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Let’s get smart about the metaverse
Jan 25, 2022
Episode 586

Let’s get smart about the metaverse

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Plus, we get nerdy about "Ready Player One."

Last week, we spoke with sci-fi writer Neal Stephenson. He’s the guy who coined the term “metaverse” in 1992 to describe a 3D virtual world where people interact through avatars. 

Today, the term is being thrown around by tech and gaming companies who say they’re building the real metaverse. You probably noticed Facebook even changed its name to Meta and has really doubled down on this concept. And cue Microsoft, announcing its deal with Activision last week, saying it will provide the building blocks for the metaverse.

But what is the metaverse, and how real is it?

“The conceptual idea is a shared 3D world that uses [virtual reality] and [augmented reality] and has tens of thousands of people, and it’s all interoperable. But right now, the best definition of the metaverse is that it’s kind of a catch-all marketing term that a lot of different companies are using to convey the value they see in their potential future products,” said Eric Ravenscraft, product writer and reviewer at Wired.

On the show today, we’ll break down what’s real about the metaverse, what’s hypothetical and what might remain science fiction.

In the News Fix: We’re running really, really low on semiconductors. We’ll talk about a new survey that shows U.S. manufacturers are about five days away from running out of chips and what that means for the supply chain. Also, we’ll dig into a report that reveals the effects of not treating mental health the same as physical health.

Later, a listener calls us with her hot take on the West Elm Caleb drama. And, if you think you know what bald eagles sound like, you’ll be surprised after you hear this week’s answer to the Make Me Smart question.

Here is everything we talked about today:

Make Me Smart January 25, 2022 transcript

Note: Marketplace podcasts are meant to be heard, with emphasis, tone and audio elements a transcript can’t capture. Transcripts are generated using a combination of automated software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting it.

Kimberly Adams: Hello, I am Kimberly Adams and welcome to Make Me Smart, where none of us is as smart as all of us.

Kai Ryssdal: I’m Kai Ryssdal, good to have you with us on this Tuesday, which means we’re doing a deep dive – yes, I said it – into a single topic. Today it is the metaverse as you know if you’re a regular listener to this podcast last week, we had Neil Stevenson on who coined the term “metaverse” back in 1992, in a book called “Snow Crash.” It is as he described it a 3D virtual world where people interact through avatars.

Kimberly Adams: Which is not exactly what we have today. Even though the term is being thrown around a lot by a lot of tech companies and gaming companies who say that they are building the real metaverse. You probably notice Facebook even changed its name to “Meta” and really have doubled down on this concept. But we wanted to kind of get into how real this actually is and what it means for our real lives and our virtual lives. Is this really the beginning of sort of the next stage of the internet or you know, a real life science fiction movie? Who knows?

Kai Ryssdal: Here to make us smart is Eric Ravenscraft. He’s a product writer also reviewer at Wired, Eric, thanks for coming on the pod.

Eric Ravenscraft: Thank you for having me.

Kai Ryssdal: So look how real is this metaverse? Could we have like a definition of what we’re talking about? So we can all understand here, please?

Eric Ravenscraft: Well, it’s complicated because the definition of what the metaverse is really depends on who you’re asking. If you ask Facebook now, Meta, it’s a social network where you’re going to wear VR headsets all the time. If you ask Microsoft, it’s more of a productivity suite where you’ll have virtual meetings using augmented reality headsets. And those definitions kind of depend on what that particular company pitching this vision of the metaverse is selling. The conceptual idea is a shared 3D world that uses VR and AR and has tens of thousdands of people and it’s all interoperable. But right now, I would actually say that the best definition of the metaverse the phrase, the metaverse is that it’s kind of a catch all marketing term that a lot of different companies are using to convey the value they see in their potential future products.

Kimberly Adams: I want to emphasize something you just said because it sort of gets at the difference between how the metaverse is often talked about in science fiction or even, you know, in all these different representations versus what we have now, which is that shared part. And that interoperative, interoperability, this idea that you can take your virtual identity across platforms, which you really can’t do right now.

Eric Ravenscraft: You can’t to a certain extent, like there are little bits of it like you can take a profile picture from one platform to another by copying a JPEG from one site to another. That’s kind of interoperability. But that’s not what they’re really talking about. When tech companies pitch interoperability, the comparison they usually make is it’s like the when the internet was new, or or when we invented the web. Those were interoperable technologies. Those were built on things like the network protocol stack, the TCP IP stack for the internet, and things like HTTP and HTML for the web that allowed websites to talk to other websites that allowed computers to talk to other computers. But right now, there’s not a comparable like single underlying technology behind the metaverse. So what you end up having are just separate VR or AR applications that are that are neat on their own. Like they’re great. But they’re they’re still just separate devices and separate apps right now.

