Oculus founder: The metaverse is a ‘moral imperative’

Oculus Rift creator Palmer Luckey said that creating a metaverse is the right thing to do, morally.

“I think there’s a lot of reasons that you can argue that it is a moral imperative that we create a perfect virtual reality,” he said in a clip posted and transcribed by Road to VR.

He talks about the benefits of virtual reality for training and education, but also mentions that “perfect virtual reality” could be a replacement for real-world luxury goods.

I was particularly interested on his take about whether virtual reality has to be perfect in order to replace the real world, and his argument is that virtual reality will soon be “good enough” for people in areas with bad living conditions.

Now, I hate to disagree with someone who just sold his startup company for $2 billion, but I think he’s on the wrong track here.

A virtual good doesn’t have to be an exact copy of the real good in order to be a worthwhile replacement.

Recorded music isn’t a perfect copy of a live performance, but it’s still a huge industry and enjoyed by billions. MP3s aren’t as good as vinyl records, according to some music aficionados — I, personally, can’t hear the difference — but are still good enough for a lot of people. A virtual good can have other things going for it besides being a perfect copy. It can be cheaper, more convenient, more widely accessible, or more portable.

For example, I love going to movies with friends. It can be fun to sit next to someone in the theater and hear them laughing or screaming at the movie, then discuss it together afterwards on the drive home. The virtual reality version of this experience is already there, and is almost as good. You can watch a movie, on a giant screen, sitting in a theater. The fact that the interface is still lacking isn’t a big deal because in a movie theater, all you do is sit there, anyway. I wouldn’t pay $350 for that experience, but I could see myself paying, say, $50 to $100 for a holder that I slip my smartphone into. Simulating a movie theater is probably something that current smartphones can handle easily.

That’s nor a moral issue, of course. Watching a movie on a simulated theater screen instead of on a smartphone screen in the usual matter isn’t a moral necessity.

For me, the two main moral drivers of virtual reality are environmental and community-related.

On the environmental side, virtual goods have much less of an impact on the environment than physical goods. Just as streaming video is reducing the number of old DVDs in the landfills, so virtual clothing and other virtual entertainments can replace or reduce the need for physical goods. Virtual meetings and collaboration can reduce travel and commuting, as well as the need for physical offices and meeting spaces.

On the community side, business and governments and non-profits and other kinds of institutions are often founded based on relationships, and those relationships grow out of shared experiences. Friendships are strengthened by doing things together. Going to classes together, going to parties, helping people move, going on trips, working side-by-side on projects, serving on committees, or even just hanging out. Today, relationships are frequently constrained by physical proximity. Even in the age of Skype and email and Google Hangouts, startups are still moving to Silicon Valley to attract talent and investors. Financial firms want to be on Wall Street and theater actors want to be on Broadway. And students want to attend Ivy League colleges.

Geographical constraints mean that there are talented folks out there who can’t be the best they can be, simply because of where they’re located. I live on a farm in Western Massachusetts, and I hate the fact that I’m missing a ton of cool events happening in California. Family reasons prevent me from moving. Other people may be hindered by finances, or visa requirements, or any number of other factors.

A metaverse, even an imperfect one, that allows us to share experiences with others can help us build relationships and communities that transcend geographical and other boundaries.

The Vrizzmo is a low-cost virtual reality headset designed to hold a smartphone.

The Vrizzmo is a low-cost virtual reality headset designed to hold a smartphone.

I’m particularly interested in the smartphone-based approaches to virtual reality. Smartphone prices are plummeting, and the devices are now accessible to a wide percentage of the world’s population. If there’s an inexpensive headset that turns these decides into portals into the metaverse, then we could potentially see a very rapid global uptake of the technology.





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Maria Korolov

Maria Korolov is editor and publisher of Hypergrid Business. She has been a journalist for more than twenty years and has worked for the Chicago Tribune, Reuters, and Computerworld and has reported from over a dozen countries, including Russia and China. Follow me on Twitter @MariaKorolov.

13 Responses

  1. lmpierce@alcancemas.com' lmpierce says:

    The young speaker who talked about the bar being much lower than it is for us when referencing the level of quality people expect “who don’t necessarily have lives that are as good as ours” aligned that thought with the value of “recreation in VR” for those people, hardly a moral imperative. Almost as an afterthought, he quickly added that “training” and “education” in VR adds to the argument of VR as a moral imperative, which rather diluted the recognition of those applications, seeing as they seemed to be used as bookends to his discussion, rather than core ideas.

