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I’ve been a big fan about the close intersection between science fiction, tech, and games. And so we’ve had a rich tradition of adding sessions related to the topic at our GamesBeat Summit events. And it’s why we’ve been early to jump on trends like the rebirth of the metaverse, the universe of virtual worlds that are all interconnected, like in novels such as Snow Crash and Ready Player One

At our GamesBeat Summit 2022 event, our Metaverse Forum gathered once again to hear a roundtable on the inspirations for the metaverse that came from sci-fi. I moderated the session which included speakers Sean Keith, who runs our science fiction club and is a senior director of business development at Mythical Games; Kimberly Unger, a science fiction writer and a lead for content publishing strategy at Reality Labs at Meta; and Jon Jacobs, an actor and futurist who goes by the avatar Neverdie. Years ago, he dove Entropia Universe, which was the first MMO with a real cash economy built in, and he made a big investment buying an island in the world and then reselling it for a profit.

Unger lectures on the intersection of art and code whenever necessary and writes science fiction about how all these app-driven superpowers are going to change the human race. Her debut sci-fi novel, Nucleation is available now on Amazon and her next novel The Extractionist will be available in July of 2022. 

We got the idea for these sessions because so much science fiction is becoming science fact. Nvidia CEO Jensen Huang has often said that “we’re living in science fiction.” Our events have harped on this theme for a few years, as things that we once thought were science fiction, like AI, have become so real in the past few years. And venture capitalists like Tim Chang of Mayfield have been using those ideas to fuel startups.

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MetaBeat 2022

MetaBeat will bring together metaverse thought leaders to give guidance on how metaverse technology will transform the way all industries communicate and do business on October 3-4 in San Francisco, CA.

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Here’s an edited transcript of our roundtable.

Sean Keith is a senior product manager at Mythical and a sci-fi fan.

GamesBeat: This is not our first rodeo here for the subject of science fiction, tech, and games. As Sean mentioned, we have an science fiction book club, and every few months we read books that often have something to do with the metaverse [or just cool sci-fi novels]. Five years ago, Tim Sweeney started speaking at our conferences and mentioning that within a few years we should build the open metaverse. I thought, “What are you talking about? Something from 1992 that might be coming true in a short time?” The way Tim was saying it, it seemed so near term. I was shocked when I heard him start saying this.

We used that as a springboard for a conference in 2017 that basically had the headline of, “Science Fiction, Tech, and Games.” That was a lot of fun. We brought some SF authors together for that. About a year ago I did a session with Ramez Naam, who wrote the Nexus series, and Tim Chang. Those two were interesting, because Tim was basically a venture capitalist at Mayfield. Part of his strategy was to understand and interview SF writers all the time. He’d get ideas for what he could try to fund, take those ideas and see if he could turn them into reality. It’s interesting to me that the intersection between SF, tech, and games is tighter than we would think.

Kimberly Unger is a sci-fi author and works at Meta’s Reality Lab.

My first question for our panelists, then: are there some visions of the metaverse that have inspired you behind Snow Crash, Ready Player One, or Neuromancer to think about the metaverse in some way? Is there something more obscure that’s an interesting vision of the metaverse?

Kimberly Unger: It was short-lived at the time, but Diane Duane, a long-time SF author, had a novel out a few years ago called Omnitopia. It was a very deeply user-created-content set of metaverses. They were leaning into the ability for people to create their own worlds more specifically, as opposed to just inhabiting something that was provided for them. It was an interesting look at the gatekeeping that goes along with those kinds of worlds, and the way you might have societal structures spring up around a metaverse that’s entirely personal spaces, personally driven as opposed to something that’s a broader sandbox that everyone gets to play in.

Sean Keith: Two things. One, the reason I got excited about metaverses in the first place was from MUDs. Jon mentioned this. I played MUDs back in the ‘90s. We think about these metaverses now as beautiful locations, picture-perfect quality. You own your character. You run around this continuity between different digital experiences. MUDs were the blueprint of that back in the ‘90s. That’s how I got into the whole concept of metaverse.

Jon “Neverdie” Jacobs.

The central tenet of MUDs is still very applicable toward what we think of with metaverses today. You’re with your friends in a digital environment interacting, having a good time, playing games or just chatting. Even though we think of metaverse now as a very beautiful object, it doesn’t have to be. It’s people interacting with each other in a digital environment.

