23 November 2021

Fast Company: “Niantic’s CEO believes the metaverse could be a ‘dystopian nightmare’”

You talk a lot about how your games encourage people to get out in the world and walk around.

Over the past few years of working on AR at Niantic, I’ve gotten pretty deep into the science around walking and the brain. [Walking] is so wired into our neural pathways from evolution. Our brain comes alive in a number of ways when we’re out moving through the world in a three-dimensional environment. That’s real, and it’s more than just a visual perception thing. There’s this whole debate over whether your mind is just in your brain or is it in your whole body. And there’s a very strong argument to be made that really your neural sensing and cognition happens throughout your entire body.

So the notion that you can just slap on a headset and shoot some photons into your eyes and somehow that takes the place of that whole-body experience that you have in the world—it’s false.

Mark Sullivan

This interview predates Facebook’s big Meta metamorphosis by a couple of months, but it does make some valid points about emulating the real-world experience in a virtual environment versus simply augmenting the world around us with digital overlays. While VR is aiming to replicate and reinvent the visual aspects of daily lives, it leaves out the subtler clues contributing to human perception, such as smells, touch, and our sense of equilibrium and motion. The latter is probably the hardest to recreate, and the source of the confusion many people experience while using VR headsets: the eyes show movement and motion, while the inner ear tells us we’re stationary.

Niantic CEO Hanke metaverse dystopian nightmare
Source images: luza studios/iStock; robuart/iStock

As for the assertion that AR is somehow immune to the ‘viral misinformation and weird political stuff’ that have come to plague Facebook… I genuinely doubt that is true. AR and VR are in their infancy, and the early Internet and early social networks were much saner and cleaner in the beginning, simply by virtue of the small number of active people. If and when AR becomes mainstream, the incentives for bad behaviors would increase in these new mediums as well. Trolls could send out fake gathering points in AR to create congestion or drive people to some obscure location or store, which would suddenly become overwhelmed. Malicious actors could spread rumors of fires or accidents via false AR images, causing panic and real-world harm. Politicians could pay for and micro-target misleading ads, to be displayed on virtual billboards for specific audiences, just as easily as on today’s social media. And I’m quite sure people will devise new ways to abuse these new technologies that we can’t even imagine at the present moment.

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