Amidst rising sea levels, the island nation of Tuvalu is exploring digitising itself in the metaverse. Clovis McEvoy writes that it is one of many extended reality experiments that show how the future of the internet lies in connection and collaboration.
A faded Pink Floyd t-shirt and iron grey hair dated the man before me to his sixties. With sharp eyes locked on mine, he informed me with great sincerity that what he had just experienced was more intense than any LSD trip he’d ever taken. And he assured me that he had taken quite a few. This was 2019, and I was exhibiting a virtual reality experience in Melbourne, Australia.
I didn’t know it at the time, but he was onto something. A growing body of evidence shows that extended reality (XR) can have truly profound effects on the mind and body, with applications that cut across education, healthcare, entertainment, and productivity. Yet while the scientific consensus has solidified, the public discourse has become a tangled mess.
Collaboration and shared experience will power the internet's next chapter.
Extended reality's greatest proponents all share the view that it is a social technology, built upon community, culture, and shared experiences of doing and being together. The only company to buck that trend was Apple, who pushed productivity and remote work as the core features of the Vision Pro.
Given the metaverse’s own branding problems, it’s an obvious choice. Despite a counter-push for workers to return to physical offices, remote and hybrid working patterns seem set to become the norm. Meanwhile, employers themselves have been embrace the tech for even longer. General Electric has been using extended reality for everything from training sociologists to monitoring nuclear power plants since the mid-2010s; NASA digitised whole sections of their Jet Propulsion Laboratory so their engineers could assemble spacecrafts using AR headsets.
This approach, NASA said, let them save “costs, energy, and critical resources.” In architecture, engineering, fashion, and countless other design orientated industries, working partially in extended reality is likely to become standard practice.
But the second pillar of the Vision Pro is entertainment. It’s not hard to see why Apple placed its focus here. Extended reality is a paradigm shift in how people experience media, and given the Cupertino company's partnership with Disney – which has long made immersive world-building its bread and butter – Apple is clearly determined to produce content that shows just what this tech is capable of.
That includes sporting events that offer fans a courtside view, choose-your-own-adventure films which let audiences participate in the narrative, and theme parks which blend physical and virtual components. Not to mention the new forms of entertainment being pioneered by extended reality game developers, which has quietly become a billion dollar constituent of the gaming industry.
There are roles for extended reality between the worlds of work and entertainment too. The world’s leading museums and galleries are using the tech to revolutionise how history and culture is shared across the globe. It is even helping safeguard the traditions of communities facing existential threats from climate change: the Pacific island of Tuvalu is beginning the extraordinary step of digitising itself, cloning its national services, culture, and traditions into the metaverse in order to sustain what it means to be a Tuvaluan (and what it means for Tuvalu to be a nation, as its islands sink beneath rising sea levels).
That hints at the more emotive power of extended reality. Immersive headsets represent a potent tool with which humanity can examine the present and shape its future. Boasting a nearly unparalleled ability to focus a user’s attention and to elicit feelings of genuine empathy, XR allows audiences to experience an issue rather than simply being informed about it.
Body of Mine, which debuted at this years’ SXSW, places audience members inside differently gendered human bodies – allowing them to feel first-hand a sense of gender dysphoria. It is a perfect example of how socially-minded creators and activists of all stripes can use XR as a medium to explore complex issues with a new level of immediacy and poignancy.
To get a sense of just how psychologically powerful the effect of XR can be, consider its increasingly prevalent use in healthcare. Supported by a large body of research, extended reality is being used for therapy and pain management, whilst experiential mindfulness and meditation apps are one of the largest content categories for headsets.
As my Pink Floyd friend in Melbourne noted, the ability of extended reality to mimic the effect of psychedelic drugs is an under-discussed, but equally important, aspect of the technology. Transcendent, spiritual, mind-bending experiences have been prized by human cultures stretching back to the dawn of our species. Put simply: XR may open a much safer, and much more transcendent, chapter in that long history.
In all of these examples lie two core features: they are all based around activity, and they all have a clear social component.
Immersive headsets represent a tool with which humanity can examine the present and shape its future.
The socialisation of the internet we know today was built upon a foundation of written conversation and individual activity: microblogging and message boards; photos and then the comments under them. A its next iteration will instead be founded on collaboration: play, experience, and culture — on being and doing.
Social interaction anchored on shared activities – mediated through a uniquely empathetic technology – might even lead to an altogether less polarised atmosphere than what we see on the internet today.
Extended reality represents a stunning step forward in the mastery of human perception, radically extending our capabilities beyond what was previously possible. In doing so, it can help us learn more about the world, more about the lives of our fellow humans, and more about ourselves.
Profound experiences give rise to dedicated communities and, given time, the communities that should connect with each other usually do. This is how the next generation of the internet will evolve. Not crafted by a single hand or guided by a single vision, but a product of the natural growth of communities built on what the technology makes uniquely possible: new and meaningful ways of doing and being.
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