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The metaverse does not have to be a ‘dystopian nightmare’

December 1, 2021, 11:04 AM UTC

When Pokémon Go launched in 2016, users were thrust into a world that blended digital and physical reality as they caught virtual monsters amid the physical realities of their homes, workplaces, and public spaces—all through their phone screens. The app, a brainchild of San Francisco–based software developer Niantic, was a fun introduction to augmented reality (AR)—and an early iteration of the digital landscape that has become known as the metaverse.

“With innovations in computing, games have almost always been at the forefront because they’re a way to experience new tech,” said John Hanke, CEO of Niantic, speaking at Fortune’s Brainstorm Tech conference in Half Moon Bay, Calif., on Tuesday.

Hanke’s career trajectory would seem to make him a likely evangelist for further moves into the metaverse. But as Mark Zuckerberg announced the latest iteration of Facebook this fall—to be known as Meta—Hanke said he is leery of Zuckerberg’s image of the digital future.

People like Zuckerberg, who thrill at the thought of a metaverse as described in such works of science fiction as Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson, are missing the point of those books, Hanke noted. 

“I’m a fan of the metaverse as a work of fiction,” he said. “But if you read all the way to the end—I’m not sure everyone who’s been talking about it has read to the end—you know the world in those books is this horrible place.” 

While Zuckerberg proposes a future in which you can attend a live concert from your living room or have your avatar give a work presentation at a virtual office, Hanke suggests a more seamless melding of tech and daily life—one in which technology frees us to be human and makes our lives easier, rather than digitizing our most precious experiences. 

Hanke’s future includes things such as apps and features that allow you to check in at the airport with a face scan instead of whipping out your boarding pass and driver’s license while trying to handle your luggage and corral your kids. Or a virtual guide to walk alongside you as you visit Kyoto, Japan, explaining what it was like living in the country 300 years ago. 

Hanke likened today’s VR tech to “a soda straw of information” compared with the myriad of invisible ways our bodies are constantly taking in information, not just through the five senses but through the unseen forces that are at work when we are in the presence of other humans. 

As Hanke noted, watching a movie with a VR headset at home on the couch while your partner watches the same film through her own headset isn’t anything like watching TV with her in the same room while exchanging glances and commentary. 

Instead of offering this “soda straw,” Hanke hopes technology will make lives easier, better for real-world human interactions, and more fun—and not be a digital replacement for a sad reality. 

“Let’s pause a moment here and ask the question: Is that the future we want to build?” Hanke asked. 

Or is there a way, he added, to apply the tech toward making the current world a better place—a place that we feel good leaving to our children. 

“In many ways we have an obligation…to try to do that,” he said. 

Fortune’s upcoming Brainstorm Design conference is going to dive into how businesses are building experiences in the metaverse. Apply to attend the event on May 23-24 in New York.