Jen Mullen, CONTRIBUTOR
Over the course of the ten-episode first season, Source De[Code]The company’s mission was to unravel the myths surrounding today’s most talked-about technologies: artificial intelligence, digital twins and big data. In the season finalehost Ben Coffin talks to three guests from previous episodes – Sarah Laselva, Jonathan Wright and Dr. Silviu Torin – and an incredibly special new guest – Emmy Award winner and professor at the University of Texas at Austin, Dr. Alan Bovik- – to explore the place where these three technologies intersect: The Metaverse.
The Metaverse: The point between physical and digital is human
In 2021, Mark Zuckerberg announced Facebook’s Meta rebrand and ushered in a tsunami of press speculation about the Metaverse, a term Neal Stephenson coined in his 1992 dystopian science fiction novel Snow Crash. Despite what Mark Zuckerberg would have us believe, the concept of a technology-immersive reality was first introduced to the world by The Chamber of Life, a story published in 1929 by pulp sci-fi magazine Amazing Stories. In the story, the narrator is invited to enter the Chamber of Life by the inventor, who sees in the young narrator his own youthful ambition and passion for progress. While there, the narrator meets a host of people who introduce him to technological wonders that augment every aspect of daily life. Given the prescientity of his prose, Wertenbaker and his short list of published works deserve a modern revival.
Even before the pandemic, contactless alternatives to traditionally physical interactions were on the rise. Debates about screen time and the benefits of virtual work and school have replaced the prime-time questions of evening news anchors asking parents if they know where their children are. We can work, shop, exercise and connect with friends without ever having to put on pants or shoes. Technology has provided so many new and wonderful forms of convenience and entertainment that it’s only recently that we’ve realized how hungry we’ve become for authentic human connections. As with everything, the lack of human connection during the pandemic has created a new appreciation for it. This appreciation is, surprisingly, tempered by most people longing for a middle ground where the contactless conveniences of Covid and the magical spark inherent in real-world dynamics meet.
Charting a course to the Metaverse
Like a pendulum, each new breakthrough is polarizing, with some rejecting new ideas outright and others jumping in with both feet. Ultimately, innovation breakthroughs happen that satisfy everyone, so we end up somewhere in the middle. The seamless, immersive marriage of the physical and digital in the Metaverse acts as the force of gravity pulling this pendulum toward the center. Neither Stephenson nor Wertenbaker – nor any of the countless other visionary creators – were able to succinctly describe the interconnectedness of our physical and digital reality. The reason for this – and your high school language teacher would support me on this – is that you cannot write with concise authority about something you have not experienced.
Neither Stephenson, Wertenbaker, nor any of the countless forward-looking visionaries who have given readers a glimpse into their view of a world where the digital and physical worlds are unified, would have met the demands of a language arts teacher. While they might be able to adequately answer the “five Ws” (who, what, where, when, and why) of the metaverse, the “how” would elude them. Ben’s panel of experts, on the other hand, understands the complexities behind realizing the Metaverse’s full and undiscovered potential.
Dangers and roadblocks ahead
“I don’t think anyone can predict at this point what it will look like,” says Sarah Laselva of the Metaverse, “but I think anyone would be foolish to say that it won’t be very different – and that it will be a huge opportunity. ” Realizing something completely new about the scale of the Metaverse will require a different kind of visionary thinking than that of the sci-fi futurists who painted portraits of a future defined by a technologically immersive human experience.
To revolutionize digital experiences revolutionary new testing methods. By definition, the Metaverse is a revolution. It is “really focused on collaboration,” says Jonathan Wright. But it “completely changes the dynamics of how we test everything. We need to test how we actually view the content in stereo.” Creating a truly connected digital experience requires app developers to properly convey the full spectrum of human communication, both spoken and body language. Doing this requires a deeper understanding of biometrics (body tracking, gesture tracking, and gaze), and adds new layers of complexity to testing workflows.
