Like an infant that still requires spoon-feeding and doesn’t yet have much to say, the metaverse is sometimes cute, has potential, but can barely hold up its head, much less stand on its own two feet — that was the perspective I sensed most at the 13th annual Augmented World Expo (AWE) last week (consistent with the vibe I observed at the 2021 event).

The Existential Debate Sparks Important Questions

But in addition to the infancy POV, three other stances were common:

  • It doesn’t exist yet (which is also Forrester’s perspective).
  • It’s been around for decades (an originalist interpretation based on a dictionary definition of the prefix meta- as “situated next to or beyond”).
  • It doesn’t matter (relative to the arduous but rewarding work of building technologies that enable 3D experiences and applying them usefully).

In his opening keynote, the CEO of Unity (whose platform powers 60% of augmented or virtual reality content worldwide), John Riccitiello, defined the metaverse as “the next generation of the internet that (1) is always real-time and (2) mostly 3D, (3) mostly interactive, (4) mostly social, and (5) mostly persistent,” predicting that “by the end of this decade, most websites will meet this definition.”

This emphasis on the notion that the metaverse is a layer on top of the internet and is the future of the web is the most important idea here. And it was refreshing that Riccitiello’s definition and the rest of the AWE 2022 content included almost no mention of Web3 proposals — all of which derive from good questions about today’s internet, but none of which are yet solid answers. The metaverse and Web3 are orthogonal to each other: If they both succeed, they will supercharge each other, but either could go into orbit even if the other craters.

Some people are bored or frustrated by the metaverse existential debate, but I believe they’re mistaken: It’s sparking crucial conversations about the why, what, and how of the future of digital experiences, the internet, and the web. Neglecting the discussion is a head-in-the-sand stance — ignoring both risk and opportunity.

UX Challenges And Breakthroughs Keep Coming

Whatever the outcome of the existential debates and the furious competition to achieve ever more sophisticated extended reality (XR) technologies, what will make or break XR is whether it all adds up to a user experience (UX) that draws people in (for better or worse — more on that dilemma below). In terms of UX, three dimensions stood out to me at this year’s AWE:

  1. Visual realism. Many breakthroughs were plain to see — literally. When I tried Magic Leap’s second-generation augmented reality (AR) headset, for example, the experience was dramatically better than when I’ve used its predecessor (or even, in several ways, Microsoft’s HoloLens 2) in three areas especially: 1) it was bright enough to stand out against daylight; 2) it can dim pixels selectively to near black; and 3) its vertical field of view is now large enough to rarely crop virtual objects, which had been distracting at the top edges especially. What these advances boil down to is simply that virtual objects feel more like (and therefore mix much better into) physical reality. Similarly, when I tried AR glasses equipped with waveguides from Lumus and then Dispelix, the clarity, brightness, and color in both were startling. Even the monochrome AR glasses I tried from Vuzix and then Tooz (targeting more ambient use cases) were bright, light, and comfortable.
  2. Other modalities: haptics and hand-tracking. I saw at least six exhibitors showing off haptic interfaces — a significant uptick from last year — and experienced demos from four of them (bHaptic, HaptX, SenseGlove, and WEART). Although at least 80% of human perception, learning, cognition, and activities are mediated through vision, tactile sensation vastly increases the sense of realism. This goes beyond the haptics now common in smartphones. For example, in addition to vibration or pressure, SenseGlove delivers resistance when grabbing an object and WEART creates heat and cold on your fingers (using ceramics, based on the Peltier effect). And it’s not just about hands: bHaptic offers a vest to encompass the torso, too. As for hand-tracking, UltraLeap remains the high end, but even at the low end, Meta’s Quest 2 headset was showing off significant recent advances in accuracy and speed.
  3. User research and interaction design. Both user research and interaction design, as two pillars of UX, underpinned most of the conference content to some extent, but there were many sessions devoted entirely to UX. Panelists from Magic Leap, Meta, Microsoft, and University of Rochester addressed a standing-room-only audience on “The Value of User Research in XR.” A researcher and a product manager from Meta presented compelling “New Applications for Hand Tracking in VR” with an emphasis not on games, but fitness. From Google’s Advanced Technology And Projects (ATAP) group, a research engineer and a design lead discussed “Nonverbal Interactions with Soli Radar” (a chip for tracking submillimeter motion at high speed). They repeatedly emphasized the importance of not splitting off technology research from interaction design. And a policy expert from Meta led a powerful session on “Identity & Self-Expression in the Metaverse.”

A Focus On People Pervades All The Technological Creativity

Amid all this effort, time, and funding devoted to drawing people into XR and the metaverse, many speakers raised the question of what exactly this imagined future would draw people into, how, and why. One mainstage panel, “The X-Verse,” (with Deshjuana Bagley, Anselm Hook, Andrew Melchior, Tish Shute, and David A. Smith) especially emphasized this question, focusing on the importance of proactively ensuring that XR’s future is:

  • Humane and human-centric. Most people involved in creating the foundations of XR are motivated by a perspective that at its core is humane and driven to help others, not just further the interests of those who design the systems, according to one of the panelists, artist and producer Andrew Melchior, now an executive at creative agency The Mill. Another panelist, David A. Smith, CTO of Croquet Corporation (which has built a browser-based OS for the metaverse), agreed, citing UX pioneer Doug Engelbart’s vision of computers that steer human experiences toward “how the world should work.” Some companies’ short-term profit motives may clash with this aspiration, but it is does seem genuinely widespread among XR leaders and creators.
  • Communal and standards based. Smith asserted “the metaverse has to be owned by the people, not by some company” (including his own) and advocated for empowering people to create, not just consume: “The worst thing that could happen to humanity would be if a thing we will be wearing all day every day turned out to be just a consumption device.” And Melchior advocated for “levelheadedness,” which means standards, he said, not a proprietary approach. There is also understandable skepticism about whether these values can prevail, but Metcalfe’s law suggests that it’s the best approach for companies seeking long-term growth.
  • Accessible and inclusive. Everyone, not just people living with permanent disabilities, is affected by digital accessibility, as a mainstage panel, “Designing & Developing for DEI + Accessibility,” emphasized. Dylan Fox, UX design and accessibility consultant for VR and AR at XR Access, pointed out that when we multitask, all of us are “partially disabled in terms of attention and body availability.” Other panelists highlighted that designing for people living with mobility challenges also helps people working from a cramped plane seat, for example, and designing for people missing a hand helps all of us when one of two hand-held controllers runs out of battery.

If you attended AWE 2022 and would like to share your observations about the event with me as an input to my research — or if you did not, but are willing to discuss your own organization’s XR work — I’d like to hear from you: Send me a message to let me know.