Top image credit: Lego Bricks by BlackCube at Sketchfab
If you’ve researched the metaverse, you’ve heard the name Doug Thompson. He is a regular fixture at virtual meetups about AR, VR, and other spatial computing technologies. He is also responsible for the (truly) excellent newsletter, Out of Scope, where his thoughtful articles dig into all the latest developments in metaverse technology, from Fortnite concerts to Apple’s new technology announcements.
Perhaps his biggest contribution, however, is that he has started to answer one of the big questions of our times: What is the metaverse? And what does it mean for our personal lives, our businesses, our economies, our culture?
That’s why we caught up with Thompson for an interview, and a beginner’s guide to the metaverse. He broke the idea down into simple terms, explained what makes it different from spatial computing, and explained why the metaverse isn’t just for gaming—it’s a big part of the future for enterprises, too.
Sean Higgins: What’s your background? How did you come to writing about the metaverse and spatial computing?
Doug Thompson: I’ve been fascinated by the concept of the metaverse and spatial computing for about 15 years or so. And now I feel like I’m reliving a past life over the last couple of years as the metaverse comes back into popular consciousness.
I produced the first serious talk show in a virtual world, called Metanomics. It was very cross disciplinary, and we’d bring in economists like Tyler Cowen, the head of the World Bank, or Jared Lanier, who talked about VR. And I’ve done dozens of Metaverse projects including work with Johns Hopkins and a significant multi-year project geared towards helping amputees.
Maybe a better question then: Why did you come back to the metaverse after leaving it behind? When did you start to see it pop up again in the media and in the broader conversation about 3D technologies?
After working with the metaverse originally, I did work in spatial computing and virtual environments.
And then I worked in IoT, where I started thinking about the physical world as a channel for data. That’s the idea that I can walk around a store, and my phone can be aware that I’m in the pasta aisle, and know what type of content needs to be delivered there.
So coming back to the metaverse is just a natural homecoming. We’re seeing the digital and the physical are becoming almost indistinguishable from each other. Every place that we walk can have a digital layer built on top, and we can enter digital worlds that are increasingly realistic. So that’s really all of the threads of my career getting called back together, and entering that new era of spatial computing slash the metaverse.
Would you say that you left this world behind because the technology wasn’t there yet, but now it has crossed a threshold? Now we’re at the point where we can start fulfilling the potential of the metaverse?
Yes. I wrote a post called The Metaverse is Everything. And one of the points was that everybody seems to be talking about the metaverse. And the question is, Why now? And my answer was that we’re using the term in the metaverse as a proxy for a sense that everything is about to change.
Everything is about to change because of exactly what you just said. Artificial intelligence is advanced enough, machine learning is advanced enough. Think of the things we can do with graphic visualizations because of advancements in chips. Think of the power that we now have on our phone. The fact you have lidar on your iPhone? It’s crazy. I wouldn’t have imagined that five years ago.
So we’re seeing a confluence all of these technological advances, and technologies coming together at the same time. I think that’s why the term “metaverse” has emerged again, but now as this rallying cry for the idea that, oh my god, everything is about to change, we’d better figure out what that means.
As you describe the metaverse, it sounds like you use it as a term to describe a shift from classical computing to spatial computing. Do I have that right?
Yeah. But it’s hard for me to say to my mom, hey, come and log in to “spatial computing.” But I might be able to tell her to come in and log in to “the metaverse” because your grandson is playing in Fortnite. And that’s where all the action is if you want to be able to relate to your grandson.
However, I think there are also a couple of differences between the metaverse and spatial computing. I think of it as a bit of a Venn diagram. All metaverse technology is spatial. But not all spatial computing is the metaverse.
What do you mean by that?
I think there’s a few characteristics that are technically part of the definition of the metaverse. One of them is that, in the metaverse, I have a sense of presence. In other words, I can feel like I am in a space, potentially with other people. That’s one.
Two is that it’s always interoperable. It’s just a virtual world or it’s just augmented reality until it becomes interoperable. So we can talk Pokémon Go as spatial computing, because it’s aware of the world around it. But it’s not the metaverse because I can’t shift quickly from Pokémon Go over to Harry Potter Wizards Unite. When I can move easily between Pokémon Go and Harry Potter, that’s when I know that the metaverse exists.
Another common characteristic of the metaverse is that it has an economy of some type. And there’s another characteristic which I like to mention, which is that it has drama.
Spatial computing doesn’t necessarily have drama, but the metaverse will have drama. And why is drama important? Because it speaks to questions of culture, governance, power, and identity. And I think those are really key features that you’re not going to talk about when you talk about spatial computing. But you should and could talk about those issues when you talk about the metaverse.
