The digital adds to the physical, not replaces it

The Metaverse has hit the trough of disillusionment with unusual speed. Perhaps technologists need a more sophisticated understanding of physical/digital interplay.

Whatever happened to the metaverse? After the past couple of months, you might think it was a flash in the pan. Firstly, Apple finally announced its headset, and it was very much augmented reality. There was barely a mention of virtual reality — and none at all of the metaverse. Cannes Lions mentioned it, but people were already asking if AI was supplanting it.

Is it over before it even began?

Well, no.

We human beings are creative things. We love art and creativity, and we love using new tools to do it. At some point, there will be useful virtual worlds we could reasonably call the metaverse — but much like self-driving cars, we’re not there yet. The tech, the software and, most of all, the accessible consumer hardware are still some years away.

Let’s get physical

But we humans are also embodied, physical things. We aren’t free-floating intelligences, accidentally rooted in a fleshy meat prison. Our bodies sense the world through more than just our eyes and our ears. Taste, touch, the feel of wind on our skin and more all contribute to our perception of the world. So too, for good and bad, does smell. We are constantly being informed by a range of physical sensations. That’s perhaps why Apple has been smart enough to start with augmented reality, with a virtual world meshing seamlessly with it.

Indeed, the things we surround ourselves with, the objects that we use and value, are part of the definition of who we are. Apple, as a device company, knows that perhaps better than Meta, which has always been a software-driven business.

Paula Zuccotti, a photographer and ethnographer, set out to explore this in a project where she photographed all the objects people touched in a day. She didn’t photograph them individually, but as a whole, artfully arranged and shot from above. The results were eventually published in her book Every Thing We Touch.

We are what we touch

The project is a fascinating insight into how the physicality of objects is part of their appeal. We’re two decades into the availability of ebooks, and yet people still enjoy the physical sensation of reading — and writing on, sometimes — a book. Sure, it’s easier to go on holiday with a Kindle than a stack of paperbacks, or to have a fun novel on your phone for long commutes.

But the physical pleasures of touch are not the only reason to love physical books. The disconnection from the internet and its distractions that reading on paper allows is another compelling reason for many. Together, they, and other reasons, mean that ebooks are additive to physical books, not a replacement for them.

The digital and the physical co-exist and interplay. Apple realised that. Future metaverses will need to do the same.

Paula Zuccotti and the lockdown factor

Zuccotti explored a variation of her project with the 15 objects that got people through lockdown. As Wallpaper reported:

‘In Argentina, mosquito repellent tells us how the country was fighting Dengue alongside COVID-19,’ Zuccotti explains. ‘Meanwhile, in the United Kingdom, the scarcity of eggs is highlighted. In the United States, a bell is a vehicle to show appreciation for essential workers at 7:00 PM. In a photo from Ecuador, a shamanic drum and Agua de Florida represent the indigenous deity Abuelo Fuego, and a nurse in Kenya includes an item representing a Matatu, the typical Nairobi taxi bus, which is the backbone of Kenyan public transport.’

The first couple of years of the pandemic were a genuinely unique phase. Much of the metaverse acceleration we saw can also be put down to that. When our interactions with others were restricted to screen-mediated experiences, virtual worlds seemed appealing. Now most of us are free from those restrictions, well, we want to get physical. The deceleration in metaverse work is as much a product of the pandemic and its aftermath as its initial acceleration.

There’s little doubt in my mind that virtual worlds will eventually be a thing — but technologists need to remember that our physical beings are more than conduits for sight and sound. And the metaverses of the future will eventually need to consider our other senses to be truly immersive.

Paula Zuccotti will be talking at NEXT23. Grab your place now!

Photo by Paula Zuccotti.