Posts with «personal finance - career & education» label

Apple pulls verification requirement for US education shoppers

Earlier this week, Apple began requiring that students and teachers in the US verify their identity through authentication service UNiDAYS before they could take advantage of the company’s discounted education pricing. The move closed a long-standing loophole that had allowed almost anyone to save money on an Apple device as long as they weren’t caught in a random check.

However, mere days after implementing that requirement, Apple has just as quickly removed it. Per MacRumors, you can once again buy discounted Macs, iPads and other Apple products from the company’s US education website without the need to verify that you’re currently a student or a teacher. The outlet suggests the company may have made the change after some educators and school staff members complained they couldn’t verify their status through UNiDAYS properly, and therefore couldn’t obtain a discount on a product they wanted to buy.

It’s unclear if Apple plans to reimplement the requirement once it sorts out any potential issues with the system. For years, Apple has used UNiDAYS in many other countries, including the UK, to ensure only those who qualify for its education discounts can get them. We’ve reached out to the company for comment and more information.

'We Met in Virtual Reality’ finds love in the metaverse

Mark Zuckerberg's vision of a sanitized, hypercapitalist metaverse will likely never be as compelling or idiosyncratic as VRChat, the virtual reality community that's been home to anime fans, Furries and a slew of other sub-cultures since 2014. That's my main takeaway from We Met in Virtual Reality, the first documentary filmed entirely in VRChat, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival today.

There's no chance Zuck's metaverse would let people wear trademarked avatars without paying a ton, attend exotic clubs to receive (or give) virtual lapdances, or allow users to build whatever the hell they want. VRChat, as portrayed by director Joe Hunting, is basically a proto-metaverse where anything is possible. And for many, it has served as a crucial social hub during the pandemic, a place where they can forget about the world, relax with friends and maybe find love.

But of course, that's been the nature of practically every online community. We're social animals — people have always been able to connect with each other over BBS, IRC, Usenet and the plethora of forums and chat services that populated the early internet. I spent most of the '90s hanging out in anime and gaming chat rooms, the sorts of places that today's connected youth would probably find quaint. Still, the people I met there helped me survive the worst parts of middle and high school. Those relationships, and the internet itself, shaped me into who I am (for better or worse).

We Met in Virtual Reality proves that the unbridled, experimental sense of online community is still alive and well today, despite relentless consolidation from Big Tech. But now, instead of staring at tiny CRT monitors, people are slapping on VR headsets to explore fully realized environments. Hardcore VRChat users are also investing in powerful computing rigs as well as upgrades like finger and whole-body tracking. In the '90s, I was grateful to get another 16MB of RAM so that I could have more than one browser window open. Today, VRChat devotees can communicate using American Sign Language, or have their anime avatars show off their belly dancing skills.

Hunting approaches his subjects with the eye of an anthropologist, without any judgment towards their sometimes ridiculous avatars (do all the anime ladies need to have jiggly, Dead or Alive-level boob physics?). We Met in Virtual Reality begins as a chill hangout flick — we follow a group of friends as they have virtual drinks and go on joyrides in crudely-built VR cars — but it quickly moves beyond the novelty of its setting. One person credits their VRChat girlfriend for helping them to "unmute" after being silent for two years. An exotic performer explains that being able to dance for people in VRChat helped her grieve with a family tragedy and manage a bout of alcoholism.

Joe Hunting

The film chronicles how that exotic dancer, a young woman based in the UK, formed a romantic relationship with another VRChat user in Miami. These sorts of cyber relationships aren’t anything new, but the VR platform allowed them to do much more than trade links and memes over IM. They could exist in a space together, go on dates to new environments every night. I won’t spoil where things end up for the couple, but I can say that it wouldn’t have been nearly as effective outside of VR.

We Met in Virtual Reality effectively conveys why people would gravitate towards VRChat, especially during a pandemic. But it doesn't fully capture the wonder of exploring these environments yourself. Seeing people hop on a virtual rollercoaster isn't nearly as thrilling as doing it, where your entire field of vision is covered and you can easily get vertigo. But I don't blame Hunting too much for that; his job was to boil down the VR experience so people can enjoy it on a 2D screen, and the film is mostly successful in that respect. The film was shot using a virtual camera that could mimic all of the functionality of a typical shooter, from focus points to aperture levels. So even though it's produced in an alien environment most people aren't familiar with, it still feels like a traditional documentary.

Hunting has spent the past few years making VR documentaries, starting with a few short films, as well as the series Virtually Speaking. It’s clear from We Met in Virtual Reality that he’s not just dropping into the community for a quick story. Instead, he sees the humanity behind the avatars and virtual connections. These people aren't just escaping from their lives  with VR — their lives are being made richer because of it.

Oura’s third-generation Ring is more powerful, but not for everybody

The wearables business is hard, especially if you’re a small startup with a device you could, perhaps uncharitably, call “niche.” Oura, which makes activity-tracking rings worn endorsed by a numberof celebrities, recently released its third-generation model. This new hardware is a technical marvel, packing many of the features that most wrist-worn devices take for granted. But the need to keep the cash rolling in has seen Oura, like Fitbit, Apple, Wahoo and others, pivot to a recurring-revenue model. Oura says that this is key to shift from the idea of buying a device that never changes, to supporting its broader goals of building an evolving fitness ecosystem.

Hardware

Daniel Cooper

Before we get into the specifics of this new Oura ring, let’s take a moment to remember that this device is still a marvel of engineering. Taking the sensors from a smartwatch or fitness tracker and shrinking them into a ring is worthy of enormous praise. For all of its imperfections, it’s amazing to see Oura push the limits of what is capable in such a small form factor. And there’s much more tech crammed in this time around, despite the size and weight remaining the same as the second-generation version. The headline features these new sensors enable include continuous heart-rate tracking, temperature monitoring, blood oxygenation and period prediction.

The sizing process is the same for pretty much every smart ring I’ve ever tried: The company sends you a set of plastic dummy rings you have to wear for a couple of days. Once you’ve determined the correct fit, which is tight and secure around the base of your index finger, but not to the point where it’s uncomfortable, you can order the real thing. This actually was the most stressful part of this review, since I felt that one size was too loose, the other too tight, but I opted for looseness rather than sacrificing a digit to the gods of fitness tracking. Oura says that the index finger is the best place for its ring, but you can stick it elsewhere if you prefer.

Unfortunately, the one thing you can’t do much about is the size of the ring itself which is a bit too big. I’m a big-ish guy with big-ish hands, but it feels a bit too ostentatious on my fingers, enough that people notice and ask me what it is as soon as they spot it. If you have more slender hands, I’m sure you might have a similar issue with folks pointing it out. I suspect that the smart thing to do is visit Parts Of 4 to get some more adornments to balance out the look.

Software

Without a screen, Oura is yoked tightly to the iOS or Android app where all of this data will be displayed. The Oura app is clean and tidy, only giving you the deepest data when you go looking for it. The app breaks down all of the information generated from your finger and compresses it into three scores, which are shown on the homescreen. These are for Readiness, Sleep and Activity, representing how prepared you are to face the day, how well-rested you are and how much exercise you’re doing.

