For Google, the most fascinating metaverse is physical
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“Apparently the Y2K phenomenon is when all the 90s fashion came back into mainstream,” he began. “So everything I wore in the 90s, now it’s become a big thing. But it turns out that not only fashion has become popular. Lots of 90s ideas [are] come back.
“[It’s] this huge wave of things, coming back from the 90s.”
Back then it was just called virtual reality or VR, and in 1996 Poupyrev was one of the first engineers to work on it. He’s still sort of the director of engineering for Google ATAP, the tech giant’s experimental lab or “skunkworks” division.
This perspective gives him a long-term vision of the evolution of technology. It was a very niche pursuit at the time. More recently, a Google search for “metaverse” returned over 240 million links, “so everyone’s talking about it” – although it’s gotten a little harder to define.
The last iteration builds on what came before, taking virtual characters, virtual reality and chatbots and adding crypto, digital fashion, digital twins and augmented reality to the mix, creating a kitchen sink scenario .
For Google, it’s clear the metaverse has two distinct parts – a virtual version and a physical version. The first is “an alternate artificial reality that you can escape to,” Poupyrev explained, with virtual goods to use in this constructed world. The latter is also an artificial reality, but designed to sublimate the physical world.
The physical metaverse is what Google ATAP focuses on and how to merge the two types of metaverse into one.
“Over the past few years, digital objects have become almost on par with physical objects. Physical reality is disappearing; digital reality is coming and everyone feels like it’s kind of the same,” he continued. “[But] in particular, during the pandemic, we realized that we would like to have physical access as much as possible. So there’s a huge need for physical experience, this physical interaction, and that’s especially happened in the last couple of years.
As proof, he pointed to data that brick-and-mortar retail in the United States grew faster than e-commerce in 2021.
In one example, Poupyrev showed a 2012 Disney project featuring a factory with a “digital twin.” Interact with the real plant and see these movements trigger fantastic effects around the digital version in the reflection. Careful observers can immediately relate the example to augmented reality, which has already given industries such as beauty, home furnishings and footwear a powerful tool to virtual tryouts.
Technological advancements in artificial intelligence, cloud computing, and sensors are enabling new kinds of experiences, paving the way for an increasingly multifaceted metaverse.
One such leap forward came in 2015, when Google invented the Soli, a miniature radar sensor that uses electromagnetic signals to capture and understand human movement. The goal was to enhance reality with physical interactions.
What Pupyrev was talking about is what the tech industry largely calls human-computer interactions. The evolution from keyboard and mouse to touchscreens and hover gestures has been a focus of innovators seeking to change computing and people’s relationship with it. Soli debuted as part of Google’s Pixel 4, allowing owners to use hand gestures to snooze alarms or pause music, without ever touching the device.
In a shopping or fashion setting, shoppers could wave their hand to try on different makeup looks or outfits – whether on a phone or laptop screen, or even a magic mirror as part of the sale at the detail. Because it evokes a sense of magic, imbuing the real world with features that once belonged only to a VR environment.
Although the presentation focused on the physical metaverse, it could also find use in the virtual version. Kludgey, the keyboard-based controls used in PC games and other immersive environments can often put off newcomers to the Metaverse, and natural gestures would drastically simplify the deal.
Either way, it’s clear that the metaverse isn’t a single concept, but evolves to cover different ideas, contexts, and interactions. It’s widely accepted that it will take years to mature, but the idea that brands are courting today may not even scratch the surface of the metaverse that will come tomorrow.