Mark Pesce – Behind the Scenes of the Metaverse

Limitless. A new World is in the Making.

A new world is in the making. The Metaverse is the latest buzzword when talking about Web 3.0. In the company of Mark Pesce, an inventor, writer, entrepreneur, educator, and broadcaster, we go behind the scenes to discover the hype. He gives us a very down-to-earth definition of what the Metaverse actually is and a profound outlook of what it could be someday. It turns out: As Marks says, we humans won‘t change and start living in an entirely virtual world, but rather use technology to enhance communication and enrich our experiences while interacting with each other over time zones and country borders.

QUEST: Mr. Pesce, if we were in the Metaverse right now, how would the conversation we are having be different? What would it look like?

Pesce: So I think you’re asking me this at the best possible time because I just finished the last episode of our series, A Brief History of the Metaverse, which goes basically back 100 years to the present time. And I have been thinking about nothing but the Metaverse quite intensely for the last couple of months. One of the things that came up when we were talking to all the people who had worked very hard on it was how do we know whether we’re in the Metaverse? What will we do in the Metaverse? How is it going to be different? And you and I are having this conversation via a video conference, which was unusual before COVID and is now so plebeian, so commonplace that we just make jokes about it. And you can say, well, if you have 20 people on a zoom call or teams call, is that happening in the Metaverse? And people are then struck for what the hallmarks of the Metaverse are. How will we know what this would be like in the Metaverse? How would it be different? These are questions that we’re still struggling with. If you ask Tony Harris, with whom I did the series, he would absolutely demand that this would be happening in three dimensions and that you would not be flat on display. I would not be flat on display. So we would see each other represented in three dimensions. And I would probably insist that this would be happening, not in some purely synthetic environment, but a mixed reality environment with the world in it so that you and I might be sitting, as it were, around a coffee table even though your coffee table is in Dubai and mine in Sydney.

And so I think that the Metaverse can encompass all of that. But what it really is about is the established feeling of presence between you and I because the Metaverse, at the end of all of our definitions, is a way for human beings to communicate. And so it’s about establishing that communication connection between individuals. And the Metaverse generally means scaling to many individuals, not just two people.

I think that the Metaverse
in 10 to 15 years is where the digital world and the physical world are mixed to the point
where we would feel like we’ve been cheated if we only had one or the other.

QUEST: Tell us about the Metaverse. By definition, what is it?

Pesce: We asked about 40 or 50 experts that question, and they all gave us a different answer. So we want to start with that, that even the people who work in this haven’t coalesced around a single thing. The word Metaverse comes from the novel Snow Crash, written by Neil Stephenson and published in 1992. It posited the existence of a shared virtual world, a shared virtual reality with billions of simultaneous people who were capable of seeing and interacting with one another. That has kind of become the gold standard, but you want to call it the archetype when you say Metaverse to most people. If they know what it is, they’ll give you some version of what that is. There’s a lot of devil in detail there around what that actually means in practice because you can go into Fortnite and play a battle royale with 200 people simultaneously. You can all see one another and be shooting one another or helping one another out but is that the Metaverse? Well, Tony would say no, because it’s completely isolated. It’s just the 200 people. It’s not the rest of the planet. It’s not the other 8 billion people. 

And so there’s this idea here that it comes down to three qualities we need to see in the Metaverse. The first is that it has to be interactive. Now, none of us think about the fact that there was a time when computers were not interactive. But if you go back only 40 years, computers were profoundly not interactive. Now they’re just everywhere, and we’re always interacting with them. But when I say that the Metaverse is interactive, I mean you could go in there and do something and then leave the Metaverse, but when you come back, it’s still the way you did it. In other words, your actions have as much reality to them.

So the first quality is interactivity. The second quality will be sensual richness. You could make a really good argument that Twitter is the Metaverse, except for the fact that it’s all text because Twitter is 200 million people who are simultaneously connected and in communication. This is one reason why Twitter is unlike other forms of social media. And so Twitter is two-thirds of the way to the Metaverse because it’s got that third quality, which is connection. So you have to have interactivity. You’ve got to have thesensual richness, and you’ve got to have connectivity. And I mean connectivity that’s planetary scale, like the Internet, where there are billions of people simultaneously participating in the Internet. Right now, of course, none of us see one another. We don’t know if we’re on the same Web page together or in the same game. When you bring all those things together into an experience, a place, a product, or whatever, that then probably starts to look like what we think the Metaverse is.

