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The Metaverse: A Multi-Generational Affair?

My two sons and I dive headfirst into VR to get a taste of what the future of the internet might hold. Could this bring us closer in real life?

By Michael Lydick

I’m already tired of hearing the word “metaverse.” My wife and friends turn to me, the resident Prophet-Nerd, whenever news reports from various talking heads on TV mention and re-mention “metaverse” every evening on a seemingly never-ending loop. Most people believe the metaverse is nothing more than a cleverly disguised rebranding of Facebook (as Meta) in the wake of recent privacy snafus, disinformation sharing, and whistleblower come-forthings to appease shareholders and change the narrative. Others, like me, see a cascade event brought on by a global pandemic: Facebook, along with Apple, Google, and Microsoft, injecting critical-mass-level investment dollars into the second act of the internet as foretold by the Wachowskis in my favorite movie The Matrix.

I believe that the past 25 years of my 50-year-old, technology-laced life have only been an incubator for a silicon chrysalis designed to blur the lines between virtual, augmented, and real-reality. I’ve been anxiously waiting for this breaking point, like the priest Vito Cornelius in The Fifth Element, with my two sons Caleb (age 21) and Evan (15) listening to my predictions from my virtual lectern. They know, like I have, that the metaverse has been here for a while. Always up for the next big thing, we’ve been living in and exploring it for the past three years, with each of us having distinctly different experiences.

Me, entering the metaverse

Horizon Venues

In his critically acclaimed 1992 metaverse novel Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson wrote, “Software development, like professional sports, has a way of making thirty-year-old men feel decrepit.” So for example, I wonder how he would have felt observing me in the virtual lobby of Facebook’s Horizon Venues, a meeting place for users looking to attend live events together. I wanted to attend the virtual Billie Eilish concert, and I found myself just yards from the virtual front door and part of a group of young men discussing the fledgling metaverse of recent Zuckerberg fame.

As I approached, “EagleClaw001” turned and pointed to the username above my head (“MLydick”). He took an adolescent dig at the familiar and hurtful permutations of it, transporting me immediately back to high school in my mind. The others laughed and pointed, poking fun at the virtual placard above me. This wasn’t what I had been expecting. Not at all.

They were engrossed in a closed conversation about Meta and discussing why we didn’t have virtual legs. We were all torsos hovering over circles, animated from the waist up. We could move our arms and tilt and turn our heads, and our lips moved when we were talking. The voice quality was in ultra-high definition, and it sounded as though they were standing next to me in real life.

I wished I had chosen a cooler profile name like “Optimus.” I recoiled at their snickers and wondered if it wasn’t too late to change it. I made a note to Google how as soon as I left.

Inside Horizon Venues

They were new here, like me. Avatar “Jordan” explained he had just visited a much higher resolution version of a new world somewhere that sounded awesome. The young men fist-bumped each other in agreement, and as their knuckles touched, powerful color-filled virtual circles flew out from their fists. When they high-fived, a bouquet of yellow thumbs-up hands flew upwards into the air.

I left the group, feeling disappointed about my first metaverse experience. Determined to make a friend in here, I moved over to the next individual who was standing alone.

His name was Jules, and he had a purple jacket with a stylish pocket handkerchief. I introduced myself and asked him if he could hear me, and I smiled in both worlds as he affirmed that he could with a head shake and a “hello!” He extended his hand out to fist-bump me (yes!). I asked him how long he had been coming here, as he explained he had been here on and off the last few weeks…another newbie. A few other guys joined us and introduced themselves. They were from Detroit and New York, respectively, and Jules instantly steered the conversation toward the legality of weed in each of our states. I stood and cocked my virtual head to the side as if to appear interested.

“I was alive when the internet was born and didn’t know how important it was…The early energy and buzz. That same rate of innovation is happening right now in VR.”

Brian (from Detroit) and I discussed how our avatars reflected who we are in real life. I chose a heavyset man with white stubble. Brian had a hat to cover his self-confessed 40-year-old balding head. We could be anything we want in here, but we still brought parts of our aging selves into the metaverse, which I resolved to contemplate later. We said our goodbyes and fist-bumped again (yes!) as we were leaving. I swore I could feel their knuckles touch mine as the controller vibrated in my hand in the real world. This was a better interaction and made me want to come back and meet more new people.

Finally, I headed off to watch Billie Eilish perform “All the Good Girls Go to Hell” in the theater to my right.

VR for a New Generation

I have been waiting for this. I was one of the first to own a Google Cardboard VR headset, with all its promise and its clunky, side-mounted, magnetic swipe selector. I bought Samsung Galaxy phones when I heard that company’s Gear VR headsets were coming to market. I was minutes away from purchasing the Microsoft HoloLens, ready to immerse myself in the Ready Player One universe of Ernest Cline. Each generation was better than the last, but still missing the final je ne sais quoi. I went back into my bedroom and played the limited selection of games on Gear VR, wondering if the critics were correct, and that both virtual and augmented reality were dead on arrival.

