The CEO of the company that came up with Pokémon Go thinks that we should be careful in our attempt to make everything virtual, and is a firm believer that social interaction remains the foundation of life, and virtual experiences should enhance those experiences.
John Hanke was a guest in the podcast of The Verge fairly recently. He is the CEO of Niantic, the company that invented Pokémon Go, which I'm sure you're all familiar with. It's an app where you look at your phone while walking through the neighborhood in search of virtually walking Pokémons. A few years ago it was a huge craze, but even today, people of all ages still ramble along beaches and forests in search of the pocket monsters.
Now that interview isn't mind-blowingly newsworthy, but it is Hanke's opinion on the evolution within the virtual world. After all, companies are immersing themselves in these developments on a major scale, and there's a reason that the parent company of Facebook is called Meta. So the expectation is that the developments in the virtual world will proceed quite rapidly, but what is the vision of someone who has gone through a similar process, and who knows what works and what doesn't?
The company was founded in 2015, when a number of people from Google started making an app in which the real and the virtual world come together. They initially employed some 30 employees when they separated from Google, and there are now 800 people working for Niantic. The company is comprised of two divisions: Niantic Studios, a place where the games are created, and Niantic Lightship, a platform where they make the technology behind games like Pokémon available to other companies, so that they can also move forward with that technology and newly created applications. It's a learning platform In other words; a place where you can accrue knowledge.
The great thing about Hanke is that he's not very pro-Metaverse at all – that's to say he doesn't believe the Metaverse should replace the physical realm. "I felt like a lot of people were maybe a little bit overly influenced by what we all endured during COVID, which is to say: spending a lot of time at home, a lot of time on Zoom, kids going to school remotely, watching kids spend a ton of time on Roblox, binging on Netflix, getting delivery food, the whole thing. A lot of these products saw a big lift from COVID. I mean, let's be honest, people were spending a ton more discretionary time and energy in these worlds. I think that fed a level of frenzy around thinking that the "metaverse" is the future and that we're all going to live in these 3D worlds. I just don't think that's how it's going to play out. ''
He feels that 3D technology is complementary to real life, and not the other way around.
"I'm a techno-optimist in the sense that I think AR — a real-world version of that metaverse, if you will, that's about getting people outside and active and learning about their city, state, town — can help bring us back together.'' He is therefore more inclined towards Augmented Reality (the virtual world enhancing the existing world) than Virtual Reality (where you are completely immersed in a virtual world). "Maybe you have an avatar representation of other people, but it's fundamentally a poor substitute for the real human-to-human interaction. '' He feels that direct contact is too valuable to be viewed in such a throwaway manner.
"When human beings are together over time, your heartbeats and the frequency of your brainwaves will actually synchronize. In terms of how we relate to other people, there's a ton of stuff going on in the body that's evolutionary in its origins, that allows us to learn how to trust people, to bond with people, to build relationships with people.'' He thinks it's natural to be around each other, and that it makes us happier. "It actually triggers endorphins when you have face-to-face interactions with other human beings. I really think it's about finding peace of mind and being happy, and being true to what we're evolved to need in our lives. ''
Metaverse and the moral side
Okay, we're talking about a side of digital innovation that is not always discussed, namely the moral/ethical side. We will soon be able to meet and play games virtually with everyone, but Is that something we should really want? We all know by now that you get tired of a day of virtual meetings, and that meetings that are conducted face-to-face give off a certain energy. Hanke has an opinion on this matter, which – of course – is also kind of in his own interest. "Come to a Pokémon Go Fest: you'll see stockbrokers and bike messengers and grandmas and suburban soccer moms hanging out together, doing a Pokémon Go raid — all these people becoming friends, crossing barriers, breaking out of those info bubbles and seeing people just as people, not as categories or as labels that get attached in these hateful online forums.''
He therefore believes in the importance of freedom, in people's own initiatives, and would therefore leave the 'organization' of the metaverse to companies. "That theme comes through in the Web3 movement. That desire to pull back from centralized control by a few companies to a more open system that puts more control in the hands of the consumer does rely more on interoperability at its core. ''