But my other answer is .hack//Sign, which was made in Japan. That’s a very different way of interpreting what a metaverse would look like. We sometimes think about Snow Crash or Neuromancer, these kinds of stories, but other countries have very different interpretations of what it could look like.

Sword Art Online
Sword Art Online

GamesBeat: Along those lines, I happened to visit that studio. We had Hironao Kunimitsu, who was the founder of Gumi and now the CEO of Thirdverse. He spoke at our event, and he mentioned that he was inspired to think about the metaverse–he has a company trying to create the metaverse, right? He was inspired by Sword Art Online, another popular anime series. I haven’t seen that, but it’s interesting that are non-Western influences for the metaverse that got people like him thinking about metaverse concepts a long time ago, kind of in parallel with whatever we see in the west here.

Jacobs: I’m racking my brains for the definitive answer for myself. But I think that the most–really I’ve tried to throw everything at the metaverse, in trying to create it. In Rocktropia, which was my blank canvas to create a virtual world, which exists in a science fiction universe, everything I did was to the chagrin of the people that were very attached more to the science fiction. I was just drawing on pop culture in general, because I feel that it all belongs in there. Whether it’s King Kong or The Thing or pirate adventures–it’s everything. I’m populating the metaverse with inspirations from everywhere.

I did something with Motorhead, with Lemmy before he passed. We built Lemmy’s castle. Lemmy sketched out some monsters and mobs for us that were really World War II-inspired. He ended up censoring himself, in fact, with some of this stuff, because he realized it was too controversial. But for me it’s really–everything is fair game when it comes to the metaverse and its exploration.

Question: What role do you see sci-fi playing in developing technologies that eventually become reality?

Unger: Every technology starts with an idea. Science fiction holds a lot of ideas. Even if you’re not a science fiction creator yourself, there are seeds everywhere. There are ideas everywhere that can be grown into something bigger. As you mentioned, Mayfield’s VC efforts, taking science fiction ideas and trying to figure out if there’s a there there–this is an angel story at this point, but if you talk to people at JPL or NASA, they were inspired by Star Trek. One of my very early jobs, just before I was in the game industry, was working with a medical company that tried to build a Star Trek tricorder. There are constant touches in the real world from the science fiction world.

On the flip side, if you’re a science fiction author, it can be difficult to write sci-fi about the near term. The book I have coming out this summer, I wrote the first draft of it before the Oculus Kickstarter happened. Within a year my technology was obsolete. The tech world is going at this so hard and so fast that it’s a bit of a rush to keep up. But there’s a very tight loop between science fiction ideas and technology creation. It’s not always conscious, but they do feed off each other to a great extent.

The Matrix Awakens demo
The Matrix Awakens demo

GamesBeat: I can say a few things to draw some of that connection. Will Wright used to say that a dog-eared copy of Snow Crash was the business plan for every startup in Silicon Valley. Then Jensen Huang more recently, in the last few years, started saying that we’re living in science fiction. He was thinking more about how advances in AI had moved so fast in the last eight years now that many things are much more possible because AI is one of those dreams that actually came true.

We’re thinking about the application of that in things like the Nvidia OmniVerse, the simulation world that was originally meant just to test robots in a digital environment is now being used as a vast simulation environment for all kinds of things. That could include digital twins of factories, where you design the whole factory with the robots in it, and then you test that digital world and build it in the real world once you have the design perfected. BMW has done that. Lots of other things stem from that.

The latest demo of Unreal Engine 5, the Matrix Awakens demo, is a pretty awesome intersection of science fiction and creating artificial realities. They’ve created this whole city around the Matrix movies. Everything in it is meant to look real, and it looks real enough that it makes you think the metaverse could be just around the corner. Those are a few things I think of.

The Matrix Awakens artificial city. It's free with Unreal Engine 5.
The Matrix Awakens artificial city. It’s free with Unreal Engine 5.

Jacobs: It makes me think about how a lot of us are very much inspired by ‘60s science fiction. You have Star Trek and even earlier stuff, going back to Jules Verne or George Orwell. You have these important modern novels. But what’s interesting is that those earlier science fiction novels were written in a time where technology wasn’t moving as fast as it is today. Today, technology moves so rapidly that almost everything that everyone anywhere has ever written about can happen. It’s in the proof of concept stage. Things like gene editing.

