Vision Pro Developer Avi Bar-Zeev on Apple’s Spatial Computing / Personas Model Vs. the Metaverse vs. Metaverse/Avatars Vision

Spatial Computing Metaverse Avi Bar Zeev Bob Jacobson

Avi Bar-Zeev led Experience Prototyping for Vision Pro at Apple, where he was most recently a Senior Manager; he just shared some intriguing observations on Apple’s Vision Pro reveal:

The word “Metaverse” didn’t appear once in Apple’s WWDC thus far. 3rd party apps may espouse that next-gen internet vision later. But I’d argue it’s much better to start with smaller conversations, consensual, collaborative and co-present.

The word “Avatar” is thankfully going away. It’s a cultural misappropriation implying some sort of god-hood for hidden people and throw-away status for the digital skin. “Personas” is much better, partly because it reminds us that these are real people and our interactions matter.

The most important term invoked was “Spatial Computing.” The earliest reference I know of is from my former CEO, Robert Jacobson, Ph.D., and friends around 1992 in a company called WorldDesign. I have a slide that suggests we wanted to trademark it but never did. Does anyone have earlier references to update my chart?

Is there a better or more genuinely descriptive term that isn’t already polluted with schemes and extrapolations? Yes, it’s broad. The universe is spatial. People are spatial. Computing should be spatial too.

It is literally “the fusion of the digital world and the real one.”

Is this the term we’ve been looking for?

This image (above) is from 1992/93. As far as I can tell, Robert Jacobson, Ph.D. (and friends) first used the term “Spatial Computing” in our startup Worldesign (never trademarked). Bob had been at the HIT Lab with Tom Furness prior and I wonder if anyone else had used it there?

Before anyone mints themselves a new “spatial computing expert,” or accuses Apple of copying others who came before, keep in mind that some of us in the field have been trying to bring about these changes for at least 30 years.

As far back as 1968 (also the year I was born), there were two competing visions introduced in the same year: 2D windows+mice (from Englebart and company), and what Ivan Sutherland called “The Ultimate Display” (later termed “augmented reality” by Ronald Azuma).

The former ideas proved much easier to mass-adopt from the 90s to today, while the later has taken 50+ years to get right.

Avi, notably, was also a very early Second Life developer at Linden Lab, and as I write in Making a Metaverse That Matters, was literally in the room  where it happened — that is, when the Metaverse started going from Neal Stephenson’s science fiction vision to becoming a de facto product roadmap in the early 90s:

Shortly after Snow Crash was published, Avi tells me that Stephenson, a Seattle resident himself, would often hang out in the Worldesign office, located above an antique furniture store in the Ballard neighborhood…

Bob Jacobson, founder and CEO of Worldesign, warmly recalls meeting Neal Stephenson during his time running the startup, but remembers it somewhat differently. In Jacobson’s telling, his company was already planning to build something similar to the Metaverse, and Stephenson’s vision helped catalyze their plans.  

“We invited Neal because Snow Crash had just come out, and we needed a new dinner speaker,” Jacobson tells me now. “He obliged, and I was knocked over [by what he described].” 

In the 1990s, Jacobson’s company created virtual world simulation projects for major organizations including Fiat and the U.S. Department of Defense. As for something like the Metaverse, says Jacobson: “We already had it in mind. The reason I brought [Stephenson] along was he had envisioned it [in Snow Crash].”  

More on these literal world-changing events in the book!

As for Avi’s observation on Metaverse/avatars versus Apple’s approach with spatial computing/personas: I think the point on “avatars” as a term was more valid before the James Cameron movies, not to mention its every day use by some 1 billion hard core gamers.

And while the “Metaverse” term is not exactly mainstream, metaverse platforms like Fortnite and Roblox very much are. In contrast, there have been many attempts to make spatial computing mainstream, going as far back as VRML in the 90s. (And lead VRML developer Tony Parisi… is now working for Neal Stephenson.) No matter how niche it seems to be, virtual world use keeps growing, and it will be challenging for even Apple to grow an actual mass market for Spatial Computing.

Avi’s post reprinted here with permission of the author.

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