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This month's Frame: Meditating on the Metaverse with Alan Watts
A framework which explores how a counter-cultural icon can help us see VR in a new light.
Whatever happened to the Metaverse? In the past year, there have been several declarations that the Metaverse is over and that VR never really took off. The hype cycle has moved on to the next and current trend – Gen AI – just as it cycled through cryptocurrencies, NFTs and Web3 before.
But the Metaverse is certainly not dead. Despite rumours to the contrary, Meta is still funding research projects, products and tending to the ecosystem of developers and users. More recently, Apple announced its Vision Pro mixed reality headset. Uptake of VR in enterprise contexts is strong and ongoing. Businesses are making use of technologies such as digital twins, and employing VR for training, learning and development use cases. However, it still hasn’t really caught on in the consumer market.
To date, VR developers and tech companies have largely tried to replicate real environments and social situations—creating virtual offices, homes and clubs. The underlying assumption is that people will want to “live” in the Metaverse, in the same way that they live in the real world. This could involve going to work, socialising with friends, watching videos or playing games.
The selling point of this type of Metaverse experience is that you can live in a digital version of your own life, with the ability to change your environment or physical appearance. This approach has achieved some success, especially with gamers and early tech adopters. Equally, members of marginalised groups such as people in the trans community, can find refuge in a virtual world where they can easily modify their appearance and connect more safely with each other.
However, the majority of people haven’t been enticed by the vision of the Metaverse as a simulacrum of reality. The problem is that when VR and real life are compared, VR comes off worse—and perhaps it always will. Most people don’t want a virtual office or a virtual cinema, they’re happy with the real thing.
So it makes sense for us to explore Metaverse possibilities beyond trying to map IRL experiences into a digital setting. How can we avoid comparisons between the experiences of virtual worlds and reality itself, and focus on the unique affordances of the virtual?
To expand our thinking beyond this “replicative” Metaverse, we can use ideas from Alan Watts, a counter-cultural hero of the psychedelic era and populariser of Eastern thought. Watts spoke and wrote of the need to see things “as they are”. While Watts was not alone in arguing that we should shed the baggage of the past to unfilter our view of the present, his writing was an inspiration to a generation and continues to resonate today.
In “The Wisdom of Insecurity”, he tells us that there are two ways of understanding an experience: first by comparing it with the memories of other experiences, naming and defining it in contrast to these other “dead” things in the past. The second is to be aware of it “as it is”, letting the present be all, rather than compare it to memories.
We understand something more deeply, Watts suggested, when we are aware of it without comparison: “the more we accustom ourselves to understanding the present in terms of memory, the more desiccated and embalmed, the more joyless, and frustrated life becomes.” An experience is cheapened and diminished when understood in reference to another.
With any experience, we should resist the urge to contextualise, to create analogies and metaphors, to ground it in something known and concrete. Rather, let perception and awareness occur without judgement, without labelling and placing it into known categories. Let the present experience be all you need to know and think about.
Using the framework
This rejection of prior associations is hard. It can also feel counterintuitive when designing new experiences. After all, people often need an initial “way in” to experience a new technology—this is why skeuomorphic design elements are often successful in onboarding users to a new experience.
However, while this may usefully ground new experiences for users, we end up hindering innovation by tying the industry into a straightjacket, with developers constrained by thinking in terms of the past. Watts' ideas could be applied to help industry professionals be more creative, think bigger and expand the horizons of what the Metaverse could look like.
Some implications for the industry are that we can explicitly demarcate experiences as either
a simulation of the real world, or
the creation of a new one through the mindful use of design and language.
For the former, we may forgo the emphasis on excitement and focus more on the practical benefits of, for example, training experiences. For the latter, we should avoid contrasting virtual and real worlds, providing users with more imaginative and unique experiences, unshackled from real world expectations. These latter experiences are the ones that will fill users with delight and bring them back into the Metaverse for the long run.
If we want users to appreciate the full vibrancy and potential of VR we need to create novel experiences and frame them as new, in and of themselves. Help users grasp the uniqueness, playfulness or joy that being in virtual worlds can bring. Let the Metaverse be something exciting to complement your life in the real world, rather than a simulated version of it.
If Watts were to meditate on the possibilities of the Metaverse, what might he bring to our attention? It’s impossible to know for sure, but perhaps he would remind us that untethered from the real world, the biggest limitation is our collective imagination.
Frames is a monthly newsletter that sheds light on the most important issues concerning business and technology.
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