The only other thing you’ll find on the homescreen is a breakdown of your heart rate across the day, showing you where the peaks and troughs are. You’ll also get advice on your ideal bedtime, which is useful when you’re working late nights and need to juggle sleep with getting things done. You’ll also get periodic reminders to move if the app detects you’ve been still for a while, and advice when it’s time for you to wind down for the day.

Go into one of the categories, like Readiness, and you’ll get scores for your recovery index, sleep, as well as your HRV balance, body temperature and resting heart rate. You can also see that my figures dropped quite substantially during a three-day period when I got food poisoning from a New Year’s Eve takeaway meal. During that period, I was given plenty of warnings telling me I wasn’t rested or well enough to do much else – not that I felt like I was gonna go for a run or anything.

As part of Oura’s plan to add extra value to its platform, the company is adding a series of video and audio guides for meditation, breathwork and sleeping. These guides, which are essentially guided meditation audio tracks, can be backed with a white noise option of your choice. You can pick the hum of a train station, the crunch of a forest stroll, the sound of the tide lapping at the land or rainfall, amongst others. These are a thing for people who find those things useful to fall asleep and feel restful but I, personally, do not find them that great.

That said, where Oura differs from its rivals in this space is that it’ll break down your vital signs during your meditation. If you’re wondering how to get better at meditating then you’ll be guided to more appropriate tracks that’ll help prod you toward nirvana.

Oura is working on adding more features to the Ring v3 over the next year, including more content as well as more accurate sleep and period tracking. These will not actually appear as new features so much as they are behind-the-scenes improvements in the underlying systems. Finally, at some point this year, the ring will be able to identify your blood oxygenation (SpO2) while you sleep in order to help detect disorders like sleep apnea.

In use

Daniel Cooper

The best thing about the Oura ring is that, once you’ve worn it a few days, you quickly start to ignore its presence. And while you’re not paying attention, it begins worming its way into every corner of your life, learning your working patterns and getting ready to make helpful suggestions. If you feel like crap in the morning but don’t have the mental wherewithal to comprehend why, you’ll be told as soon as you look at your phone. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing here that other platforms don’t do as well, but this is certainly an elegant implementation of the idea.

Sleep tracking is generally fine, by which I mean it works by tracking movement and therefore can’t tell when you’ve been rudely awoken but haven’t moved. As part of this new pivot, however, Oura is promising that the sleep tracking will soon become vastly more accurate as a consequence of behind-the-scenes changes. This will not be readily visible to users, however, since all you’ll get is a pop-up telling you that things just got more accurate. Still, it offers a fairly good indicator for how the night went, although I find the activity tracking to be a little more on the generous side. Yesterday morning, for instance, it told me that my morning shower was a strength training workout with plenty of burned calories for my trouble. Similarly, it’ll tell me around lunchtime that I need to take a half-hour brisk walk to finish my activity for the day, and then by early evening, having done nothing more than stand at my desk, make dinner and put my kids to sleep, it’ll tell me I’ve completed my goal.

One of the features that Oura is tempting its users with is Workout Heart Rate, which I find inadvertently amusing. Because the ring is so chunky, and it has such a hard edge, that I really don’t find it comfortable to wear during workouts. For instance, if I’ve got a pair of free weights, or I’m doing an incline push up on a Smith machine bar, the ring just pushes into the fleshy parts of my hand. For most of the proper “gym” workouts I’ve done, the ring has had to come off, lest I tap out too early or draw blood from the chubby parts of my fingers. But for more ring-friendly jobs, like running, walking, or cycling, you should find this to be a big help.

In terms of vital-signs tracking accuracy, I think it’s always wise to remember that wearables will not be as inch-perfect as a clinical-grade device. But in a number of random spot-tests, the Oura offered the exact same figures as the Apple Watch on my wrist. In fact, Oura’s reputation for accuracy has always been pretty high, and one of the reasons that the company hasn’t released some of these features is to ensure they’re ready to go when they do arrive.

Oura quotes battery life at seven days, although I rarely managed to get past five without having to drop it on the charging plate. Certainly, real-world stamina is a bit far from what the company is saying, but then it’s hardly a deal breaker since you can charge it full in two hours. It’s become common for me to take the ring off while I’m standing at my desk on Monday and Friday mornings and let it re-juice while I’m working.

Economics

The third-generation Oura ring will set you back $299, which gets you the ring in one of four finishes: Silver, Black, Stealth or Gold. In the box, you’ll receive the charging plate and a USB-C cable, and as part of the deal, you’ll get a six-month trial of Oura’s subscription service. Membership, which costs $5.99 a month for new users, will entitle you to “daily health insights,” “personalized recommendations,” as well as more video and audio sessions. Any existing Oura user who upgrades to the new ring will get a lifetime membership thrown in for free.

I want to be fair here and say that I understand why Oura is pivoting to this recurring revenue model. It’s not as if other companies in this space, like Fitbit, aren’t doing the same in the hope of bolstering their bottom lines. And that’s before we get to talk about how much lock-in the Apple Watch gets as a consequence of Fitness+. But I also think there’s a difference between the sort of product that those rivals are offering compared to Oura’s product.

After all, Apple and Fitbit can both offer coaching both on their devices and on bigger screens, which Oura can’t. Not to mention that Oura is really only able to offer guided audio clips (and short videos) through its app. And that while Apple and Fitbit are selling their devices as (having the potential to become) Capital-F Fitness gear, the Oura really isn’t. But, then again, that’s not what Oura is pitching here – it’s for the meditator, the runner, the cyclist, who doesn’t want to strap something beefy to their wrist.

Wrap-Up

Here’s the problem with reviewing Oura: It’s not a device that every fitness person will love. If you want something with more versatility, you’d buy a smartwatch and have done with it. Oura is more of a subtle product, for people who want to be less ostentatious about their health, or simply want something that slips into their lives and does the job. Honestly, since I’m not a gym bro, I really like the data the ring offers me without any fuss or muss.

As for the subscription, it’s likely that Oura will have to keep squeezing as many new features and insights as possible out of this new hardware. Between that, and vastly improving its currently slender content library, it’s worth it if you’re a paid-up member of the Oura family. But, and this is more a comment on the industry as a whole rather than a slight against Oura itself, I do find this need for every company to squeeze some rental income out of their users to be a little bit grating.

Apple now requires verification for education discounts in the US

Apple has closed a loophole in the US that allowed buyers to take advantage of its education pricing even if they're not actually a student or a teacher. As noticed by a Redditor, the US Apple Store now requires buyers to verify their status via UNiDAYS to be able to purchase MacBooks, iPads and other devices from its education portal. The tech giant's education discount typically knocks off 10 percent from a device's original retail price. It applies to currently enrolled and newly accepted college or university students, as well as teachers and faculty/staff at a school for any grade level.

The change happened sometime over the past few days, based on snapshots from the Wayback Machine, which don't show the UNiDAYS verification requirement even in its latest record for January 17th. Prior to this change, Apple doesn't require its customers in the US to verify their status unlike its stores for other locations such as the UK that have long required UNiDAYS authentication. It didn't even ask for a .edu email address. The company simply occasionally checks customers at random and then charge the difference to their credit card if it determines that they're not truly eligible for the education discount. 