That raises an interesting question—it sounds like you would argue that there’s one metaverse where all these smaller platforms operate and interact with each other. Is that right?
That’s another contentious point. So people will say, oh, I’m building a metaverse, but they’re not actually building a metaverse, they’re building a virtual world. The metaverse happens when virtual worlds are connected to each other.
And a virtual world, by the way, doesn’t need to be a game. It could be something like NVIDIA’s Omniverse, which is their enterprise collaboration platform. That will be the metaverse only when it can connect over, for example, to a similar product that Microsoft launches, and when I can move seamlessly between these virtual spatial environments.
That’s the metaverse: It’s the connection between them. I like to think of it as: We have this huge sea. In this sea, we have islands. And one island could be Fortnite. One island can be Omniverse. Another island can be some NFT gaming projects. And when we’re at the point when it’s easy to move from island to island, that’s when the metaverse becomes real.
I came to the metaverse, and these virtual worlds, through my involvement with technologies like lidar and photogrammetry. So I’m particularly interested in these technologies—How do you see them as enabling the metaverse?
There are super interesting technical challenges that go along with building the metaverse. We need standards that allow platforms to interoperate with each other. We need to figure out, for example, what is a 3D object? How should my viewer interpret the 3D objects? How does my identity travel from space to space, and can I take my inventory with me?
When you talk about this as a user, one big technical question is, where will this metaverse be? And I’m not sure that the boundaries are always going to be very clear. And that’s where I think lidar and photogrammetry come in as an interesting case study. Because I should be able to scan a favorite toy, let’s say, and port that into my Instagram profile. And now I can see my toy in 3D. But what if there’s a little button that says “visit my room”? And I have a little room that I’ve set up myself as a user with all of my favorite toys on shelf or whatever, in a 3D environment? And then what if inside that room, that room actually sat within a little village?
I’m not sure you’re always going to know when you’ve entered the metaverse. There’s not going to be some big sign at the entrance says, Hey, enter a metaverse here. Lidar and photogrammetry are going to create a super interesting cross flow from the physical world to the digital, and back again. Especially when we all start to walk around with augmented reality glasses.
Let’s talk a bit about the practical implications of the metaverse. What do you say to enterprises who ask, what does this all have to do with me? Why should I care about the metaverse?
I think one of the positive things that came out of the pandemic was that enterprise quickly realized that remote work wasn’t as scary as they thought it would be. That things like Zoom calls actually could replace meeting in a conference room with bad doughnuts or muffins. And similarly, they’re going to discover that using metaverse technologies to work and collaborate in spatial ways will be a no-brainer, just like Zoom and remote work have become no-brainers.
Having said that, how each enterprise uses the metaverse might not be as simple as remote collaboration. We all have Zoom fatigue—so maybe there’s going to be a role, for example, for remote 3D collaboration. So if you have a factory, you can create a digital mirror of your factory, and invite outside experts in to collaborate on that.
It sounds like the metaverse is going to change how we interact, as well as a lot of other parts of human society—and enterprises are going to be a part of that. So the hype is justified.
But I think just because the metaverse is getting a lot of hype right now doesn’t mean that you should jump on it because it’s the latest whiz bang thing. And I think that’s the error that can be made by enterprise. And I’ve seen this in every tech wave. Everybody saw Mark Zuckerberg is doing metaverse, and they think, we better do metaverse. I think what’s important is to align it to strategy.
It’s not the time for CEOs to hit the desk and say “Get me a metaverse!” The metaverse might seem very futuristic, but doing it right will require the same strategic planning and careful thought as implementing any other technology?
Exactly. There was an article recently that said every company needs a VP of metaverse. And I really don’t know what that person would do. Because it really depends on your company. It depends how consumer-facing you are, it depends on whether your products are three dimensional. It depends whether you’re a manufacturer, it depends whether you need to help people visualize things in a new way. It depends what your employee collaboration systems look like.
What practical steps can an enterprise take to start using metaverse technologies. And do so in a way that won’t lead to big problems further down the line?
There are simple steps. Start to think about business in three dimensions. Which parts of your business are in three dimensions. Do you have a store? Do you have a product? Do you have a manufacturing floor? These things are in three dimensions. Then you need to look at what additional value you want to try to derive from those three dimensions, and find a metaverse technology that lets you put your toe in the water with a clear goal in mind.
Can you give us some examples of potentially useful metaverse technologies for enterprise? What tools do you think enterprises might want to use?
