If the Metaverse is Officially Over, Someone Should Tell Apple

Lon Harris
Lon Harris is a contributor to dot.LA. His work has also appeared on ScreenJunkies, RottenTomatoes and Inside Streaming.
If the Metaverse is Officially Over, Someone Should Tell Apple
Evan Xie

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Disney CEO Bob Iger recently announced plans to lay off around 7,000 employees over the next few months, as part of a broader effort to slash costs. (Iger hopes to save $5.5 billion in total, with $3 billion of that coming from the content side of the company.) Today, the Wall Street Journal reports that some of these losses will come from the company’s “next-generation storytelling and consumer experiences unit,” including the relatively small division that was working on metaverse development and strategy.

Disney’s 50-employee metaverse group was put in place by previous CEO Bob Chapek in February 2022, and was led by former consumer products executive Mike White. The team had been tasked with finding ways to use cutting-edge technologies to tell interactive stories utilizing Disney’s familiar stable of IP and branded characters. In a memo sent at the time of its creation, Chapek said he envisioned the team creating “an entirely new paradigm for how audiences experience and engage with [Disney] stories.”

According to WSJ, most of the team will lose their jobs, while White will remain with the company in a different role. Beyond just branded Metaverse apps, the team was also investigating ways to integrate AR and VR technology into Disney’s theme park attractions, fantasy sports offerings, and other consumer-facing experiences.

Notably, it wasn’t just Chapek who was eager to explore opportunities in the metaverse. Just one year ago, Iger personally invested in the tech startup Genies Inc., which helps users to create their own bespoke metaverse avatars. In his “exit interview” with New York Times reporter Kara Swisher upon exiting Disney the last time, in January of 2022, Iger spoke enthusiastically about his vision for a “dispersed metaverse,” in which users would maintain a single avatar and use it to explore a variety of separate digital realms and experiences.

Is the metaverse dead?

In just one short year, the metaverse trend seems to have not only stalled out but even reversed. It was only in late 2021 when Facebook’s parent company rebranded itself as “Meta,” putting its metaverse ambitions front and center, and they’re already in the midst of their own round of painful layoffs. Meta plans to shed around 10,000 employees in waves over the next few months, while winding down support for once-hyped web3 initiatives like NFTs. In February, Microsoft shut down its own metaverse team of nearly 100 employees, which had been focused on potential industrial applications for the technology. In September of 2022, Snapchat cut 20% of its employee base and abandoned its own AR and web3-related projects.

There are always a variety of factors at play in any kind of big-picture, industry-wide trend, but a distinct lack of interest in the virtual metaverse projects from the mainstream public inarguably lies at the heart of this sentiment shift. Back in October of 2022, WSJ reported on internal Meta documents that confirmed slower-than-expected adoption of the company’s metaverse tools and initiatives, particularly the flagship consumer offering, Horizon Worlds. Meta had originally set a goal of 500,000 monthly active Horizon Worlds users by the close of 2022; by October, that figure was sitting around 200,000.

Most Horizon Worlds visitors generally stopped returning to the app after their first month, and by the fall, the app’s user base was already shrinking rather than growing. According to internal Meta stats, only 9% of the app’s environments are ever visited by more than 50 people, and most Horizon Worlds’ creations have never been visited a single time. Surveys of Meta users cited issues like glitchy technology, underpopulated environments, and an overall lack of clarity about how to use the app as significant problems.

These issues also compound one another over time. If Horizon Worlds develops a reputation for always being sadly depopulated and empty, it only becomes more difficult to convince new people to join, thus making the place feel more popular and inviting. Game developers and marketing experts reading articles and newsletters just like this one, about a virtual metaverse in instant decline, and inevitably turn their attention elsewhere, potentially costing the metaverse its much-needed killer application.

Is there any hope?

Still, it’s premature to start writing the final Metaverse obituary just yet. There remain some obscure signs of hope that the idea’s reputation could still rebound down the road, particularly if a popular app ever gets released. Apple has continued work behind the scenes on its unreleased AR/VR headset, despite potentially entering the market with a few key disadvantages. The device will apparently cost around $3000, will have an external battery that needs to be replaced every few hours, and according to Bloomberg, it’s uncomfortable to wear. Additionally, the headset seems likely to launch without a standout must-have app or game. Nonetheless, CNET reports that Apple executives expect interest in the project to build over time.