Samsung’s Gear VR headset

I’d set out to expose my children to emerging technologies early on: 3D printers. Solar power and storage. Hydroponics. Computer construction. Programming with Arduino controllers. My oldest son Caleb was most interested in VR, though, himself an avid and prolific gamer. His life was essentially online, with 85% of his closest friends living in various places all over the country.

The video games he played were equivalent to my parties in the basement in the 1980s: social gatherings as much as competitive accomplishments. He played games on his phone like Google’s Ingress, up to and including Pokémon Go. I remembered asking him how cool it would be if he could see the Pokémon in the park through AR goggles, or the captured areas of the resistance in Ingress, versus looking down on his phone as he bumped into people. Not long afterward, he purchased an HTC Vive headset and plugged it into his gaming computer. His goggles came with extra motion-tracking cameras that we mounted in the upper corners of his room near the ceiling.

Caleb dove in headfirst. Not long after, he was sweaty from his own experiences with Beat Saber and screaming out loud when sea monsters attacked his avatar from fathoms below in Subnautica. He lamented Facebook buying Oculus, exclaiming that Mark Zuckerberg “ruined everything he purchased.” When I tried his Vive, though, I could sense something big was shifting. The games were orders of magnitude better than anything I’d experienced. The “screen door” effect of the pixel lines of my Gear VR was all but nonexistent on his much more expensive Vive.

Looking for someone new to talk to

Caleb sorted VR games into two categories: the ones where it took a few hours to lose yourself inside, such as the popular role-playing game Skyrim, and more immediate games like Gorn, where he was so convinced areas in the game were real that he would place his controllers on shelves and tables that only existed inside his headset.

Then there was the social aspect. One evening, Caleb and his friend Seth met up on VR Chat. Anyone could make anything they wanted here, and explore a myriad of seemingly endless worlds. In the “Never Have I Ever” world, his friend Seth met a group of young men that became and remain some of his closest friends. Caleb met “Lilac Club” (Lily), and became fascinated by how easy it was to talk to her. He was surprised to find that it was four in the morning when they finally finished discussing a range of topics in their lives. They would date each other online for nearly a year before she flew from California to our home in North Carolina to meet Caleb in person for the first time. Her mother insisted she come along as if to ensure my son wasn’t a serial killer. We (the parents) admitted that having a VR significant other was something that remained foreign to all of us.

When I asked Caleb what disappointed him most about VR, he lamented the prices, regretting the best hardware came at too great of a cost. In response, he jury-rigged his own setup like Wade Watts in Ready Player One. He showed me how he had hacked his own HTC Vive with better lenses, as well as researching how to use an old (and free) Xbox 360 Kinect to achieve full-body tracking in the metaverse.

The (newly rebranded) Meta Quest 2

My Younger Son and I Enter the ‘Verse

When my Quest 2 first arrived at my home in the Amazon Prime packaging, I tore it open and logged into my Facebook account. I downloaded Beat Saber for myself and lost touch with the world inside of my living room for the better part of an hour, returning to reality a sweaty blob. And then I started putting the headset on other people. I gave my wife a virtual tour of Spain. My neighbor, a tour of Rome with a virtual historian guide. My business partner, who was a part-time pistol instructor, practiced shooting a virtual gun in a training course at moving steel targets. He refused to come out until his score was perfect. Each individual said variations of “That was cool!” or “Yeah, I have to get one of these.” My favorite response was from a friend who had a profound fear of zombies being unexpectedly surrounded by a zombie horde. She screamed as though he was being murdered in my office.

VR had arrived, and the number and quality of games were increasing each week and month. I had to peel the headsets off of them to get them to come out. Every person made the same face as they re-entered the real world, adjusting as they landed back on earth.

My youngest son, Evan, has just started using his Quest 2. And he scares me. Games that Caleb and I have played for hours at a novice level (like Beat Saber) posed no challenge for Evan. He flies through the expert levels effortlessly. Moreover, he knows how to side-load any songs he wants to play in the background. He knows how to change his light-sabers into other things, such as swords. He takes the defaults of everything and customizes them to his liking.

My new buddy, Jason

This past year, Evan has spent most of his time at home because of the COVID-19 lockdowns and school closings. Almost all of his social interaction has been online. Of the three of us, Evan is most comfortable in a virtual world and moves fluidly inside of it, like Neo in The Matrix. I grew up building with Legos and Lincoln Logs. He grew up building entire functioning worlds in Minecraft with his friends.

Qualcomm, the maker of the Snapdragon chip that powers VR devices, recently estimated that over 10 million Quests have been sold to date. I believe those numbers and have met people in the Zuckerverse who were from Russia, Chile, California, New York, China, and Montreal in the span of three days. Kids as young as 10 (using their parents’ headsets) as well as men and women in their fifties and sixties. It’s not a fad anymore.

I was alive when the internet was born and didn’t know how important it was. It was time when AOL CDs came in the mail. The early energy and buzz. That same rate of innovation is happening right now, again, in VR. If you see Caleb or Evan or I in there, give us a fist bump. Oh, and I’m not “MLydick” anymore. I’m “Enlytened.”

Originally published at https://www.pcmag.com.

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