    The imperative I sensed from this presentation was not about ethics, morality, social justice or any other substantial sounding higher purpose. Rather, the imperative was the evangelizing of this technology because these people are themselves highly stoked on their own futures developing VR, which clearly excites them to no end.

    No doubt we need such enthusiasm to bring new things into the world. I wouldn’t even mind if the presentation centered on the sentiments of prosperity, enrichment, deeper engagement and so on. However, making a claim to be working on a moral imperative takes on a much more somber character that requires a greater level of social responsibility. One which probably doesn’t include a cheer and raised fist for California as the greatest state.

    • trrlynn73@gmail.com' Minethere says:

      “One which probably doesn’t include a cheer and raised fist for California as the greatest state.”

      Yes, because everyone who is anyone “knows” that Texas is the GREATEST State in the U.S. of A.

      Ok, until we secede THEN we will take our place as the GREATEST Nation on Earth!!…………..[disclaimer notation]

  2. vr@shadowypools.co.uk' KeithSelmes says:

    The sound quality was so atrocious I could barely make out anything he said.
    Why can people still not get that right ?
    And the second video was such rubbish, I logged into YouTube so I could vote it down.

    From what I did hear, there’s an assumption that all people are heavily materialistic, embedded in consumer culture, and longing for things they can’t have. A rather naive world view. It’s important to realise, people don’t all share the same values, and that what people really want isn’t necessarily what a consumer society wants to sell them.

  3. vr@shadowypools.co.uk' KeithSelmes says:

    A viewing device for a smartphone could be very interesting, as I usually can’t see the screen outdoors.
    Or I might just find some cardboard and make a hood, like the folding ones on antique plate cameras.
    Might be a better idea.

  4. j_nickence@hotmail.com' Joey1058 says:

    Creating a metaverse? It’s been done. It;s called the internet. I don’t want to do everything in VR. Nor should I need to. In that respect, I’m still a heavy supporter of immersive Augmented Reality, rather than immersive Virtual Reality.

  5. fred@flintstone.com' fred says:

    Let them eat virtually real cake! Baudrillard is grinning.

  6. enerhax@yahoo.com' Ener Hax says:

    “people in areas with bad living conditions” ???

    so the $100 PCs with 1000 loaded books that went to “people” like this were then used to trade and get the stuff needed – like food

    this guy’s on some other planet and ignorant of the struggles many in the world have . . . Fred summed it up nicely – “let them eat cake”

    reminds me of Rosedale’s comments about disabled country bumpkins – good grief!

    • I don’t think it’s an either-or between technology and food in emerging countries. People will find ways to pay for technology that’s relevant to them. Right now, in many places, that means smartphones. A laptop with books on it — nice, but not so critical.

      A smartphone that puts you in touch with jobs, market data, weather conditions, relatives, payment systems — that’s critical.

      That’s why I’m particularly interested in the very-low-cost VR headsets that work with Android phones. Because Android phones are becoming extremely inexpensive and ubiquitous in the emerging economies.

      • lmpierce@alcancemas.com' lmpierce says:

        A laptop with books on it — critical. Education is what makes it possible for people to be hired once they find a job. Education gives us access to the world at large. That’s why many countries have launched initiatives to see that children get laptops.

        Agreed, a smart phone is critical. Communication at a distance has changed the world.

        But supposing people in less fortunate circumstances have a computer, and/or a smartphone, how is VR that significant for them? At the high end, VR can be critical in training, but those systems need to be a lot more sophisticated than a smart phone with a cardboard slip-on set of “goggles”. At the lower end they are a novelty for entertainment. They won’t transform the learning of core skills like reading or mathematics. People certainly don’t “need” VR – for most consumers, even in a wealthy country, I believe it’s going to be a technology that is an enrichment, not a core necessity.

        I think the whole notion behind the speaker was that VR is a tough sell in wealthy industrialized countries because those people have very high standards and still aren’t sufficiently impressed by VR to “life their lives in it”, while the market for VR in emerging countries is very good because they have lower standards for the visual fidelity and interaction affordances of their content. Which, if my interpretation is correct, is a very poor quality estimation of what less fortunate people experience in the first place, and is also a purely self-centered estimation of their potential in any event. The speaker wasn’t talking about bringing such people out of poverty, but rather, he was describing them as market potential. He specifically talked about their access to entertainment, despite his hurried add-on about education. But again, VR is not a requirement for basic education either.

        • Tranquillity (InWorldz) says:

          I do agree with you, except there is one area where I can see realtime immersive VR being a huge advantage.