We’re a few steps back from things like warp drives or time travel. That’s still science fiction. But everything else seems kind of–we’re living it. It’s happening. Somebody is making progress on it. Today, to say that you can imagine something and make it happen–it’s much more of a tangible concept than it ever was before.

Keith: Rolling from that, if you think about it, science fiction books have existed for a long time. That was even before, I would say, the technology we’re now living in. Maybe 80, 100 years ago science fiction authors would write about things that they thought would happen a long time in the future. Those have happened now. We are living, literally, in the sci-fi age of 80 years past.

But as we’ve entered the information age, as technology advances so quickly and enables us to do so many things, the concept of sci-fi is almost just becoming fiction. Science is ever-present in everything we do today. We still say “science fiction,” but it’s really just fiction with a heavier emphasis on the science component.

GamesBeat: I just did a search on that tricorder project. Qualcomm teamed up with the X Prize folks in 2012 to give $10 million away to whoever could create a tricorder. They somehow reduced the amount, but a company called Final Frontier Medical Devices won the prize in 2017. They got $3 million for that. There was more activity in the area in 2018. I kind of expect to see a tricorder just about any day now, based on what I see there.

Question: From the last three answers from the panelists–Kimberley made her point about how difficult it is to predict things in the near term. We’ve famously seen things like how Blade Runner still had pay phones. They didn’t think of cellular technology developing. But do you think that will change the kind of science fiction that gets written? Will there be more far-out speculative, philosophical–do you see a lot of magic in science fiction these days, more of that kind of thing? Is that going to affect the genre overall, what gets written?

Unger: I think the genre is already–it’s not so much that the genre evolves, but that different aspects of it are illuminated at different points in time. Right now we see a lean into social science fiction, where the what-if of the story is around how societies work. How do relationships work between nations and cultures and planets and species in the future? A lot of the science fiction we’re seeing that’s hitting the top of the charts right now tends toward those types of stories. But that doesn’t mean the rest of it’s gone away. That particular facet is just what’s on top right now. When you look at sales for science fiction, military speculative science fiction is one of the top performers. Even though it’s not currently what you see in reports, what’s currently being showcased, it’s still one of the top-performing kinds of science fiction out there.

There’s always going to be a place for near-term predictions. And I think the tolerance for those predictions being a miss will probably go up, as people get experienced with how difficult it is to predict the iPhone, basically.

VR and AR technology futuristic concept. Person wearing 3d VR headset glasses looks up in cyberspace of metaverse.
VR and AR technology futuristic concept. Man wearing 3d VR headset glasses looks up in cyberspace of metaverse. Virtual reality or Augmented reality world simulation. Digital computer entertainment.

GamesBeat: I thought it was interesting to see so many different AI-related science fiction movies, like Spielberg and Kubrick’s A.I., or Her. The movie Her felt so near-term. It’s like, this is going to be the next version of your operating system. You’ll speak to it the way that you talk to Alexa. It felt like something that was in our own world, talking about the consequences of getting too attached to your operating system. That was a wonderful movie.

Question: I’m in the location-based entertainment world, which has a lot of crossover with the game world. I’m interested in your perspectives on how real-world physical connections with the metaverse, how prevalent do you think that will be? How important do you think that will be to the social aspect of metaverse connections, taking people out of the home?

Keith: Working in blockchain, a lot of people ask, “What is the utility of an NFT? How is this bringing value to users?” One thing that’s been recently discussed a lot is the physical world and the digital space crossing over, the interoperability between the two. I’m very bullish on NFTs and their ability to interact with the physical world going forward.

What I mean by that as far as some concepts or ideas, think about the motivations of the users when they buy an NFT, and specifically in a game space. One of the biggest motivations is peacocking, showing off the digital assets you have. If you play video games you know what I’m talking about. You see someone who has something cool and you think, “I want that.” Now, with NFTs, the issue is they’re often tied to these digital wallets. You can’t easily show those off. There are ways to do it, but it’s not as present or in-your-face as an LCD screen you might see at a conference.

