This is an effort to organize and clarify my personal thoughts on the next stage of the web. This initial article is a high level overview; the next few articles will deal with specific areas like retail, entertainment, banking, education, etc. I believe we are moving in this direction fast and already have most of the technology needed to execute this new vision of the Internet. To be clear, I’m not remotely the first person to think this way, so you may have run across these concepts before. Would love any feedback on where you think things are going.
The Next Internet
I believe that the Oculus launch has effectively spawned what will become the next version of the Internet. And games like Second Life foreshadowed it. Currently we access the web through a flat monitor that conveys a 2D world on a small screen in front of our faces. We ignore everything around us and use what I believe to be primitive (non-native) actions to affect changes into that world (the keyboard, the mouse, and even the finger swipe, although it is closer to natural).
The next version of the web will be a 3D world that effectively replicates and hopefully improves upon reality. At a high level, I think we’ll login through goggles (like Oculus), using our irises and likely wear apparel loaded with sensors to give us a natural feeling of being in a new world. There is the possibility that cameras (like we current game with) could convey movement and action into the world, but (as I discuss below) they would miss out on critical details, so I don’t think they are the best solution. In this world you would be depicted as an Avatar of your choosing and would interact with the Avatars of other humans and bots. Oculus is starting with movies and games, but someone is probably now working on a live world that allows you to move, interact and transact with other humans, bots and businesses. Once this is launched, people have computers strong enough to login to it, and it functions well, I think the current 2D web will become a ghost town. Why? Being in a virtual reality world feels more real, more natural than our current web experience. It is paradoxically, more innately human than our current ways of going online. The transition is unlikely to go slow after it catches on.
This new version of the internet would solve lots of issues while creating as many new problems. At a high level, it would enable us to interact in a personal way with others, bringing us back to conversations instead of text and, if the system is sensitive enough, would allow body language and facial expressions to function much as they do in the real world. On the negative side, we have to figure out ways to differentiate reality from a 3D world that functions in most of the ways you need (both will be forms of reality). It has to be materially different in order for our minds to continue separating our physical lives from our online lives. In some ways, the new internet would replace reality, but in others it would be very dangerous to mix the two; e.g. you can theoretically be protected from or live through a fatal fall online, but you can’t IRL.
AOL surges back
AOL was the introduction to the web for many a Gen Xer. It was a safe, contained space that allowed you to explore controlled content and slowly figure out how to use and benefit from the internet. I believe that one company will create the next version of the internet. Facebook/Oculus seems like an obvious choice with an advantage, but it is not a foregone conclusion that they do it. This world will be more like AOL in that it will launch as an effective monopoly over the new internet.
This is not only likely, it’s necessary. Rules will need to be established that determine how we can act in this new space. Change is likely to be rapid and someone needs to have enough control to adjust the rules or rewrite them as needed. Avatars will be created and have to be depicted within the world. And trillions of interactions will have to be managed within this cloud space. I think the initial direction of this new world is likely to be heavily influenced by whomever creates it. If a gaming company creates it (which is an obvious possibility since they have lots of experience with MMORPG), it’s likely to allow combat and death of Avatar. If Facebook launches it, it’s likely to start focused on personal connections and relationships, maybe even with inAvatar chat rooms. But no matter the start, it will quickly move to encompass what humans enjoy and want to accomplish.
The initial rules should be somewhat related to the laws of physics (you can’t walk through walls), but with critical exceptions (ability to instantly move to another place).
Several ideas have floated around suggesting organizing concepts. Early concepts suggested the idea of rooms or buildings that you move between in a ‘telepathic’ way. In Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson imagined a long, long street. In Ready Player One, Ernest Cline imagines a planetary concept. The key is creating a theme that can expand rapidly, accept a multitude of cultures and goals, and quickly be understood by newbies. The long street concept has several flaws, the biggest being a lack of organization – at least as I’ve heard it depicted. The planetary concept is nice, because it has little theoretical limits and can allow for differing rules on different planets.
Conceptual frameworks to build around:
A lot of these are executed the same way, but planets have a nice crisp border that helps to clearly define rules and experience. In addition, planets can be themed or planned around an organizing concept. This adds clarity and ease of use. For the creator, planets offer leasing opportunities to profit. A ‘shopping’ planet could be leased by retailers building stores.
Side note: conceptually, planets can be personalized. This would require significant more computing power, but changing the planet based on the person would improve usability. It would, however, make for oddities in a world where other people are seeing something different than you. Perhaps some planets would be personalized and you only come in contact with those who are seeing a very similar planet to you. I think this could happen, but this personalization is more likely to happen inside of a room or building, rather than over an entire planet.
The technology to achieve this is, for the most part, available. We’re just reaching the point where this is doable. First, cloud computing is a necessity for this: it requires heavy use of computing power to render millions of Avatars in a world setting. There are three pieces to this: large computing power in the cloud, huge pipes to stream down to a localized computer, and very fast local computers with a ton of memory to support rendering of this world. Building the technology to render is complicated, but delivering it real time to end users (high speed architecture) is at least as hard.
Second, a tool like Oculus is required. It’s the new interface between you and the web. And the completeness of a three dimensional world is what makes this more familiar and believable to our minds. We accept it as a version of reality, rather than a fake interface.
Real time translation is somewhat available, although not as accurate as we would like. Initially we’re likely to see cultures and languages pool together online, but eventually I think the concept of differing languages will wash away. You’ll hear everyone in your native tongue. Culture is harder and probably requires a piece all its own. In short: as the world homogenizes in many ways, people will hold on to key aspects of their cultural heritage as a way to define them (online and off). But even this is likely to muddle when people choose to incorporate other cultural tokens that they associate with. Online, it’s hard to tell the affected from the real.
The piece that’s not quite available yet is sensor technology that measures our movements. Think haptic gloves and apparel that can tell when you hold up your arm. As I said earlier, I don’t think cameras (like current gaming consoles use) are ever going to be as accurate as apparel for rendering this world. Fitted clothing can detect tiny movements in muscles while also measuring heartrate, sweat, etc that help the virtual world really understand your present state. Facial expressions, however, are likely to be measured by camera over apparel. And I think these cameras will be built into the glasses in the future for just such a reason. Allowing our Avatars to express emotion makes the world more real and becomes necessary for such an all-encompassing solution. Probably not in the first version, to be clear, and I think there should be a debate about the value of letting people hide emotions versus react. Although, I think the ultimate control goes to the user; who will have lots of customizations available whether we all agree or not.
For now, I think this is an initial start. It’s more interesting to delve into how this changes the internet and our physical worlds. And I’ll get into that in my next post. I’ll try to incorporate links below to the other articles, so that they all tie together.