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Notes from the metaverse with Neal Stephenson and Ori Inbar


May 31, 2023
Notes from the metaverse with Neal Stephenson and Ori Inbar


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Neal Stephenson has hit the speaking circuit heavily in the past year since he cofounded his Lamina1 blockchain infrastructure startup. But he’s always thoughtful in his appearances, and today’s fireside chat with Ori Inbar, founder of Augmented World Expo, was another good example.

Here’s a rundown of some interesting things that Stephenson and Inbar said in their opening talks. Inbar noted that while Stephenson was recognized for coining the word “metaverse” in his sci-fi novel Snow Crash 30 years ago, Stephenson said there were other earlier inspirations for the ideas around it like Habitat.

In writing Snow Crash, he took what he saw with advances in computer graphics and posited what would happen when we had true mass adoption of those technologies. The result was Snow Crash, where people lived in a virtual environment, complete with their own nightclubs, homes and tactile experiences.

As there were a lot of futuristic promises around the same time, Stephenson felt he couldn’t just present his vision of the future as a straight view of the future. He felt it had to be dystopian, in a kind of recognition that there were a lot of dystopian stories already out there with their own tropes. He saw Snow Crash as a way to make a parody those earlier ideas.


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“It is also a parody of dystopian novels. The tropes were familiar. It didn’t seem I could write one of those with a straight face,” he said.

Ori Inbar’s humorous game show slide about who will own the metaverse.

Fast forward to his blockchain startup today, he noted that Lamina1 is making progress with partners like Mira and Interverse. Mira is making high-quality scans of real places for digital environments. And Interverse is working on a game using the mascots of European soccer teams.

Stephenson said it is a given we need XR technology for the 3D-animated metaverse. As for blockchain games, he noted that many of the games so far haven’t been appealing outside the hardcore blockchain/crypto community. But he noted that blockchain infrastructure is what we need to make a decentralized open metaverse, one where there are “economic rails” in place to make sure that creators can get paid for the work that they do in the metaverse.

“Lamina1. A simple way to put it is if we are going to have a metaverse being used by billions, there have to be experiences worth having,” Stephenson said. “That is an obvious statement. But there is a glaring lack of support from people who make those experiences. The skill set is what you see in the game industry. They know how to use game engines. They have jobs. So we need an economic basis for them to get rewarded if they succeed in creating metaverse experiences that people enjoy.”

And Inbar also said that the “Gargoyles” of Snow Crash were largely forgotten. These were people who used augmented reality technology, and in a dystopian sort of joke, spent all their time there rather than participating in the real world.

XR headsets in the market or coming soon, not counting Apple’s rumored headset.

Stephenson said AI isn’t likely to be able to replace humans creating extremely artistic works, like say the props for materials used in The Lord of the Rings movies. And he already has too many TV shows he can’t watch so having 1,000 times more shows won’t change his life.

He likens writing to “milking the cow.” He writes five or 10 pages in the morning, then he has to go do other things to recharge, like letting a cow go off to the pasture after milking.

“The rest of the day is unrelated to writing,” he said. “You can’t get 100 gallons in one day.”

One of the things he does, while he’s grazing, is get involved with companies. Over the years, Stephenson has been involved in a number of startups, including the rocket company Blue Origin from 1999 through 2006. He did a stint at Intellectual Ventures, the transmedia startup Subatai, and he was at Magic Leap for almost six years. While at Magic Leap he showed a memorable demo of goats and highlighted the challenge of tracking their movements in an augmented reality space. The challenge was distinguishing what was a digital goat and how it fit into a real-world space, using AR software on a Magic Leap headset.

Opening talk

Ori Inbar talks with his AI twin at AWE USA.

To open the show, Inbar started talking from inside a screen-covered box dubbed AHRT.

Inbar started out with a conversation with his AI self, which spouted Inbar-like lines generated by ChatGPT. He cited the Insider article about how AI is going to kill off the metaverse in a story entitled “The metaverse is dead.” But Inbar said he believed that was far from true, as AI will help creators build the content needed for the metaverse.

“XR is everywhere,” Inbar said. He noted Artillery Intelligence predicts that XR will be a $38 billion market in 2023. He noted it has been a hard 50 years of work, and he noted people said that XR hardware is based on optics and doesn’t follow Moore’s Law. He said he is looking forward to Apple’s expected announcement of a mixed reality headset on Monday.

He noted there are 300 exhibitors at AWE USA and there are over 1,000 XR use cases on display. Yet he acknowledged that funding is hard, there are a lot of layoffs, and the economy has slowed. But he noted it’s a great time to start XR companies — there are 135 of them at AWE USA — and it’s a good time to get a job in XR.

Charlie Fink and virtual Rony Abovitz at AWE USA.

Rony Abovitz, founder of Magic Leap, also appeared in the AHRT box via Boston Consulting, and he said the brand name for the metaverse got damaged in the recent downturn but he said the technologies are moving forward.

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