Can A New Surge Of Tech Interest Make The Metaverse A Thing?

26:10 minutes

Menlo Park, CA, USA - Apr 30, 2022: Closeup of the Meta sign at the entrance to the Meta Platforms headquarters in Menlo Park, California. Meta Platforms, Inc. is an American tech conglomerate.
The Meta sign at the entrance to the Meta Platforms headquarters in Menlo Park, California. Credit: Shutterstock

Late last year, Mark Zuckerberg took the company then known as Facebook in a new direction. He renamed it Meta, short for “metaverse.” And he promised the company would go all in on building a virtual reality world like the first famous metaverse—the fictional topic of Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel “Snow Crash.” 

While many companies have tried to make metaverses in the 30 years since “Snow Crash” came out, including the popular virtual world called Second Life, we seem to be entering a new era of metaverse hype: besides Zuckerberg, Apple seems to be investing in a VR world. And even Nike wants to make a metaverse.

So what are users actually getting if these companies succeed at their goals? And are there other, perhaps better, ways to go about bringing people together virtually? Ira talks to science fiction writer and tech journalist Annalee Newitz, and Avi Bar-Zeev, a pioneer of extended-reality technologies for companies like Disney, Apple, and others.

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Segment Guests

Annalee Newitz

Annalee Newitz is a science journalist and author based in San Francisco, California. They are author of Stories Are Weapons: Psychological Warfare and the American Mind, Four Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Age andThe Future of Another Timeline, and co-host of the podcast Our Opinions Are Correct.

Avi Bar-Zeev

Avi Bar-Zeev is founder of Reality Prime, president of The XR Guild, and a longtime extended-reality designer/architect based in San Francisco, California.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: Late last year, Mark Zuckerberg took the company then known as Facebook, he took it in a new direction. He renamed it Meta, short for Metaverse, and he promised the company would go all in on building a virtual reality world like that first famous Metaverse. The one was in the fictional topic of– it was a fictional topic of Neil Stephenson’s 1992 novel Snow Crash, great book.

And in that novel, people could work and play and shop and connect with each other. Well, fast forward, people really did build a working Metaverse called Second Life in 2003, and Science Friday was actually part of that Metaverse. And it’s still around.

But so far, building a new Metaverse has been more talk than action. While many companies have tried to create one in the 30 years since Snow Crash hit the bookstores, we seem to be in an era of Metaverse hype. Besides Zuckerberg, Apple seems to be investing in VR worlds. Even Nike wants to make a Metaverse, but so far, no soap.

So what are we actually getting? What’s the dream? What would we even want to spend time in a Metaverse? Why would we?

Here to help us envision, prognosticate, and analyze the tea leaves of what is possible, probable, and, perhaps, never going to happen is science fiction writer and science journalist Annalee Newitz– their newest book coming out in January is The Terraformers– and Avi Bar-Zeev, president of the XR Guild and pioneer of extended reality technologies for Second Life and companies like Disney, Apple, Microsoft, and others. Welcome, Annalee. Welcome, Avi.

ANNALEE NEWITZ: Hey, thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you.

AVI BAR-ZEEV: Thanks. Thanks for having me, yeah.

IRA FLATOW: You two– we want to hear from our listeners also. What is your vision for an immersive virtual world? What would make it useful to you? Do you already spend time in some kind of Metaverse? Let us know what’s going on in your life. Our number is 844-724-8255, 844-SCI-TALK. Or tweet us SciFri. Tell us what’s on your mind.

All right, let’s start with some definitions. How do you explain the concept of the Metaverse? What does that word mean at its most basic level? Avi, let me begin with you.

AVI BAR-ZEEV: Oh, there are so many definitions at this point. It’s a little confusing. First, you mentioned Snow Crash. That was the first definition.

And then we added this idea that it’s the fusion of the virtual world and the real world, which I always just called augmented reality. But now people are calling that the Metaverse, too. And then people came along and said now it’s blockchain and NFTs and decentralization. They call that the Metaverse also.

