Featured image courtesy of Meta

The Immersive Wire is an essential read, a twice-weekly analysis of the latest news in AR/VR and the metaverse. For those of you who don’t know the newsletter, here’s an elevator pitch: If you’re struggling to keep up with developments in the AR/VR space, or you’re feeling tired of the same old venture-backed marketing hype, The Immersive Wire is your solution.

The man behind the newsletter, Tom Ffiske, is a thought leader with a uniquely high-level view of the industry. When we caught up with him recently, we discussed common misconceptions about AR/VR, why most of us are wrong about the metaverse, and how an interview with Carol Baskin helped highlight a necessary truth — and a big problem — with the state of AR/VR technology today.

Dig in below.

Sean Higgins: What does the term spatial computing mean to you? I imagine you’d see it from the point of view of immersive technologies.

Tom Ffiske: Right. You need spatial computing in order to help immerse people in immersive technologies. A good example of spatial computing is Matterport, a company that captures spaces. But there are a lot of other companies who are working in the area who do some really cool things.

I think spatial computing fits inside this “metaverse” idea. In the metaverse, you can either create things or do realistic capture. This creator-led economy is fascinating, and it’s worth a whole interview in and of itself. But realistic capture has its place, too. It will be really important for metaverse services in the future. Because you’re going to be building out the world and then going from there.

Would you say your work focuses mostly on how immersive technologies relate to the metaverse, or do you have a broader view?

For my newsletter, I receive a lot of info about the metaverse, which has been a very big focus recently. But I always try to look through the prism of virtual and augmented reality, because I think those will be the fundamental technologies of the metaverse. Not technologies like crypto currencies.

A Matterport 3D capture of a real estate listing. Credit: Matterport

Why do you think that AR/VR are fundamental to the metaverse?

They’re fundamental because they’re the organic next step when it comes to our connected experience online. So with the internet we already have, you can access information whenever you want. But I believe the next evolution of the internet is not an internet of information, but an internet of experiences.

How are AR and VR technologies going to look in the future?

Virtual reality down the line? I think it could go two ways. It’s really cool, and if you try it yourself, you’ll see there is a lot of potential. But there are problems. It has been hampered by the costs of creating content and hardware.

And then we look at augmented reality. I think it has a lot of potential within the metaverse, as an overlay of our current reality. The mapping technology that has been created by Meta and Niantic — and the basic idea that you can overlay reality with contextual information, or the potential for playing games — is astonishingly cool.

But when will we see a device come out in the world which will be as intuitive as a mobile phone, but something you can wear as glasses? I can see it happening someday, but there’ll be a lot of friction before we reach that point.

In both cases, it’s a long term thing.

What are your favorite applications of AR and VR currently? Beyond enterprise, what excites you?

I have a soft spot for meditative experiences. I think they’re really cool. But that’s personal, and I think those people have got the wrong end of the stick.

Are there any uses of the technology that seem wrong, or misguided, to you?

I wouldn’t even necessarily say there’s a wrong way of using VR. I just think there are ways in which it’s not as necessary. I think travel is a good example: You don’t need a VR headset for travel experiences. Not yet. The technology is not there. And you don’t need to find a VR headset to see a 360° image of a location, right?

And if I go to augmented reality, what are the uses that just don’t work as well? If the AR experience is just a really finicky video game where the AR doesn’t contribute to the core of the gameplay, then it’s pointless. You might as well just be tapping away playing Candy Crush. You don’t need augmented reality for certain types of experiences.

Pokemon Go is touted as a popular use of AR. Image credit: Niantic

Would you say that people are so hyped up about AR/VR, and making money from them, that they’re using them in some ways where it’s not totally necessary? It’s a gold rush mentality.

I mean, they’re experimenting, and that’s important. And there may well be that an incredible AR game someday. But before you say, what about Pokemon Go? Niantic was very quiet about how many people actually use the AR function because remember, you can just not use it. You can turn it off. They’ve been very quiet about that.

So I wonder if the game was popular because of the AR the game, or because it was Pokemon.

I used to run a newsletter about 3D tech myself, and I know that over time, through covering a lot of news, you can develop a unique point of view on an industry. What’s your unique point of view after sifting through a ton of hype?

I’m cautiously optimistic. The newsletter exists to support companies who are far smarter than I. Who are building the future. I use it to say to everyone, look at these people. Look at what they’re doing.

But I published a book called the Metaverse Professional Guide, and that’s where I put my opinions.

Can you give us the elevator pitch for the book?

One, discussions on the metaverse presently are pointless, because like this is something which is going to be far in the future. Two, we can’t know what it is going to look like because we’re seeing it through the prism of the 2020s. Try asking someone in the 1990s to see the 2000s. They’ll be talking about the 2000s through the prism of their experiences in the 1990s. It is impossible.

And three, I do think the next natural evolution of how people connect is mostly a question of how. I believe there’ll be augmented reality, but I might well be wrong.

A lot of people seem to believe that the metaverse is here, or could arrive any moment. What makes you think different?

Meta has a 15-year plan for the metaverse, and Meta is also the company investing the most in metaverse technologies publicly. I would lean towards the opinion of the billion-dollar company who says it’s going to take a long time, rather than a startup is trying to get some venture capital.

There’s a lot of hype in the metaverse stuff at the moment. And of course, if you there are people just strapping on web three or Metaverse in marketing decks to get that venture money — and succeeding. We’ve got to be careful.