          If we’re able to make the technology sufficiently immersive and the interface realistic enough that interaction with virtual objects and virtual people is seamless, we can more readily carry educators, classrooms and curricula from all over the globe to people all over the globe. Having the best educators available to you from no matter where you are in the world must have advantages.

          Of course this doesn’t even begin to touch the realities of compensation for the educators with the most demand. The most fortunate will most likely still be the only people able to get the best… But food for thought anyways.

  7. With Fred and Ener all the way on this one. Ending hunger is a “moral imperative” as is freeing people from slavery. Lets get people fed, sheltered and free from abuse before we start with all this pie in the sky digital Utopian nonsense.

    • Ending hunger, slavery and abuse is critically important. But communications plays a HUGE role in that. To start with, it means that a family member living in a better location can send back money for food, for school, for other things. Smartphones — and their predecessors, feature phones — are de-facto banking systems in many emerging areas. Social networking, which seems trivial and mostly pointless here in the West, help connect people to jobs, to activist organizations, to the political process in places where the traditional social infrastructure for that stuff doesn’t exist.

      To you and me, replacing a face-to-face meeting with an investor with a video chat or virtual meeting is a minor improvement in convenience. To someone in the emerging world, that meeting might not have been possible at all without technology.

      Technology allows communities to leap frog over years, even decades, of development. In this country, it took is a hundred years to get people off the farm and into manufacturing jobs and then off the factory floors into creative and white-collar jobs. In places like China and India it’s happening over night.

      When I was based in China, my family stayed with the family of a friend of ours. He was in college, studying English, preparing for a career in international trade. His family lived in a farming village and sold goats at the market. It was a relatively new house, with indoor plumbing, but the electricity wasn’t wired through, there was no heat, you had to go outside to go to the kitchen area. But their son, our friend, had the latest model phone.

      China now has half a billion people who use their phones to access the Internet. With a population of 1.3 billion total, that means that pretty much everyone except babies, the elderly and a few lone holdouts with older phones now has a phone capable of surfing the web. Report: http://www1.cnnic.cn/IDR/ReportDownloads/201404/U020140417607531610855.pdf

      This means that there’s an entire population there that has instant access to pretty much any movie or TV show in the world (for some reason, “The L Word” was really popular last time I was there), which is nice for learning English, Japanese and Korean (useful for export-related and IT-related jobs). It means that there’s a generation of folks who went from subsistence farming to gold farming. And I have to tell you — no matter how much people complain about how dull the gold farming jobs are, they’re infinitely superior to subsistence farming. It means that any kid with ambition, talent, or simply persistence can learn the most cutting-edge skills, such as programming. There’s a ton of apps coming out of China now, as well as innovative video games.

      And China’s not alone. The IT outsourcing industry is doing the same kind of leapfrogging for a generation of kids in India.

      Access to technology, to the latest communications, to the latest skills means that someone who’s bright but who was born in some desperate location can bootstrap themselves to the front of the line.

      By comparison, the impact of this technology in the West is more minor — we’re already at the front of the line. For us, the benefits of virtual reality are going to be minor, and mostly in the entertainment space. We already have world-class educations (well, at least at the university level). We have all the best conferences, the best networking opportunities, the most venture capital. Being able to attend a networking conference virtually for us, isn’t that big a deal.

      Yes, hunger is a problem, especially in Africa and southeast Asia (http://www.fao.org/hunger/en/) but the rates have been dropping steadily over the past few years. In China, for example, the rates of undernourishment were cut in half since the early 90s. China no longer gets aid from the World Food Program because its population is starving.

      It used to be that people would stock up on cabbages in the winter months in China. In fact, cabbages used to account for 95 percent of vegetable sales in Beijing. Now, it’s down to the single digits and dropping because people finally have other stuff to eat. (http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/english/doc/2004-11/05/content_388889.htm)

      China has leapfrogged over decades of development and went straight to the computer age. Lenovo bought IBM’s PC operations. They make our iPhones.

      I’m not a big fan of the “teach a man to fish” proverb. If you’ve got a civil war in a country, or a natural disaster, or some other major issue, I’m all for bringing in food aid. Even rich areas need help when disaster strikes. So I’m not saying that we shouldn’t feed hungry people.

      I’m saying that technology opens doors that were previously closed. The Internet opened a whole lot of doors. Virtual reality is going to open yet another set of doors that are now shut pretty tight for many people.

  8. It reminds me of visiting my relly’s in the rural Philippines years ago.. pre mobile phones….it took all day to travel to the nearest big town to make a phone call..some now have phones and laptops but now as before, no matter how they cherish them if there is a bad crop they will need to sell or pawn them to survive