Kimberly Adams: And can you break down? You know, maybe, where you see this this going? Like, is there any sense that we’re going to head in the direction of getting sort of a single organizing platform?

Eric Ravenscraft: I would actually say there there there are two challenges to a massive interoperable  metaverse. The first is a technical problem that requires a huge scale. So for example, right now, we’ve seen concerts happen in video games like Fortnite or, or applications that are specifically for developing concerts. And what you’ll usually see a few dozen or 100 people show up in a concert. And that’s it, which is, you know, that’s, that’s not Queen playing at Wembley Stadium, that’s your buddy in the backroom of a bar, right? Like, that’s not really, that’s not really that big of a concert, what you would need to see, you know, really massive scale virtual world like that is tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions of people in the same space. And that is an engineering problem. That is very difficult to tackle. Intel recently came out and said, you know,  they, they envision that it will take a thousand times more computing power than we have today, in order to host some of the virtual worlds that might occupy a theoretical metaverse. And then they said that over the next I think, I think they said five years or so we might see ten times as much processing power like the people selling processing power said, “I don’t know if we’re going to have that much anytime soon.” And that’s just one challenge.

Kai Ryssdal: Once you get past the scale problem, though, Eric, right, is this a little bit of the VHS Betamax debate of the 70s? Right, where, you know, you couldn’t put a Betamax tape in a VHS machine. And we have now here, whatever Zuckerberg is going to do, and I’m sure the Acme Metaverse company is going to come up with its own thing. And we’re gonna have competing technologies that aren’t necessarily going to be able to talk to each other.

Eric Ravenscraft: Right. And I would say  it’s so much worse than VHS versus Betamax. Because, you know, imagine that, but if there were a hundred different VHS tape, like if a hundred different formats that you could buy, and you have to buy the hardware for them. Or you have to buy the software for them. And the trouble isn’t that you can’t make these technologies interoperable. It’s that the companies that make them are very often motivated against making them interoperable. So, for example, if Facebook makes a big social network, where you can, you know, buy virtual clothes and different avatars and build your own virtual house that’s locking users into their system, what motivation do they have to let you take all of those assets, the house, the avatar, the clothes, and export them to whatever Microsoft makes, or Blizzard or Epic Games? This is sort of what I call the iMessage problem. You know, nothing is stopping Apple from putting iMessage on Android phones, except that Apple will sell fewer iPhones, if they do that. So there’s a huge motivation for companies that develop VR and AR applications to lock users in. And then on top of that, companies or even just individual users that generate the content you see in these worlds. So for example, World of Warcraft is arguably already a virtual metaverse type world, you can hop in this game world, you can buy and sell things, you can meet other people, you could socialize, you could meet someone, you could fall in love, you could get married and World of Warcraft, but Blizzard doesn’t have the financial motivation to let you take your avatar from World of Warcraft and transport it to fortnight or to any other game. You know, that’s that’s blizzards intellectual property. So it’s not just a technical problem. It’s a financial and a motivational problem.

Kimberly Adams: And this is why my gaming days kind of ended with Runescape. I couldn’t take that stuff anywhere. That’s a real oldgame.

Eric Ravenscraft: I’ve got a lot of assets tied up in World of Warcraft, but I’m never gonna be able to take them anywhere.

Kimberly Adams: Yeah, but this kind of sort of profit motivation. Does that explain why we’re hearing so much hype about the metaverse right now? Just that these companies are trying to get ahead of it and lead the pack on this?

Eric Ravenscraft: I would say yes to like in a couple of branching directions as well. So to a certain extent, the tech industry as a whole relies on futurism, the the pitch of a future world where we’re going to build this amazing new technology, and whatever new technology happens to be at the time, you know, a couple years ago, it was 5G, you know, 5G is going to come out and it’s going to make your phone into a faster internet device than your home internet. And that’s going to enable smart cities and fleets of cars that all talk to each other and it turns out – it’s your phones faster. That’s about all that’s happened, really, on that front, so there’s always some big topic that is used to pitch the future. And right now it’s just the metaverse’s turn. So when Facebook wants to sell VR headsets or Microsoft wants to court developers for their augmented reality platform, you know saying, you can make an app for this VR headset that maybe 10 million people have is kind of interesting. But you can make the app for the metaverse, which is the future of the Internet is a much more engaging and persuasive pitch, even if it’s a bit more future vision-y and less practical.