And they may not even be thinking about the 3D part of it. So at this point, the word is kind of exploded so much that the only way I can describe it is the undiscovered country. It’s not even a noun anymore. It’s like cyberspace, which is just an idea. We don’t really go to cyberspace.

But there are real things. There are real promises there. But we may need to find some better words to describe them.

IRA FLATOW: Annalee, how would you describe it? I know this year marks 30 years since Neil Stephenson’s book Snow Crash, which we talked about, which coined the term Metaverse. But where did this idea of a Metaverse, not just the word itself, come from in the first place, Annalee.

ANNALEE NEWITZ: It’s a really good question, and Avi mentioned the idea of cyberspace, which is the kind of proto-Metaverse idea, and that comes out of William Gibson’s fiction, particularly his novel Neuromancer, which is from the early ’80s. And he talks about imagining– William Gibson talks about how he was walking past a video arcade in the early ’80s. And he saw all of these people who were physically present, but it looked like their brains were elsewhere.

They were just– they were standing stockstill. Their fingers were moving. But they were clearly in another world, and that was how he got the idea for cyberspace, which is an immersive 3D consensual hallucination, where we all hang out. And we’re in these avatars, and we’re our cyber versions of ourselves. And our bodies are off maybe just doing nothing while our brains are in this kind of magical land.

And I think the promise of cyberspace and the Metaverse have always been this idea that you could abolish distance, that you could be sitting in San Francisco and hanging out in a cafe in Mumbai and with someone from Finland and that you would all feel like you were there.


ANNALEE NEWITZ: And the other fantasy– oh, go ahead.

IRA FLATOW: No, I’m sorry. I’m sorry. Go ahead. Finish your thought.

ANNALEE NEWITZ: My– I just wanted to say that I think the other fantasy is about transcending our bodies and being able to do things that feel real in a fantasy world so that you could feel like you were flying or feel like you had wings or tentacles or whatever you wanted.

IRA FLATOW: I remember when we were in Second Life when Second Life came out the difference I always felt, because we have social communities that you can meet other people in other parts of the world, is–


IRA FLATOW: –the fact that you could be anonymous. And you really can’t be anonymous in other social communities.

You make an avatar of yourself. You show off clothing. But people– you could role play there, where you couldn’t before, right.

ANNALEE NEWITZ: I think that that’s part of it for sure, and that’s part of the fantasy of transcending your body. You could have any kind of body that you want. You could be anonymous. You could be an insectoid queen who rules over her tiny larvae. You can be whatever you could possibly imagine.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. We’re talking about the Metaverse with Annalee Newitz and Avi Bar-Zeev. Avi, you’ve been working for decades on projects that aim to make this sci-fi vision a reality. How many different kinds of Metaverses have people tried to make in that time?

AVI BAR-ZEEV: They’ve been trying for as long as I can remember. If you go back and include the textural multi-user dungeons, you could call that kind of proto-Metaverse, where people role played together, and Second Life, you mentioned. We see a lot of variations as well. Some of them fit the model that you seem to imagine, which is that we’re anonymous and we’re role playing, and some of them are very grounded in real life, especially when you think– starting to think about augmented reality.

The company Niantic has what they like to call the real-world Metaverse, a variation on this idea where you can play games in the world and maybe even in the future do commerce. And for some of those things, we probably do want to be somewhat identified. We probably do want to be ourselves because these worlds are there to help us augment our lives, to live better lives.

And it’s really hard to imagine for a lot of people if you haven’t seen it or experienced this kind of thing. But the best way to describe it that I can think of is just imagine the three of us feel like we’re in a room together. It doesn’t have to be a fantasy room. It could be– I picture myself here in my office. Annalee sees themselves in their location, and Ira, you see yourself.

We all see our everyday location, but we also see each other as if we’re coming together in a kind of a face-to-face conversation for the course of this conversation. And then we go off and do whatever else we want to do. So it is folding– space folding time, and that’s– for the worlds that work out there, for the ones that have a lot of people already in them, that’s the thing that I think most people are coming for.

