Icebreaker 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 more. But the concept of virtual worlds predates Zuckerberg’s rebranding and represents much more than legless avatars. Louis Rosenberg, CEO and Chief Scientist of Unanimous AI, founded two early augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) companies and developed the first working AR system for the Air Force in the 1960s. 90.

We spoke with Rosenberg about the beginnings of VR and AR technology and what the Metaverse will look like.

How would you describe the Metaverse?

People often describe it in terms of the technology or hardware 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 that it’s really this transition from a world where people look at digital content from the outside in, to a world where we experience the content of inside [of it].

You have been studying AR and VR technology since the 90s. How has the 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 everyone thought was the next big thing. And instead, we entered a virtual reality winter because in the late 90s all the oxygen was sucked in by internet startups and the dotcom bubble. And people thought oh, yeah, we tried and it failed. When it didn’t really fail. There just wasn’t enough time.

Then in the early 2010s it started to come back to life, but instead of being small start-ups pushing this space, it’s big companies.

Should the metaverse make us nervous?

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

Instead of advertisers putting a pop-up ad for a soft drink on your screen, in the metaverse I could just walk down the street and I could see someone drinking a particular brand of soft drink and I could walk a little further and see someone drinking the same brand of soft drink and I might think, “Well, that drink is quite popular here.” And I may not realize that these 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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