Ron Burgundy is in the White House. No, that’s not the plot to “Anchorman 4,” but the work of Dmitry Shapiro, founder and CEO of San Diego-basedaugmented reality startup GoMeta. Shapiro placed a virtual version of the notorious news anchor in the Oval Office when he recently demoed his app to Variety. Now, anyone visiting the President of the United States just has to open theMetaverse app to discover Burgundy, ready to talk nonsense.
Metaverse is an app that works similar to Pokemon Go in that it lets users discover characters ranging from Burgundy to talking aliens in the real world simply by going to places and pointing their phone camera at the world around them. But unlike Pokemon Go, Metaverse wants to be more than a game. Shapiro’s ambitious plan is to allow anyone to build their own phone-based augmented reality experiences.
“Malls could be learning experiences for children,” he said, painting a picture of math problems lurking around every corner as part of a gigantic educational treasure hunt. People will be able to use Metaverse to annotate the real world, turn their morning walk into an augmented reality fitness parkour, collaborate on maps of public restrooms, or even build their own Pokemon Go clones based on their favorite characters. “Get ready for the long tail of interactive,” he said.
This isn’t the first time that Shapiro is trying to empower the long tail. Back in 2005, Dmitry Shapiro was one of the early pioneers of online video. Shapiro’s site Veoh debuted a few months after YouTube with pretty much the same idea, allowing anyone and everyone to upload their own videos and present them to a global audience. “When you allow everyone to publish, magical things happen,” Shaprio recalled during a recent interview.
In Veoh’s case, a few bad things happened as well: In 2007, Universal Music sued Veoh for copyright infringement. The label lost the drawn-out court case in 2013, but mounting legal costs had forced Veoh into bankruptcy in 2010, leading to a fire sale. Shapiro went on to work for Myspace and then Google. Now, he’s back to once again power self-publishing — only this time, he isn’t empowering people to create and distribute videos, but augmented reality experiences.
GoMeta first launched its Metaverse app in October, and has since gradually given a small but growing number of users access to features that allow them to build their own augmented reality experiences. The easiest way to do so is via the mobile app’s experience builder, which basically allows users to leave virtual objects or characters where ever they are.
Experiences are public by default, but can also be shared with only select contacts. Metaverse offers a built-in library of objects and avatars, including Ron Burgundy, but users can also upload their own graphics. And a simple scripting mechanism makes it possible to build multiple-choice quizzes, or treasure hunts that require users to visit certain places in a pre-defined order. There are also rewards, and a rudimentary in-game currency.
The in-app builder is fairly bare-bones at this point, but users have already built a number of interesting experiences with it. A Los Angeles-based Metaverse user recently created augmented reality experiences for the local Zoo. Users who install Metaverse on their iPhone are being alerted of the experiences at each exhibit, with a virtual zookeeper called Steve dishing out information about the animals and even engaging them in simple multiple-choice quizzes. Another userturned famous Los Angeles film locations into an augmented reality experience. And some people just use the app to leave their friends notes at bus stations and other meeting spots, said Shapiro. “It’s like reading post-it notes.”
To be fair, Metaverse is a lot less polished than Pokemon Go. Where the latter challenges users to catch twitchy Pokemons that may dodge your Pokeballs, Metaverse simply presents augmented reality experiences without much of a game-like challenge. Creators can make users hunt for clues, and even require them to collect certain virtual goods before they can unlock the same clue, but individual experiences are a lot less addictive than a world-encompassing game like Pokemon Go.
Of course, with that long tail also comes a possible myriad of problems. Pokemon Go maker Niantic Labs repeatedly struggled with issues around real-world privacy, with in-game locations luring players in people’s backyards. Add thousands of publishers to the mix, and you’ll inevitably end up with a plethora of similar issues.
Shapiro acknowledged that this could be an issue, but seemed to put the onus on the creators of Metaverse experiences, as well as its users. He did say that Metaverse would eventually filter experiences to show users only the things that are relevant to them, much in the same way that Facebook moderates its news feed. “It’s very similar to a social network.”
That comparison may not console everyone, as social networks have been increasingly scrutinized for their failures to deal with harassment, fake news and a number of related problems.
Then again, bringing some of the discussions that have happen on social networks back to the real world may also make people care more about that world. Already, one user resorted to Metaverse to protest the recent election. Expect more of this in the coming months. After all, not everyone is okay with someone like Ron Burgundy being in the White House.