IRA FLATOW: That’s interesting.

AVI BAR-ZEEV: They also something to come for that’s an activity, like a game. Fortnite, Roblox are good examples of those.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s go to the phones, 844-724-8255. Hi, welcome to Science Friday. John in Huntsville, go ahead.

JOHN: Hello.

IRA FLATOW: Hey there.

JOHN: Can you hear me?


JOHN: This is John in Huntsville. I’m a CTO of an organization called Geeks and Nerds in Huntsville, Alabama, so I don’t have a question except I have an opinion about virtual reality is that I think, when we talk about virtual reality, we’re simply talking about the [INAUDIBLE] increasing over time because we, in fact, live in virtual reality. Everything we see and feel is a perception and subjective, and we create that reality in our brain. So when we talk about virtual reality technology increasing, or Metaverse, it just means that we’re able to increase the [INAUDIBLE] over time and that the technology or the concept itself has existed for thousands of years.

IRA FLATOW: OK, let me get– Avi, do you have a reaction to that?

JOHN: Yeah, I think that’s right, actually. The idea of virtual worlds originated really with psychology because we create the world in our own mind, and it’s a reflection of what we’re sensing through our eyes and ears and other senses. So the version of the world that we interact with the most is the one that’s in our brains and imaginary, and that’s what makes it possible to use technology to create simulated worlds or to add on to the real world.

We’re experiencing it the same way, and that’s one of the values of this tech. There’s a lot of things that go wrong, but one of the values is it can be the most natural computer interface that we’ve ever made because it works just like reality for us. It works just like dealing with objects and people and all the things that we have evolved to be good at. We’re just taking advantage of all those natural pathways that exist in the sensory and everything.

And I think it’s fair to say, but that’s also where some of the dangers lie in that reality can become very subjective, when it can be modified and when companies that we may not trust can also affect our realities. We have to have some cautions there, yeah.

IRA FLATOW: We’ve been talking about the so-called Metaverse. That’s the immersive cyber world of, first, science fiction that Mark Zuckerberg and others say they want to make a reality. And regardless of the success of those corporate efforts, we want to know what a Metaverse could be if the right people were making it with the right tools.

With me is science fiction writer and science journalist Annalee Newitz and Avi Bar-Zeev, who worked on developing technology and infrastructure for virtual reality projects for many, many companies. Our number, 844-724-8255. Annalee, I’m going to go to that last thing that I mentioned. What could the Metaverse be if the right people were making it with the right tools? What would you like to see?

ANNALEE NEWITZ: That’s a really great question, and I think Avi touched on this a little bit when he mentioned augmented reality, which is a kind of blended version of virtual reality and the real world. And if you’ve ever played Pokémon Go on your phone, that’s kind of a little bit like augmented reality.

You’re going out into a physical space, but you’re playing a game. And the game is connected to physical spaces in the real world. And I think it would be fantastic to have something like that with maybe a nicer display. If it were in your glasses, that’s one possibility. And you could be using something like the app LeafSnap, which is for identifying trees, or Merlin Bird for identifying birds. I would love to take a hike with some kind of augmented reality, Metaverse-like thing just telling me what birds I’m hearing.

And the other thing I think that would be great is for scientists who are conducting experiments at laboratories that are one-of-a-kind labs. Maybe there’s only one lab in the world that has the facilities you need, and you could be running an experiment there, using virtual controls. And you could be looking at the results. So I love those applications for it.

IRA FLATOW: You were speaking of nature. Let’s go to the phones because Christina in Sebastian, Florida– is that right. Christina has a question about that.

CHRISTINA: Well, actually, a comment and a question. I want people to spend more time tuning into nature and seeing everything as being sentient and respecting– and/or respecting nature. I want to get people away from the computers because they’re doing too much of it already.