Now, when buyers go to the Apple Education website, they won't even be able to see the device listings. They'll have to click through to the UNiDAYS' partner page for Apple first, where they need to sign in or register for verification. Once they're in, they can buy what they want, so long as it's within the device limits for the promotion. Buyers can only avail of the discount for one desktop, one Mac mini, one laptop, two iPads and two accessories per year.

'Baby Shark' is the first YouTube video to reach 10 billion views

No, you still can't escape "Baby Shark." Billboardreports Pinkfong's so-catchy-it-hurts children's song has become the first video to reach 10 billion views on YouTube. And no one is likely to catch it any time soon — Luis Fonsi's "Despacito" video, which "Baby Shark" overtook as the most popular video in November 2020, has managed 'just' 7.7 billion views as of this writing.

The 2016 tune's familiar (if very repetitive) hook is certainly part of its success, but it has also been helped by returning to popular culture over and over again. On top of celebrity covers from the likes of James Corden and Bebe Rexha, "Baby Shark" has also enjoyed a 2019 tour, a viral dance challenge, a spot in Just Dance 2020 and a Nickelodeon TV show that premiered in 2021. Simply put, Pinkfong has kept the track in the limelight where even breakout songs like "Despacito" have faded away.

Interest isn't likely to cool off in the immediate future. Nickelodeon has not only renewed its "Baby Shark" show, but promised a feature-length movie. There's even an NFT collection if you're determined to merge two internet trends. It could take a long while before another video pulls ahead, even with K-pop megastars routinely breaking ground in other areas.

‘Let’s Play! Oink Games’ is no Jackbox, but it's a worthy party game collection

Every year I try to have a little “holiday gaming café” gathering at my apartment, where I invite friends over to play board and card games. While last year’s party was understandably cancelled, this year I invited a small group over and we indulged in tabletop titles like We’re Doomed and Parks. Inevitably we reached the point in the evening where people’s attention started to stray so it seemed like a good idea to switch to party video games. But instead of the old standby Jackbox, I remembered that Oink Games had just released a board game collection and decided to give that a spin.

We discovered that Let’s Play! Oink Games was not like Jackbox Party Packs at all, as it did not work with phones and required separate copies of the game on separate consoles. Pass. So we turned off the Switch, hooked up my laptop and started up Jackbox Party Pack 8 instead.

If you live in a friendless cave and aren’t familiar with Jackbox, it’s a pretty great series: Each “Party Pack” has five party games that anyone can join in with their phone (or any web browser) by going to Jackbox.tv and inputting the special room code. The narrator explains how to play and walks the group through each round — which makes it pretty great for those guests who aren’t paying attention or are super, super drunk. Most of the games involve drawing, trivia or writing silly words. (My particular favorite is ‘Mad Verse City’ from Jackbox Party Pack 5, a rap game.)

After everyone left, I decided to give Let’s Play! Oink Games another try. And, while it isn’t an alternative to Jackbox (it’s more like Clubhouse Games, if anything), it is still a somewhat fun experience, though not worth the $22 I spent.

There are only four games included with the set: Startups, Deep Sea Adventure, A Fake Artist Goes to New York, and‘Moon Adventure. They’re all computerized versions of Oink’s tabletop games, which come in little card-deck-sized boxes and usually cost $20 each. In that respect, the video game version does seem like a good deal. You have a choice to play online with either people you know or strangers, offline with people you know, or offline with CPU opponents.

Oink Games

Offline with friends wasn’t happening since, as I pointed out earlier, you all need your own copy of the game and a console. I tried to find an online match, only to discover there weren’t any going on. So my only choice was offline with CPU opponents.

Unfortunately, A Fake Artist Goes to New York can’t be played with CPU opponents, as it’s a drawing game where all the players but one are given a prompt, and you have to figure out who the “fake” artist is. I also discovered that Moon Adventure can have multiple players, but the user is tasked with playing them all since it’s a cooperative game. So it’s really a battle with resource management as you attempt to gather supplies before your oxygen runs out. I found this one the toughest of all, even after looking at the helpful instructions and videos the game builds in. For all my qualms with the title, the instructions are really well-done.

However, the instructions didn’t get me any closer to winning Startups, one of the two games where CPU players can participate. And man, are they merciless. The idea is to gather as many “shares” in a company as possible, but if you don’t have the most you end up having to pay out to the person who does. It’s like a modern version of Monopoly where you land on Boardwalk all the time. At least this one plays a lot quicker.

The last game, Deep Sea Adventure, is my favorite. It’s sort of competitive and sort of cooperative, as all the players must share the same oxygen supply and diving too deep will deplete it quickly. Once I got into the rhythm of gathering treasure and running back to the sub as soon as possible I mastered the game and was regularly kicking CPU butt.

While it was perhaps unfair of me to expect Let’s Play: Oink Games to be a Jackbox replacement, there’s still a lot of room for growth in what they have. I’d like to see a mode where users who don’t own the game can play on their own systems with a person who does, similar to how Mario Kart used to work on the DS. And I do hope they add more games, if only because this is an easier way to learn how to play instead of trying to puzzle out badly translated print instructions from Japanese, which is what you deal with in the physical versions.

Engadget's favorite games of 2021

This pandemic has dragged on longer than expected but hey, another 12 months in lockdown means another year to play lots of video games. And what a year it’s been, with new installments in storied franchises, remakes of forgotten classics and a game where you date your sword. As is tradition, the Engadget team gathered together to ruminate on their favorite titles released this year, extolling their virtues and sometimes drawbacks, but mostly explaining why we like them so much. We’ve also thrown in a few of our older faves that we played in 2021, because hey, a good game is always a good game. (Also, it helps when there are updates.)

Age of Empires IV

When people look back at Microsoft’s 2021, they’ll cite Halo: Infinite and the extra year the company gave 343 Industries to work on the game as one of its best recent decisions. But I think the company also deserves praise for taking a chance on Relic and Age of Empires IV.

Coming off the dismal Dawn of War III, fans had every right to be skeptical of whether the studio could pull off a sequel to one of the most-loved real-time strategy games in history. Relic had a nearly impossible task before it. And yet it found a way to respect the history and roots of the series while pushing it forward in new and interesting ways. The star of the show here are the eight civilizations. Mechanically, they’re far more unique than the factions you could play as in past games. Each has a handful of twists that make them fun to learn and interesting to play against. The studio also changed how you move between the ages to present the player with interesting choices.

AoE4 isn’t perfect, but neither was Age of Empires II before its Age of Conquerors expansion. More than anything, I’m excited to see where Relic takes the series should Microsoft give the studio the chance to continue working on the series. — Igor Bonifacic, Contributing Editor

Boyfriend Dungeon

Boyfriend Dungeon is a perfect blend of sword-swinging action and insatiable horniness — but not, like, in a gross way. This is the dungeon crawler of your middle-school daydreams, offering eye candy in a variety of forms and art styles, plus a mall packed with monsters to slay. And sales! But mostly monsters.

