TODAY’S METAVERSE: A HAZY UNIVERSE FROM THE PAST
August 4, 2022 © Copyright 2022 A. Michael Noll
[The following commentary is authored by A. Michael Noll, and posted with the permission of the author. Michael experimented with many of the technologies of 3D and tactile telecommunication in the 1970s at Bell Labs. I always find his reflections to be informative and provocative.]
Concepts that claim to be everything usually turn out to be nothing. The big “everything” usually ends up in the denominator, diminishing the end result.
Today we have the “metaverse” with extravagant claims that “it’s sure to change our lives.[i] This is massive hyperbole designed to entice and fool naïve investors.
Back in the 1960s, research was conducted at Bell Telephone Laboratories, Inc. (also known as Bell Labs) on a number of pioneering topics that today seem to define the metaverse. Bell Labs was the birthplace and home of many of the technologies and devices that comprise the metaverse. I was involved personally in many of these innovations.
I dabbled in four-dimensional hyperspace, programming an alternative universe of 4D computer animations and 4D interactive environments.[ii] I programmed 3D stereoscopic computer animations,[iii] and designed 3D stereoscopic real-time environment, including 3D input and displays.[iv] Ultimately, I invented a 3D force-feedback “haptic” device, in a “feelie” environment with real-time 3D display.[v] We even invented a technique for computer-generated holography.[vi] With all these technological ingredients, had I inadvertently stumbled across the metaverse?
We did not innovate a nebulous term, like “metaverse,” to describe the 3D interactive environment that I envisioned and was investigating. However, I did write a paper describing the digital computer as a “creative medium.”[vii] An experiment in aesthetics was performed comparing a computer-generated image with a Mondrian painting that showed the creativity of computer art and imagery.[viii]
What we did not have back then was the interconnectivity of a ubiquitous packet-switched telecommunication network – the Internet. Bell Labs and AT&T were trapped in the past, protecting modems and their analogue phone lines. They failed to see the future of what some of us decades ago called “digi-text.”
Whatever it might be or morph into, the metaverse will be defined by content – what it is used for. Will it be entertainment, shopping, pornography, something entirely new, or all of these? Back in the 1960s, I thought our new digital environment would be used for the visual arts – a new artistic medium.[ix]
But given all these pioneering objective accomplishments from many decades ago, I am still baffled by the nebulous broad definition of the “metaverse.” It seems to be 3D, virtual reality, artificial intelligence, interactivity, the Internet, all things digital, an alternative universe, and whatever else you can add – except hot dogs. Gee whiz, I hope that I am not considered its grand father.
Given the history of innovations in communication, failure at one time does not mean failure forever. Video communication as the failed Picturephone of the past is today a great success. However, proponents of the metaverse need to provide a clearer picture of the future. The field needs new visions of the future of communication.
A. Michael Noll
Professor Emeritus of Communications
Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, University of Southern California
[i] Matthew Ball, “The Coming Worlds,” Time, Vol. 200, Nos. 5-6, August 8/15, 2022, p. 46.
[ii] “A Computer Technique for Displaying n-Dimensional Hyperobjects,” Communications of the ACM, Vol. 10, No. 8, (August 1967), pp. 469-473.
[iii] “Computer-Generated Three-Dimensional Movies,” Computers and Automation, Vol. 14, No. 11, (November 1965), pp. 20-23.
[iv] “Real-Time Interactive Stereoscopy,” SID Journal (The Official Journal of the Society for Information Display), Vol. 1, No. 3, (September/October 1972), pp. 14-22.
[v] “Man-Machine Tactile Communication,” SID Journal (The Official Journal of the Society for Information Display), Vol. 1, No. 2, (July/August 1972), pp. 5-11. US Patent 3919691, November 11, 1975.
[vi] Michael C. King, A. Michael Noll, and Daniel H. Berry, “A New Approach to Computer-Generated Holography,” Applied Optics, Vol. 9, No. 2, (February 1970), pp. 471-475.
[vii] “The Digital Computer as a Creative Medium,” IEEE Spectrum, Vol.4, No.10, October 1967, pp. 89-95.
[viii] “Human or Machine: A Subjective Comparison of Piet Mondrian’s ‘Composition with Lines’ and a Computer-Generated Picture,” The Psychological Record, Vol. 16, No. 1, January 1966, pp. 1-10.
[ix] “Computers and the Visual Arts,” Design and Planning 2: Computers in Design and Communication (Edited by Martin Krampen and Peter Seitz), Hastings House, Publishers, Inc.: New York (1967), pp. 65-79.