John Hanke, founder and CEO of Pokémon GO developer and augmented reality pioneer Niantic, has called the burgeoning ‘metaverse’ – shared, online, virtual spaces where users can interact for entertainment, gaming, shopping, or simply social purposes – a “dystopian nightmare”.
Hanke published his thoughts in a lengthy blog post on the official Niantic Labs site. There, he wrote that although the idea of the metaverse is a “cool concept from a technology point of view” and espoused his love for the works of cyberpunk authors Neal Stephenson (whose 1992 novel Snow Crash introduced the term) and William Gibson, he also said he feared people missed the message of the books.
“These novels served as warnings about a dystopian future of technology gone wrong”, Hanke wrote.
It might seem an unexpected stance for Hanke to take, given Niantic is one of the leading players in augmented reality gaming and technology, a field that is arguably centered on blurring the lines between the physical and virtual worlds. Before Pokémon GO exploded in popularity, Niantic had already established a foothold in location-based gaming with its original sci-fi title Ingress. It preceded that with Field Trip, an exploration app that “the cool, hidden, and unique things in the world around you”.
However, Hanke cites the future of virtual spaces as being something more rooted in material reality, or what he suggests calling the “real world metaverse”. He describes this as “reality made better: one infused with data, information, services, and interactive creations.”
Rather than having people disappear into a cyberscape where every interaction is virtual and ephemeral, Hanke want to “use technology to lean into the ‘reality’ of augmented reality – encouraging everyone, ourselves included, to stand up, walk outside, and connect with people and the world around us,” adding that “technology should be used to make these core human experiences better – not to replace them.”
Hanke cites two main problems in achieving this hypothetical real-world metaverse: one, synchronising “the state of hundreds of millions of users around the world (along with the virtual objects they interact with)”, and two: “tying those users and objects precisely to the physical world.”
Niantic’s Lightship platform, which underpins most of the company’s software on Android and iOS, currently answers some of those problems, creating a ‘shared state’ where players are “all seeing the same thing, the same enhancements to the world”, and any changes are reflected in what every user sees.
However, rooting it all in the physical world is the bigger challenge. This, Hanke says, “requires a new kind of map […] built for computers, not people” and would require “an unprecedented level of detail so that a phone or headset can recognise its location and orientation in a highly accurate way anywhere in the world.”
Citing a partnership with chipmaker Qualcomm, Hanke points to wearables as a prospective way to bring this vision of a real-world metaverse to life, saying the companies are collaborating on “a reference design for outdoor-capable AR glasses that can orient themselves using Niantic’s map and render information and virtual worlds on top of the physical world.”
He goes on to say that both gaming and social features could benefit, with a future version of Pokémon GO that might see “Pokémon wander through your local park, seeming to actually inhabit the world […] scurrying around passing pedestrians, hiding behind a park bench, or roaming in herds”. Away from gaming, Hanke envisions uses in entertainment, education, directions, and assistants, “from assembly lines and construction sites to the most complex knowledge work.”
Hanke’s call to action may be too late though. A fully virtual metaverse is already well underway, attracting attention from major players away from the gaming space. The music industry is already getting involved, most recently with an Ariana Grande concert taking place in Fortnite, and platforms such as Oculus Quest allowing remote VR meetings or even social gatherings such as virtual movie nights.
Niantic itself is also attracting complaints from players over plans to roll back changes made to Pokémon GO. The changes, which included increasing the distance at which players could interact with objects in the real world, were introduced to make the game more playable during COVID lockdowns, but have reverted to their pre-pandemic radius in some countries.
The reversion seems in part to force players to return to the outdoor, social play that Hanke envisions in his blog post, but has attracted condemnation from players. The community has said Niantic is ignoring that the increased radius not only made the game safer but also more accessible for disabled or vulnerable players, and that the company’s response to their concerns is “woefully inadequate”.
While Hanke says his vision of a real-world metaverse “represents a sea change in computing that’s as significant as earlier developments like personal computing, the internet, and mobile”, calling it “a massive evolution [that] will require the work of big companies, startups, and individuals around the world to become a reality”, it remains to be seen if the users Niantic is targeting might prefer a virtual metaverse after all.