Kai Ryssdal: So you’ve seen Ready Player One, right?

Eric Ravenscraft: Yes, yes, I’ve seen Ready Player One.

Kai Ryssdal: Okay. Great movie, takes place almost entirely in what I imagined is that film’s portrayal of the metaverse, but without any real spoilers for those who haven’t seen it. First of all, go see it. But look, there’s one big giant company that controls this whole freakin thing, which is where everybody freakin lives. Tell me why that’s not what we’re looking at?

Eric Ravenscraft: Well, I mean, the good news is, practically speaking, it seems unlikely that one specific company would dominate everything. Like even right now, Facebook is dominant in the social media space, but there are still other players. But it’s, it’s a little funny that that you point that out, because that’s sort of it’s sort of the I don’t know, if you’ve seen there’s a great tweet that went around about, like, you know, we’ve invented the Torment Nexus from the famous novel, “don’t invent the Torment Nexus.”

Kai Ryssdal: That’s great.

Eric Ravenscraft: Yeah. And that’s sort of the  pitch we’re seeing is, you know, the part of the point of Ready Player One was, you know, this one big company controls this thing, and they want to control even more of it, and they’re gonna stick ads and like, the villain is the guy running it. And then tech CEOs come out and go, yeah, that thing, we’re doing that thing. One of the biggest responses I’ve seen is, you know, if there was going to be a virtual world where, like, you can go shop and interact and socialize. And everything you do in this virtual world goes to this one big platform. Facebook isn’t the company I want controlling that. That’s not just me saying, it’s like, I’ve seen that response when I write articles about that, like every comment, or every, you know, criticism I’ve seen says something like just specifically about Facebook, about Meta, you know, like, “is that the company that you want to control this?” So I don’t know that there’s much demand for that. But then there’s also other smaller companies who can sort of – the way we talk about the metaverse as though it’s a singular entity and it’s inevitable, gives room for a lot of smaller companies to say, well, we’re doing that too. We’re building the metaverse, and that gives more legitimacy to other players who may not have the same reputation as Facebook, but might have just as much of a motivation to use, or possibly abuse data or virtual surveillance of their users as well.

Kai Ryssdal: All right, one more, and then we’ll let you get on about your day. And here’s the question. So a number of years ago, I did a segment on Marketplace that had me wearing a VR headset. And granted, this was not the latest generation, but it was a while ago, it was a while ago. And I had to be in the thing for like half an hour. And when there was like a migraine coming on. And my eyes were crossing and therewas a little bit of vertigo, it was not a pleasant experience. And what’s the physical experience gonna be like, I’m not going to have to have something on my head and, and like arm controllers and stuff?

Eric Ravenscraft: You know, it’s funny, you mentioned that right. Before I came on here, Facebook released an – I came across a Facebook ad for another metaverse properties. And it’s one of the few ads you see where they actually show the person in real life using it. I mean, it’s all simulated, but you see the person standing in the living room with a headset on. And on the other side of the room, their spouse is like looking at them going, what are they doing? And they’re talking about, you know, you’re going to paint and you’re going to create stuff in this world. But what they’re showing is someone’s standing first off in a big room, like a living room-type space with a headset strapped to  their face, and they’re waving their arms around. Like this just isn’t how people want to interact with computers on a day-to-day basis. And I don’t think  – it’s not impossible for engineers to solve this problem. Like maybe someday there will be AR glasses that are just as light as regular glasses, but they have a display in them or something. Maybe that will happen. But that’s not what they’re selling right now. And there’s it’s a big difference between the simulated versions of the world that they show in fictional advertisements and what we actually have today.

Kai Ryssdal: Exactly, exactly. Eric Ravenscraft. He’s a product writer also reviewer at Wired, walking us through the metaverse, which is coming to an internet sometime soon near you. I’m sure Eric. Thanks a lot. Really appreciate it.

Eric Ravenscraft: Thank you.

Kimberly Adams: What are you talking about Kai, people say it’s already here.

Kai Ryssdal: Yeah. Well, it is already here. I’ll tell you though. So it was with Ben Johnson, who longtime Marketplace listeners may remember that name. And we did a thing. He was in one room, I was in the other room, and we did this virtual meeting, blah, blah, blah. It was terrible. It was terrible. So you know, we’ll see what the technology does.

Kimberly Adams: I got a VR headset because my mother wanted one. And she wanted someone to do it with her and help her walk through it. And we were doing this roller coaster game and both got so naseous. But, you know, on the other hand, one of my one of my friends, her husband uses a VR headset to like, model out his sort of craft projects before he does them and using like equipment that he wouldn’t have access to otherwise. And so you know, people are doing stuff.

