We can all agree that leaving the house is a marvelous thing. But what if your city stroll was enhanced by encounters with historical figures who walked those streets when they were cobblestoned? Or if it featured sightings of extinct or even imaginary species? John Hanke not only wants to see things like that happen, he has made it happen by sending millions of people on outdoor quests to capture imaginary cartoon characters.
As the CEO and founder of Niantic Labs, Hanke launched Pokémon Go in 2016, and he remains obsessed with a vision of a physical world enhanced by digital objects, the concept now called augmented reality. He has been pursuing this vision since at least 2010, when he founded Niantic as an internal startup at Google, then spun it out and launched Go. The game, in which players wander the streets with phones held to their faces trying to capture Weedles, Squirtles, and Nidorinas, was both a cultural phenomenon and a financial success, reaping over a billion dollars in revenue. Like Wendy sewing Peter Pan’s shadow to his foot, Hanke has been gradually binding the ephemeral to the real, providing a substrate for the merger of pixels and atoms that he sees as the future.
But now people are babbling and swooning about this thing called a … metaverse. Companies like Facebook—well, mainly Facebook—are pitching a more immersive vision where people don hardware rigs that block out their senses and replace the input with digital artifacts, essentially discarding reality for alternate worlds created by the lords of Silicon Valley. “Our overarching goal … is to help bring the metaverse to life,” Mark Zuckerberg told his workforce in June.
Hanke hates this idea. He’s read all the science fiction books and seen all the films that first imagined the metaverse—all great fun, and all wrong. He believes that his vision, unlike virtual reality, will make the real world better without encouraging people to totally check out of it. This past summer, he felt compelled to explain why in a self-described manifesto whose title says it all: “The Metaverse Is a Dystopian Nightmare. Let’s Build a Better Reality.” (Facebook’s response: Change its name to Meta so it could focus on constructing Hanke’s nightmare.)
Niantic is hard at work too. It has developed Lightship, a software platform for augmented reality apps like Pokémon Go, for both internal projects and the creations of others. Early developers include Historic Royal Palaces, Coachella, and Led Zeppelin. The next goal is to map the entire physical world to better integrate it with digital objects. “Think of it as kind of a GPS but without the satellites and with a higher degree of accuracy,” wrote Hanke. (The secret: Players of Pokémon Go and other Niantic apps can scan real-world “wayspots” with their phones during gameplay.) Those tuned to the proper “reality channel” will experience their location’s alter ego, which may blast them to the past, rocket them to a possible future, or anything in between.
All of this will eventually happen just centimeters from your retina. This fall, Niantic also announced the finalization of its open source blueprint, cocreated with the chip giant Qualcomm, for augmented reality glasses that’ll let people mingle what they see naturally with a kaleidoscope of make-believe things. This puts it in competition with Facebook, Snap, Apple, Microsoft, and other firms striving to put their realities on eyeglass frames.
For better or for verse—whether it’s Hanke’s vision or Zuckerberg’s—what we see in the future is going to be more than meets the eye.
Hanke and I spoke twice about augmented reality, and why the metaverse is destined to suck. Respecting Covid-19, we conducted both interviews in the mini-metaverse of Zoom. During the first, he showed his zeal for perambulation, walking the streets of Truckee, California. As we chatted he held his phone to his face as if searching for a Pikachu. The second was a Zoom session where he remained static, though at one point he ducked down to pat an amazingly lifelike dog. It might have even been his real dog.
WIRED: Why do you call the metaverse dystopian?
John Hanke: It takes us away from what fundamentally makes us happy as human beings. We’re biologically evolved to be present in our bodies and to be out in the world. The tech world that we’ve been living in, as exacerbated by Covid, is not healthy. We’ve picked up bad habits—kids spending all day playing Roblox or whatever. And we’re extrapolating that, saying, “Hey, this is great. Let’s do this times 10.” That scares the daylights out of me.
Whereas you want people to actually experience daylight, albeit with a phone in their hands.
I really got into this idea of using digital tech to reinvigorate the idea of a public square, to bring people off the couch and out into an environment they can enjoy. There’s a lot of research that supports the positive psychological impact of walking through a park, walking through a forest—just walking. But now we live in a world where we have all this anxiety, amplified by Covid. There’s a lot of unhappiness. There’s a lot of anger. Some of it comes from not doing what our bodies want us to do—to be active and mobile. In our early experiments, we got a lot of feedback from people who were kind of couch potatoes that the game was causing them to walk more. They were saying, “Wow, this is amazing, I feel so much better. I’m physically better, but mentally I’m way more better. I broke out of my depression or met new people in the community.” We said, “Wow, like, this is good we can do in the world.”
According to your manifesto, your mission is also to warn about the hype and danger of the full-on metaverse, which has gone from a science fiction concoction to the latest tech buzzword.