The Metaverse represents a new, emerging channel for monetization. Brands such as Gucci and Nike see how consumers have responded to the ability to customize their avatars in apps like Roblox and Fortnite. The rise of non-fungible tokens (NFTs) also reflects this increasing desire for exclusivity and digital individualism. But this is a limited view of how technology immersion will impact the human world. The testing process Jonathan discussed will also benefit from simulated realities. Dr. Silviu Torin explains that simulation software “can provide the virtual environment in which many top car manufacturers can validate and verify their algorithms and many of their components.”
The simulation capabilities predicted in this broader lens view of the Metaverse will improve road safety. These types of simulations collect larger amounts of better-defined data that would otherwise be cumbersome and prohibitively expensive to collect manually. Rapidly changing weather conditions and unpredictable pedestrian and bicycle movements are currently difficult to incorporate into test algorithms. Dr. Torin expects that simulation technology will enable better machine learning algorithms that “identify these corner cases from different sources and generate the scenarios. This works much more efficiently.”
Using the Metaverse well
For any simulated interaction to be truly realistic, intimacy is required, and this intimacy will be difficult to experience if you are connected to the Metaverse isolated in your home. We say things in online interactions that we would never say to someone we were in front of. Face-to-face interactions are indeed intimate and make it much harder to say words that seem acceptable online. It’s also what dystopian science fiction tends towards. The sterile, cold digital environment gives permission for equally cold, cruel interactions. When we are outside, peering into the sunlight and talking to neighbors, these same interactions are considered intolerable. This disparity in social behavior is one of the clearest indicators of the boundary between the physical and digital worlds.
While we are more connected than ever before, we are also more isolated. We create online echo chambers that allow us to block out the beautiful, messy chaos of the real world. In turn, we see more and more people acting on the shared feelings of their echo chambers. Dr. Alan Bovik hopes the Metaverse can bring that aspect of intimacy to online interactions. “I want the Metaverse to be something where you experience the world. And it is magnified.” The Metaverse becomes one dramatic paradigm shift in the way we interact with our world. By giving people the opportunity to experience people, places, cultures and wonders, they would otherwise never be able to destigmatize the ‘other’ and humanize things that we would otherwise fear.
“I want you to go outside,” says Dr. Bovik during the show, drawing loud cheers from all parents who sign up. He sees the Metaverse as something that allows us to take our online community with us as we explore the world. In the Metaverse, he sees that wearable devices like glasses can let you interact with actual digital twins of your network, as opposed to the cartoonish avatars we currently think of. “You can make a model of that person at your receiver, hopefully in those glasses,” he explains. You could see the physical micro-expressions that communicate so much more than words alone can convey. Simulations that allow us to literally see the world through the eyes of others have world-changing potential. It creates a new opportunity for global empathy and greater compassion that inspires action in a way that words and images never could.
About the guest: Dr. Alan Bovik
Dr. Alan Bovik is a vision scientist, engineer and teacher. He holds the Cockrell Family Regents Endowed Chair at the Cockrell School of Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is also director of the Laboratory for Image and Video Engineering (LIVE). Dr. Bovik is also a faculty member at the University of Texas at Austin’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, the Machine Learning Laboratory, the Institute for Neuroscience, and the Wireless Networking Communications Group.
In addition to these esteemed positions, Dr. Bovik also a two-time Emmy Award winner. In 2015, Dr. Bovik received a Primetime Emmy Award in recognition of the perception-based video quality metrics he developed that have now become the industry standard in television. In 2021, he won a Technology and Engineering Emmy Award for developing perceptual metrics for video coding optimization.
Watch season 1 of Source De[Code]
Before you dive into the Metaverse, you need to catch up on all of that season 1 of Bron De[Code] has to offer Apple podcasts, Spotify, Amazon MusicAnd Google Podcasts. Visit Bron De[Code] online to learn more about the show, the host and the guests, and to access resources that will deepen your understanding of the technologies discussed throughout the season. Can’t get enough technology podcast content? Receive updates on upcoming seasons and other Keysight podcasts by subscribing to the Source De[Code] mailing list.