I would definitely look at Matterport, because I think they’re a hidden metaverse company. They’re different from companies like Niantic, which uses Pokémon Go to create a map, a mirror, a digital copy of the physical world. That’s also what Apple and Tesla are doing.
Matterport is so interesting because they’re scanning indoor spaces, and then tagging those indoor spaces and allowing people to enter it. In the real estate sector where they started, for example, you could go in and you could take a scan of a condo, and then give people a 3D tour of your condo. And it isn’t the same as a 360° camera would produce—it’s an actual 3D scan.
Imagine extending that into retail, or to a restaurant. I could do a 3D scan of a restaurant so that I could see what the restaurant looks like before a visit it. So I think I would be looking at Matterport as a super interesting enterprise example.
The other place I would look at—and you’ve interviewed them—is Sketchfab. What they’re doing on the enterprise side is making it very easy for people to visualize products. And that could be anything. Let’s say I have a nuts and bolts company, I could share scans of the nuts and bolts that I’m selling. It doesn’t need to be a pair of Nike sneakers.
So those are two things that I think at first glance, you wouldn’t think of it as enterprise technologies. But they’re good examples of very, very practical applications of spatial computing. And by dipping your toe in, you could start to get a picture of how this kind of technology is going to expand into something that’s much more widely accessible, and much more immersive.
In your newsletter, you’ve written a lot about the myths of the metaverse. Are there any myths that you see as particularly prevalent in the enterprise space? In other words, how do enterprises still misunderstand the metaverse?
I think the biggest myth is that spatial experiences require VR. When Mark Zuckerberg launched their horizons workspace, he focused on the VR application, or wearing goggles so that you can feel like you’re in a conference room with other people. But in fact, you don’t need goggles in order to participate.
And so I think there’s this feeling among enterprises, where people think “there’s no way I’m buying everybody VR goggles in order to enter the metaverse”. In fact, there are going to be gradients of access to the metaverse. So I’ll be able to participate in the metaverse on my phone, on my iPad, on a computer, or in VR.
I like to look at past technologies as a way to understand what’s happening to us right now, while we’re in the thick of it with a new technological change. Lately I’ve been thinking about the early time of the internet, for instance—people had these ideas about this space where anything was possible, but the reality has proven to be different in a lot of significant ways. Do you see that as a cautionary tale for the metaverse? Are we risking a repeat?
I talk about this all the time. The biggest thing is unintended consequences. The people building the technology today are often just trying to deliver the latest use case, without also thinking about the bigger picture and the long-term implications.
And one example of this from the internet is that it was built to be anonymous. And when they first started it, they didn’t really think about that, because they kind of knew everybody. Right? It was only six computers hooked up to each other, so they don’t really think about the fact that you could just choose a random name as your email. And that had huge implications for identity, just as an example.
I’m not saying it was wrong—I’m saying that decisions get made, and sometimes we don’t think about the long term consequences.
What does this mean for enterprises?
As we have the discussions about standards, and as the technology is built, enterprise should be sitting at the table, giving voice to the policy, governance, and cultural implications of some of the decisions that are being made today. That can help us avoid making these mistakes that get baked in, even though they made sense, technically, at the time.
One of the things that people I’ve been thinking about a lot is that people are saying the metaverse needs the equivalent of URLs. They say that I should be able to click a portal and move from the Nike store to a clothing store or to a music store. And this idea of URLs is getting baked in very quickly, without them necessarily thinking about what the pros and cons of URLs were in the first place.
It’s not that URLs don’t make sense, but they also became the way that we are tracked across the web. And they may have inadvertently led, in part, to these huge closed ecosystems like the Facebooks of the world. And I think you see this with every technology. By the time we get around to asking the policy questions, the technology has already been built.
And so it’s in the best interest of enterprises—and really, anyone who will use the technology—to be a part of these conversations.
Looking at the way the internet developed, and the way technological progress can get ahead of governance and standards, I have to ask: Are you optimistic about the metaverse? Does it have a bright future?
I’m enthusiastic. Because, on one hand, this is a widespread, grassroots, high energy, highly chaotic, crazy development time. And on the other hand, there are large companies investing significant money to make this a stable, persuasive, useful way to think about where computing is headed.
Because those two things are happening at the same time, I’m optimistic about it. Because this isn’t Facebook going out and building a metaverse—they can’t, they just can’t. And even if they could, there is another group of people, which is very grassroots, to act as a counterpoint to the larger companies.
So I think there’s tremendous opportunity here. It feels like the early web to me, when everybody was excited, and everyone was participating.