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Icebreakers with…virtual reality pioneer Louis Rosenberg

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Every time a billionaire CEO vaguely mentions the metaverse, our memory of Facebook fades a little bit more. But the concept of virtual worlds predates Zuckerberg’s rebrand and represents a lot more than legless avatars. Louis Rosenberg, the CEO and chief scientist at Unanimous AI, founded two early augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) companies and developed the first functional AR system for the Air Force in the 90s.

We chatted with Rosenberg about the early days of VR and AR tech and what the heck the metaverse will actually look like.

How would you describe the metaverse?

People often describe it in terms of the technology or hardware that’s involved, where you’re wearing virtual reality headsets or augmented reality glasses. But I think if you take a step back, you start to realize it really is this transition from a world where people look at digital content from the outside looking in, to a world where we are experiencing content from the inside [of it].

You’ve been studying AR and VR technology since the ’90s. How has public perception of these technologies evolved?

In the early ’90s, there was so much excitement about virtual reality. It was the type of technology that everybody thought was the next big thing. And instead, we went into a virtual reality winter because in the late ’90s all of the oxygen was sucked up by internet startups and the dot-com bubble. And people thought oh, yeah, we tried and it failed. When it didn’t really fail. It just wasn’t given enough time.

Then, in the early 2010s, it started to come back to life, but instead of it being small startup companies that were pushing this space, it’s been major corporations.

Should the metaverse make us nervous?

The technologies of the metaverse, by their very nature, have the potential to give the platform providers incredible levels of power. I think it’s actually really scary. The metaverse is going to take us from a world where Big Tech platforms, which are currently tracking where you click, track everything about your life. They currently track people and use the information to profile people and sell targeted advertising. In the metaverse, there will be these new forms of advertising. And they’ll be far more persuasive than just pop-up ads.

Instead of advertisers putting a pop-up advertisement for a soft drink on your screen, in the metaverse I could just be walking down the street and I might see somebody drinking a particular brand of soft drink and I might walk a little further and see somebody drinking the same brand of soft drink and I might think, “Well, that drink is pretty popular around here.” And I might not realize that those are virtual product placements injected into my world on behalf of a paying advertiser.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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