XR, the Metaverse, and Journalism: A Candid Conversation,
Creative technologist and futurist Wesa Aapro, currently serving as Metaverse Lead at Finland's public broadcaster Yle, has been a much appreciated international colleague and sparring partner for several years now. Following an XR/metaverse session at one of our recent team meetings, we decided to continue the intriguing discussion online – and turn it into an interview. Here's the result.
Right now, it seems that the "metaverse" is really just another hype, quickly coming to an end in 2023. Even marketing gurus now admit the thing is basically a mixed bag of immersive media and probably not "the next internet". Meanwhile, XR headsets don't sell as well as their makers had hoped for. Now I know that you're both an XR veteran, a down-to-earth person – and a fan of the term "metaverse". So: What's your perspective here? Why and how do you still follow the vision?
Ok, I'll have to elaborate a bit: I spent the lockdown working next to an architect. We didn't work together, but sat on the same couch every day. At some point, watching her work, something clicked in my head: I realized that the 3D blueprints for new and renovated buildings – which are stored in a database – are actually some sort of digital twins. But usually no one accesses them once a project is completed. Now if we had access to that database, we could create a mobile AR app that can “x-ray” walls for electric wires, water pipes and such!
AR is a window to the metaverse. But it doesn’t need to be connected to physical reality: fantasy 3D blueprints are just as fine. And AR isn't the only window. There are lots of ways to access spatial content. I realized that the metaverse is already here. I started to think of it as some sort of horizon for 3D development that can't be defined in detail. What marketing departments proclaim is irrelevant. The 3D blueprint of my building is a metaverse asset waiting to be accessed via an XR device. The 3D model of my couch is a metaverse asset waiting to be used in a virtual TV production. A 3D creature made by a design student is a metaverse asset waiting to be used in a gaming environment.
As for metaverse access, I never cared much for clumsy headsets, because they require your full and uninterrupted attention. Me, I always want to use my phone. It's something you can take to the restaurant. Or to the toilet. But you're not allowed to use it in VR – whereas nothing in VR is so important that I can forget about my phone.
So, I like to peek at the metaverse through an AR window, and I like to access it using a gamepad – or just explore the spatial contents embedded in websites. The journey to the metaverse started 50 years ago with the invention of computer graphics. It has so many aspects, they're all integral, from modeling shapes to social interactions in real-time 3D. The metaverse hype did us a huge service: It de-stigmatized 3D assets (often thought of as too techy), and it de-stigmatized gaming (often thought of as too violent). The end of the hype also did us a service: Now we have time to roll up our sleeves. Let’s stop debating about the definition of the metaverse. Let’s start acting upon the implications!
Speaking of rolling up your sleeves: You recently did a pretty spectacular metaverse experiment at Yle. Thousands of young people virtually joined you and your team for a party on Roblox, thus proving that interactive, interconnected 3D worlds on the web actually are a part of the future. Can you tell us a little more about the project? How did it come to pass? Why was it so successful?
Well, we have this tradition on December 6th, our independence day, where you sit in front of the TV and watch the elite shake hands with the President. It's about as interesting as it sounds, and it certainly doesn't attract young audiences.
Now we wanted to do something with this high value, but boring brand. So we created an inclusive metaverse version of the Presidential Palace – and we invited everyone.
It was an interesting experience because we really didn’t know how to use Roblox. In the end, we found a 17-year-old metaverse-native who helped us to get the thing done. Independence day came, and we were expecting maybe 100 visitors. But for some reason 23.800 (!) people joined us in just three hours. And they were properly dressed up!
I wish I knew why the experiment was so successful. Maybe a portion of the young generation is disappointed with social media, doesn't like the pressure, and prefers the freedom of the metaverse? The interesting thing is that everyone already knew, for a long time, that Roblox itself is popular. We just didn't know what it was really about, and for some reason we didn’t do anything. Until last year.
Now we have some understanding, and we strongly encourage everyone to experiment! Technically speaking, Roblox is not connected to other metaverses – but it actually is. Lots of users have a network of friends on Discord. They chat and stay in touch – and switch to another metaverse. Sure, with a different avatar, but maybe that's the way they like it. I mean: I also put on different clothes, depending on whether I go to a summer festival or to a funeral. And when discussing avatars, we should remember that there's no gender in the metaverse! Metaverse citizens are free to be whoever they want to be. And they allow others to enjoy the same right. I actually believe this total freedom of identity may become a disruptive thing. So, at the end of the day, it’s not important if Roblox is a “real” metaverse or not – the users and their digital identities, that's what matters.
So there's AR/MR, VR, 360 videos, immersive audio, and experiences that combine these elements. What's your favorite format? Or your favorite platform – next to Roblox, of course?
I love AR/MR! I see it as a window to another place, another time, another dimension, an "upside down" world. AR/MR windows open quickly with a phone, the metaverse is always there! By the way, it's super easy to do AR/MR hacks using Meta Spark Studio. Give it a try.
But you're right: Roblox and maybe VR Chat with their innately social aspects are very interesting for me. And I'm really looking forward to seeing what the new version of Fortnite Creative brings! Can we do metaverse journalism there?