Kai Ryssdal: Totally are. Totally are. So listen, let us know what you think. If there is a version of the metaverse that you think you might be interested in, let us know our number is 508-827-6278. 508-82-SMART or leave us a voice memo at makemesmart@marketplace.org We’ll get you on the show and we will also be right back.

Kai Ryssdal: Okay, time for the news fix you gonna go first Kai? I will go first. So there’s a report out today from the Department of Commerce Gina Raimondo, secretary, saying that in 2019 American companies had, on average, 40 days worth of supply of semiconductors. And here now, two years into this pandemic, they are down to five days worth of supply. And you might think, okay, so they’ve got five days worth of supply of chips on the on the shelves. This survey looked at 160 different kinds of semiconductors. So everything from what goes in your fridge, to your car, to your computers, to you name it, we’re down to a five day supply, which if you’re in manufacturing, means fundamentally nothing. And I would just like to suggest that we are a long, long way, despite the Intel announcement from last week that they’re gonna build a $20 billion plant in Columbus, Ohio. We are a long way from the chip shortage being solved. And the chip shortage, of course, is driving a lot of a car prices, which is driving inflation. And I could go on but I won’t. So I thought that was newsworthy. That Intel plants gonna take what like a decade to get fully up and running or something like that? I think it’s gonna be up and running by 2025. But then from there, it takes years to get the chips out. So you know.

Kimberly Adams: Oh okay.

Kai Ryssdal: Not great.

Kimberly Adams: You know, I’ve had this conversation with a lot of friends lately about just this fact that here in the United States, we’re having the experience that many folks in the rest of the world do on a regular basis, which is just moving away from this assumption that everything is always available. Like, you and I have lived outside of the country. And sometimes you can get certain things and sometimes you can, it’s just stuff isn’t always available. But that’s a new feeling to a lot of people here.

Kai Ryssdal: Yeah, totally.

Kimberly Adams: Speaking of stuff that isn’t available …

Kai Ryssdal:  Haha, nicely done.

Kimberly Adams: I actually am putting in a story that David Brancaccio and I did this morning in for my news fix, which is this report out from another executive agency oddly enough. The Department of Labor along with with HHS, which is on mental health parity, and this idea that if you have an insurance plan that offers mental health care, it is supposed to offer those mental health and substance use disorder services at the same level and to the same extent, but they all offer physical health care. And this is a law that has been on the books since like 2008. And over and over again, there’s just reams of evidence in lawsuits and complaints, that that’s just not the case. And anybody who has ever tried to get mental health care has probably some kind of story about how much harder it is then getting physical health care if you like break your arm or something like that. So the Department of Labor has been going out to these insurance plans, and asking them to provide information about how they’re living up to their parity obligations. And nobody who responded, gave them sufficient answers, zero, none of them. And so then there was all these series of letters and things like that, and some insurance companies fix stuff. But what this report reveals is like some really concrete examples of what this looks like, it’s people who are trying to get treatment for their kids with autism who are denied certain kinds of therapy, people with eating disorders, being told that the insurance won’t cover nutritional counseling, people with substance use disorders being told that their prescriptions to deal with their addictions are not covered, or you know, someone with a speech impediment not getting their speech therapy covered, which are things that under the law are supposed to be done. And it’s astonishing how widespread these violations are, so long after this law was passed. And there’s really not a lot that people can do about it, like, sure if you can prove it, you can file a lawsuit. And then the Department of Labor has all these benefits managers you can call and ask for help to kind of walk you through whether or not this bad thing that happened to you really is a parity violation. But the DOL doesn’t have any authority to find the insurance plans that are in violation, or even to sort of help consumers get restitution if they paid out of pocket for stuff they weren’t supposed to. So it’s an extraordinarily wonky report, but it’s very interesting to me.

Kai Ryssdal: And it’s a big deal, right? Because as we know, mental health and physical health are one in the damn same.

Kimberly Adams: Yes, they are.

Kai Ryssdal: Alright, that’s the news. Let us do the mail.

Kimberly Adams: 

Okay, last Friday, Kai I did the thing that I was joking about doing in the meeting that we were in last week. All right, which is thsy Andy and I talked about West Elm Calebwhich is the story about a guy in New York who allegedly ghosted several women and did all these other bad behaviors that the women he allegedly dated, did not like and this whole saga was played out on Tik Tok and on Twitter, but it’s also raising questions about online privacy. And so I asked everyone to send in their thoughts on this and we got this voice memo.