QUEST: So it’s very much still in the making. From my perspective, Mr. Pesce, the Metaverse seems like something big, something revolutionary, one that will change how the Internet works. Do you agree?

Pesce: I think the answer is yes. A similar transformation happened with the Web. The Internet has been around for a long time. I’d been working on it for a long time as well. Then the Web comes around and becomes the interface that we all used to relate to what was going on in the Internet and to one another over the Internet. And it feels like that transition was to basically text and browsers connecting us all and then into social media, which was connecting us all in another way, and then now into the Metaverse. And it feels like we’re getting whether or not you want to say better or better and better. But perhaps we’re getting fancier and fancier. It’s like if you go from slides to motion pictures that are black and white to sound, to color, it has that kind of feel to it, that there’s a progression in our capabilities and that the technology is enabling that capability.

We’re now running into a region where most of the unsolved problems in the Metaverse are really difficult. It is still incredibly difficult to get you into the Metaverse in a way that people will be able to recognize you not by some cartoon avatar but by the way your body moves. All of us are very unique in the way our faces and bodies move, and getting that into the Metaverse so that someone can just see you across a room and go, oh, that’s George, that’s the kind of fidelity that I think people are going to want to have.

If we can’t represent people in that way in the Metaverse, then the experience there is going to feel a lot less interesting and a lot less emotional and vital to us than the experience in the real world.

Short Bio

Mark Pesce, a pioneer in bringing virtual reality to the World Wide Web, is a renowned inventor, writer, and educator. Author of three books, including the classic «Browsing and Building Cyberspace,» he has contributed to WIRED, Feed Magazine, Salon Magazine, and Ziff-Davis periodicals. As the Chair of the Interactive Media Program at the University of Southern California, he fosters creative vision and shapes future entertainment professionals. In 1994, Pesce co-invented VRML, a 3D interface for the Web. A respected educator, he founded graduate programs in interactive media at USC and the Australian Film, Radio and Television School. Pesce holds honorary positions at the University of Sydney and the University of Technology, Sydney. For seven years, he was a panelist on The New Inventors, and in 2014, he became a columnist for The Register, addressing global dilemmas of the connected world

QUEST: So it’s all dependent on our capability to transform these essential things like body language and everything that defines us as humans to a digital second reality?

Pesce: Right. A digital twin. One of the things that we, of course, learn is that this process of doing that actually teaches us about the things that we never looked at. We don’t understand until we go to a place where they don’t exist, and we think of all the qualities about being human that we need to bring in there. And because the Metaverse is the opposite of a physical space, bringing physical qualities into it takes a lot of work, and we’re still not very good at that.

QUEST: So can we somehow identify where we might be right now and get an idea of the direction we’re headed?

Pesce: There are many experiments going on right now and a lot of trial and failure. This is happening in a different way than it happened in the early Web. There were many experiments and failures, like web pages that were so ugly they would make your eyes bleed. And you just remember that with a kind of laughter, and perhaps we’ll do that with the Metaverse.

But we’re now also dealing with bodies, which have their very own reality, and human communication has a very intense reality. And so we are probably much more harsh judges. Our expectations for the Metaverse are based on our physical experience, and the Metaverse is never going to provide a physical experience. Physical experience provides physical experience. The Metaverse will provide a different experience, but with enough connections to our physical experience that it will be both endurable for us and perhaps even something we want. So you’re not just thinking, Oh God, I’ve got to go into the Metaverse because I need to do something. But more like I’m going into the Metaverse because my experience will be connected enough to my experience in the real world but also different enough that I actually want to go there and do it. We have not found that balance point yet.

QUEST: So in your opinion, the Metaverse will never replace actual reality, but it will instead be something we have additionally creating new opportunities?

