What a 1994 Bill Gates keynote tells us about the metaverse

If there’s one thing we know for sure about the metaverse, it’s that we don’t know anything for sure about the metaverse.

Not yet, anyhow. Theoretically, it will be an open, shared experience that’s at least vaguely akin to virtual reality, augmented reality, or some combination thereof — a digital environment that we feel like we’re living inside, rather than observing on a screen. But for all the relentless hype the metaverse is getting, it’s dependent on the entire industry settling on a bevy of complex technical standards that aren’t even works-in-progress at the moment. As The Washington Post’s Will Oremus wrote last December, “The metaverse doesn’t exist yet, and it probably won’t anytime soon.”

For now, discussions of life in the metaverse — from fashion trends to competitive sports — generally turn out to involve existing proprietary virtual worlds such as Roblox, Minecraftand the venerable proto-metaverse Second Life. Or, in some cases, they’re unabashedly speculative, such as Anna Wiener’s recent New Yorker look at money in the metaverse. Still, that isn’t stopping metaverse boosters from telling us what it’s going to be like — most notably Mark Zuckerberg, the guy whose enthusiasm for the concept led him to rename his entire company after it.

To find a comparable era of technologists treating an idea as if it’s a reality, you need to reach back to the early-to-mid 1990s. That’s when the buzzword they obsessed over was the “information superhighway” —the national high-speed computing network that would revolutionize how consumers shopped, kept themselves informed and entertained, and a whole lot more. And on November 14, 1994, at the COMDEX trade show, Microsoft’s Bill Gates dedicated his keynote to “this next era that we’re moving into,” with an on-stage presentation interspersed with chunks of a high-tech crime drama set in the futuristic year of 2005. (Side note: I attended COMDEX that year but didn’t bother to attend Gates’ talk, which I caught up with only when it showed up on YouTube in this century.)

Last October, at Facebook’s Connect conference, Zuckerberg introduced the company’s new focus on the metaverse and rebranding as Meta. He illustrated his talk with video clips depicting the dazzling experiences the metaverse would unlock — such as being transported to a seat at a concert halfway around the world — much as Gates had done with the information superhighway 27 years earlier.

Zuckerberg’s keynote and accompanying videos certainly spell out his vision in ambitious detail. But viewed in the fullness of time, the Gates presentation tells us more about the relationship between technological futurism and what’s likely to transpire in subsequent years.

In Gates’ 1994 COMDEX mini-movie, the technology of 2005 is the star. Everybody uses pocketable wireless devices, which, among other things, can be used to pay for items such as coffee. A couple of plainclothes cops have an SUV equipped with a giant screen that displays maps and video calls; one uses a tablet computer that can transcribe interviews on the fly. A woman watching TV pulls up David Letterman and Oprah on demand, not when their shows happen to be broadcast. Her teenage son researches pre-Columbian art using a graphical browser and then gives a multimedia presentation on the subject at school. After he’s struck by a car while evading bad guys — apologies for the spoiler — a remote doctor uses a video call to diagnose his injuries while he’s still in an ambulance.

In 1994, all of this was gee-whiz stuff — even the flat-screen displays depicted in the film would have felt like a glimpse of tomorrow. But as I experienced Gates’ imagined 2005 today, I had to keep reminding myself that it was supposed to be full of wonders. What it shows looks an awful lot like smartphones, Google Maps, Zoom, Apple Pay, the iPad and Surface, Otter, Hulu, telehealth, and other tools of everyday living circa 2022.

I’m going to go this full hour without mentioning a single Microsoft product — if I can control myself, that is. ”

Bill Gates, 1994

And yet, all the ways in which Gates’ next-generation tech failed to line up with what we actually got are also fascinating. For instance, the pocketable devices are “Wallet PCs,” a class of gadget that Gates describes as “a grown-up pager.” People don’t make voice calls on them or use them to snap photos — but they do wield them as remote controls for larger screens in a way that never became commonplace in the real world. It’s unclear how big a role the internet and web play in the movie’s scenarios; Gates mentioned them only briefly. And he was overly optimistic about how quickly some of the innovations he predicted would come to pass; in many cases, they weren’t fully baked until well after 2005.

Gates stressed that he wasn’t saying that Microsoft would make everything he showed possible— “I’m going to go this full hour without mentioning a single Microsoft product — if I can control myself, that is,” he joked. But in subsequent years, the company created an array of products and platforms that were very much like those he’d shown to COMDEX attendees: Pocket PCs, Tablet PCs, Auto PCs, and more. None of them were enduring hits; Apple, Google, Zoom, and other companies did a much better job of turning 1994’s science fiction into successful businesses.

Basically, if you were in Gates’ Vegas audience back in 1994, dismissing his visions as pure fantasy would have been a bad idea: He got many of the broad brushstrokes right. But it would also have been a mistake to confuse his confident air for the ability to predict the future. Many things happened differently than depicted in his movie, and many of them occurred well after its 2005 setting. And by the time they did, we lived in a much less Microsoft-centric world than we had in 1994.

Bearing all that in mind might help you gauge how to think about Zuckerberg’s metaverse pronouncements, whether you’re an optimist or pessimist about the technology’s potential — or, like me, are still making up your mind. If his prognostications turn out to have been even vaguely on target, it will be quite an accomplishment. But the certitude of his presentation is no guarantee that Meta will be a major player; it seems equally possible that the metaverse will be defined and dominated by companies that haven’t even been founded yet. (To be fair to Zuckerberg, he did say that “the reality is that no one knows exactly which models are going to work and make this sustainable, so we’re going to approach this with humility and openness.”)

One final lesson from Gates’ keynote: By the time the world it envisioned became real — more or less — nobody was still jabbering about “the information superhighway,” or, as Gates called it, “the information highway.” It was just the internet.

That’s why I wouldn’t take the “metaverse” too seriously as a name for the concept it describes. Buzzwords are cheap; it’s building stuff is hard. Once the metaverse is finally upon us, who knows what we’ll call it — or if we’ll need a new name for it at all?

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