You think we can’t imagine what the metaverse will look like. How do you arrive at that conclusion?

So what do we know right now? First, I want to speak to hardware and software.

We don’t know how we’re even going to access the metaverse. Personal computers are way too good, and it’s so easy to use one and access whatever you want. If you want to replace that device with a different device to access the metaverse, you’ll need it to be amazing — if the personal computer is replaceable at all.

That’s why you can’t predict how that will play out. On top of that, what we use to access the metaverse is going to be based on how the metaverse is going to be set up on software side.

So now let’s get to software. There needs to be open protocols that everyone agrees to, similar to how the internet is based on interoperability, where everyone says, we can all connect together.

A great example is email. There’s a protocol so the email applications can actually communicate with each other. So we can actually send emails or receive emails, right? There’s absolutely no way email would be as widespread as it is now if it weren’t for these open protocols. Could you imagine if there were walled gardens of emails?

What we need is an equivalent of that for the metaverse. We don’t know what that will look like. But it has been discussed and we’re getting there, which makes me happy.

So we don’t know what metaverse hardware will look like, because it’s dependent on interoperability among different software applications. And competition in the space is such that we have no idea if that’s even going to work out.

It’s worth noting actually, that companies have different perspectives on the metaverse’s growth. Microsoft is adamant there’ll be multiple metaverses. So all the messaging indicates that there’ll be multiple metaverses which will coexist. Well, Facebook believes they’ll be in one singular metaverse and Bored Ape Yacht Club believes there’ll be one metaverse where they can make a ton of money. There’s lots of different perspectives on it.

What’s your take? What’s your imperfect guess about what the metaverse will look like?

I think there’ll be two types. The ones we’re seeing today are micro metaverses, they’re effectively virtual worlds. An example of micro metaverse would be Second Life, or VR chat. They exist within their own bubble and can’t talk to each other.

The version that Facebook has, and the one which I think will also come out far in the future is the macro-metaverse, where platforms can talk amongst each other. Where you can trade, and surf around and do anything. That’s the internet of experiences I was talking about earlier.

It seems you have a pretty balanced and skeptical view of the way this will all develop. I imagine much of that comes from the interviews you do — which I think are the best part of your newsletter. What’s an unexpected insight you’ve taken from those interviews?

I don’t have a particular example, but there’s a thread in the interviews that I’ve noticed. People talk about being brave and just doing it. That seems to be a key operative in our industry. If you have an idea, and you’re passionate about it, just do it and build it.

Do any interviews stand out?

The one that stands out — purely because I didn’t realize she was so invested — was Carol Baskin. She was really interesting to talk to, because it was interesting to hear someone who didn’t know much about VR and AR, who then just went into it. She said, throughout the process, the AR and VR industry do not make it very easy to learn. Because it seems to be such a nebulous and very closed off thing. I have taken that to heart, because it can be very closed off.

What makes it so closed off? In an age where we have access to software that allows indie developers to make video games that rival AAA studios, why is AR/VR so difficult to learn?

I think it’s skills. People don’t even know where to begin with skills. They don’t know they need to learn three.js. They don’t need they don’t know they need to learn Unity. They don’t know they need to learn a platform for example. They don’t know where to start.

There are some great courses out which dip into it, and these help. But we’re in a period where there’s a lot of demand for like spatial computing skills, and that gap between starting and then doing work, it’s a gulf. And it’s where riches are already being built.

Many companies, like Microsoft, have their own unique idea of what the metaverse will look like. Credit: Microsoft

Are there any misunderstandings about these technologies that you see? Any myths that you see repeated a lot?

A whole bunch of people in the UK tried out cardboard VR headsets and thought they tried VR. And that’s really damaging when it comes to VR. You now have millions of people who think that they did VR, but what they did was a 360° YouTube experience. And there are a lot of companies who conflated virtual reality with 360 videos.

People need to try it for themselves, I do think that it’s important for adoption. That’s a fundamental barrier to adoption—it is very cool, but it’s very difficult to try out.

Do you think augmented reality is more likely to catch on, considering that you can access it through an iPhone, even if that represents a worse AR experience?

If it’s web based, it can be used by billions of phones. So the actual reach is there, it is a question of when people actually use it. It’s so easy to do, and it’s so easy to make, so easy to deploy, and the benefits are there. Statistically, I think AR will grow quicker and quicker and quicker. I’ve no doubt.

Lots of people think that a 2D interface for AR is a big stumbling block.

I don’t think it’s a big stumbling block, and we’ll have to see how glass AR glasses develop over time. I try to be careful about analyzing AR glasses, because there’s so little information out there. As I said, it’s a mixture of hardware and software, and I think the hardware companies know they need to build the hardware before the software comes.

They are making a bet on the future. And I think the bet is taking all factors into account. It’s a sensible one.

If AR is already primed to take off, what needs to change before VR really takes off?

Cost is the main factor in the UK. There was a point when Oculus was building multiple VR headsets, and the cheaper one outsold the clearly better one. The Oculus Quest was clearly better than the Oculus Go in every way. But the Go just outsold it. And the reason why it’s just it was so cheap. It’s a very price elastic market, the cheaper you are, the more you sell — regardless of quality.

So it sounds like VR needs to be so cheap that they could be everywhere.

VR can’t be like a mobile phone at the moment. You use a mobile phone for absolutely everything and VR can’t do that yet. So we have to do instead is make it cheap. So it can do the one good thing so well and directly.