Pesce: This is where there is a continuum of opinions about the Metaverse as being purely synthetic and very well mixed into the real world. So what we ould call augmented or mixed reality. I am much more in the augmented and mixed reality scale. And so I think that the Metaverse in 10 to 15 years is where the digital world and the physical world are mixed to the point where we would feel like we’ve been cheated if we only had one or the other. That’s where we’re going with this. 

And I think that the future for the Metaverse is that it is actually deeply hybrid and that that’s actually the opportunity because when you bring the power of the digital into the physical world, you get superpowers in the physical world. And when you bring the physical world into the digital realm, you get texture and a reality to the digital realm, which makes it more alluring and useful.

QUEST: Could you please describe the Metaverse as it is right now?

Pesce: I pointed to one big problem around the body. There are other big problems around scale. You can’t effectively get a billion people into a place together anymore except on Twitter. It’s a networking problem. People argue about whether you need to actually argue that unless you can do it, you don’t have the Metaverse yet. You may or may not need to do it very often. But on the other hand, that is also the vision. So there are these big problems as well as just knowing what we want to do.

You know, Microsoft just announced this big deal with Meta to be able to do all the office tools inside the horizon worlds. I don’t think anyone wants to use outlook in the Metaverse. It feels like we’re trying to connect bits that don’t naturally go together rather than saying, okay, I’m in this digital world. What are the best ways to use the tools at hand to increase my capacity to learn to collaborate and start from those principles into what it means to be in the Metaverse? And it feels like that process will take a decade or more. Because only just now do we have enough tools, physical tools in place to begin it. And again, we still don’t have good tools around the body. So there’s a lot of stuff that is still going on there.

It doesn’t mean that the Metaverse is not interesting. The Metaverse is not just technical, and I think people shouldn’t think of it that way. It is very cross-disciplinary. You have to have a lot of things working just right in the same way a good home has a good architect, a good designer, and a good builder. And then all the supply chains behind all those things have to come together. The Metaverse is in its very early days. We don’t really have the idea of a metaverse supply chain yet where all these skills and capacities come together. But you can see enough is going on here that things will start to align.

The Metaverse in 10 to 15 years is where the digital world and the physical world are mixed to the point where we would feel like we’ve been cheated if we only had one or the other.

The Metaverse today is better at that than it has ever been. But in terms of offering something attractive enough to get people to spend a lot of time there, the state of the matter now is that it is not doing that. And I don’t know what the Metaverse would need to be for that condition to be true for 90% of the people in the world.

And our expectations will change. Virtual reality is now relatively cheap and relatively accessible. Augmented reality is still very expensive and very hard. That will change this decade. We will see systems from Facebook and Apple. Magic Leap is kind of getting closer and closer. But we will see consumer-grade, highly networked, highly aware augmented reality systems capable of knitting the digital and the physical world together quite intimately. And I think that that’s also going then going to take some of the heat out of the purely digital Metaverse. It will actually make a fairly digital metaverse more useful because people will be going in there for specific reasons and, most of the time, being quite happy with that knit. And I think that this idea of the Metaverse as being just this thing that we’re all hurtling toward is going to be blunted and softened by this idea that we’re going to knit the digital and the physical worlds together.

QUEST: How do you see the Metaverse in the near and further future?

Pesce: In the near term, it’s still going to very much concentrate around this separate world. Right. But I think that in the medium term, as AR devices start to come to market and people start to understand, we will completely revisit the way we behave, work and inhabit the physical world when we have the capacity to add that digital world in real time to it that is.

An example that I use a lot, and I hope Mercedes is not your client because I’m going to dig into them a little bit here. If you buy a recent S-Class Mercedes and you open up the bonnet, what you see is a large plastic cover over the engine, right? With a hole for the oil, the washer fluid, and the radiator fluid. Right. There are three holes in the bonnet. Why? Because they don’t want you touching the engine. There’s kind of nothing here for you to look at. And it’s a way of staging a disappearance just by putting that cover on top. Now. What happens when the car breaks? Which cars do because they’re mechanical, right?