I think there could be– and so personally I have no interest in doing it except you, as always, are bringing in something that might be interesting. What about going on a walk and having somebody with you to tell you what everything is. So far, none of the apps have been that good at doing it. So I’m on hold, and I’d like to know more about how it can be used in a way that helps people be part of the planet and love and cherish and be grateful for each other and everybody and everything on the planet.

IRA FLATOW: That’s a great question. Thanks for that call. Annalee or Avi, you have any suggestions?

AVI BAR-ZEEV: I’m sure I could– just starting with the idea of taking a nature walk, I love this idea, but now imagine you’re in a city. And you’re taking a walk, and you want to make the city more beautiful and more natural than it was have. There’s a game that– one of the other games Niantic does lets you do virtual gardening out in the world.

But that doesn’t change the world. But what if you go a step further and say, if 100 people beautify a certain street corner, then the city will come in and plant the tree in that location and actually improve the world based on things that people did virtually? You could easily imagine that being used to fix a pothole if enough people send in the information there’s a pothole. We can come and fix that.

But I think we could also increase the natural beauty of the places that we live that may not have retained it after we’ve colonized and built all our buildings. I think that’s one aspect of it. And then there’s another aspect of all this technology that’s about connecting with people, and I would say, any time that we’re able to use technology to better connect people, that really brings them together not in a superficial way that I’m going to show you my posed vacation photos that show you how great a time I had, but a way that really connects people so that they feel the sense of community and they feel like they’re really together, that’s going to be a positive, especially in times where we might be isolated for various reasons.

So I’m really positive– I’m really bullish on this idea that we can bring people together in a real way that we haven’t done on the web so far.

IRA FLATOW: Interesting. We have a tweet coming in from Philip, who says, I’d love to have VR headsets on airplanes or MRI machines for people who are claustrophobic. I can second that last question, being claustrophobic. That would be a really interesting thing to have on airplanes or an MRI machines.

AVI BAR-ZEEV: I wanted that for years. Imagine if you put cameras around the airplane. You could make the plane–


AVI BAR-ZEEV: –be invisible in a sense and see the world as you’re flying. That would be a dream of mine.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah because they have apps that let you look at the ground, and they don’t work so well from up there at 30,000 feet. But yeah, virtual reality about what you could see around you.

ANNALEE NEWITZ: But also what I think that the Tweeter is pointing out is that it could also have a therapeutic purpose. This is for people who might be uncomfortable in an enclosed space, and so you can use your VR rig to kind of mock up a big open space to be in. And I think that that’s another area where augmented reality could provide a lot of help for people. There’s many different kinds of therapeutic applications that you could imagine for it.

IRA FLATOW: You were talking about augmented reality in nature. I have an augmented reality app. When I do astronomy in my backyard, I can hold it up to the sky, and it will show the constellations and the planets on my own sky in my own backyard. It overlays it.



ANNALEE NEWITZ: I love that. I have that, too.

IRA FLATOW: It’s really, really cool. Speaking of cool, let’s go to Cici in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. Did I get that right, Cici?

MIKE: Yeah, this is Mike from Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.

IRA FLATOW: Ah, OK, I was close. Go ahead.

MIKE: Yeah, it’s similar to the last question, but I’ve always been interested in augmented reality or virtual reality from The Veldt by Aldous Huxley or Ender’s Game, where they kind of engage in these otherworldly experiences. But I was originally going to ask the question about what uses there might be for therapy.

But the other thing that I think kind of relates to that is your ability to experiences through the eyes of others and maybe gain some empathy and things like that, where we would maybe be able to get rid of some of our prejudices if we understood where we came from a different culture or things like that. I’m wondering whether or not there’s been any studies or applications or anybody pursuing that kind of thing.

IRA FLATOW: That’s a cool idea. Avi, any thoughts on that?

AVI BAR-ZEEV: There have been. There’s a little risk here, too, but the positive side is it’s a great way to step out of your own self into another– it was a brilliant experiment at a conference a few years back, where the researcher put cameras down around waist high instead of up by your head, and you can now see something as if you were half your normal height and gave you little hands that look like kids hands.