What I’m already seeing happen now at these NFT conferences, though, are these gigantic NFT screens where you can potentially show your NFT. In the future it could be much more interoperable or seamless. You go to the mall. You have an NFT or some other kind of digital asset. It doesn’t have to be on the blockchain. Maybe an LCD screen picks that up and you see your NFT walking when you’re walking. These kinds of transmedia or trans-physical-digital kinds of concepts are already being worked on by some companies. We’ll probably see that technology moving forward in the near future, the next two or three years.

Those could also take place in–if you think of anywhere there could be an LCD screen, you could tap into that. If you work with an NFT project like Bored Ape Yacht Club, you could say, “If any one of our NFT holders walks by our screen in our mixed reality gaming space, we’ll show them up on screen.” That excites them. It touches on that core incentive of theirs, which is the peacocking.

GamesBeat: There was an interesting demo by Genvid in New York City with one of the Times Square screens. They had people controlling a game that they put up on a big billboard using their mobile phones. Different people could control the big screen and what was happening on it. That was one of those interesting concepts as far as what something collaborative could look like in the future, in the real world.

But it also feels like there’s the core vision of Meta and virtual reality as the metaverse, compared to Niantic’s vision of an augmented-reality metaverse that’s set in the real world. Something that inserts virtual cute characters and other things into what we see in everyday life. Both companies are putting a lot of money behind those ideas.

Unger: The idea of the metaverse as multi-modal, though, is probably where we’re actually headed. This idea that the metaverse is not just VR and not just AR, but that it’s a layer that transitions from your smart watch to your phone to your PC to your laptop to your VR headset to your AR glasses–it’s something a little more unified, and something you can access from the real world as well as a virtual world. That’s probably more in line with where all of these technologies are headed, which means there is a space for almost any mode you can think of. Particularly when you start looking for social experiences and how people connect across time and space.

Westworld

Keith: To bring it back to books, Neal Stephenson has a book called Reamde, and in that he has an area where people in a video game think they’re guarding a castle. They check people coming in. But in reality they’re at an airport doing TSA-like work, checking people for guns and explosives. There might be some creative opportunities for things like that.

Unger: Daniel Suarez has a series of books as well that delve into gamifying real-world tasks in much the same way you see in MMOs. I might earn five dollars for picking up a package at point A and delivering it to an NPC, who’s really a live human, at point B. Converting this digital task and gig-based economy into a metaverse layer that overlays the real world. That’s another take on it. How do you incorporate all these pieces until it’s no longer picking up your phone and dropping out. It’s simply another touch point you might have in your day-to-day life.

Jacobs: I’ve been reading about the Star Wars experiences they’re opening up at Disneyland, where you venture into this world. If you look at Disneyland, a lot of the rides and experiences are very archaic now. The idea that you could go to any park and step into areas that are designed for interacting with people on a physical level in a persistent reality is very much in the cards. I think people would love to go into an environment at a theme park where it might be persistent, where they walk in and embody their avatars. We’re going to look back at places like Disneyland, I think, or Universal Studios as we know them now and think of it as the 18th century. The potential there is tremendous.

Keith: Theme parks now are actually built around things like Instagram. You go to different locations in theme parks and there are design elements created because they know people want to interact with the digital space, like taking pictures for Instagram. They’ll build portions for the park around that, allowing users to take pictures and send them up into the digital space. The interplay between the two is becoming much more blurred.

Jacobs: Those environments, physical environments, are expensive to build. A theme park or an event space is ideal, because you can invest in creating the right sets for the physical experience.

Apple’s Big Brother commercial was about 1984.

GamesBeat: What are some of the deep messages and social critiques we see in science fiction that somehow feel like they came true, are coming true, or will come true? A lot of what George Orwell talked about in 1984, ideas about propaganda and Newspeak, the proliferation of fake news that we’ve seen happen here in the last few years. It definitely feels like that was prescient. Do you have any thoughts on that?

Unger: One of the ongoing ones–this goes back into science fiction for decades now. It’s the idea that people shouldn’t be isolated – that some technologies or some experiences can be very isolating, but that we do things better as a whole. Whether it’s actually better or whether we’re just more effective kind of depends on the author. But I was re-reading Asimov’s I, Robot recently, a long-time favorite of mine. In that society and that culture–during the pandemic it struck me that there were parallels in that people were being physically pulled further and further apart.