Everything about Boyfriend Dungeon is playful, from the cell phone messaging system, to the bright character customization options and the library of 'zines that serve as power-ups. The most charming aspect of the game, though, is the arsenal of flirty, dateable weapons. Players, ahem, forge relationships with the personalities behind the blades and then bring them into battle, choosing which combat style (or dating tactic) feels right in the moment. Combat itself is fast-paced yet adorable, with TV sets, flying VHS tapes, bats and phones attacking from every corner of the mall. There are also opportunities for small dates in between the battles, keeping the hormonal vibes alive.

Not only do you get to date your weapons in Boyfriend Dungeon, but they’re all gorgeous and charming in their own way. Best of all, they’re not limited by the old-school definition of a boyfriend. There’s a sword for nearly every play style here. Wink. — Jessica Conditt, Senior Editor

Deathloop

To say I love Arkane Studio's Dishonored series is an understatement. I've spent countless hours extolling the virtues of that series' slick stealth gameplay, gorgeous steampunk art design and inventive level design. While the first game was successful enough to spawn a sequel and a standalone entry, Dishonored never reached the massive mainstream popularity it deserved. (You could say the same for Prey, another critical darling that sold poorly.)

Since we first saw a glimpse of Deathloop, it looked like an intriguing remix of some of Dishonored's best components. There were magical powers that let you teleport at will. It was a first-person stealth game that leaned heavily on both melee weapons and guns; and it looked absolutely beautiful. Personally, I was hoping that Arkane would be able to recreate the magic of Dishonored to make it more palatable to general players.

Well, Deathloop isn't that. Its time loop mechanics are hard to parse at first — in particular, it takes a while to learn what you should actually be doing to make any sort of progress. Even dealing with the game's menus can be migraine-inducing, especially when you're learning how to keep weapons between multiple loops.

But just like my colleague Jessica Conditt, I loved every minute of it. It’s a blast to play, so long as you’re attuned to its stealth mechanics. I seriously dug the multiplayer mode, which puts you in the shoes of the game’s main antagonist, Julianna, as she hunts down other players. It’s not as fleshed out as the single-player campaign, but it sure felt great ruining someone else’s loop.

While it's not quite the Dishonored 3 I really want, I can't help but applaud Arkane for the sheer amount of innovation packed within Deathloop. Sure, it's a time loop game like so many others; the day repeats itself like clockwork, and you're also pushed back to the beginning if you die. But, crucially, it also builds on that concept. If a similar temporal anomaly were discovered in our world, it likely wouldn't be too long before a bunch of elite technocrats started using it as a way to achieve something close to immortality. — Devindra Hardawar, Senior Editor

Death’s Door

Death’s Door was the best game I played in 2021. And that’s not because it did something different. To me, someone who loved Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask growing up, its familiar and comforting Zelda-like rhythms were exactly what I needed in a challenging year. Everything about Death’s Door is also perfect. From the music to the art style and gameplay, developer Acid Nerve has crafted one of the best adventures in recent memory. — I.B.

Famicom Detective Club

I’m a huge fan of visual novels — in my time at Engadget I’ve lauded games like Doki Doki Literature Club and Dream Daddy — so it’s no surprise that I enjoyed Famicom Detective Club when I played the pair of re-released games for the Nintendo Switch back in May. 

The stories, particularly The Missing Heir, are compelling while the characters are easy to like. The gameplay is a little simple compared to the complexities of modern titles, but that just made me appreciate the genre more. I preferred the first game to the second, The Girl Who Stands Behind, but who am I kidding, you can’t play just one; they’re that fun. I hear that developer MAGES is willing to do a third installment, and I’d like to see where the series goes with a more modern spin. — Kris Naudus, Buyer's Guide Editor

Forza Horizon 5

I’ve never been a huge fan of realistic racing games, mostly because of that one word: realistic. I don’t have the patience to tweak my car and master all the skills necessary to make the most out of those games. Forza Horizon 5 pulls off a great trick by making its racing just realistic enough while still being extremely approachable. The library of classic and modern vehicles means you can easily find your dream car(s), and the game makes it easy to auto-tune your collection for peak performance if you don't want to spend time picking out suspension systems, tires and so forth.

There’s also the brilliant “rewind” button: Taking tight corners at speed without wiping out (or going so slow around them that the entire field blows past you) is not easy, but rewinding means you can easily erase any big mistakes you make and take the corner all over again. It helped me learn faster than I would have if I ended up in last place every time I took a turn.

Beyond that, the world of Forza Horizon 5 simply looks amazing — the beautifully-rendered jungles, mountains and open roads of this fictionalized corner of Mexico make for a perfect driving backdrop. It’s beautiful to look at, and the variety of terrain means you’ll get a huge variety of terrain in the different races to try.

In a year when I’ve shied away from the narrative-heavy, single-player games that I typically prefer, Forza Horizon 5 has been a perfect escape over the last few months. It’s the kind of game you can sink hours into at a time, or just pick up and play for a few races. And between the variety of race types, different weather conditions, weekly challenges and much more, it’s a game I think I’ll be coming back to for a long time. — I.B.

Halo Infinite

In my review of the Halo Infinite campaign, I criticized the game for relying on tired narrative threads and repetitive mechanics. I found myself wanting more innovation out of a modern, open-world Halo, rather than a cramped map of overly familiar landscapes and a lineup of the best tricks taken from other successful franchises.

All of that remains true, but hey — it’s still Halo.

When it comes to gameplay, Infinite is the best Halo’s been. It doesn’t thrust the series forward in any significant way, but it spit-shines the best features and presents everything in a polished environment that’s perfectly suited for floaty, fast-paced gun battles. The campaign evokes your warm-fuzzy nostalgic feelings and, even though it may not feel like a massive open world, offers a larger area to explore than ever before.

Infinite’s multiplayer matches benefit from the franchise improvements as well. There are tight and large-scale maps, a handful of new weapons with plenty of kick, and fan-favorite guns on offer like the Needler and Battle Rifle. This is the refreshing Halo experience we’ve been waiting (and waiting) for, driven by new tools like the Grappleshot, a hook that allows players to fly around the map like a short-range, hard sci-fi Spider-Man.

In comparison to other open-world action-adventure games and rapid-fire FPS titles, Halo Infinite doesn’t deliver anything particularly innovative, but it also doesn’t have any catastrophic failures. For a franchise in its 20th year, that’s a successful outcome. Especially in comparison to other Halo games, Infinite is an achievement that any fan should be happy to play. — J.C.

Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy

After the disappointment of last year's Avengers, I went into Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy with low expectations. I've rarely been so happy about being proved wrong.

Guardians is a blast. The story zips along, taking the crew from one gorgeous, colorful alien environment to the next as they try to save their skins and, inevitably, the galaxy.

You can only play as Peter Quill (aka Star-Lord), though you're rarely without at least one of your companions. The crew retains the quippy, rapid-fire dialogue from James Gunn's films and the characters talk almost constantly. Thankfully, the writing's the strongest part of the game, with a solid slate of jokes and story-centric lines. There are also dialogue choices (much like in a Telltale game) that can affect how a level plays out.

