Don’t be fooled — there’s nothing new about virtual spaces, which are essentially spaces online where any number of users and devices can interact.
The notion of “virtual spaces” actually dates back to the origins of the Internet (in 1962) when a series of memos by J.C.R. Licklider at MIT introduced a “Galactic Network” concept, in which a network of computers allows users to gather data and access programs anywhere in the world.
Those memos led to over 60 years of groundbreaking virtual space innovation, spanning the world’s first virtual spaces for information exchange (ARPANET, CBBS, Usenet) to the world’s first virtual space for 2D gaming (Pong).
Then there was the rapid evolution of personal computers, web and mobile browsers, and vast improvements to Internet accessibility and speed. All enabled the rise of online businesses that rely heavily on virtual space technology.
Virtual Space Technology: A Brief History
Without going too deep into the history of the Internet, let’s just say that virtual space technology has evolved on a common trajectory to the Internet — which (from a historical perspective) is fairly new.
In fact, the pace of virtual space innovation has accelerated in recent years thanks to the pandemic, which forced everyone to figure out how to work, play, learn, and stay healthy remotely by using virtual space-based applications. And just think about what would have happened if COVID had occurred a decade prior. (But we’ll save that for another article.)
The Lens of Virtual Space Innovation
Looking back through the lens of “virtual space” innovation: In the 1980s and 1990s, we saw state-controlled “information-sharing” projects blossom into startup-led initiatives that use virtual spaces to change how we discovered things and ideas (Lycos, Infoseek, and Google). The information-sharing projects changed how we shop (Amazon.com, Craigslist, eBay, CDnow) and how we communicate (ICQ, AOL Instant Messenger, MSN Messenger, Yahoo! Messenger).
Certainly, listening to music will never be the same after (Winamp, Musicmatch, Napster, and the MP3) games on the phone (Snake on Nokia phones). Even dating had an uptick (Match, eHarmony, JDate) and learning (Jones International University, OpenCourseWare).
We even saw the first virtual space for food delivery (World Wide Waiter) and had the sci-fi writer Neal Stephenson coin the term “Metaverse” to describe a 3D virtual space.
Enter the 2000s and 2010s
Then in the 2000s and 2010s, we witnessed the rise of numerous startup-led initiatives that advanced the use of virtual spaces to address other needs, from how we connect with others (MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram) to how we share videos (Vimeo, YouTube). Could you have imagined how people began to get around (Uber, Lyft, Didi, Gojek)? And now, we could stream our favorite entertainment (Pandora, Spotify, Netflix, Hulu).
We even saw the release of the iPhone, which, in addition to providing easy access to the Internet plus a GPS system and camera in your pocket, gave businesses the ability to extend virtual space-type experiences to mobile browsers.
And on the software side, we saw Apple and Google introduce their own app stores, which revolutionized software distribution (with no need for consumers to go to brick-and-mortar stores) and energized the global developer community to release millions of third-party smartphone apps; many of which rely heavily on virtual space technology.
Virtual Space Technology: Now and in the Future
Ultimately, it’s clear that virtual space technology is not new but has indeed changed our lives in ways that are not limited to the more literal alignment with AR, VR, and the Metaverse. Without virtual space technology, there would be no such thing as online gaming, social networks, the on-demand economy (rideshare, food delivery, etc.), streaming services, e-learning, telemedicine, connected fitness, smart home, smart city, and much more.
The big question is how will the use of this technology evolve now?
I asked Philip Rosedale (Inventor & Founder, High Fidelity, and Second Life) and Avi Bar-Zeev (HoloLens Co-Inventor and Co-Founder of Keyhole, (which later became Google Earth) for their thoughts on how virtual space technology will change the world by the year 2030. While their predictions and supporting opinions varied, key themes emerged:
- Virtual space technology will continue improving how humans interact with information and other people.
- The primary downside to the increasing use of virtual spaces globally is that tangible/real-world interactions like touch will be diminished.
- Due to the accelerating use of AI in virtual spaces, there’s a real danger that our trust and attention will be exploited in ways that are worse than what we’ve seen in social media.
- Knowing how easily we can be monitored and manipulated in virtual spaces, our right to privacy will require legislation (particularly for virtual worlds).
