What a 1994 keynote by Bill Gates tells us about the Metaverse

If there’s one thing we know for sure about the metaverse, it’s that we don’t know anything for sure about the metaverse.

At least not yet. In theory, it will be an open, shared experience at least vaguely related to virtual reality, augmented reality, or a combination of these — a digital environment that we feel like living in rather than observing on a screen. But for all the relentless hype the Metaverse is getting, it’s dependent on the entire industry embracing a bevy of complex technical standards that aren’t even in the works right now. as The Washington Post Will Oremus wrote last December, “The Metaverse doesn’t exist yet and probably won’t anytime soon.”

For now, it turns out that discussions about life in the Metaverse—from fashion trends to competitive sports—generally ignore existing proprietary virtual worlds such as e.g Roblox, Minecraftand the venerable Proto-Metaverse Second Life. Or in some cases they are unabashedly speculative, as recently with Anna Wiener New Yorker Look at Money in the Metaverse. That doesn’t stop Metaverse-Booster from telling us what it’s going to be like, though – especially Mark Zuckerberg, the guy whose enthusiasm for the concept led him to rebrand his entire company after it.

To find a comparable era of technologists treating an idea as if it were a reality, you have to go back to the early to mid 1990s. Back then, the buzzword they were obsessed with was the “information superhighway” – the national high-speed computer network that would revolutionize the way consumers shop, learn, entertain and more. And on November 14, 1994, at the COMDEX expo, Microsoft’s Bill Gates dedicated his keynote address to “this next era we’re moving into,” with an onstage presentation interspersed with bits and pieces of a high-tech crime drama that was the futuristic Year 2005. (SIDE: I attended COMDEX that year but didn’t bother to attend Gates’ talk, which I didn’t catch up until it appeared on YouTube this century.)

At Facebook’s Connect conference last October, Zuckerberg unveiled the company’s new focus on the Metaverse and renaming it Meta. He illustrated his talk with video clips showing the dazzling experiences the metaverse would unleash — such as being transported halfway across the world to a seat at a concert — much like Gates had done with the information superhighway 27 years earlier.

Zuckerberg’s keynote and accompanying videos articulate his vision with ambitious detail. But viewed over time, the Gates presentation tells us more about the relationship between technological futurism and what is likely to happen in the years to come.

In Gates’ 1994 COMDEX mini-movie, the 2005 technology is the star. Everyone uses portable wireless devices that can be used to pay for items like coffee, among other things. A couple of plainclothes cops have an SUV equipped with a giant screen showing maps and video calls. one uses a tablet computer that can transcribe interviews on the fly. A woman who watches TV calls David Letterman and Oprah on demand, not when their shows are on the air. Her teenage son uses a graphical browser to research pre-Columbian art and then gives a multimedia presentation on the subject at school. After being hit by a car while dodging bad guys – spoilers sorry – a remote doctor diagnoses his injuries via video call while he’s still in an ambulance.

In 1994, all of this was a genius thing — even the flat screens depicted in the film would have felt like a glimpse into the future. But today as I lived through Gates’ envisioned 2005, I had to keep reminding myself that it should be full of wonder. What it shows looks a lot like smartphones, Google Maps, Zoom, Apple Pay, iPad and Surface, Otter, Hulu, telemedicine and other tools of everyday life around 2022.

I’ll go this full hour without mentioning a single Microsoft product — that is, if I can control myself.”

Bill Gates, 1994

And yet, it’s also fascinating to see all the ways in which Gates’ next-generation technology didn’t match what we actually had. For example, the portable devices are “wallet PCs,” a class of devices that Gates describes as “an adult pager.” People don’t voice call them or use them to take photos — but they use them as remote controls for larger screens in ways that never became commonplace in the real world. It is unclear what role the Internet and the Web play in the film’s scenarios; Gates mentioned them only briefly. And he was overly optimistic about how quickly some of the innovations he predicted would materialize; In many cases, they were not fully baked until well after 2005.

Gates stressed he didn’t say Microsoft would make everything he’s showing possible – “I’m going to go through this full hour without mentioning a single Microsoft product – so if I can control myself,” he joked. But in the years that followed, the company developed a range of products and platforms very similar to the ones it showed COMDEX attendees: Pocket PCs, Tablet PCs, Car PCs, and more. None of them were enduring hits; Apple, Google, Zoom, and other companies have done a much better job of turning 1994 science fiction into successful companies.

Basically, if you were one of Gates’ audiences in Vegas in 1994, it would have been a bad idea to dismiss his visions as pure fantasy: he got many of the broad brushstrokes right. But it would Even It was a mistake to confuse his confident demeanor with the ability to predict the future. A lot of things happened differently than what was portrayed in his film, and many of them happened well after the 2005 backdrop. And when they did, we lived in a much less Microsoft-centric world than we were in 1994.

With all of that in mind, you might be able to gauge how to feel about Zuckerberg’s Metaverse pronouncements, whether you’re optimistic or pessimistic about the technology’s potential — or, like me, still making up your mind. If his predictions turn out to be anywhere near right, it will be quite an achievement. But the certainty of its presentation is no guarantee that Meta will be a major player; it also seems that the metaverse is defined and dominated by corporations not even formed yet. (To be fair to Zuckerberg, he said, “The reality is that no one knows exactly what models will work and make this sustainable, so we’re going to approach this with humility and openness.”)

One final lesson from Gates’ keynote: When the world he envisioned became a reality—more or less—nobody talked about “the information superhighway” or, as Gates called it, “the information superhighway.” It was just the internet.

So I wouldn’t take “Metaverse” too seriously as a label for the concept it describes. Buzzwords are cheap; It’s hard to build stuff. When the metaverse is finally here, who knows what we’ll call it – or if we’ll even need a new name for it?

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