Eidos-Montréal had the chance to create a Guardians story that’s distinct from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The characters look, sound and act different from the MCU crew. It was initially a little jarring given how much I enjoy James Gunn’s movies, but I quickly grew to love them.

Unfortunately, the combat isn't great. Quill's guns are woefully underpowered at first, so fights are more about managing the rest of the team's more impactful abilities. A power-up mechanic that brings the team together in a seemingly inspiring huddle is annoying, while some of the enemy encounters feel extraneous. Still, the rest of the experience was so enjoyable that the mediocre combat wasn’t too bothersome.

In a landscape dominated by massive, never-ending games, Guardians of the Galaxy is a refreshing throwback. It's a single-player adventure that tells a streamlined story with great attention to detail. Best of all, in certain areas where Quill can't fire his pistols, he'll point finger guns and make "pew-pew" noises. I never get tired of that. — Kris Holt, Contributing Editor

Metroid Dread

As the first all-new, side-scrolling Metroid adventure since 2002, Metroid Dread had a lot to live up to. Nintendo has experimented both successfully (Metroid Prime Trilogy) and unsuccessfully (Metroid: Other M) with the basic formula, but Dread returns the series to its roots while adding enough new gameplay elements to keep things fresh.

However, with a series that had been dormant this long, new things weren’t what drew me to the game. I had never played a side-scrolling Metroid game all the way through, and this installment is a near-perfect modern interpretation of the “Metroidvania” genre the series helped invent. There’s lots of exploration, back-tracking, and new areas opening up when you get power-ups. It’s a simple formula executed with precision by developer MercurySteam.

The stealth elements, where Samus has to avoid detection from the powerful E.M.M.I. robots, are new to the series. Fortunately, they aren’t so frequent that they overpower the standard segments. And while they can be difficult, they’re not so tough that I ever got terribly frustrated – they’re just hard enough that finally getting the power you need to take down an E.M.M.I. is extremely satisfying.

The rest of the game is pretty classic Metroid, but the journey to regain all your lost powers, explore the varied worlds of Dread and take out truly epic boss monsters doesn’t feel like a retread at all. Instead, it reminded me of why Metroid is one of Nintendo’s most classic franchises. Metroid Dread showed Nintendo at its best of breathing new life into a series while still keeping it comfortingly familiar. — Nate Ingraham, Deputy Editor

New Pokémon Snap

Gamers have their holy grails, the titles they’ve love to see that may never get made, like Half-Life 3 and an official English translation of Mother 3. For years, the Nintendo 64's Pokémon Snap was one of those games on that list; I certainly remember people begging for a Wii or DS version back when I worked at The Pokémon Company over a decade ago. (The original got released on Wii Shop, but that’s about it.) So the announcement of New Pokémon Snap was a welcome surprise from last year, and the finished game certainly delivered.

The classic rail-shooter gameplay is back, but now with improved graphics. The Pokémon look amazing, and the ability to use motion controls really adds to the immersion. (Though I admittedly did get a bit motion sick.) I’m a fan of birdwatching, but not the best at bird photography. So New Pokémon Snap really scratched that itch, with all the fun of logging and collecting them. I loved playing this game, and not just because Todd Snap got a real glow-up. (But it certainly didn’t hurt.) — K.N.

Pikmin Bloom

Look, even I can see that Pokémon Go is the objectively better game. It just has more to do and a bigger community. But I prefer Pikmin Bloom because it just asks so little of me, and that’s perfect for my busy life. I don’t have time to be looking for Pokémon and tossing Poké Balls and going on Raids… but you know what I can do? Walk around and have cute little Pikmin plant flowers as I travel. There’s something impressive about opening the app to see all the flowers you and others have planted, and the Pikmin are just super cute. The little noises they make when they go on expeditions? Squee. — K.N.

The Vale: Shadow of the Crown

The protagonist of The Vale: Shadow of the Crown is Alex, a princess whose brother has just ascended to the throne and made her a warden of a small castle at the edge of their kingdom. On the way there, Alex survives an attack on her caravan, but she's stranded 500 miles from home and has to make her way back. What's more, Alex has been blind since birth.

The Vale attempts to replicate how Alex experiences the world in being almost entirely audio-based. Even though it's a first-person game, the only visuals to speak of, other than menus, are floating particles that offer the player some sense of the 3D environments and provide some contextual details like time of day.

Unlike many other RPGs, which usually offer a map that's spilling over with places to go and things to do, everything the player does is based on what they hear. The Vale uses spatial audio (headphones are essential for this one) to help players navigate the space, find other characters to interact with and receive guidance from Alex's companion. The sound design and voice acting are terrific. I rarely felt unsure about where I was or what was happening, unless that’s intended by the developer. It's important to listen carefully during combat too, as you'll aim your shield and weapon in one of three directions, depending on where you think an attacker is.

For a game that puts such an emphasis on accessibility for blind and vision-impaired players, it's disappointing that there are no subtitles or control remapping options for others. That said, developer Falling Squirrel has crafted a deeply immersive adventure you can explore with your eyes closed. The Vale: Shadow of the Crown is a remarkable, memorable experience which underscores that games can and should be for everyone. — K.H.

Bonus round

Animal Crossing: New Horizons

Look, I know I talk aboutAnimal Crossing: New Horizons a lot. But when Nintendo announced the 2.0 update a few months ago I pretty much started to hyperventilate and I’ve been lightheaded ever since. Lots of long-requested features finally dropped, most notably the addition of a café, but also plenty of quality of life improvements. It’s almost like a whole new game in some ways, reinvigorating this nearly two-year-old title to the point where I’m playing daily again and I haven’t even tried all the new features. Just when I thought I was out… — K.N.

Control Ultimate Edition

I’m glad I waited for the PS5 version of Control. The wonderfully strange world is made even better by the console's capabilities. Whether it’s running in 4K with ray-tracing on or at 60fps, this is a beautiful game. The DualSense offers a satisfying click when the Service Weapon shape-shifts into another type of gun and the haptic feedback from each firing mode feels different. The 3D audio adds to the atmosphere, while the zippy fast traveling is very welcome.

Add in the DLC, and Control Ultimate Edition feels like the ideal way to explore The Oldest House. I'm already counting down the days until the next game in the series. — K.H.

Disco Elysium

This one could technically be in the 2021 category for two reasons. First, it’s timeless, and second, the Final Cut version of the game came out this year, adding full voice acting, new quests and general gameplay improvements to an already highly acclaimed title. It really doesn’t matter which category it goes in, though, as long as you do yourself a favor and play it.

Disco Elysium is a mature, densely detailed role-playing game with an incredible dialogue system, and a brilliant sense of player choice and expression. It stars an amnesiac, alcoholic detective and it’s set in a grimy open world filled with fascinating characters. This is a game that will make you think, laugh and recoil in horror time and time again — and oftentimes all at once. — J.C.

