The Emergence of Spatial Computing and the Virtual Native

Oct 5, 2023 - min read min read

Like a fish in digital waters

Technology and media can feel frightening, almost as fast as lightning. Sleek sales gurus preach the next big thing every other day, only to abandon their own predictions faster than you can say ‘crypto’. Hype cycles follow each other quicker than TikTok hits, and the baroness of the Metaverse can become the queen of generative AI overnight. CEOs and tycoons try to coin the right words and create the next trend—metaverse, web3, virtual natives—to stay ahead of the curve. But what truth and value lies beyond the flashy facade? Is there real progress? Do we want it to be? And why does it all feel so eerie and fleeting?

Because it always has. Ever since the printing press (or earlier?) people have resisted new technology, warned feeble young souls of its corrupting powers and preached the gospel of ‘the good old days’. Today, 587 years after its invention, we know our kids won’t have a fair chance at ‌any kind of future without the ability to read books. Smartphones have given the most remote areas access to the entire world, and social media have ignited social revolutions. Yet, when a new technology presents itself, people still flex their conservative muscles, and when a hype seems to die, ‌critics rejoice.

But whether we want new technology or media, isn't the right question‌—better to ask how we want it. To identify progress is to write history, something that needs a bit more distance than we have today. But I dare say the developments hidden behind the buzzwords—the technology behind the metaverse, the philosophy behind mixed reality — are history in the making.

Everybody's a cyborg — how tools enhance us

Since the dawn of time (really, since 400 B.C.), smart people have been thinking about our relationship with technology and media, which back then were tools like catapults, the crossbow,‌ and the mirror, or the art of orating. Aristotle famously stated that technology and tools are extensions of our senses or body parts. And Steve Jobs agreed with him. Smart fellows. Tools can enhance our senses or improve a part of our body. Think hand - hammer, eyes - glasses, foot - wheel. And more recently, eyes - VR, speech - generative AI, legs - car.

Discomfort as progress — irritation and counter-irritation

All new media and technology share some characteristics. At first, they are extensions of our senses, skills, bodies... in one way or another. Then, after we’ve created them, they have unpredictable effects on us. The inventor of the mobile phone couldn't know that this side-feature, the Short Messaging Service, would be the core of all communication to come. A third characteristic is that tech changes over time. Tech isn't, and never will be, static. We went from nothing to books, to e-books, to BookTok. From wheel to carriage, to bike, to car, to plane, to spaceship‌ and beyond. From computers, to laptops, to mobile devices and mixed reality headsets.

This last characteristic follows a pattern, one moving from irritation to counter-irritation. We invent something to solve a problem. But this invention inevitably has flaws or room for improvement. So we invent something that patches up the flaws, but—like all tech—still has shortcomings or unwanted side effects. And so we invent another iteration, an improvement‌, or a radical new approach. Irritation, counter-irritation. Wheel, carriage, car. Our inability to cope with discomfort is an engine of improvement and technology in general.

And an answer to the critics. Because you can fear‌ speedy developments as much as you please, humans without technology are… Well, nothing, basically. My advice? We’d better make do. Our (futile) resistance to technology is nothing new, even if most technology proves to be more democratizing than demonizing. The printing press shoved the church’s monopoly of truth to the bin. In the first years of its invention, 27,000 titles were printed. From zero to 27k in a matter of years. Talk about disruption. And no disruption without enemies.

The medium and the message — a dialectical relationship 

One last thing all new media have in common is their need for content. Every medium needs a message. As the media evolve, so do the messages we plaster them with. Every new medium calls for a new message, a new way of telling stories. Back when we called friends, our voice was doing the telling. Switching to text messages, we made our language more compact and added emojis. We wrote long texts for books and cut them short for blogs and mailings—Dostoyevski couldn’t have written War and Peace on WhatsApp. We made films for the big screen, plays for the stage, but the choreographies of Béjart can’t come alive in TikTok. Likewise, we invented intrigues for boardgames and are now drawing and inventing worlds and NPCs to meet the demand of gamers worldwide. 

Where and how we consume media affects the message as well. I can lie upside down on the couch while watching reels, while your Discman used to stop every time you rode your bike over a speed bump. With TikTok as the place for a newly released single to go viral, artists stopped using long intros to their songs. The TikTok dances demand a song that practically starts with the chorus. And so the music industry follows.

Virtual Natives

With spatial computing as the latest addition to a long line of technology and media inventions, the demand for a new kind of message arises. We need stories that thrive when told in a 3D environment, where content becomes more visual, sometimes even tactile. The possibilities of this 3D-fication will have people immersed in stories in a way only the most iconic bestsellers could achieve in the past. Just like the first books could never ‌have fit in your purse or your Discman very annoyingly didn’t fit in the pockets of your Fruit of the Loom hoodie, the first generation of smart glasses will be a source of irritation or discomfort. But as I said before, that’s a good thing. It’s the friction that moves us forward. 

When we think about the reception of new technology, it’s useful not to generalize. The virtual reality may scare millennials and boomers, for ‌generations after them, it might be the physical world that’s a source of concern. When we say about someone they move like a fish in the water, that means two things. That they move easily and are at ease, but also that they are oblivious to their surroundings. When an old fish passes two younger specimen, he shouts, “What’s up today boys, how’s the water?”. One young fish turns to the other and asks, “What’s water?”. People born before the turn of the millennium might have their reserves about virtual reality, but to kids, it’s like water. Being virtual natives, they'd be lost without it.

Humans can’t stop the development of new technology or media, nor should we want to. While technology might be hiding behind crooked business models, hypes, or fancy buzzwords, it is and always has been, an extension of humanity. If it can’t be stopped, we’d better make damn good content and learn to tell stories in a way the new medium really shows its added value. Our content makes media valuable. And if that doesn’t do the trick, we’ll invent something better.