VentureBeat also notes that, even if direct consumer interest in the metaverse continues to stall out, other applications could nonetheless find their way to market. Siemens Energy reports that metaverse applications could potentially save the company’s maintenance and inspection teams billions of dollars by eliminating downtime. And even if gamers never embrace bringing VR headsets into their homes for personal use, theme parks, media companies, and other businesses seem likely to find ways to apply metaverse experiences for custom marketing or entertainment purposes. Just as “AI” technologies went through a number of re-evaluations and re-imaginings before capturing the world’s imagination with apps like ChatGPT and Dall-E, the metaverse could also potentially reinvent itself down the road as an experience that genuinely engages people and leaves them wanting more.

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Creandum’s Carl Fritjofsson on the Differences Between the Startup Ecosystem in Europe and the U.S.

Decerry Donato

Decerry Donato is a reporter at dot.LA. Prior to that, she was an editorial fellow at the company. Decerry received her bachelor's degree in literary journalism from the University of California, Irvine. She continues to write stories to inform the community about issues or events that take place in the L.A. area. On the weekends, she can be found hiking in the Angeles National forest or sifting through racks at your local thrift store.

Carl Fritjofsson
Carl Fritjofsson

On this episode of the LA Venture podcast, Creandum General Partner Carl Fritjofsson talks about his venture journey, why Generative-AI represents an opportunity to rethink products from the ground up, and why Q4 2023 and Q1 2024 could be "pretty bloody" for startups.

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AI Is Undergoing Some Growing Pains at a Pivotal Moment in Its Development

Lon Harris
Lon Harris is a contributor to dot.LA. His work has also appeared on ScreenJunkies, RottenTomatoes and Inside Streaming.
AI Is Undergoing Some Growing Pains at a Pivotal Moment in Its Development
Evan Xie

One way to measure just how white-hot AI development has become: the world is running out of the advanced graphics chips necessary to power AI programs. While Intel central processing units were once the most sought-after industry leaders, advanced graphics chips like Nvidia’s are designed to run multiple computations simultaneously, a baseline necessity for many AI models.

An early version of ChatGPT required around 10,000 graphics chips to run. By some estimates, newer updates require 3-5 times that amount of processing power. As a result of this skyrocketing demand, shares of Nvidia have jumped 165% so far this year.

Building on this momentum, this week, Nvidia revealed a line-up of new AI-related projects including an Israeli supercomputer project and a platform utilizing AI to help video game developers. For smaller companies and startups, however, getting access to the vital underlying technology that powers AI development is already becoming less about meritocracy and more about “who you know.” According to the Wall Street Journal, Elon Musk scooped up a valuable share of server space from Oracle this year before anyone else got a crack at it for his new OpenAI rival, X.AI.

The massive demand for Nvidia-style chips has also created a lucrative secondary market, where smaller companies and startups are often outbid by larger and more established rivals. One startup founder compares the fevered crush of the current chip marketplace to toilet paper in the early days of the pandemic. For those companies that don’t get access to the most powerful chips or enough server space in the cloud, often the only remaining option is to simplify their AI models, so they can run more efficiently.

Beyond just the design of new AI products, we’re also at a key moment for users and consumers, who are still figuring out what sorts of applications are ideal for AI and which ones are less effective, or potentially even unethical or dangerous. There’s now mounting evidence that the hype around some of these AI tools is reaching a lot further than the warnings about its drawbacks.

JP Morgan Chase is training a new AI chatbot to help customers choose financial securities and stocks, known as IndexGPT. For now, they insist that it’s purely supplemental, designed to advise and not replace money managers, but it may just be a matter of time before job losses begin to hit financial planners along with everyone else.

A lawyer in New York just this week was busted by a judge for using ChatGPT as part of his background research. When questioned by the judge, lawyer Peter LoDuco revealed that he’d farmed out some research to a colleague, Steven A. Schwartz, who had consulted with ChatGPT on the case. Schwartz was apparently unaware that the AI chatbot was able to lie – transcripts even show him questioning ChatGPT’s responses and the bot assuring him that these were, in fact, real cases and citations.

New research by Marucie Jakesch, a doctoral student from Cornell University, suggests that even users who are more aware than Schwartz about how AI works and its limitations may still be impacted in subtle and subconscious ways by its output.

Not to mention, according to data from Intelligent.com, high school and college students already – on the whole – prefer utilizing ChatGPT for help with schoolwork over a human tutor. The survey also notes that advanced students tend to report getting more out of using ChatGPT-type programs than beginners, likely because they have more baseline knowledge and can construct better and more informative prompts.

But therein lies the big drawback to using ChatGPT and other AI tools for education. At least so far, they’re reliant on the end user writing good prompts and having some sense about how to organize a lesson plan for themselves. Human tutors, on the other hand, have a lot of personal experience in these kinds of areas. Someone who instructs others in foreign languages professionally probably has a good inherent sense of when you need to focus on expanding your vocabulary vs. drilling certain kinds of verb and tense conjugations. They’ve helped many other students prepare for tests, quizzes, and real-world challenges, while computer software can only guess at what kinds of scenarios its proteges will face.