Hitting the Books: How the interplay of science and technology brought about iPhones

Scientific research and technological advancement have gone hand-in-hand since the invention of the wheel. Without research, we lack the knowledge base to advance the state of technology and, without technological advancement we lack the functional base for further scientific exploration. In their new book, The Genesis of Technoscientific Revolutions, Harvard University Professor of Technology and Public Policy, Venkatesh Narayanamurti, and Sandia National Laboratories Senior Scientist, Jeffrey Y. Tsao, explore the symbiotic relationship between these two concepts and how their interaction might be modulated to better serve the rapidly accelerating pace of 21st century technoscientific discovery.

Harvard University Press

Excerpted from THE GENESIS OF TECHNOSCIENTIFIC REVOLUTIONS: RETHINKING THE NATURE AND NURTURE OF RESEARCH by VENKATESH NARAYANAMURTI AND JEFFREY Y. TSAO, published by Harvard University Press. Copyright © 2021 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Used by permission. All rights reserved.


The Network Is Hierarchical: The Nesting of Questions and Answers

The way in which scientific and technological knowledge are hierarchical stems from the nesting discussed in the last chapter, both of scientific facts and explanations and of technological functions and the forms that fulfill them.

Harvard University Press

In science, at the top of the hierarchy are facts — raw patterns in observed phenomena. These patterns can be thought of as questions: Why does a particular pattern occur? Why when one releases a ball does the ball fall and fall faster the farther it has fallen? Explanations of those raw patterns come a level below in the hierarchy, and can be thought of as answers to those questions: Galileo’s sixteenth-century explanation of the observed distance-versus-time pattern was that the velocities of falling balls increase linearly with time. But this answer, or explanation, becomes itself another question: Why do the velocities of falling balls increase linearly with time? This question begs a deeper explanation, a deeper answer: Newton’s explanation was that gravity is a force, that uniform forces cause uniform acceleration, and that uniform acceleration causes linear increases in velocity. Scientific understanding is always incomplete, of course, so there is always a point at which we have no deeper explanation. This in no way detracts from the power of the explanations that do exist: science seeks proximate whys but does not insist on ultimate whys. The general theory of relativity explains Newton’s laws of gravity, even if its own origin is yet to be explained.

In technology, at the top of the hierarchy are human-desired functions. These functions present problems that are solved by forms below them in the hierarchy. Forms fulfill functions, but those forms present new problems that must be solved at successively deeper levels. Shifting from the problem-solution nomenclature to the equivalent question-answer nomenclature, we can say that the iPhone represented a technological question: How do we create an Internet-capable cellular phone with a software-programmable interactive display? A partial answer came in the form of multi touch capacitive surfaces, opening up a significant design space for user interaction when multiple fingers are used simultaneously. But the opaqueness of existing multitouch surfaces itself became a question: How do we make multi touch surfaces transparent so that the display is visible? The multi touch transparent surface display provided an answer.

In other words, science and technology are both organized into hierarchies of question-and-answer pairs, with any question or answer having two “faces.” One face, pointing downward in the hierarchy, represents a question to an answer just below it in the hierarchy. The other face, pointing upward in the hierarchy, represents an answer to a question just above it in the hierarchy. We emphasize that our depiction of questions as “above” answers and answers as “below” questions is arbitrary — it does not signify relative importance or value but is simply intended to be consistent with common usage. In science, an explanation is deeper and more “foundational” than the fact it explains, especially if it generalizes to explanations of many other facts. Special relativity is, in that sense, deeper than the constancy of c because it answers the question of why c is constant; it also answers the question of how much energy is released during nuclear fission and fusion. In technology, forms are deeper and more “foundational” than the functions they fulfill, especially if they have been adapted to fulfill many other functions. The multi touch transparent surface display is more foundational than the iPhone because it not only helps answer the question of how to create the iPhone, but also helps answer the question of how to create human-interactive displays in general. Rubber is more foundational than a bicycle tire because it not only helps answer the question of how to create a bicycle tire, but also helps answer the question of how to create a myriad of other kinds of tires.

The Network Is Modular: Facilitating Exploitation and Exploration

Closely related scientific questions and answers are organized into what we might call scientific domains, which we will refer to as scientific knowledge modules. Closely interacting technological problems and solutions are organized into engineered components, which we will refer to as technological knowledge modules.

Harvard University Press

Closely related scientific questions are often answerable within a scientific knowledge domain, or scientific knowledge module, drawing on multiple subdomains nested within the larger domain. A question related to some electron transport phenomenon in a particular semiconductor structure lies in the broad domain of semiconductor science but the answer might require an integrated understanding of both the subdomain of electron transport physics as well as the subdomain of the materials science of the synthesized structure. The subquestion associated with electron transport physics might require an integrated understanding of the subdomain of electrons in various kinds of structures (bulk materials, heterojunctions, nanostructures, coupled nanostructures) and of the sub-subdomains of interactions of electrons with phonons in those structures. The subquestion associated with the materials science of the synthesized structure might require an understanding of the sub-subdomains of substrates and epitaxy, thin films, or post materials synthesis fabrication. In other words, we can think of scientific knowledge domains as a modular hierarchy, and think of its subdomains as submodules and sub-submodules.

Closely related technological problems, likewise, are often solved by key technological components, or technological knowledge modules, perhaps integrating multiple subcomponents nested within the larger components. An iPhone is a component itself composed of many subcomponents, and each subcomponent is similarly subdivided. We can think of the “problem” of the iPhone as a component that is “solved” by its subcomponents — an enclosure, a display, a printed circuit board, a camera, and input / output ports. We can think of the “problem” of a printed circuit board as a subcomponent that is “solved” by sub-components that include low-power integrated circuit chips. Conversely, an iPhone is also a component that is itself nested in a hierarchy of use functions. An iPhone might be used as a solution to the problem of “running” a text-messaging app; a text-messaging app might be used as a solution to the problem of sending a mass text message to a friend group; the mass text message might be used as a solution to the problem of organizing the friend group into a protest in Times Square; and the protest in Times Square might be part of a solution to the problem of organizing a wider social movement for some human-desired social cause.

One might ask: Why is scientific and technological knowledge modular? They are modular because they are complex adaptive systems — systems sustained by and adapted to their environment by complex internal changes — and virtually all complex adaptive systems are modular (Simon, 1962). Complex adaptive systems both exploit their environments and explore their environments to improve that exploitation. Modularity enables efficiency, both in the exploitation of existing knowledge about the environment and exploration of that environment to create new knowledge.

The Evercade VS captures the spirit of retro gaming

Between 2016 and 2019, retro gaming had a moment. I mean anothermoment. A very specific one where gaming’s greatest all released “mini” versions of their most iconic consoles. NES? Yep. SNES? Sure. Genesis? You bet and, of course, Sony, SNK, Konami and even Commodore (sorta) got in on the trend too.

Then there was Evercade in 2020 — a refreshingly different take on the new-but-old console idea. Instead of a “mini” version of vintage hardware, it was a new handheld that took cartridges. Each cartridge contained a collection of classic games from different developers. I enjoyed it when I reviewed it.

The idea of potentially unlimited games through actual cartridges was both clever and brave (retro gamers aren’t so known for paying for titles, especially the lesser-known “gems” that Evercade was able to license). Either way, the idea must have caught on as the company soon revealed plans for a more traditional home console version. It’s finally here and it brings a few interesting perks over its handheld sibling.