You could experience the conference from what it would be like to be a kid there from back– it’s hard to remember when we were that small. And that was I thought a pretty amazing thing, and other therapeutic examples are it’s being used a lot for meditation now. You have good examples of being able to get to altered states and consciousness without having to take any kind of drugs or medication, that the headsets can help you get into those natural mental states and many, many good uses.

The danger is for something like take, for example, the Holocaust museum played with using VR to help experience that terrible reality, you don’t want to go so far as to put people in a virtual concentration camp because you can actually create trauma. There’s something about VR especially that it’s so real that we remember the experiences as if they were real. And so trauma that happens in VR can affect us in our real lives as well, so you have to be very, very careful not to take it too far.

IRA FLATOW: That’s very interesting.


IRA FLATOW: Does that answer your question, Mike? Are you still there?

MIKE: Yeah, yeah, yeah, very interested in your thoughts, and thank you. That’s helpful. Have fun.

IRA FLATOW: Thank you. And speaking of this, Annalee, wouldn’t this be a great topic for a science fiction novel, where you could put on glasses and get through other people’s experiences?

ANNALEE NEWITZ: Certainly, it is a trope in science fiction. It kind of comes up again and again as an idea about how empathy could work but also about trauma and the idea that people would be traumatized in virtual worlds. And as a kind of real-world example, there was an app called Rec Room that was a VR app that people were using for a while. It may still be out there.

And when you would go in, you’d get a simple avatar, and people who went in with female bodies were getting groped a lot. And so the makers of the app had to create a special toggle, where you could set up your avatar to be unapproachable for up to six feet so that people just couldn’t physically touch you because it was such an incredible problem. And people were reporting feeling traumatized because there’s something about being in that 3D space, even if it’s a cartoony space, it just feels more invasive than somebody like dropping by your Twitter and saying something offensive. It’s much more visceral and real when it happens to you and you’re physically in a space so.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. That’s very interesting. Yeah, let’s go to the phones again. Let’s go to John in Williamsburg, Virginia. Hi, John.

JOHN: Hi, how are you doing?

IRA FLATOW: Hi there. Go ahead.

JOHN: I got a question. And when I walk around the real world, I see branded clothing and advertisements and billboards. Do we think they’ll ever figure out how to pay for the Metaverse with ads like that as you walk around?

IRA FLATOW: Good question. Who’s going to pay for the Metaverse, Avi?


AVI BAR-ZEEV: Wow. Yeah, this is a big, big question, and I think we’ve seen so many issues with social networks and how– the harms that can come, especially to younger people, using just a 2D social network. Today, we can imagine that a future ad-driven Metaverse could be even more harmful, given the invasive sensors that we have, the things that might track your eyes or know what you’re looking at or know how you feel at any given time.

The marketing opportunities are insane. And that’s one of the reasons we have to be super careful here, that it would– and I’m not the only one that’s said this. Many of the pioneers of the field are saying we cannot let the Metaverse, whatever it turns out to be, be ad driven because it really optimizes for the wrong things.

It optimizes for endless engagement and getting people emotionally wound up, pushing their buttons. And once the algorithm knows what your buttons are, if it can push your buttons, then you’re toast. You’re going to be trapped, and you’re going to be exploited even more so than we’ve ever seen.

So we have to be super careful. The fortunate thing is there are many other business models that nobody has to go with this tired-old business model of advertising on the web to make a free product because you have the business model of, for example, transactions. It’s very successful to say– think about a credit card as the example of, if lots of commerce flows through the system and it really is buying and selling things and trading things, then the company only needs to take a very small percentage of those transactions, 1%, 2%, or even less, in order to make their living. And that’s the business model I think that’s going to win out at the end of the day.

IRA FLATOW: Right this is Science Friday from WNYC Studios, talking with Annalee Newitz and Avi Bar-Zeev. Go ahead, Annalee. You wanted to jump in there.