There are certain strata in that society where people do not physically interact. All of their interactions are in that version of online. Everything is done–this was written back in the ‘40s and ‘50s, where at the time they were using telephones and video screens to communicate. But the same isolation that we started to see happening to everyone during the pandemic–everybody reached for their devices to maintain that connection. Now you see people going back to work, and it’s a running joke on the internet now. “I left my house and now I have to learn how to talk to people again. I have to wear pants again!”

These kinds of messages about people and technology as an isolating force seem to be recurring in science fiction over these decades-long cycles. It’s more than just one book at one time. It seems to keep popping up over and over again, and I see it mirrored in what we’re doing now with social media, and most recently with the pandemic and with virtual reality. How do we as humans manage those scenarios and those opportunities?

Jacobs: It’s interesting how much science fiction–at the core of the stories, there’s an apocalypse where people are denied the necessities of whatever universe the writer has created. It got to the point where it was sort of overkill. There was a period where everything was some Mad Max kind of thing. But in reality we’re very close to that being a reality. The environment has now become very tangible as a potential game-changer.

In that respect, science fiction was very prescient and very valuable in terms of getting people to think about how we can deal with this. Whether that’s Elon Musk trying to get us to Mars as fast as possible, or MMO builders, metaverse builders–we could be building the arks in the event that we need them. If we do need arks, they can’t just be built overnight. These universes, these worlds are being developed over decades to be immersive enough to anchor us in the future. The doom scenarios that have played such a big role in science fiction are actually more tangible than ever, and they’re helping to drive us into the future.

Agent Smiths in a car chase in the Unreal Engine 5 demo.
Agent Smiths in a car chase in the Unreal Engine 5 demo.

Keith: For me, science fiction, again, it’s just fiction with science involved. All the stories are really human stories. It’s about how people interact with each other. Or maybe aliens or robots. But even the aliens and robots are often anthropomorphized in a way such that we can relate to them. There are so many different messages I’d love to dive into, but one that’s unique and touches on what Kimberley was talking about is people’s impulse to be part of a community, to feel that connectedness.

In the late ‘90s, one of my favorite anime series was Cowboy Bebop. It’s still one of my favorites. There’s an episode in there called “Brain Scratch,” where this comatose hacker who’s all of 13 years old, a hacking prodigy, he basically creates a religion to get people to connect with him via the internet, because he can’t interact in the physical world. As we become more online, always online, especially the younger generation as they spend more time in Roblox and other digital spaces, I think cults, religions, being part of a community, these things are going to rise to the forefront. If you don’t have that physical connection with people, then you want to do it in a digital space.

There are a lot of nuances to organizing the digital space, or being part of a community, that we haven’t figured out yet. Things like bullying. Things like being taken advantage of. People send their bank information to people they’ve never met before. In that one episode, for example, this young hacker creates his cult, and a lot of people lose their interaction with the real world because they become too immersed in the cult. How do we deal with spending more time online and being part of these groups in a way that’s productive, and we don’t get caught up in the ebb and flow of some kind of scheme? If you look at blockchain there are schemes everywhere right now, and it’s because people want to be part of these groups. They’re buying NFTs and getting the rug pulled out from under them.

GamesBeat: I like this idea of walking a mile in someone else’s shoes. I brought that up in our opening speech for the event. We’ve seen that in Ready Player Two, where you could upload something to a YouTube-like platform and your VR experience was there for somebody else to relive as you saw it. They were literally walking a mile in your shoes. We saw this in Cyberpunk 2077 as well. Somebody else brought up Ghost in the Shell. That’s an interesting observation about an application that we would all like to see one of these days, maybe. Or maybe not?

The other theme that’s always interesting is, how human are AIs? Should we treat them as human? Richard Bartle and Richard Garriott are talking at length about this tomorrow morning. For us, though, the thing that came to mind was the movie Free Guy. I just bring those up to see if anyone else has a comment on the subject.

Keith: With walking a mile in someone else’s shoes, becoming addicted to that–in Cyberpunk 2077 people are addicted to other people’s memories. I would say that Instagram and social media are almost like that already. We have Instagram personalities and celebrities presenting lifestyles that are addicting to follow. You might have a mundane life, but you can live via this other person here living a luxurious lifestyle. It already exists today in a much more watered-down version. If there was ever a possibility to plug someone’s memories into your brain, live their life through your eyes, it would be what we see today on steroids.