The Evercade VS (as the $99 system is called) shares the same cartridge format as the handheld, so you won’t need to re-buy anything. In fact, you can play on one, save your game and pick it up on the other (just like you’d hope, to be fair). It’s worth mentioning that two titles (both Namco collections) are only compatible with the handheld due to licensing issues.

James Trew / Engadget

There are other perks to the home-based console, too. Most notably support for multiplayer (up to four players where games support it), WiFi for over-the-air updates and a jazzy new interface. Oh, and the VS can hold two cartridges at a time, meaning you can be working on one game and leave it there while you play another, or simply just have more games to choose from on your home screen at any one time — handy given that every single cartridge Evercade offers is a multicart. The carts are even hot-swappable so you don’t need to restart the system, just slot a new one right in and away you go.

As is tradition with this new wave of retro home consoles, the VS is small and light. So light, you’ll definitely want to make sure your HDMI cable has some slack in it, else it’ll lift the VS off the ground or pull it back behind your TV. The good news is that almost any USB port will power it. My not-very-good seven year-old LG TV can easily power the VS through its USB ports meaning I don’t have to occupy another outlet.

The VS looks like a direct relative of the original Evercade with the same vintage white and red decals with a dash of gray here and there for buttons. One nice little touch is the NES-style “flap” that covers the cartridge slots. This does mean you don’t get the old-school vibes of having a cartridge poking out the top, but at least your games are safely hidden from the elements. But homages to old consoles like that seem to matter to fans of the classics. It weirdly matters a lot. Even if that’s the laborious ritual of having to get off the couch to change the games or power it down. Nostalgia isn’t always about the good things.

Fire the VS up and you’ll be presented with a Netflix-like menu of all the titles on whatever cartridges are inserted. The handheld, with its limited screen size, had you flip through each title one by one. Here, they’re laid out in rows with full cover art. Click through and you’ll be presented a little more info about the game and its controls along with the option to play it (naturally) or pick up where you left off with your most recent save.

Blaze

Evercade has tried to strike a balance between modern features and retro authenticity. Save states are one modern concession but most other things — such as cheat codes or in-game recording — are absent. The same goes for the visual look and feel. Under the settings menu, you have three display options: Original Ratio, Pixel Perfect and Full Screen. It’s always nice to have options as modern TVs are very different to what you might have plugged the original hardware into.

You can, of course, add scanlines (if you must). There are also some options for different themes and backgrounds etc. But all-told the menu is simple and clear and all the better for it.

When the handheld launched, the library of cartridges and games was decent but modest. There were collections from mainstays like Atari, Namco and Interplay. These held some classics like Pac-Man, Earthworm Jim and Crystal Castles. Then there were bundles from newer developers that have scooped up various IPs over the years. These tend to hold more “hidden gems” like Piko’s Dragon View (a solid RPG first published by Kemco). In fact the VS comes bundled with two of these collections to get you going (one from Data East and one from Technos).

Along with these well-known and lesser-known golden oldies are some collections of new 8- and 16-bit games. The net result is that the Evercade had the foundations to become something of an all-inclusive retro experience with new and old titles side-by-side. Now, with the Evercade VS, the company has added a new line of arcade-first collections denoted by their purple (rather than red) packaging. Here you’ll find button-mashers like Double Dragon 2 and Bad Dudes vs DragonNinja to further round out the library.

James Trew / Engadget

One intriguing option in the menu is “Secret.” Here you’ll be asked to enter a code. What the code/s is/are is, well, a secret, but one can presume it unlocks some extra games or content. Along the same theme, there are hidden games on the console itself a-la Snail Maze on the Sega Master System.

And… there are more things to unlock, too. Evercade has hinted that certain cartridge combinations, when inserted together, will unlock hidden titles. I was able to find two such secret games with the cartridges I have here, and there are definitely more. I won’t spoil things by saying exactly how you find them, but the UI will let you know. It’s subtle though.

Each cartridge says how many games are in the collection on the front, so if both have 10, the UI might say 21. Then you might have to check the back of the box to find which game that’s now in your list isn’t officially mentioned on either cartridge’s box. Thanks to the VS’s WiFi connection, this is theoretically something that can be expanded over time, too. A nice, fun touch nonetheless — especially for collectors.

James Trew / Engadget

One minor nitpick might be the controller: Your mileage may vary due to different physiology, but it isn’t my favorite. The general design is fine and comfortable, but it doesn’t feel quite as ergonomic as the handheld or other controllers to me. Also the in-game menu button doubles as the pause button, which can be a little confusing if, like me, you find yourself reaching for Start.

On the plus side, there are now four shoulder buttons instead of the handheld’s two and the cables are plenty long enough to reach across most living rooms. You can, of course, use the handheld as an extra controller, but it needs a specific cable — I tried the USB cable that came in the box and, no dice. That cable is about $10, while an additional controller is about $20, so it’s worth weighing up the benefit before deciding which way to go. The VS also supports basically any standard USB controller, so if you have one laying around that you like, you can use that at the expense of retro authenticity.

All in all, the Evercade VS is a pleasant surprise. The cartridge-based model will always be appealing to some and a deterrent to others. But for those that love rarities and a good dollop of nostalgia, the Evercade ecosystem is shaping up to be more than just a gimmick. With the recent wave of new indie games also making it to the platform it could find itself being a vibrant platform for new games, too. One where indie developers can not only enjoy seeing their games have a physical release, but find new audiences, and that’s never a bad thing.

What even is the metaverse?

For most of this year, Facebook has been talking about its plans for the metaverse, pledging to lose a lot of money in order to bolster its ambitions in the space. Yesterday, the company announced that it would rebrand its corporate identity to “Meta” in order to double down on this commitment. (And, you know, the other reason.) The metaverse, as Meta describes it, “is a new phase of interconnected virtual experiences using technologies like virtual and augmented reality.” Given the number of companies who are now starting to talk about the metaverse in very real terms, we have to answer one, very obvious question: What the Hell is a metaverse?

Everything that follows is, to a certain extent, meant to be read with the right number of ahs, ahems, polite coughs and other caveats. After all, a number of companies have started using the term in order to bask in the reflected glory thrown out by the metaverse hype train. Much like “Web 2.0,” “The metaverse” has a loosey-goosey definition that is being used to define whatever is coming next for the internet. A virtual world that mirrors our own? Metaverse. A way to buy and sell NFTs of Elon Musk dressed as a dog? Metaverse. A new way of creating commerce and communications? Metaverse. It’s likely that when we look back at the metaverse a decade or two from now, should it actually happen, it’ll look vastly different to what its boosters predict.

In his Founders Letter, CEO Mark Zuckerberg describes the metaverse as “an embodied internet where you’re in the experience, not just looking at it.” He goes on to talk about how “in this future, you will be able to teleport instantly as a hologram to be at the office without a commute, at a concert with friends, or in your parents’ living room to catch up.” And then cites the benefits of that, including a reduced carbon footprint and less time stuck in traffic.