You can’t be bound to a single way of doing business or a single way of thinking of your customers, audience, or market because all of that is continuously in flux.

Assuming that the car is running enough, you have to take it to the dealership, where they will plug it into a computer. The analytics on the engine will tell them what’s wrong. What you really want to be able to do is you want to be able to just look at the engine, and it tells you what’s going on, what needs o be done. Right now, it’s not just that engine. It’s every single physical item in the world. That’s where we’re going. Because all of these devices have the ability to know about themselves, articularly cause we’ve stuck chips in all of them, and they have the ability to portray their state in a way that is meaningful to us. We’ve built an enormous edifice of the world. We are deaf to it and need augmented reality to give it a voice.

So I see this as where it’s going, around our capacity to be able to work in the world. But again, when you open that door, you have changed the way businesses perate because they can take a look at anything that it’s doing with anything. You can stare at something and understand its supply chain implications. Someone in the supermarket aisle can look at something and go, okay, this is the carbon impact of that pound of beef.

We haven’t built the kinds of systems that we need yet to be able to deliver that kind of information or to be able to present an interface to that information in a way that is meaningful to us without overwhelming us.

Habitat is „a multi-participant online virtual environment“, a cyberspace. Each participant („player“) uses a home computer (Commodore 64) as an intelligent, interactive client, communicating via modem and telephone over a commercial packetswitched network to a centralized, mainframe computer. The client software provides the user interface, generating a real-time animated display of what is going on and translating input from the player into messages to the host. The host maintains the system‘s world model enforcing the rules and keeping each player‘s client informed about the constantly changing state of the universe.

— Farmer 1993

A Commodore 64, an 8-bit home computer introduced in 1982 by Commodore International. Its low retail price and easy availability led to the system becoming the market leader for three years. It remains the best-selling single personal computer model of all time.

QUEST: How will the Metaverse then actually change our lives? How will it change the way we do business? Or where do you see the big changes in our lives happening?

Pesce: We have been working up to the Metaverse for 100 years or more in the sense of the Metaverse being the ultimate social technology. We’ve gotten better and better at social technologies. The things we’ve learned from this are how difficult people are, how poorly behaved they can be, and how wonderful they can be. All of those different things are more present in our minds because we are more connected around them than we have ever been before. The Metaverse will continue to amplify that fact, so it will be very revelatory about who we are. At the level of people, we can expect that much. At the level of businesses, it will transform how businesses connect with people, other businesses, or their supply chains.

And to say, is it going to transform business? The answer is utterly. Do we know exactly how? No. One of the big things that I always tell clients is that the most important skill that you can have in a time of rapid change is flexibility.

You can’t be bound to a single way of doing business or a single way of thinking of your customers, audience, or market because all of that is continuously in flux. And that’s a difficult thing for any business to swallow because every business wants yesterday and tomorrow to be the same. But they aren’t. And the Metaverse is really going to upset that applecart.

QUEST: That’s fascinating, and it opens your mind to possibilities. Tell me what’s in it for myself and my company to drive this development further. And while in the Metaverse, we will definitely have to pay for things. In what form do you see this happening? Will it be in Bitcoin or credit cards? Pesce: Part of the problem is that a lot of people have used the early fervor for the Metaverse as a source of speculation. There has been speculation in the Metaverse, which has become a basis for capital. One of the things that we get, if not quite for free in a digital world, is that we do get the ability to account for things. And you can call that a financial system if you want. But certainly, you can account for things. So things can have a value that is accounted for and associated with an object. And objects can be, in a digital sense, declared original in an NFT, which is a declaration of originality.

I think for young people who are sponges and are very much around this, it makes sense to think about what it means to build the kind of Metaverse they want to live in.

Whether or not it is original is again a philosophical point, but it’s a declaration of originality, and it’s a declaration of ownership or creation. All of those things are technically possible. One of the things that will become difficult if it becomes too much is people seeing the Metaverse as something closer to a theme park. A place where you’re just basically having your wallet emptied while you’re there for the experience, as opposed to just having transactional moments like in the real world.
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