On a recent episode of the .metaverse podcast, we were joined by a very special guest, Charlie Fink.
Charlie is a tech columnist for Forbes Magazine, teaches XR at Chapman University Film School in Orange, California, and has written three books, Remote Collaboration, Virtual Conferences, The Future of Work, and the AR-enabled books, Convergence, and Charlie Fink's Metaverse.
Charlie was also the VP of Creative Development and Production at Walt Disney Pictures between 1985 and 1992, overseeing the production of smash hits including The Lion King, Aladdin, and Beauty and the Beast.
Here are five things we learned from listening.
1. Walt Disney was a pioneer of immersive media
After pitching The Lion King as “Bambi in Africa” and overseeing the development of Disney feature films during the “golden age” of Disney, Charlie has a unique insider perspective on Walt Disney’s relationship with virtual reality — and reveals that he was one of the original pioneers of the medium.
“Disney has always pioneered immersive media because that is what Disneyland is. Walt Disney realized very early on that people wanted to be inside of the movies that he made and want to inhabit those worlds.
And so he used the technology, 1950s stagecraft technology, a lot of which was a hundred years old, like Pepper's ghost, which is a reflective theory that allows you to project ghosts onto stages with nothing more than a candle and mirror. The famous hitchhiking ghost in The Haunted Mansion is an example of that.
So very early on, he was trying to simulate a different kind of reality. There have been dark rides for hundreds of years and dark rides will also seek to replace the input of the real world with the virtual world. So the idea of creating virtual worlds has been with us for a long time.
And Disney was one of the first to really understand what it was and how he might achieve it. I think were he alive, he would be very taken with virtual reality.”
2. VR Headsets Are Still Evolving
Charlie Fink is the co-host of ‘This Week In XR’ alongside Paramount Pictures Futurist Ted Schilowitz, where they discuss the latest developments in spatial computing news. So are VR headsets the future? Maybe. But not yet.
“Sony and Meta have introduced very popular, low priced, consumer [VR] products. And they've seen better than modest uptake. I think Meta is selling headsets about as fast as they can get. Now, is it good enough? Well, this is a question I ask my students all the time. Is it good enough yet?
And the answer is probably not.
I think the word “virtual reality” has limited us. I wish we had said simulated reality. Most people who put on a headset, if they're not a gamer, they're like, “Where's reality? This is like I'm inside of a video game. I hate video games. I don't want to be inside a video game.”
There are significant obstacles. There's no eye contact in VR. Photorealism would be a game-changer. We don't have the bandwidth for that. We don't have the decompression technology. There's a whole sort of array of technologies that I have no doubt are in the process of being invented, but it could be 10 years.
One of the lessons that we should all take from the personal computer is that we overestimate the short term and underestimate the long term. These things tend to play out in decades. When I was young working on virtual reality, I was in my early thirties then, we were expecting things to happen in five or ten years.
And these things took 30 years to play out. So will there be a photorealistic metaverse whatever that means? Sure. Absolutely. I can't tell you when that will come about. People are predicting by 2030. I hope they're right. That's crazily optimistic. If you ask me. It probably will take longer than that.
3. The Interoperable Metaverse
Is Facebook, or Meta, the metaverse? There will be many metaverses to come, says Charlie.
“I called [my book] Metaverse because it was the idea that everything is connected together. Hardware, software, online, offline, digital, non-digital.
As part of this continuing quest that we are on to transform human beings into cyborgs. So that is a continuum.
Now, the metaverse has been popularized.
Mark Zuckerberg has been talking about it since 2014. Matthew Ball wrote his metaverse manifesto in January of 2020. So it was in the air. Facebook's renaming of itself and its dedication to pursuing XR came a little later, but it's obviously ignited a frenzy that actually started before they even changed their name.
When Zuckerberg announced on an earnings call over the summer that they were going to be a metaverse company and everybody was freaking out, “what the hell does that mean?”
When they found out, they really freaked out – because what he's really talking about is investing tens of billions of dollars indefinitely on building the metaverse.
And their view is probably the predominant view at the moment. In their view, the metaverse is the Oasis from Ready Player One, right? The Oasis was a video game that was so good, so realistic, and so easy to use that everybody dropped whatever they were doing and just set up house inside of the Oasis.
When Facebook says, come build it with us, they're saying come build in our Oasis. And so I do think they will create a metaverse.
But there will be many, and there are already many metaverses. First of all, you have to define a little bit what's in the metaverse. What does a place have to have in it to be a metaverse?
What qualities does it have to have in order to be a metaverse? And then the second thing is, will there be "the" metaverse; the uber metaverse of all these other metaverses, that's going to connect them together?
So you can go from the World of Warcraft, to the world of Second Life and take with you your digital identity, your digital assets or currency, and the contents of your smartphone from place to place.
Now that is a technological impossibility today. There is no Meta layer. Facebook says it is also working on that. The meta-layer could conceivably be the next Google. That would be the layer that would allow us to teleport from place to place, it would have our avatar, it would have our possessions.
So it would be like the HTML of spatial computing, rendering both the real world, as well as the digital world, searchable and machine-readable.
4. The Omniverse vs Metaverse
If Facebook is building a pathway to an interconnected metaverse, how are other companies adapting to a shifting landscape of technology? And what would an omniverse mean for the metaverse?
“Let's talk about Nvidia and the omniverse for a second.
Now, I think Nvidia regrets calling it a "verse" because it's conflated what they're doing with consumer technology, and it is not consumer technology. It's an adaptation of Pixar's universal scene description platform, which essentially allows multiple people to occupy the same virtual space with digital content and modify it together.
You could say the omniverse is the place where people are going to collaborate to make things for the metaverse. If you want to build a castle and put it in Decentraland, you might build it using the omniverse. You'd have your architect there, you'd have your developers, your art director, and everybody would be sharing the same virtual space using whatever hardware they have, VR headset, AR headset, smartphone, or PC.”
5. Creators are the Future of the Metaverse
From NFTs to smart contracts, forecasters and enthusiasts are excited about the expanding role of creators in the new internet economy, and Charlie agrees.
“Focusing on building and creating right now is essential, but user-generated content was the dirty little secret of AOL, right? Our members made most of the content that people cared about on AOL. Not NBC. And then social media came along and it was that on steroids.
There is no corporate content on most social media platforms. There just are hyperlinks. Most of the platform's content is created by its users. So I don't think the metaverse is going to be any different. It has to be colonized. We are in the phase right now where these companies, Facebook, Roblox, and others, need to create what is come to be called a creator economy.
That is a way to incentivize and compensate builders for creating places in these putative metaverses.”
To learn more about the metaverse, tune into the .metaverse podcast every week.
Follow Charlie Fink on Twitter @CharlieFink