Unger: It’s something that games have been chasing for a while. If you look at some of the Games for Good initiatives, there are a lot of these mile-in-someone’s-shoes simulators popping up. Traveling While Black was one we had in VR. We just released Goliath, a series of experiences produced hand in hand with someone who has mental health issues. They were trying to reflect what that’s like, for someone to go through that, and to give people a moment of experiencing it from the other side. Or if you look at even something like That Dragon, Cancer, games have tried to tackle this. How do you gift this experience to a player, to another person? They’re never really going to understand, but they can approach another level of understanding through this stuff. It’s a natural progression.

To add to the pile of references, Reminiscence just came out with Hugh Jackman. Same kind of thing. You can drop into a tank and relive your own memories or relive someone else’s memories, going back with them, and everything that goes on there. Again, it’s a topic that science fiction has revisited repeatedly. But Sean made a great point. We have a variant of that now. If you want to stretch it even further, going back and reading autobiographies is yet another form. We want to understand from the inside out as a species. We want to make that connection. We want to understand, because by understanding, the world becomes less scary. It’s easier to connect with other people. That whole social engagement continues to flourish. It’s an idea that’s already here. I just think we haven’t yet approached the depth that science fiction can take you to with those kinds of events.

Jacobs: Isn’t it Snapchat that has the glasses now? I’m not sure who’s the most advanced there. But the moment that takes off, it’ll take us to an extra level. We’re going to see a lot of that.

A scene from Steven Spielberg's 2018 movie Ready Player One.
A scene from Steven Spielberg’s 2018 movie Ready Player One.

GamesBeat: There’s Snapchat. There’s something coming from Meta sometime soon.

Unger: Yep. We have the Stories glasses out with Ray-Ban right now. I see the question from the audience about education. We’re seeing more and more inroads being made into the way metaverse can work with education. Getting any kind of technology into schools is a hard fight, because teachers don’t have the time to layer on yet another product that they have to learn how to operate, or another environment where they have to learn how to level up their students. It’s difficult to get school districts to adopt stuff that looks great on paper, but maybe hasn’t been tested.

Counter to that you have companies like Roblox that are building out these educational experiences, taking the best ideas around educational gaming, and bleeding into things like kinesthetic learning that can really level up someone’s ability to consume and internalize a topic. As the metaverse technology developers in a multimodal fashion, we’re going to see those opportunities popping up more and more.

The current thing I’m seeing, you’re in a museum and there are little signs where you listen to some audio about what’s on display. The next logical step is how you take that into the real world through something like AR, or take it into a virtual world like Roblox. But it can go so much further than that. We’re just starting to get into that, just starting to figure out how to let the people who build those things best build them with the educational depth that they need to have to be really effective.

Neuralink

GamesBeat: We’ve gone a long way without mentioning Elon Musk very much. There’s a lot of AI in those Tesla cars, and we have Neuralink as well. Somehow now with Twitter that’s all going to be connected in some way, I’m sure.

Unger: I still compulsively thank my digital devices. I’m not sure I want to break the habit. When I say, “Hey Google, give me the time of this task” and it completes it, I almost always say, “Thank you.” Partly because I don’t want to get out of the habit. You may have noticed, since we’re all from an earlier generation–when someone on TV or in a movie finishes a conversation on the phone, they just hang up without saying goodbye, or without some sort of closing statement. I kind of say, “Eep!”

I feel like if we don’t build some level of courtesy into dealing with our AIs, we’re going to lose it with each other too. If I just keep making demands of my AI assistant without saying please and thank-you, eventually I’m going to make those demands of my husband or my kids or my parents or the guy I work with, without those social niceties. That’s going to add a little more friction that negatively affects my relationships, just out of habit.

GamesBeat: There was always the sort of specious argument that video games would train us all to be killers. But you also don’t want to create negative habits that you somehow might repeat in the real world. You don’t want to pick up bad habits in virtual worlds that you’d carry into the physical one.

Unger: Voice to text. I do occasionally dictate my punctuation out loud when I’m talking to people. I do so much dictating when I write that–I’ll leave a phone message and I’ll say “exclamation mark” at the end of it. Establishing good habits!

