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Niantic CEO John Hanke says the metaverse is a 'dystopian nightmare'

Niantic's chief executive warns against trying to recreate ideas from science fiction.

Players of Niantic’s Harry Potter: Wizards Unite gathered outside

Niantic argues the path forward for the metaverse should involve more real-world interaction with the help of augmented reality.

Photo: Niantic

Niantic CEO John Hanke isn't as excited about the metaverse as some of his contemporaries, like Mark Zuckerberg. In fact, Hanke is scared the next-generation internet might become the "dystopian nightmare" it is so often depicted as in science fiction, and he says his company is dedicated to ensuring that the underlying technology of the metaverse doesn't steer society in that direction.

In a blog post published Tuesday, Hanke warned against hyping the long-sought-after metaverse concept, in which our digital avatars spend our time in ever more realistic virtual simulations, as a natural and positive evolution of the internet. Instead, Hanke says technology companies should be trying to avoid the future depicted in novels like Ernest Cline's "Ready Player One," in which the metaverse took the form of a nostalgia-obsessed VR escape for most of a war-torn and impoverished U.S. citizenry.

"I'm not denying that the metaverse is a cool concept from a technology point of view; it comes from one of my favorite sci-fi writers, Neal Stephenson, who coined the term in his 1992 novel, 'Snow Crash,'" Hanke wrote. "A lot of people these days seem very interested in bringing this near-future vision of a virtual world to life, including some of the biggest names in technology and gaming. But in fact these novels served as warnings about a dystopian future of technology gone wrong." Hanke said the tech industry and society at large should be focused on ensuring "the world doesn't devolve into the kind of place that drives sci-fi heroes to escape into a virtual one."

"At Niantic, we choose the latter. We believe we can use technology to lean into the 'reality' of augmented reality — encouraging everyone, ourselves included, to stand up, walk outside, and connect with people and the world around us," Hanke wrote. "This is what we humans are born to do, the result of two million years of human evolution, and as a result those are the things that make us the happiest. Technology should be used to make these core human experiences better — not to replace them."

Hanke has a vested interest in promoting more, not less, real-world interaction. His company Niantic makes augmented reality games like Pokémon Go and Harry Potter: Wizards Unite, with more games in the works around the CATAN board game, Nintendo's Pikmin series, and the Transformers franchise. These apps are built around leaving your home, meeting up with friends and traveling to locations in the real world, and Niantic is also working with Qualcomm on developing AR glasses powered by its mapping and rendering technology to make the experience more seamless. A future where everyone sits inside with a VR headset on their face hanging out in Facebook-controlled social spaces doesn't bode well for Niantic's library of mobile hits or its eventual AR glasses.

But Hanke says Niantic's opposition to the metaverse as conceived by competitors isn't about downplaying VR and promoting AR, or about forgoing technology entirely. Instead, Hanke says it's a battle between technology that improves human experience and technology that simply exists for the sake of it (or in Facebook's case, to protect its targeted advertising ecosystem).

"At Niantic, we ask the question: what if technology could make us better?" Hanke wrote. "Could it nudge us get us off the couch and out for an evening stroll or a Saturday in the park? Could it draw us into public space and into contact with neighbors we might never have met? Could it give us a reason to call a friend, make plans with our families, or even discover brand new friends? Collectively, could it help us discover the magic, history, and beauty hiding in plain sight?"

Hanke said Niantic's Lightship platform is a key to helping build that future. The platform allows developers to license Niantic's technology and build AR experiences similar in sophistication to Pokémon Go. Niantic's long-term goal is to ensure Lightship supports a "shared state" understanding of the world, Hanke said, so that every one of the hundreds of millions of users of its products see the same AR representations of the real world, as well as a semantic understanding of all the objects and places in the world. Hanke likens the quest to building a new kind of Google Maps for computers that will help smartphones and AR glasses see and make sense of the real world.

"Going back to our vision for software and content, we imagine a future of worlds that can be overlaid on the real world. For now, we're calling these 'reality channels' to give the idea a name. Think of Pokémon Go, upgraded for smart glasses where the Pokémon wander through your local park, seeming to actually inhabit the world," Hanke wrote. He goes on to extend the idea to human avatars, so that "if you encounter another player on the street, they might even appear transformed into the guise of their in-game persona."

"Multiply this kind of channel x1000: Mario, Transformers, Marvel's superhero universe, the world of Wakanda, Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Bladerunner, Sherlock Holmes, Nancy Drew, The Maltese Falcon — all of these and countless more will exist as reality channels that you can turn on," Hanke added, in a description that sounds quite a bit like an AR version of Fortnite overlaid on the real world instead of the virtual island overseen by Epic Games. "Importantly, all of these experiences will be shared by countless other people, so that the adventure is a catalyst for spending time together and deepening social relationships."

Hanke takes one last shot at competitors in the end of his post, writing, "We have a responsibility to do all this in a way that respects the people using our services, as well as people who don't. User privacy, responsible use, inclusive development processes and recognizing and mitigating the potential impacts of AR technology on societies all need to be considered now, not after the fact."

This all carries an air of self-serving superiority, with Hanke coming off confident Niantic is building the future the right way and warning everyone else against supporting competing visions. But the company has a strong track record of staying true to its mission since its days as an incubating startup within Google. And all the while, Hanke has not wavered in his steadfast belief that technology is at its best and most rewarding when it involves real-world interaction.

"I hope these thoughts help you to see what we see, which is the opportunity to do what we humans do best — harness technology to serve our needs, rather than the other way around," Hanke concluded. "The future is what we make it to be, and we're devoting our time and energy to building the future we want to live in, and want to pass on to the next generation."

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