That's exactly the right question. I wonder what this "metaverse journalism" would look like?
Well, the New York Times R&D team does "spatial journalism". If you do CTRL-F for the term "metaverse" on their site, there are no hits. I kind of appreciate their integrity, and it's a fact to behold they don't refer to themselves as leaders of metaverse journalism, but surely they are.
The projects I've been involved in have maybe half the production value of the NYT projects, but I have no problem using the word "metaverse". And Kristiina Tolvanen, who's in charge of the respective online desk, she totally approves.
A year ago, Yle did a piece on a bomb shelter in Lviv, Ukraine. It was documented using a LiDAR scanner. I looked at the 3D model in AR and in VR. And I asked people if they thought this was metaverse journalism. Everybody thought it was. The immersion was intense, the place was tangible.
Do you have other ideas for metaverse journalism? What could a compelling metaverse piece on Finland look like? Maybe do an immersive story on the NATO membership and its implications?
Oh boy. See, I'm not a "real" journalist. So I'd have to do a sticky notes workshop with people in a newsroom first. But from the top of my head: Maybe a spatially interesting piece about Finland and NATO would focus on our Eastern Border? For instance, you could follow a virtual journalist, learn about the length and the peculiarities of the boundary. But who would want to consume news in such a format?
I think the low hanging fruit of the metaverse are events. Because they make you feel connected. If I tried to inform and engage the public using an event format, I'd also add a roleplaying angle to it. Maybe we could host a virtual round table and debate international politics in an EBU metaverse every now and then?
Sounds like an interesting plan. Maybe we should try and get some funding for this? I guess the whole thing could be both fun and educational, especially if you're allowed to create multiple avatars and–for example–take on the role of the leader of a specific country or organization. You could play through speculative fiction scenarios, bring on positive change, create a digital utopia where everybody collaborates in peace. Sorry, I'm digressing...
Back to the questions: Public service media have been rather reluctant to produce XR/metaverse content. There have been some pioneer stories (and applications), but there are few dedicated budgets and teams. And the revered BBC VR Hub is already a thing of the past. Do you think PSM should get (back) in the game? Do they have to?
Well, PSM are already working for and in the metaverse if you accept that 3D assets are metaverse assets. It's relatively easy to drag-and-drop a virtual TV studio set into just about anything, e.g. the new Fortnite. If they charge you a premium to do that, please stop using IT consultants. Hire a 17-year-old for your team.
That's funny. And it's an excellent idea. Not sure you can pull that off in a traditional media organization, though. But let's get back to metaverse experiments and budgets...
Well, the first wave of XR experiments was mostly silly, technocratic optimism. People often created things for an empty audience. We shouldn't repeat this. And we should run away from discussions in which there's even the slightest consideration to create "your own metaverse".
However, I see a slow shift from "classic" social media towards different metaverses, and I also see how boundaries become blurry. This is happening as we speak.
I also see that PSM often reacts to this phenomenon the way they reacted to YouTube. The thing was launched, it turned everything upside down overnight, and then it took PSM about a decade to realize what authenticity is. Nowadays, we have a smooth cooperation with so-called "influencers", even on new platforms. Maybe in the case of the metaverse, we can skip the phase of ignorance and arrogance?
I can totally relate. Even though I think that working with influencers can be a slippery slope – but that's another discussion. One more question about XR productions: If you had a lot of time and a massive budget, what kind of project would you like to bring into the world?
I'd send a group of game design students to the great outdoors, to scan Finnish nature and turn it into modern 3D assets! This may sound silly, but the flora and fauna of the metaverse just don't represent Finland. Fantasy nature is fine, of course, but I think there's potential to deepen our relationship with nature through the metaverse – if we do it properly. I don't say we should build Finland in the metaverse, but we should enable developers to use parts of our nature in their experiences – on all platforms. And I'd hope that sophisticated and freely distributed assets would find their ways all around the metaverse.
Bits of Finland's beauty all over the immersive internet – and millions of nerds longing to go on a hike again. That's a nice vision. Final question: Where do you see the immersive media scene in 2030?
Immersive media is still at an early stage. And we're still in the uncanny valley. Every time I experience the "next generation" of XR and the metaverse I get excited, but after a while I just get used to it – and the small things start to annoy. I guess this will still be the case in 2030. I'm immersed, and I keep longing for my phone.
However, metaverse generation is getting more democratic with AI- powered tools. There will be so much imagination and so much self expression, it'll somehow make our physical reality a better place too. Maybe some kid figures out how to convey empathy and stop all wars.
That's another nice sentence and a very positive outlook. It reminds me of the first "new wave VR" conversations I had back in the 2010s. Be there. Be them. Understand what's going on. At the same time, I don't believe that technology can fix any fundamental problem. Also a totally different debate, tough. Is there anything you'd like to add?
Try and use the term "metaverse" in a sentence a couple of times this month. The more often you do it, the better it'll feel.
Wesa, thank you for your time and insights. Let's keep an eye on our immersive future.