Jacobs: Talking about education, the Quest, actually, is superb when it comes to learning. The reason shooting was so easy in computer games in the early days is because it was point and click. You couldn’t engage more deeply with all five digits. Whereas with the Quest you can get in and suddenly fix a car engine. You can have something telling you to reach over there to find what you’re looking for. You can have these clues and hints to help you. I see tremendous potential there. When we think about MMOs and what we’re doing there on a PC screen, you can interact with NPCs and go on missions and so on, but once you then have that wholly immersive scenario and you can start to use your hands and get inside a motor or get inside a science lab, you can’t help but learn.

Think about all the people that have played healers in fantasy MMOs. I mean, why not–suddenly we can actually introduce a healer that is a medic, that actually has to do surgery and first aid. That’s real learning. If you do that inside a game or whatever, you’re honestly picking up understanding. I like that element of virtual worlds.

Keith: There’s an interesting historical perspective. This isn’t necessarily talking about the metaverse, but science fiction in general. If you look at Isaac Asimov’s Foundation stories, that entire series starts off with building an encyclopedia that encapsulates all human knowledge for the future so it won’t be lost. We’ve done that. Wikipedia is a thing that you have at your fingertips. Some of these science fiction promises around knowledge and education have already been achieved. You can get on the internet and look up whatever. It’ll be interesting to see what kinds of similar predictions toward education we could make right now in the way Asimov did with Foundation and that encyclopedia that could be true in five, 10, 20 years.

Jacobs: In the beginning of the internet, we were talking about scanning every book. It was hard to imagine how long it would take, and yet it actually happened so fast, that all of this information is here now. Now we’re at a point where we wonder about what isn’t available. Is there anything that’s not up there? You have to search far and wide to find a book that hasn’t been scanned and translated, or an old 78 RPM record for the 1930s. It’s all up there.

There was a time in science fiction when all we had were books. Now we have worlds, and those worlds are effectively created, or at least inspired, by science fiction writers. Perhaps our science fiction of the future is immersive worlds. The metaverse is where we’re going to create that fiction.

Mojo Vision's smart contact lenses.
Mojo Vision’s smart contact lenses.

Keith: With that continuity–all these online worlds have some kind of ability to have continuity between each other. That’s the promise of the metaverse right now. Whether that’s bottoms up, where a bunch of game developers or virtual spaces federate and allow for sharing of information between each other, or top down, where some gigantic company like a Meta creates this all-encompassing ecosystem that people buy into.

Jacobs: That’s the great challenge of our time right now, making that happen as much as possible. Creating those bridges between worlds.

Unger: The interesting thing is, the core driver, as Sean mentioned–it’s not really science fiction. It’s fiction with science. The core driver for all of this metaverse stuff is people coming together. It’s fundamentally social. No matter how easy it is for us to isolate ourselves because of technology, it’s all still in the service of bringing us together, which is this weird dichotomy that’s going on right now. If we can figure it out, it’s going to let us go further and faster than we’re going even now.

Nexus is about brain enhancement. Will you take the red pill?
Nexus is about brain enhancement. Will you take the red pill?

GamesBeat: I’ll close with a recommendation for Ramez Naam’s Nexus series. What I liked about that was how there’s so much interesting real-world politics extrapolated from what we see today into maybe 20 years down the road. Somebody invents a brain enhancement drug, but the United States treats it like an illegal drug, a terrorist activity. They start another war on drugs to shut this thing down so we can keep humans human, rather than turning them into artificial intelligences. But China says, “What a great idea! Let’s network everyone together and all be one people!” You have competing political visions. Meanwhile, the creators of the drug go underground and become either freedom fighters or terrorists or rebel hackers, trying to create some of openness in the world, versus factions trying to assert more control.

I feel like that’s the world we have right now, where different parties are going to pursue different technologies for their own agendas. Somehow you need a way to keep it all open. That’s very interesting reading.

Unger: An interesting take on futurecasting–I’d take a look at Charles Stross’s book Saturn’s Children, which is a sort of post-humanist narrative. What happens to all the robots and the AIs after humanity is gone? It looks at a grander metaverse-esque civilization that’s driven by all these AIs that I’m talking about saying thank-you to right now.

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