ANNALEE NEWITZ: Oh yeah, so the advertising model, the marketing model, is already here. There’s been a joke going around based on an actual ad that crops up in Meta’s Metaverse, which is Target, the company that we all know, has created a Target goth world in the Metaverse, where you can go shop for all the gothy things that Target sells, like black couches and silver jewelry and silky black shirts, but you can do it in the Metaverse.

And you have to think about where the Metaverse is being built when you see something silly like visit goth Target in the Metaverse. And you know it’s coming to you from the people who built Facebook. Meta, their biggest, most lucrative product is Facebook. So when you think about how Facebook makes its money, which is entirely from advertising, then you have to ask, well, what will Facebook’s– what will Meta’s Metaverse look like?

It’s going to be full of things like goth Target. And Avi’s right to worry that this can create incentives to inspire technologies that are addictive. We want to keep people in there and get them addicted, and we’ve already seen where that took us with social media. So maybe we don’t want Meta to be running the Metaverse.

IRA FLATOW: Here’s a tweet, an interesting tweet, that says, I believe the– Chris on Twitter, I believe the biggest barrier to the Metaverse at this point is actually content creation tools for everyone. I wonder if your guests agree. Yeah, if Meta has the content creation tools, as you say, Annalee, they’re going to be making the content. What about tools for people who are not part of that giant world?

ANNALEE NEWITZ: Yeah, there’s the question of people making content. Where is the kind of Minecraft-type space of the Metaverse? But there’s also the question of just access. Right now, if you want a virtual reality rig or an augmented reality rig, it might cost you up to $5,000, and some of the lowest ones are $300. And so it’s basically, it’s either the cost of a really nice phone or the cost of a completely fancy computer.

And there’s not much content out there. It’s not just that there’s no user-generated content. There’s just– there’s a few games. There’s a few spaces. So I really think that what we’re going to see first is basically stuff like Meta’s partnership with Microsoft to create places for people to work.

Your company will provide you with a virtual space. It won’t be a fun thing that you do, where you build a castle in the Metaverse. You go to work there, and then eventually the costs will come down enough that people will be able to build their own stuff.

IRA FLATOW: Avi, you agree?

AVI BAR-ZEEV: Yeah, I think Annalee’s definitely right. I think, though, the bright spot here– and certainly, that’s what they’re talking about is what is now. Right now, it’s about meetings and industrial-use cases. Some of the biggest use cases are remote assistance and training and simulation.

But we will get to a point where content creation is cheap and anybody could do it. We all have this vision of the Holodeck, where you just talk to the computer and tell it what you want and it’s made real or virtually real in front you. Whether it’s physical or not, that’s another story, but we’ll get there.

If you take a look at things like Midjourney, DALL-E, Stable Diffusion, they’re already being able to take text prompts and turn them into pictures. And so we’re maybe just a couple of years out from being able to take verbal prompts, what do you say you want, and turn it into 3D things in space with you. And that will enable lots of people to be able to create these worlds.

But there’ll still be lots of jobs for the people who make the high-quality stuff because there needs to be content in order to seed the content that everybody else wants. We’re getting closer and closer. It’s very exciting, and that’s what got me into space in the first place. I just wanted to make things, and it just wasn’t ready yet 30 years ago. And we’re getting close.

IRA FLATOW: We have to wait for the big companies to set something up, and then the little people move in and do other things. So we’ll have to just–

AVI BAR-ZEEV: Pretty much.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, we’ll have to wait. Thank you both for taking time to be with us today. It’s been a pleasure. I’ve had science fiction writer and science journalist Annalee Newitz. Their newest book coming out in January is The Terraformers. Thank you, Annalee.

ANNALEE NEWITZ: Thanks so much for having me.

IRA FLATOW: You, too. And Avi Bar-Zeev, president of the XR Guild and a pioneer of extended reality technologies for Second Life, companies like Disney, Apple, Microsoft, and others, thank you for joining us today.

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