John Hanke, CEO of Niantic Labs, has been working on technologies that help people navigate and enjoy places in the real world since he helped create Google Maps nearly 20 years ago. It’s not surprising, then, that he’s not a fan of the current hype surrounding the notion that technology is poised to hatch a “metaverse” — a three-dimensional simulation of the actual world populated by digital avatars of ourselves that transform themselves play, work, and experience other aspects of artificial life with friends, family, and co-workers that are so immersive they feel real.
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is such an ardent fan of a concept that he calls it such “Embodied Internet” that he recently renamed his company to Meta. However, Hanke fears that Zuckerberg’s vision would become more similar a dystopian nightmare.”
Instead, Hanke hopes to develop technology that blends into the physical world — an approach known as “augmented reality,” or AR. That’s what Niantic Labs has already done with Pokemon Go, a popular mobile game that uses AR to let people hunt digital creatures while roaming neighborhoods, parks, and elsewhere. He recently spoke to The Associated Press about his hopes for what he calls a “real world” metaverse.
Q: What bothers you most about Mark Zuckerberg’s push to create a Metaverse?
A: I feel like people are just wrong and think that the future is about people logging into a 3D world and walking around as avatars. I don’t think that’s the future of technology, let alone the future of humanity. I think it’s been an odd response to COVID in some ways, with people sheltering at home, watching a lot of Netflix, getting a lot of food delivered, and kids living off Roblox a lot.
If you look at the technology and where it’s going before the pandemic, it’s all about mobile app stuff you could take anywhere. You’re traveling with your kids, you’re doing things in the world and it helps you get there with Google Maps, it helps you eat with Yelp, it helps you find the hotel you’re going to stay at. That was it kind of technology that helps you as a human to make human things better.
Q: So you think the metaverse should go more in that direction?
A: : When we think of the real world metaverse, we think of reality channels. The real world metaverse is rooted in what we do today, but it’s an evolutionary step toward some of the same ideas that some people talk about the metaverse. It’s some of these same ideas that take place in the real world. Rather than staying at home and being plugged into your computer to look at graphics, (it’s) being in the real world when a device brings those things to you, making that experience richer, more fun, and more efficient.
Q: Where do you see the development of augmented reality?
A: When I say augmented reality, I literally mean augmented reality. And that could be anything your senses can perceive. If my augmentation is that I made a tree whisper when you sit near it and it was just an audio form of augmented reality, that’s really a legitimate form of expanding the world. If you were looking at a painting of cherry blossoms in the museum and I could blow the scent of those blossoms towards you, that would be a great use of AR. Some of this can come from phones, some from other devices. But we are visual creatures and we love visual things. We primarily respond to visual input. Therefore, it is very important that Visual AR is very important, which leads you to (internet-connected) glasses.
Q: Finally, what are your thoughts on the current effort? to loosen the controls and lower fees in Apple’s and Google’s mobile app stores?
A: It reminds me of London Bridge, old toll bridges that are lowered until the captain has paid to get his boat into port. These things will last as long as the toll collectors can keep them in place. It’s a lucrative business, but overall I think there’s no real technological reason you can’t have many app stores and have a fair way of distributing apps.
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