A recent Forbes editorial by academic Thomas Davenport suggests that, while AI is getting all the hype right now, other forms of computing or machine learning are still going to be more effective for a lot of basic tasks. From a marketing perspective in 2023, it’s helpful for a tech company to throw the “AI” brand around, but it’s not magically going to be the answer for every problem.

Davenport points to a similar (if smaller) whirlwind of excitement around IBM’s “Watson” in the early 2010s, when it was famously able to take out human “Jeopardy!’ champions. It turns out, Watson was a general knowledge engine, really best suited for jobs like playing “Jeopardy.” But after the software gained celebrity status, people tried to use it for all sorts of advanced applications, like designing cancer drugs or providing investment advice. Today, few people turn to Watson for these kinds of solutions. It’s just the wrong tool for the job. In that same way, Davenport suggests that generative AI is in danger of being misapplied.

While the industry and end users both race to solve the AI puzzle in real time, governments are also feeling pressure to step in and potentially regulate the AI industry. This is much easier said than done, though, as politicians face the same kinds of questions and uncertainty as everyone else.

OpenAI CEO Sam Altman has been calling for governments to begin regulating AI, but just this week, he suggested that the company might pull out of the European Union entirely if the regulations were too onerous. Specifically, Altman worries that attempts to narrow what kinds of data can be used to train AI systems – specifically blocking copyrighted material – might well prove impossible. “If we can comply, we will, and if we can’t, we’ll cease operating,” Altman told Time. “We will try, but there are technical limits to what’s possible.” (Altman has already started walking this threat back, suggesting he has no immediate plans to exit the EU.)

In the US, The White House has been working on a “Blueprint for an AI Bill of Rights,” but it’s non-binding, just a collection of largely vague suggestions. It’s one thing to agree “consumers shouldn’t face discrimination from an algorithm” and “everyone should be protected from abusive data practices and have agency over how their data is used.” But enforcement is an entirely different animal. A lot of these issues already exist in tech, and are much larger than AI, and the US government already doesn’t do much about them.

Additionally, it’s possible AI regulations won’t work well at all if they aren’t global. Even if you set some policies and get an entire nation’s government to agree, how to set similar worldwide protocols? What if US and Europe agree but India doesn’t? Everyone around the world accesses roughly the same internet, so without any kind of international standard, it’s going to be much harder for individual nations to enforce specific rules. As with so many other AI developments, there’s inherent danger in patchwork regulations; it could allow some companies, or regions, or players to move forward while others are unfairly or ineffectively stymied or held back.

The same kinds of socio-economic concerns around AI that we have nationally – some sectors of the work force left behind, the wealthiest and most established players coming in to the new market with massive advantages, the rapid spread of misinformation – are all, in actuality, global concerns. Just as the hegemony of Microsoft and Google threaten the ability of new players to enter the AI space, the West’s early dominance of AI tech threatens to push out companies and innovations from emerging markets like Southeast Asia, Subsaharan Africa, and Central America. Left unfettered, AI could potentially deepen social, economic, and digital divisions both within and between all of these societies.

Undaunted, some governments aren’t waiting around for these tools to develop any further before they start attempting to regulate them. New York City has already set up some rules about how AI can be used during the hiring process while will take effect in July. The law requires any company using AI software in hiring to notify candidates that it’s being used, and to have independent auditors check the system annually for bias.

This sort of piecemeal figure-it-out-as-we-go approach is probably what’s going to be necessary, at least short-term, as AI development shows zero signs of slowing down or stopping any time soon. Though there’s some disagreement among experts, most analysts agree with Wharton professor and economist Jeremy Siegel, who told CNBC this week that AI is not yet a bubble. He pointed to the Nvidia earnings as a sign the market remains healthy and not overly frothy. So, at least for now, the feverish excitement around AI is not going to burst like a late ‘90s startup stock. The world needs to prepare as if this technology is going to be with us for a while.

Rivian CEO Teases R2, New Features in Instagram AMA

David Shultz

David Shultz reports on clean technology and electric vehicles, among other industries, for dot.LA. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Outside, Nautilus and many other publications.

Rivian CEO Teases R2, New Features in Instagram AMA

Rivian CEO RJ Scaringe took to Instagram last weekend to answer questions from the public about his company and its future. Topics covered included new colors, sustainability, production ramp, new products and features. Speaking of which, viewers also got a first look at the company’s much-anticipated R2 platform, albeit made of clay and covered by a sheet, but hey, that’s…something. If you don’t want to watch the whole 33 minute video, which is now also on Youtube, we’ve got the highlights for you.

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