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The VR Metaverse is Dead. Long Live the Real World Metaverse

Updated: Jul 6, 2023

Real World AR Treasure Hunts and Murphy’s Law

I first stumbled upon augmented reality (AR) while trying to solve a problem common with real world treasure hunts - Murphy’s Law. If something can go wrong it will. People pee in Geocache Tupperware. Envelopes taped to the bottom of park benches get stolen by magpies. Uncomfortable questions from the FBI about why I was attaching a map tube with magnets to the bottom of a mailbox across from the British embassy. I didn’t know it was an embassy, I swear to God.

Augmented Reality (AR) to the Rescue

Bronze plaques, graffiti, street signs and tile mosaics. These are just a few of the permanent, 2D surfaces I’ve photographed to use as trigger images for the AR platform Zappar. Whether it launches a 3d butterfly or the image itself morphs to reveal a clue, no magpie will eat the butterfly and Homeland Security won’t add me to a no fly list. This was a big help to my treasure hunts and a clue to how we might create a fully immersive game.

Adding AR to a real world puzzle hunt isn’t a scaling step on par with the likes of Pokémon Go. But consider something on the opposite end of the scaling spectrum, like an escape room game. Investments in staff and real estate cap profit. Revenue is limited by the number of players allowed in each room. Simply moving a similar experience outdoors, to free space, is a scaling step.

The Alternate Reality Game (ARG): The Full Immersion Target

The Alternate Reality Game (ARG) is an attempt to skip the wait to full immersion. In a way ARG creators try to create the kind of experience imagined in movies like Ready Player One and The Matrix using what we have now. In the 1997 Mystery/Thriller The Game, a team of ARG creators broke laws, budgets and blood pellets to merge the game and reality for an unwilling ARG player played by Michael Douglas.

Real Life ARGs Take Real Time and Real Money

Some ARGs like Nine Inch Nails’ Year Zero and the Jejune Institute have tried, and sometimes succeeded, in creating immersion so seamless that players didn’t know where the game ended and their lives began. These ARGs never use tools like AR because that would clearly draw a line between game world and reality. Big studios promoting movies hire actors and game runners exhaust themselves working 12 hour days dealing with Murphy's Law. They are events like a theater play or wedding, tethered to a time, place and limited budget.

Can ARGs Exist in the Metaverse?

Proponents of Virtual Reality see it as the next step in the evolution toward a scalable immersive experience similar to the full immersion of the ARG. It’s the closest thing we have to The Matrix. Maybe the Oculus Rift will suck us into the game Tron style. Or maybe not.

The VR Metaverse is Dead

A business meeting with your legless coworker avatars. Subpar VR games that leave you nauseous. Clunky expensive headsets that tether you to the sofa. The shiny new toy called AI. These are just some of the reasons why the VR Metaverse is dead. And I say good day to you sir.

Actually The Metaverse Hasn’t Even Been Born Yet

The metaverse does not exist. It is a competing vision of how tools like AR, VR, blockchain and AI will shape human culture. Plans for walled gardens are in design. Centralized digital currencies being readied for production. Open sourced AI is closing. Lines are being drawn.

One of those lines is between AR and VR. I’m firmly on team AR. It’s the most accessible democratic tool to help me scale my ARGs. Companies like Zappar and Niantic are on the team too. And we share a common idea: Why don’t we just make our own world a little better.

Zappar offers a free app and an inexpensive no-code platform for creators called Zapworks. So far I’ve used it to create all the AR for my games. They have other products including an AR headset that at $70 is 3429 bucks cheaper than the Apple Vision Pro. Niantic and Qualcomm are also creating a budget headset.

The Apple Vision Pro Really Does Kick Ass

Apple does however have a pretty cool feature: it uses reprojection vs optical transparency. Apple’s cameras capture reality outside the headset then reproduce in the display with such speed and precision that the projection is indistinguishable from reality. You feel as though you are looking at reality through glass. This could very well be the future - mixed reality. Reprojection creates a more seamless convergence of AR and VR making the difference between the two meaningless. And this is exciting for ARG creators trying to create a seamless convergence of the real world and the game world. If Apple can make a headset people want to wear outside the house and they can afford it, then it’s game over. Apple owns the metaverse.

But the Real World Metaverse Can’t Wait for Apple

I for one, can’t wait for the winner, I want to create now. Players of cross platform video games often prefer 2D to VR. 45% of Avatar ticket sales in the theater were for 2D screenings. And smartphones won’t disappear overnight when people slowly get off the sofa and emerge into the world wearing their headsets. I need to start with my phone because a phone is what I got.

Apple Vision Pro price comparison with Zapbox AR headset
What we have now.

Vision of augmented reality (AR) from the film Minority Report
What we want.

The best part of an ARG, the blending of reality and fiction, is also the biggest barrier to scaling. So let’s imagine an ARG with next gen technology.

Spy Vs Spy in the Real World Metaverse

After relaxing at the safe house (your Airbnb) you get a call from Moneypenny (an AI chatbot). “Sir, you’ve destroyed all remaining Aston Martin’s so an Uber will arrive shortly to take you to an undisclosed location.” With the encrypted hard drive (dNFT) in hand you head to Central Park. You match the image in your dossier to the real location, a mural near the Bethesda fountain. The mural triggers the AR but instead of the painting morphing and revealing its secret, you are put in contact with another agent (another player). You slip on your AR glasses and scan the area. There is a man at the fountain with a glowing halo above his head. You head there expecting the decoder. He turns expecting the hard drive. But you notice he has an octopus on his ring - Spectre. “Activate Walther PPK.” You whisper to the chatbot. “Fire!”

“Who are you,” the man says, clutching his chest. “Bond,” you say as you blow smoke from the barrel of your finger. “James Bond.”

In this scenario there were two players, zero actors and zero game masters involved. Completely reusable and re-playable. Completely scalable.

Virtual Reality (VR) Human meat farm meme

Sofa + VR tech + + Centralized Blockchain + Surrendering Our Personal Data = Human Meat Farm

A walled Virtual Reality playground with legless avatars running around spending centralized tokens is not the Metaverse - it’s dystopia.

Niantic's 3D map of the real-world metaverse holds tremendous untapped potential and shouldn't be underestimated. By leveraging AR, AI, and NFTs, we can gradually unlock this potential, city by city, block by block.

Remember that knock on the door. The wide eyes of your best friend.

“Can you come out to play?”

“Well… can you play?”

We start here.

We start now.

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