The easiest and most obvious point of comparison is the metaverse as represented in pop culture. Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash (where the term originates), Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One and the Wachowskis’ The Matrix are all examples of this virtual, digital-world-that-actually-mirrors-our-own. Those with (long) internet memories will recall projects like Second Life, which promised to do this sort of thing 18 years ago. And some folks have suggested that Roblox and Fortnite, which are both games and virtual spaces where stuff other than games takes place, are forms of metaverse.

Meta’s interest is clear as a way of building out its work in the virtual space through its acquisition of Oculus. Sir Nick Clegg, who after his political defenestration and inexplicable Knighting became Facebook’s vice president of Global Affairs and Communications in 2018, wrote that the metaverse is designed to create a “greater sense of ‘virtual presence.’” The Guardian reported that Clegg claims to use Meta’s virtual presence service, Horizon Workrooms, to take his “Monday morning meetings in the metaverse with a virtual table and whiteboard.” You may be thinking, then, that the metaverse will be little more than Zoom but with a requirement to spend more to own some pricey VR gear.

Alexandru Voica, Meta’s Technology Communications Manager in Europe, says that a better way to understand the metaverse is as “the next evolution of the internet.” He used the video call we were on as an example of something that the metaverse could hopefully improve. “We’re meeting in this 2D video call, and it’s great compared to a phone call but it’s not as good as if we were sitting together [in the real world],” he said, “The idea is, how can you take this interaction and get it as close to you and I being together [in a public space].” He added that the metaverse wasn’t envisioned as supplanting real-world connections, but to make virtual experiences more lifelike.

Voica added that these virtual engagements will feel a lot more real with the use of technologies like VR, AR and spatial audio. When you have a series of boxes on a Zoom screen, for instance, it’s harder for your brain to process all of that information at once. In the virtual world, with people’s audio directed toward you from wherever their avatar is sitting, it’s easier for you to engage.

Some of this feeds back to Mark Zuckerberg’s ‘Next Decade’ manifesto from the start of 2020, where improvements in AR and VR technology will better empower remote work. Obviously that was before COVID-19 made remote work a necessity for millions of people, and before it became one of the defining culture-war non-issues this year.

Another common frame of reference is Matthew Ball’s essay on what a metaverse is from January 2020. At the time, he said that any metaverse would be a persistent and synchronous virtual environment with its own economy. Ball added that the metaverse would enable “would-be laborers” to “participate in the ‘high value’ economy via virtual labor.” He cited the practice of Gold Farming — where players of a large MMO in a low-wage country works for hours to earn large amounts of virtual currency (or goods) which they then sell on to other players for real-world cash — as a current example of this “virtual labor.”

Kevin Dietsch via Getty Images

Ball went on to say that the metaverse would also offer “unprecedented interoperability of data.” A user would be able to move objects freely between worlds, like being able to take a skin for a gun in Counter-Strike and carry it over to Fortnite. To be honest, the idea that games publishers would agree to the free-sharing of their intellectual property, with all the lost profits that would entail, is the most unbelievable idea in the document.

But even Epic Games’ CEO Tim Sweeney is open to the idea of some cross-communication in some form or another. This July, Sweeney told The New York Times that said a “tunnel” could exist between, in this example, the virtual worlds of Roblox and Fortnite. What’s not clear, however, is what a user could take from one end of that tunnel to the other beyond their own, custom-designed avatar.

Voica says that this cross-sharing of IP will be vital to ensuring the success of the metaverse. He used the example of a user buying a designer jacket, as a digital item which could be worn by their avatar as they went about their day. That item doesn’t have any value if you’re only able to wear it in the specific designer’s own virtual world. “It would be like buying a Manchester United shirt and only being able to wear it inside Manchester United’s stadium,” he said. And he believes that consumers wouldn’t buy into a system with such a limitation, saying that “people don’t want to be locked in.”

There’s also a line of thinking that a metaverse will actually describe the unification of the digital and real worlds. AR glasses that overlay a rich data set onto the street as you go about your day, outsourcing tasks from your own brain. That will, naturally, require smart glasses with transparent displays capable of actually reproducing this data in a useful manner. Not to mention a quantum leap in computer vision, data processing and battery life to make it viable for whole-day use. This, of course, will also require a dramatic shift in how we view privacy in public and private spaces a decade on from the privacy objections raised when Google Glass was briefly en vogue.

This September, The Washington Post interviewed Sima Sistani, the co-founder of Houseparty who now works for Epic Games. They said that the metaverse would be the thing that replaces Social Media to suck away all of our free time. Sistani believes that, unlike now, where people simply create images and post status updates, the next generation will enjoy collaborative experiences with one another. And that the next generation of content creators will create fresh experiences for the rest of us to enjoy, once we’ve paid for them.

One of the things that is kinda/sorta clear, at least from the metaverse’s boosters, is that the platform won’t be owned by a single person or company. Instead, it will — hopefully — operate much like the internet does now, with multiple providers offering infrastructure to build a cohesive whole. Or at least, that’s the theory, and there’s the additional hope that decentralized technologies will help reduce the potential for a single arbiter to rule over this new frontier.

Projects like Decentraland, its own virtual environment, are already working on this principle, with its economy running on Ethereum’s blockchain. As The New York Times reported earlier this year, Decentraland’s market has already seen real-world brokers buying up parcels of virtual real estate. And there are already art shows and casinos in operation inside Decentraland, all of which can be tied to some form of digital commerce. This is sadly at-odds with the potential for a post-scarcity digital utopia that a metaverse could theoretically foster.

Snap CEO Evan Spiegel speaks with WSJ’s @JoannaStern at #WSJTechLivehttps://t.co/n88FkIT5Bx

— The Wall Street Journal (@WSJ) October 19, 2021

NARRATOR

He was. https://t.co/U4XnXCmeeG

— jack⚡️ (@jack) October 20, 2021

Pop-culture descriptions of metaverses commonly present them less as a social good and more as a symptom of impending collapse. Even the reference onanism that is Ready Player One shows a world that has slid into economic, social and environmental decline. When asked about the metaverse, Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel cited Snow Crash’s “virtual world created by an evil monopolist.” Not long after, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey agreed that Neal Stephenson’s novel was intended as a warning, rather than a guide. [An aside, in Snow Crash, poor users accessing the metaverse through a public terminal are rendered in monochrome, and are derided by the wider society as a consequence — something that was replicated in the real-world by Fortnite players who bullied “Default” players who didn’t buy custom skins for their avatars.]

Now, Meta believes enough in the metaverse that it’s hoisted its flag, and fortune, to the idea for the next few years. And it’s hard to think that, however convenient, its metaversal ambitions are a smokescreen for the very real issues the platform is currently facing. Titles like Roblox and Fortnite provide a vague sense of how a persistent, universal online world could hold the attention of users for thousands of hours, but those are for now curated experiences. And projects like Decentraland offer a hint as to how a virtual economy would function, but nothing yet gives us a cohesive grand narrative of the metaverse which can show us where it’s going. In many ways, companies like Meta are trying to put together this jigsaw without much of an idea of what it’s going to look like when it’s finished.