experienced for tens of thousands of years—and jump into the metaverse, or swap our natural vision for a Vision Pro?

Your impulse might be to say No! I love the real world! There are trees there! But have you ever sat at a dinner table with teens, or venture capital bros? Instead of immersing themselves in the tastes and aromas of the meal or becoming absorbed in conversations, they stare at their phones, swiping endlessly. A reasonably priced device that sucks up even more attention might ratchet up whatever compels people to spend their time with gadgets. It might not happen soon, but tech giants—no dummies—are directing billions of dollars to removing any obstacles to that future. If they succeed, reality as we know it won’t stand a chance. And when we use the word presence, we will mean the opposite.

Time Travel

Neal Stephenson invented the metaverse. Or at least, he laid out the vision and named it. His novel Snow Crash was the first time that term was used, describing an alternative reality where Earth-bound wannabes can attain fame and glory in a computer-generated artificial universe. Not bad for 1992. I wrote about Stephenson in 1999 for Newsweek. And in 2023? Neal’s working on a metaverse startup.

When it comes to depicting the nerd mind-set, no one tops Stephenson. His predecessors in the cyberpunk science-fiction movement (writers like William Gibson and Bruce Sterling) depicted hackers as moody James Deans in leather. Stephenson lays out the way they really think and act—awkward, chatty mensches whose insistence on logic makes them borderline nut cases. That, and his sense of the techno-future—an imaginative vision blasting off from the launching pad of scientific truth and Silicon Valley buzz—has made him compulsory reading in the high-tech world, the hacker Hemingway. “Everybody reads Neal Stephenson here,” says Mike Paull, a manager in Microsoft’s hardware division. “He’s our inspiration.”

Stephenson broke into print in 1984 with a little-noticed satire of mega-universities called The Big U. (Though he disavows it, his admirers don’t: “I would eat a live iguana to have another copy,” one fan writes on Then came Zodiac, a tale of ecoactivism that won the hearts of tree huggers but didn’t sell, either. The breakthrough was Snow Crash, a manic depiction of a future dominated by virtual reality and speedy pizza delivery. The artificial world he created, the Metaverse, was quickly recognized by the cyberspace crowd as the most sensible depiction of Where It’s All Going, given sufficient bandwidth and the proper business plan. Suddenly, Stephenson was the techie’s darling.

Ask Me One Thing

Davidde asks, “What do you consider beauty in technology?”

Thanks for the question, Davidde. It’s a profound one. For many years, tech companies got by with sharp-edged metal boxes and other boring designs. These did the job but offended the senses. Then came Steve Jobs, who insisted that desktop computers should have flair. But he never lost sight of functionality. This effort began in 1977 with the Apple II—which looked like a sleek typewriter—and continued throughout his career. Eventually, cool design became an imperative.

Still, too many companies considered distinctive design to be a tradeoff with functionality. What distinguished Apple—and I endorse this concept of beauty—was its recognition that fulfilling the mission in the simplest possible manner would itself lead to beautiful design. For instance, in the original Macintosh, winnowing mouse controls to a single button—previous versions had two or three—was not only more attractive, but easier to learn and to use. Later, beginning with Apple’s 2008 MacBook Pro, a single “unibody” aluminum shell for a laptop turned out to be both sturdier and more aesthetically pleasing.

Beauty in technology begins when it’s easy on the eye. But it’s not really beautiful until it feels like magic as you get things done.

You can submit questions to [email protected]. Write ASK LEVY in the subject line.

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