The problems with “metaverse” go beyond branding. The word simply doesn’t describe the kind of mixed-reality experiences Apple is likely trying to create.
The term “metaverse” comes from Neal Stephenson’s 1992 cyberpunk novel Snow Crash, which described a digital alternate reality where users could escape a dystopian real world. We see similar “alternate” worlds in movies like Tron and Ready Player One. The person experiencing these worlds usually does so using a VR-type device that completely covers their eyes, blocking out the real world. The metaverse experiences we’ve seen so far from Meta are clunky, cartoony, and similarly closed in, viewed within the confined space of VR goggles.
That’s not what Apple is interested in doing at all. A metaverse experience that closes out the real world, or tries to replace it, runs counter to everything Apple has said about what personal technology should do. By all indications, Apple is far more interested in creating an open experience that incorporates features of the real world. That’s why Apple has expressed a lot of interest in AR and very little interest in VR. Apple CEO Tim Cook called AR one of “very few profound technologies.”
In spatial computing using AR glasses, the user interface becomes the whole visible world in front of the user, and the lenses in the glasses display digital content within and around real world objects. The glasses might display a landmark label above a statue the user is looking at. The operating system of such a device would follow the same logic. It would likely display icons and other information contextually with objects in the real world. It would be dynamic—that is, elements of the OS would show up at the right places within the user’s view, then vanish. Apple is thinking along these lines: In early June, the company trademarked (again, through a proxy) the term “realityOS” in connection with “wearable computer hardware.”
Apple would also have a big privacy incentive to reject the term “metaverse.” Apple and Meta very likely have put the most R&D money behind mixed-reality projects and have the most engineers working on it. Apple naturally wants to differentiate its AR experiences from Meta’s AR experiences as much as possible.
It will certainly want to differentiate itself from Meta in its approach to privacy. Mixed-reality glasses and virtual spaces may expose users to data harvesting and surveillance in ways they’ve never seen before in the smartphone era. Mixed-reality glasses typically contain far more cameras, mics, and sensors, and their operating systems gather more data on your movements (even your eye movements) than smartphones. The OS will likely use artificial intelligence to make sense of all the sensory data being generated.
Apple has taken great pains to preserve the data privacy of its users (and to talk about it a lot); all that trouble could pay off when mainstream consumers begin considering AR glasses, and begin considering the myriad ways in which the devices could be used to surveil them. If choosing between Meta’s glasses and Apple’s, they might understandably choose the ones from the tech company with a proven record of protecting privacy.
I suspect this relates to Mark Zuckerberg’s decision to change his company’s name from Facebook to Meta. AR glasses are his best chance of finally owning and controlling the hardware (and ecosystem) used for social experiences, instead of having to rely on Apple’s iPhone and App Store. He wants Meta AR glasses to succeed, badly. He also knows potential buyers will be concerned about privacy. He may have wanted to create some distance between his “metaverse” and the Facebook brand, which had become synonymous with surveillance capitalism, misinformation at scale, and continuous scandal.
Big picture: Given the technical challenges and privacy implications of mixed-reality glasses and virtual spaces, I believe the technology will be slow to catch on. It’ll remain a niche product/service for years to come. I agree with Epic Games founder Tim Sweeney when he says that, in the beginning, the big tech companies involved in the space will operate their own walled-off virtual spaces for their own experiences and those of their partners. For instance, Epic’s Fortnite is a freestanding virtual gaming space that also hosts guest appearances by bands (Travis Scott) and brands (Ferrari). Apple’s virtual space may feature experiences created by its ARKit developer partners. As virtual spaces and spatial computing mature, the walls between those smaller spaces might fall, creating a much larger public virtual space in which users can navigate from one destination to another using a single avatar/identity.
A lot must happen before we get to something like that. And when we get there, it’ll likely look and act much differently than we can imagine today. We’ll use very different language to describe it. By then, I imagine, the term “metaverse” will be just a footnote in a history book.