- As virtual space technology becomes invisible and our ‘technical prosthetics’ blend into how we live our lives, the ‘super-human’ impact will be real, and we need to ensure everyone has equal access (particularly in the Metaverse).
Overall, these themes can be grouped into five theories about the future of virtual spaces; one of which we characterize as hopeful, three as concerned, and one as neutral. All point to an incredible future ahead — but one will require bold public and private action (globally) to ensure that our trust and attention are not exploited while using virtual spaces.
Virtual space technology will continue to improve the way humans interact with information and other people.
“The key improvements come in how we interact with information and other people, specifically human-to-human communication and human-to-AI. Co-presence in embodied 3D spaces lets us be ourselves (or play as whomever else we want to be) in the most natural ways but adding in the folding of time and real-world space.
That means we can instantly be in a shared or overlapping 3D space with others whenever we wish, or interact asynchronously in 3D as well to optimize everyone’s time. Thus far, we’ve been limited to video and text.”
“They will be better but ONLY if/when they better connect us with other people, not with AI’s or brands or products. And right now we aren’t there yet because most people aren’t comfortable with the non-verbal cues offered by avatars.”
The primary downside to the increasing use of virtual spaces globally is that tangible, real-world interactions (like touch) will be diminished.
The main downside with spending more time in virtual spaces is in the loss of tangible/real interactions, like touch (for now). But with AR, I think we get the best of both worlds: real world locations and interactions with virtual instances of the people we want to communicate with. Ideally, AR also filters out more of the noise of the real world and lets us focus on what matters.
“…this permits us to communicate more effectively, by increasing the bandwidth and understanding between people. But it reduces the need for travel and synchronization as well. We should hopefully have more time to spend as a result, by focusing the necessary communications and opening up more voluntary explorations.”
Due to the accelerating use of AI in virtual spaces, there’s a real danger that our trust and attention will be exploited in ways that are worse than what we’ve seen in social media.
“The danger comes with increased exploitation of our trust and attention, beyond what we’ve seen with social networks. The more the computer adapts to us, the better it can manipulate us without us being aware. And XR (Extended Reality) provides the most intimate technological access to our minds we’ve yet made real (direct neural connection is probably the only thing that can top it).”
Knowing how easily we can be monitored and manipulated in virtual spaces, our right to privacy will require legislation (particularly for virtual worlds).
“We need to make the ad-tech business model illegal, where there is a strict firewall between future advertising and systems that collect and use personal information. Companies built on this model must divide along these lines, as we did with banks and investments. We should legally certify that people own their own personal information, like money, and may only loan it to companies with proper security guarantees.”
“The thing that keeps me up at night is the risk of applying the surveillance ad model to virtual worlds. That has to be legislated against because otherwise, big companies will do it and cause further irreparable harm to people (beyond what has already been done with social media). Another thing that keeps me up is the risk that these sorts of advanced technology will contribute to wealth inequality and therefore bring us close to violent revolution.”
As virtual space technology becomes invisible and our ‘technical prosthetics’ blend into how we live our lives, the ‘super-human’ impact will be real, and we need to make sure that everyone has equal access — particularly in the Metaverse.
“Technology becomes invisible. So our perception will change to expect it to stay in the background. This makes us feel super-human, but it hides the complexity. When we’re without our technological prosthetics, we will feel uncomfortable, but perhaps eventually more relaxed in becoming merely human again.”
“Whatever the Metaverse becomes, it must be open to everyone with equal access and no long-term barriers. We have a longer set of principles at https://www.xrguild.org/#Principles.”
The history of virtual space technology indeed goes back to 1962, and our world has been forever changed by the many pioneers who’ve used this technology to transform the way we live, work, play, and interact (including human-to-human, human-to-AI, and device-to-device scenarios).
But it is essential that we keep an eye on how this technology is used going forward, given how critical it will be to the future well-being of our global society.
The vast majority of use cases are constructive. Still, there remains a host of concerns, not the least of which are privacy and avoiding exploitation (including AI-based) while ensuring equal access.
What comes next? Stay tuned for part two of this article.
Featured Image Credit: Photo by Pixabay; Pexels; Thank you!