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The cavalcade of wonders in Mark Zuckerberg's metaverse show last week left out one crucial screenshot: what your body actually looks like while your mind has gone meta.
The catch: The real you is just sitting in a chair wearing goggles.
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The video mock-ups of the metaverse Zuckerberg unveiled showed us what remote-presence wizardry might look like from within the 3D dimension. But they omitted the prosaic reality of most current VR.
Today's headsets mostly block out the "real world" — and sometimes induce wooziness, headaches and even nausea.
The big picture: Facebook's metaverse project aims to bring productivity to the remote workplace and fun to after-hours online frolics by moving more of our lives to a 3D game world.
The vision is to liberate our digital existence from the confines of the screen, restore our freedom of movement on a more "embodied" internet and enable deeper interpersonal connections in a social environment where we can see and interact with other people.
"When you're in a meeting in the metaverse," Zuckerberg said, "it'll feel like you're right in the room together, making eye contact, having a shared sense of space and not just looking at a grid of faces on a screen."
Yes, but: Right now, the metaverse isn't "embodied" at all. It's an out-of-body experience where your senses take you somewhere else and leave your body behind on a chair or couch or standing like a blindfolded prisoner.
Mixed reality and augmented reality tech and techniques promise to heal that rift and make 3D work and play a more mobile physical experience.
There are fledgling efforts in this direction — like some fitness apps, the "Beat Saber" game Zuckerberg praised in his talk and the experimental pass-through video features, mixing real and digital fields of vision, that Oculus introduced last summer.
Of note: Safety will always be a concern. Remember those videos of Wii users smashing their TVs? That's just a preview of what can go wrong when our bodies are moving around real objects while our minds are in virtual space.
What's next: AR glasses of the future could help offer the promise of more seamlessly blending the real world and the metaverse. But the hardware holy grail of lightweight, affordable glasses with all-day battery life is many years off — as is so much of Zuckerberg's vision.
In the meantime, observers expect a metaverse that's delivered to the public piecemeal.
Aspects of it will turn up first in gaming worlds like Roblox and Fornite and crypto-based products like NFTs rather than 3D virtual offices and parties.
Zuckerberg says he envisions people accessing the metaverse sometimes in full 3D, sometimes through AR glasses, and sometimes just through "computers and phones" — which could be nifty but won't be any more "embodied" than today's internet.
Between the lines: Facebook/Meta — along with the rest of today's VR industry — promises to roll out the new 3D internet with due care toward privacy, safety and ethics.
But virtual-world makers will feel the same incentives to boost engagement and hold onto users' eyeballs in the metaverse that they have on today's social platforms.
That could leave us all nostalgic for our current era of screen-blurred vision, misinformation-filled newsfeeds and privacy compromises.
If there's some way to prevent the combination of an ad-driven economy and virtual-engagement metrics from reproducing all of Facebook's drawbacks in the metaverse, Zuckerberg and his team have yet to lay it out.
Be smart: From VR's invention 30 years ago, its makers have always dreamed of repairing the Cartesian mind/body split that so many tech products promote.
They're inspired by the liberating vision of "Star Trek's" holodeck — but they keep ending up with"Matrix"-style pods instead.
The bottom line: It's possible to imagine an "at-best" scenario in which VR — powered by more fluid tech, innovative fitness applications and passthrough features that mix real and digital fields of vision — becomes truly embodied.
But the business realities of the social internet and the likelihood of slow incremental improvements in today's hardware make the worst case look like a much better bet.
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