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Pattern Matching

Virtual Reality Won. Just Not the Kind You Think.

Online spaces like ‘Fortnite’ and ‘Animal Crossing’ are replacing the physical world

Photo: William West/Getty Images

Welcome to the second issue of Pattern Matching, OneZero’s weekly newsletter that puts the week’s most compelling tech stories in context. (You can find the first issue, and a brief introduction, here.) I’m Will Oremus, senior writer at OneZero.

As authorities prepare to ease lockdown orders across the country, it’s becoming clear that the “reopening” we’d all looked forward to doesn’t mean returning to anything like normalcy. Like the war on terror, the battle against coronavirus might be one that drags on for years without a real exit strategy.

Against that backdrop, we can expect a flourishing of what I’ll call “pandemic-ready” tech — platforms and tools built for a future in which social distancing is a fact of life, or at least a specter that could return at any time. What these tools have in common is that they obviate the need for physical presence.

Take virtual reality, a term that has its roots in early 1980s cyberpunk fiction but which, these days, is associated with clunky headsets, immersive graphics, and commercial failure. There’s still a chance that coronavirus will make that kind of virtual reality more mainstream: On Thursday, Apple acquired the startup NextVR, which broadcasts live and recorded events for VR headsets. Last week Bloomberg reported that Facebook is developing a smaller, lighter version of the Oculus Quest, its standalone VR headset.

But if you take a broader reading of the term “virtual reality,” there’s a sense in which it has already gone mainstream. For people stuck at home in the pandemic, big chunks of our lives have moved into online spaces, even if we don’t own any fancy VR gadgetry. And some of those changes are likely to stick.

The Pattern

You had to be there. But you didn’t have to be there:

  • For years, massive multiplayer games have been evolving beyond entertainment and into gathering places. The stay-at-home orders have only accelerated that trend. This week, a Democratic political strategist suggested that Joe Biden’s campaign could take a cue from rapper Travis Scott’s virtual Fortnite concert and project a giant hologram of the candidate against the Grand Canyon as part of the Democratic convention. Scott’s April 23 takeover of the battle-royale game, which drew more than 12 million concurrent viewers and nearly 28 million in all, has quickly become a benchmark for the potential of in-game live events. The idea of Biden trying to stage anything like it is both undeniably absurd and surprisingly plausible.
  • The idea came as the prospect of a virtual Democratic convention is looking more likely. On Tuesday, party leaders took a step in that direction, giving convention planners the authority to allow virtual voting if needed. Online voting more generally remains contentious, with some states launching experiments even as the federal government warns that it’s “high-risk” because the systems that support it have not been proven to be fully secure. Ready or not, coronavirus is pushing key elements of our democracy online, including Biden’s campaign, which has struggled to adapt his backslapping political style to livestreams from his home in Delaware. In a New York Times op-ed earlier this month, Barack Obama’s former top strategists said he’ll have to get more creative and interactive in his use of platforms: “Online speeches from his basement won’t cut it.
  • Even if and when the pandemic recedes to the point that we can safely cram tens of thousands into an arena or convention hall, or even hundreds into a club, the logistical infrastructure that supports those events — from venues to promoters to StubHub and Live Nation — may lie in ruins. When you think of how Netflix was chipping away at movie theaters even before Covid-19, it’s not a stretch to foresee virtual events like Scott’s Fortnite concert permanently supplanting some portion of the live events industry, including but not limited to concerts. ESPN’s Arda Ocal, a former WWE announcer, predicts Fortnite weddings, Fortnite business meetings, an in-game WWE event, and Survivor: Fortnite.
  • Nor will the trend be limited to Fortnite. Couples are already holding virtual weddings in the Nintendo game Animal Crossing: New Horizons. They’re observing Ramadan there, too. And the screenwriter Gary Whitta has started a late-night talk show called Animal Talking that’s situated entirely within the game. At a time when late-night TV shows are broadcasting remotely via Zoom, Whitta told the Verge, “We have this amazing ability to bring people together from all over the world and put them in a virtual space. We’re literally the only people right now that have a late night talk show that actually looks like a late night talk show. … Not even Jimmy Fallon can do that right now, because he lives in the real world and I don’t. I live in an online world where we can do anything.
  • Oh, and it’s not limited to the United States, either. Chinese tech giant Tencent reported blockbuster earnings this week, with its mobile games division leading the way thanks in part to in-game events in titles such as Honor of Kings and PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, a Fortnite rival that became the world’s top-grossing game in March, per Sensor Tower. For that matter, Tencent also owns a 40% stake in North Carolina-based Epic Games, which makes Fortnite. Epic this week showed off a demo of its next-generation game engine, Unreal Engine 5, which could pave the way for future in-game events to look far more realistic, bordering on cinematic.
  • Much of the professional world has already migrated to online platforms like Zoom and Slack, but there are signs that virtual workspaces might become more interactive as well. A four-year-old startup called Spatial has built software for the corporate market that can put co-workers together in a virtual office using VR-like technology. Now it’s making a bid to become the “Zoom of virtual collaboration” by offering a free version of its platform that’s available in browsers and on mobile devices. So now you’ll just have to hope you can sneak out of the virtual office in time to catch the virtual concert without your real boss virtually seeing you.