Di: Hi, this is Di from Los Angeles. I was listening to Kimberly’s struggle over the West Elm, Caleb thing. And what really struck me what what kept coming to mind again, and again, was this quote from Anne Lamott, and I’m probably going to slaughter it. But essentially, it’s like, tell your story. If people wanted you to tell better stories, they should have behaved better. And if people are telling their story, and you didn’t behave well, that’s kind of on you. And that’s my take.

Kai Ryssdal: That’s a good take.

Kimberly Adams: Yes, but.

Kai Ryssdal: But…

Kimberly Adams: At what level do those stories get amplified on the global scale.

Kai Ryssdal:  Yeah, that’s a fair point. Fair point.

Kimberly Adams: Like, look I date. I have had bad experiences. And like, I definitely complained to my girlfriends about them.

Kai Ryssdal: But you don’t put them online.

Kimberly Adams: But I don’t put them online.  But then at the same time, you know, many of these women probably did not have the expectation that it was going to get as big as it did. So I mean, like, I don’t want to, like put an undue burden on them for the fact that it went viral. Like, but the internet is everywhere.

Kai Ryssdal: It is everywhere, and it is forever. All right. We talked about the phrase deep dive a couple of times. I believe I said it at the top of program today and how it’s overused maybe sometimes. Kevin out of Charlotte, North Carolina says this: “Just a thought for your Tuesday episodes while deep dive may no longer be fashionable. I posit that deeper dive is an appropriate alternative it retains the intent of the original nickname, while accurately describing the episode a deeper dive into a topic then you can normally take.” I don’t hate that. I don’t hate that at all.

Kimberly Adams: I don’t hate it.

Kai Ryssdal: Maybe we’ll say deeper diver. Okay, so we’re gonna leave your as we always do with today’s answer to the Make Me Smart question: “What is something you thought you knew you later found out you were wrong about?” This week’s answer comes to us from

Erin: This is Erin from Muncie, Indiana, where Bob Ross used to paint his happy little trees. One thing I thought I knew that I later found that I was wrong about is that bald eagles make this noise: [bird screech is played]

Kai Ryssdal: Yeah.

Erin:  But no my friends that majestic screech is from the red tailed hawk. Bald eagles actually make this noise: [chittering bird noise is played]

Kai Ryssdal: Really? That sounds so small bird like.

Kimberly Adams: It’s really squeaky.

Kai Ryssdal: I’m completely unimpressed.

Erin: Television and Hollywood have been selling us a tale for decades. But now you know the truth. And you know that Bridget Bodnar was right.

Kai Ryssdal: Well, Bridget is always right. I mean she’s the boss. She’s always right. I ain’t no dope.  I did not know that about eagles and red tail hawks that is fascinating. Had no idea.

Kimberly Adams: I occasionally see bald eagles flying around in my neighborhood in Washington D.C.

Kai Ryssdal: Really?

Kimberly Adams: Yeah, yeah, there’s some that like live in this part of the area but like I’m sure with all the construction they will never come back. Anywho.

Kai Ryssdal: The takeaway from that is Bridget Bodnar is right so send us your answers. Well, if you have more than one answer to Make Me Smart question send us that too. Anyway. What is something you thought you knew you later found out you were wrong about? Leave us a voice message at our new phone number 508-82-SMART or you can shoot us an email makemesmart@marketplace.org. Both are fine with us.

Kimberly Adams: When is it no longer new?

Kai Ryssdal:  I don’t know. How long has it been? Has it been a year yet?

Kimberly Adams: I don’t know. Anyway, we’re done for today. Megan and Marielle will be answering your questions tomorrow for what do you want to know Wednesday, so if you have questions for them, don’t forget to send those over too.

Kai Ryssdal: Make me Smart is directed and produced by Marissa Cabrera. Our team also includes producer Tony Wagner this week hands off newsletter-writing duties to Ellen Rolfes. Thank you, Tony for all your good service to this podcast. Our intern is Tiffany Bui.

Kimberly Adams:  Today’s program was engineered by Charlton Thorp with mixing by Brian Allison. Ben Tolliday and Daniel Ramirez composed this very bouncy theme music. The senior producer is Bridget Bodnar. Donna Tam is the Director of On Demand and Marketplace’s Vice President and General Manager is Neil Scarborough. It is so bouncy.

Kai Ryssdal: It is very bouncy. That’s a good word.

Kimberly Adams: I kind of like bounce to it every time.

Kai Ryssdal:  It’s a very good word.

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