We’re at a fork in the road. The future that I am describing is the one that’s going to win. It’s one where computing stays with us, disappearing into the background and supporting what we’re doing. It is ubiquitous computing, which goes back to the early work at Xerox PARC. I feel like that vision of the future has gotten somehow lost temporarily as people have become fascinated with these online 3D worlds.
Remind us what ubiquitous computing is?
It’s where computing becomes smaller and less obvious and more embedded on your person or in the environment, so that it’s helping you without you feeling it’s intermediating your experience.
What do you make of Facebook Horizon Workrooms, the company’s virtual reality version of Zoom? It seems like the opposite of your vision, where people interact via avatars in a totally digital environment.
Immersion in a 3D world might be an entertainment experience, in the same way that you would maybe watch a movie with all the bells and whistles on your home theater system. But that’s not where you’ll spend the majority of your life. I don’t need to make a conference room look like a cartoon Tahiti. That doesn’t make it better for me.
In some cases, you want to make artificial objects persistent, bound to geographic locations available to everyone on your system who’s tuned to a given channel. I live near Astor Place in New York City, so if I had that system, I might be able to see a reenactment of the “Shakespeare Riot” that took place there in the 1800s. And someone I’m walking with, or maybe a whole crowd of people, would be looking at that same historical reenactment, even though, if we took the glasses off, it would be the same old street corner. Is that what you’re talking about?
Yeah, exactly. That’s a great poetic example. A less poetic one would be King Kong climbing up the Empire State Building, or the Ghostbusters vortex on top of that apartment building on Central Park West. You would be able to create that persistent reality. Everybody will be able to see it, and it’s kind of locked in place. With a reality channel, when you use all these tools, you can create with it too.
In your essay, you talk about how you might be walking around and the buildings might take on pastel hues and the people you see would be in costumes. To me that’s a weird thing and maybe even a scary thing. That doesn’t necessarily put you in touch with your world—it distorts the world.
If I asked you to imagine a Greek city, what do you imagine?
I’m thinking of buildings like the Parthenon. Like Greece in my history book.
All those buildings were painted with crazy, psychedelically bright colors—yellows, greens, and reds. We think of them now as these whitewashed buildings. We’ve always adorned our environment, our architecture, with embellishments. These reality channels can make the world more interesting in certain ways, just using bits instead of atoms. Instead of paint, it’s digital paint. It can be very localized, or maybe it’s something that is mapped across the entire world.
So kids doing a high school prom wouldn’t need to decorate the gym. They could give a theme that people would see if they wore the glasses, right?
It’s scary to imagine if an augmented layer of reality gets hacked. People can mess with your vision.
I guess that can happen with anything. But I’m worried more about my smart home devices like my Nest getting hacked than I am about someone hacking what I’m wearing outside.
It seems to me that this is still tweaking what our senses provide us in a way that denies our reality. That seems unhealthy in the same way as the metaverse you’re complaining about. Imagine a kid who loves Harry Potter—Niantic has licensed the Potter universe. You might make a kid’s whole neighborhood into the Hogwarts world, and they would never turn it off. Parents always say to kids, “You’re living in a dream world.” Well, this technology would literally let them live in a dream world.
I don’t know, when you were a kid, didn’t you ever fantasize that there was more to the world than what you were actually seeing?
That’s right. But I had to have my imagination work at it.
When you go to Disneyland, people re-create that stuff …
But then you leave Disneyland.
Why spend billions on concrete when you can create it digitally? OK, there’s a range. If you’re talking about dialing the reality channel all the way up, from translucent to opaque, where you are replacing everything in the world with something synthetic, then I’d agree with you. But I’m talking about embellishing things selectively, like planting flowers in boxes along the street. That could make the world more interesting in small doses. I don’t think that’s bad. If it gets your kid to want to go for a walk in the park with you instead of playing computer games, that’s a trade I’ll take. Because you’ll see the redwoods, and you’ll breathe fresh air, and he’ll get the exercise. And if he finds a Pokémon hiding behind a fern, OK, I’m good with that.
But it’s more than Pokémon. You’re pitching a persistent technology that’s used for all sorts of nongaming activities.
Yes, that’s what we mean by “the real metaverse”—the common substrate for all of these transformations. Many of those would be for entertainment—giant robots, Pac-Man, Pokémon. But it could be purely utilitarian. It could be oriented toward shopping or any number of practical applications. What’s different from the VR metaverse is that with ours you have this common structure that is the real world. The bits get tied to the atoms. And so you have these things that add information to the place that you’re in or give you useful functionality. It could put a virtual button hanging in the air that lets you buy a bus ticket or check in for your flight, or arrows painted on the sidewalk that lead you to the subway, or information about the product that you’re looking at, telling you whether it was ethically sourced. That’s the potential that matters. AR is the place where the real metaverse is going to happen.