iPod Creator Tony Fadell Isn’t Buying the Metaverse Hype

If anyone has an eye on where the tech industry is headed, it’s probably Tony Fadell.

While at Apple, he led the team that developed the iPod (TO TEAR) and the first three generations of iPhone. Then he co-founded the Nest company, now owned by Google, which raised the bar to know how connected devices should look and feel. With that kind of background, it’s no surprise he has a strong opinion on the metaverse — a nebulous term tech executives have used to describe the future of the internet.

But his opinion may not be what you’d expect from someone as closely tied to progress in the tech industry as Fadell. His exact words when he recently spoke with Steven Levy of Wired were “fuck the metaverse,” an opinion that didn’t go unnoticed.

It is not that simple. He sees potential in technologies that are often talked about in the context of the metaverse, such as augmented reality, virtual reality, and mixed reality (XR), which sits in between. He just doesn’t think the Metaverse is the social internet revolution it claims to be.

Apple's 7th and latest generation iPod Touch

Apple just discontinued the iPod Touch, seemingly ending the line of products that Fadell helped create.

Apple

I’m not against technology“, Fadell said in an interview with CNET after the launch of his new book, Build: An Unorthodox Guide to Making Things Worth Making. “I’m against the app, the way it’s made the buzz. It’s not a problem that needs to be fixed.

Metaverse is a catch-all term that generally refers to online spaces where people can come together virtually, usually through digital avatars. You might be wondering what makes the Metaverse so different from a Zoom call or a video game. My colleagues Scott Stein and Andrew Morse best describe it. Unlike a video call, spaces in the metaverse don’t disappear when you disconnect. Many have cited games like Roblox, Minecraft, and Fortnite as examples of how the metaverse exists today.

Tech giants see the metaverse as an essential part of the next phase of the internet, impacting the way people work, play and socialize. But Fadell thinks there should be a greater focus on solving the problems plaguing social media today before moving on. Meta is already struggling to deal with harassment on its virtual reality platform, as CNET’s Queenie Wong reported.

“I don’t want to hear about a new meeting place without hearing [about] the new content moderation that is going to happen,” Fadell said. “And let’s fix the ones we have.”

Screenshot of Spotify's online island

Companies have joined metaverse experiences like Roblox, like Spotify’s island.

Spotify

The idea of ​​the metaverse isn’t new, but tech companies have recently made it a bigger part of their business. In October, Facebook renamed itself Meta to reflect its broader focus on metaverse building. CEO Mark Zuckerberg called it “the next frontier” and evangelized the potential of the metaverse to make virtual interactions more intimate. Microsoft accepted buys video game giant Activision Blizzard in January to “provide building blocks for the metaverse”. Samsung has also started organize events in the metaverse.

Companies in other industries have also started to take notice. A recently announced partnership between Kraft Heinz and Microsoft will see the food and beverage giant create “digital twins” of its manufacturing facilities to test processes before they hit the factory floor. Microsoft’s Judson Althoff used the term “industrial metaverse” in a press release detailing the partnership. Disney also named a framework for oversee its metaverse strategy in February.

Fadell thinks there are bigger issues to solve besides the metaverse — like the climate crisis — but there’s another reason he doesn’t buy into the hype. Many metaverse experiences today put users in the shoes of an avatar, resulting in social interactions that don’t feel authentic. “I can’t see your facial expressions,” Fadell said. “I can’t connect with you.”

He is not the first to express such doubts. Snap CEO Evan Spiegel recently said the word “metaverse” is never used in corporate offices because it’s “ambiguous” and “hypothetical”, according to The Guardian. But companies like Snap are investing heavily in augmented reality, which blends digital graphics with the physical world and is often associated with the metaverse. Snap unveiled a pair of AR glasses last year, and Apple is rumored to be working on augmented reality glasses as well.

Google, Fadell’s alma mater, was early in the AR smart glasses race in 2012, when it demonstrated the Google Glass Explorer Edition. During her Google I/O conference on Wednesday, she revealed a new pair of AR glasses who can translate the word.

But for Fadell, the original Google Glasses had a similar problem as the current iteration of the Metaverse: it doesn’t solve a problem. According to Fadell, it is not enough to create the technology or the platform.

“You have to tell people what to do with it,” he said when asked how lessons learned from Google Glass’ shortcomings could be applied to the next wave of AR glasses.

“That’s exactly what I see with the Metaverse.”


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