Today, the internet is a mostly 2D platform that we consume through a screen. It is a command-line prompt for the reality we live in. Instagram posts, Tiktoks, text messages, emails and voice memos are all digital artifacts things people create and receive in the physical world. But this will change when the metaversebecomes so immersive and photo-realistic that physical reality extends into virtual spaces. Does this new hyperreality simply add features to the real world or does the real world become something more? It’s a question that is frequently explored in pop culture, from Star Trek’s holodeck to The Matrix. However, new technologies are rapidly turning science fiction into science fact and forcing us to question the limits of our reality.
Hyperreality is a concept that describes a simulation of reality that is indistinguishable from the real world — to the point where the distinction fades away. The idea emerged in the 90s as live TV coverage of the first Gulf War and other real-world events filtered into people’s homes. 24/7, live-streamed news footage of the war transported the reality of the battlefield into people’s homes for the first time in history. On the one hand, there were the physical events taking place in the Middle East, and on the other, the hyperreal televised version was playing out in living rooms across the globe.
Today, we experience hyperreality every time we use an Instagram filter, swap faces on Snapchat, or watch a Hollywood blockbuster with high-quality CGI (computer-generated imagery) and VFX (visual effects). Hyperreal content blurs the line between reality and its virtual representation to the point that the distinction becomes less important than the experience itself. This may sound spooky in the abstract, but hyperreal content is a potent storytelling medium that can be used to delight audiences in new and surprising ways.
Until recently, hyperreal content has been challenging and expensive to create. It required teams of VFX experts toiling for months at vast expense to create a few minutes of CGI. Recent advances in AI, however, have made it easier than ever to create hyperreal content that is both inexpensive and photorealistic. This has given rise to “synthetic content” that is created by generative AI algorithms with limited human collaboration. Anyone can make their own synthetic media today by taking a selfie and uploading it to a smartphone app that uses AI to do face swaps or (de)aging. It is only a matter of time before regular people can put themselves in movies, games, and other immersive content experiences.
Toward a hyperreal metaverse
Over the next ten years, the metaverse will develop toward immersive experiences in hyperreal virtual environments populated with avatars that look and sound exactly like us. Today, nearly all of the avatars and virtual environments in the metaverse are painstakingly created by artists and creators as digital renderings. Virtual goods — from luxury goods to avatars — look amazing, creative, and playful. But they are not photo-realistic or exact digital twins of items we actually own in the real world. In order to scale personalized content experiences to billions of people, AI generative models will use data from the world around us to render hyperreal immersive experiences, objects and identities that are a seamless extension of our lived reality.
Hyperreality could be the missing piece of the puzzle for bringing billions of regular people into the metaverse. Everyone wants deeply personalized and engaging content on-demand, and generative AI enables hyperreal content to reach internet scale. This is important if we ever hope for the metaverse to have as many users as the internet because human content creators will never be able to create enough hyperreal avatars and content experiences on their own. But if we collaborate with AI, we can leverage data pulled in from the physical world to create hyperreal synthetic media at scale. Given how rich in detail the physical world is, AI will be critical to making the metaverse an authentic and truly representative extension of reality.
But why might the metaverse be hyperreal? There are two very human reasons:
First, immersive content featuring photo-realistic avatars and virtual spaces allows more authentic and emotionally engaging experiences for people. This will open up a metaverse beyond gaming and entertainment to include virtual doctor’s appointments, classrooms, and workspaces. Family reunions won’t be limited to grainy video over a Zoom call. Instead, they will play out in hyperreal, immersive 3D environments. Face-to-face meetings will always be special, but with immersive hyperreal content, we can get much closer to the same quality of experience.
Second, we have spent our whole lives crafting our identities in real life, and creating multiple new online identities is exhausting. While the metaverse is a great place to become a new version of yourself, it is easier to start with who you are already and build from there. Hyperreal technologies lower the barriers of entry for regular people that want to have everyday human experiences in virtual environments.
The hyperreal metaverse is full of possibilities, but also presents serious ethical challenges that cannot be ignored. First and foremost, we must strive for a metaverse that empowers the individual. Unlike big tech platforms that have left many feeling like they have little control of their personal data, participants in the metaverse must own and control their biometric data that is used as inputs to generate hyperreal versions of themselves. In this respect, blockchain technologies — and NFTs in particular — are key to securely realizing this new era of individual data sovereignty and enabling verifiably unique, secure, and self-custodied digital identities. By linking our hyperreal avatars and biometric data to blockchain wallets, we will be one step closer to taking control of our hyperreal identity in the metaverse.
The hyperreal metaverse will herald a future where real and virtual worlds collide. As generative AI technologies continue to rapidly evolve, it’s only a matter of time until our new digital worlds are indistinguishable from our physical reality. It’s an exciting vision full of possibilities for more inclusive and diverse virtual spaces that are enabled through the right mix of ethical design, user control, and creative uses of technology. The seeds of this future are being planted right now: how it will come to fruition is yet to be seen.
Image Credit: CHRISTOPH BURGSTEDT/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY/Getty