I spent part of my afternoon rummaging around spatial.io’s metaverse. Not only is it lonely, but it is awkward. Awkward because my avatar has no legs. I remember the first time I put on a VR headset and looked down to find I had no legs. Metaverse technologies have not improved on the leglessness of virtual experiences. Spatial.io seems to have made avatars without legs a strategic choice.
The awkwardness did not stop at my waste. It went to my head, which floats oddly above someone else’s body. While my face sits atop the avatar, the body is clearly not mine. I am younger and thinner, which isn’t a bad thing, but if I wanted transparency in my appearance and inclusiveness in my choices, I would not float through spatial’s virtual venues with this body, well, half a body.
I write this post a bit flippantly because it’s hard to take an experience like Spatial’s seriously. I’m sure the teams that funded and built this application aspire to elegance and refinement in their ambitions. But here we sit (or float) at the beginning of the metaverse hype-cycle, and one of the more referenced platforms appears little evolved from earlier virtual world incarnations.
The metaverse may have its purposes, and it may attract some use cases, but it will need to work a lot harder to secure the trust of average users. If I don’t have legs, what else was left out? Are my legs near some backdoor that a hacker can open to steal whatever data I put into the environment? Will it support the business models I need to succeed in my corner of its virtual world? How will it manage privacy if people can walk through my therapist’s wall during a consultation?
Spatial.io needs to work on the basics (see the punch list below for starters). It’s a beta world, and it may have a hard time climbing out of its prototypical hole, especially given that no one in Spatial’s world has any feet.
A partial spatial.io punch list
Controls. As I wrote recently about video conferencing platforms, virtual worlds also need to make their controls accessible, not just as cheat sheets that pop up over the experience, but as a panel separate from the space that does not require memorization. Gamers will have little difficulty remapping, but for casual or business users, arcane key codes become one of several annoyances that keep them from inhabiting virtual space.
The controls also need to work. I don’t know if it’s Mac and Chrome specific, but the q and e keys that say they make me rotate don’t always work. And then they do; they don’t allow me to turn in the way I want to, around my center. Again, awkward.
Boundaries. When I wrote a review of Microsoft Bob back in the 90s, I dismissed the AI assistant as non-credible because I could pick up fire from a fireplace and sit it on a chair, but the chair did not burn. That was perhaps the least of Bob’s problems, but it demonstrated a complete disregard for the logic of the environment. If I am to suspend belief and enter into a psychological contract with a virtual world, then the world needs to offer me some assurances as well. One of those assurances is the solidity of seemingly solid objects.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m all about teleportation. I am a Trekkie, and moving from one place to another proves an acceptable way of shortcutting distances in virtual worlds. The user interface lists it as a feature. Spatial doesn’t list walking through walls as a feature. Walking through walls disrupts the experience, leaving one outside of whatever one was inside seconds ago, without reference. In Star Trek, when a ship leaves the galactic boundary, it loses its ability to reference star charts because, well, it left the stars behind, leaving it in an uncharted place. Navigators, therefore, don’t have the tools to make sense of what they can see.
The same experience holds in virtual worlds. Walk outside the boundary, and you don’t know where you are. Sure, you can backup, but that chalks up two annoyances in one. First, I can walk through a wall. Second, I have to spend time figuring out how to get back to a place with references.
Teleportation. Take me to where I click. I don’t really care if the camera can walk through walls; that is my choice as a viewer to see the world through my non-virtual eyes. And that may mean clicking out of a room. Teleporting employs different physics than walking through a wall or other object. When clicking to teleport, one should arrive with an orientation that makes sense in context rather than spending time after arriving fine turning a point of view.
Artifacts. The curation in Spatial.io is often a big thing, like an image, with a tag next to it. It can be challenging to get up against an object and get it into the proper perspective to see it or read the label. Interestingly, the arrow keys at the bottom of the virtual world negate the folding and wandering and replace it with a kind of slide show mode. Combine that with search, and one must question the point of a metaverse experience.
I don’t need the avatar. It adds no value once I start clicking through the assets via an arrow in the UI. If I were in a Zoom breakout room, I would be able to see and talk to people about what we are collectively viewing.
Legs. To reiterate, people have legs. Avatars should have legs. Since I’m not in a world shot with a 360-degree camera that cannot capture below the tripod, the world should render in a way that when I walk, I walk, and when I look down, I see feet.
If the world is virtual, and I want to move something, I should either be told I can’t (haptic feedback?), or I should be able to move it. Spatial.io offers no guidance I could discover over what is moveable and what is not. The guide clearly states that objects can be moved. In the half-dozen worlds I visited, I found nothing moveable. In games, things you can touch reveal themselves. Spatial’s virtual worlds exhibit as games with no gameplay.
What Spatial.io Needs to Do to Find Its Legs
3D spaces are cool. Wandering around them for a few minutes is cool until it’s boring. Sure, Spatial.io is a sandbox, but it’s probably a sandbox that wants to make money. I found no compelling uses in the examples that could not be executed better with more mundane technology.
Don’t get me wrong; there is potential. If Spatial allowed me to re-experience the creation of a digital artifact, that might be interesting. If it let me do something other than wandering around on my own…well, you get the point. But, even if Spatial has narrowed its ambitions to just selling NFTs, it needs to create a more engaging, less annoying interaction model.
But others, like aimedis.io, want to purpose-build virtual experiences, like hospitals. When I think about interactions like virtual therapy, crisis intervention, even nurse consults, let alone virtual surgeries or visualization of imaging outputs, I find software full of potential—in most cases, the same potential it had back in 2016, or before. I don’t see progress. I don’t see examples that make me believe sophisticated interplays between people in the real world will find meaningful counterparts, proxies, or replacements in the metaverse any time soon.
Perhaps another platform will convince me otherwise, but my sense is the metaverses keep reinventing themselves and never maturing. Walled gardens arise, reach a level where the problems of virtual worlds push against the fabric of the funding, and their boundless intent halts. Solutions to the annoyances overwhelm the company’s ability to take the foundation to the next level. Fundamental user interface issues remain unresolved despite commercial and academic research that attempts to fix them.
Too many believe the metaverse derives its potential from CPU and GPU speeds, framerates and resolutions—the metaverse’s real problem comes down to faulty models and the inability to implement shared learning across platforms. No start-up. I will repeat. No start-up will ever have the funding to develop a credible world on its own.
Can Meta do it? Can Meta bring its vast resources to the problem and build a credible world that maps onto this one and still leaves room for creative extensions that defy common experience but do so in a way that adds value rather than just novelty? That remains to be seen. Our world is complex, and we don’t understand it. Fundamental physics and significant issues in biology and cosmology remain unsolved. Virtual worlds will be an approximation—if they are to be useful approximations, they need to meet a threshold of believability within at least some domain. Those creating generalized worlds will likely find reality too hard to swallow regardless of the power of their computing resources.
Games work because they are scripted, because they focus on play and entertainment rather than work or living. The metaverse is a concept intended for an unscripted world which means it will likely need to cross the chasm of many uncanny valleys before its metaphors become meaningful places for people to spend their time.
For more serious insights on the metaverse click here.