Undercurrents

Under-the-radar trends, stories, and random anecdotes worth your time

  • Offices will never be the same, and cities might not either. On Tuesday, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey told employees that those able to work from home will be allowed to do so on a permanent basis. Immediately some began talking about moving out of the Bay Area to escape its astronomical housing prices. “It makes no sense paying Bay Area rent if we can earn our salary living elsewhere,” a South San Francisco resident whose partner works at Facebook told Businessweek’s Sarah Frier. But this isn’t just a Silicon Valley thing. “The office is dead,” pronounced Courtney Rubin in Marker. “From startups and tech giants to more old-school Wall Street firms, businesses are rethinking the role of office space and whether they even need it.” For a bracingly gloomy companion piece, read Steve LeVine in Gen on the harsh future of American cities.
  • The bills for social media’s most radioactive content are starting to come due. Facebook will pay its current and former U.S. content moderators $52 million as part of a settlement for the toll that the work takes on their mental health, The Verge’s Casey Newton reported Tuesday. It was Newton’s 2019 exposés on the “secret lives of Facebook moderators in America” that spotlighted the prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder and depression among the American contractors charged with taking down hate speech, violence, pornography, and worse from the social network. The lawsuit that spurred the settlement predated that investigation, however. And recall that Adrian Chen exposed even uglier working conditions among Facebook contractors in the Philippines way back in 2014 for Wired — a story that led to lots of head-shaking but few solutions.

Also this week, France passed a law that will require social media companies to remove “manifestly illicit” hate speech within 24 hours of being notified, or face fines of more than $1 million per post. Tech companies and free-speech advocates protested that this will require platforms to lean more heavily on automated removal of content. The fines could reach up to a cap of 4% of a company’s global revenues, per the law. In Facebook’s case, that adds up to… well, a lot. With other countries eyeing similar measures, it’s no wonder Facebook is quietly setting up a pro-tech lobbying group in Washington, D.C., as the Washington Post’s Tony Romm reported on Tuesday. Amid all that, coronavirus misinformation continues to go viral on Facebook and YouTube; in OneZero, Erin Gallagher has some fascinating charts on how the “Plandemic” conspiracy video spread across those platforms.

Headlines of the Week

Screen New Deal

— Naomi Klein, The Intercept

I’d Commit Murder for Animal Crossing’s Dom

— Patricia Hernandez, Polygon

Insane Clown Posse Are Officially Being More Responsible About Coronavirus Than Trump

— Indy100.com

Don’t Be Surprised If You Start Dreaming About Bugs

— Katie Heaney, The Cut

Thanks for reading. Reach me with tips and feedback by responding to this post on the web, via Twitter direct message at @WillOremus, or by email at oremus@medium.com.

Senior Writer, OneZero, at Medium

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