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December 10, 2022  |  permalink

What Is The Metaverse Metropolis?

The Metaverse Metropolis is a new initiative of the Urban Tech Hub of the Jacobs Technion-Cornell Institute at Cornell Tech. Befitting the Hub’s mission to improve people’s lives, train the next generation of urban technologists, and convene cities, companies, and communities to achieve better outcomes, the project aims to build a coalition of municipalities, metaverse builders, designers, legal experts, and citizens to design and deploy industry standards and best practices for public safety in augmented reality environments.

The goal is to define the metaverse equivalent of the traffic light or stop sign — clear, universal signals and infrastructure expressly designed to protect everyone in the public realm, including those in its new virtual dimensions. By starting now and working together to save lives and ground safety at the center of any real-world metaverse, we can begin to lay the foundations for a new generation of computing that is inherently urban.

What do you mean by “the Metaverse,” exactly?

This project is specifically concerned with augmented reality (AR) and “extended” reality (XR), which overlay visuals and information on the physical world through the use of headsets and handheld devices. This differs from virtual reality (VR), which typically aims to create self-enclosed worlds with their own dynamics. For example, Niantic’s Pokémon Go is an augmented reality game, using real world locations and infrastructure as backdrops, while Roblox and Minecraft are proto-metaverses inviting players to create their own virtual spaces in 3D-rendered environments.

Reflecting this divide, AR is sometimes described as “spatial computing” and the “real-world metaverse,” foregrounding the importance of physical world. This is why it’s critical to ensure cities and their inhabitants have a say in the implementation of augmented reality at scale.

Why augmented reality? Why now?

Why AR rather than VR? Consider Pokémon Go, which in 2016 briefly became the most popular smartphone app on Earth. Players chasing digital creatures stormed businesses, stampeded through parks, and erased the line between online and off-. Tragically, some chose to play while driving. By one back-of-the-envelope estimate, vehicular crashes caused by Pokémon Go may have killed hundreds and injured tens of thousands of bystanders in its first few months alone. Given a precipitous rise in pedestrian fatalities over the last two years, how do we ensure the real-world metaverse won’t make reality worse?

Why now? Because for more than a decade, cities have suffered from the unintended consequences of disruptive business models designed to wring value from urban space. Whether ride-hailing, short-term rentals, or the “sharing economy” writ large, they have increased congestion, shrank housing supply, and exacerbated inequality in favor of a fortunate few. Only after great effort did public officials learn how to regulate and partner with these startups to share the benefits and burdens of their technologies. As technology giants such as Meta (and perhaps soon, Apple) launch new XR headsets, it’s imperative cities prepare for the implications of a real-world metaverse.

What we hope to achieve

Over the next six months (January-July 2023), the Jacobs Urban Tech Hub at Cornell Tech will convene a cohort of public officials, partners, and stakeholders to explore the urban implications of widespread augmented reality hardware and software, including issues of public safety, privacy, equity, and more.

During the course of The Metaverse Metropolis, we will engage with standards bodies, industry associations, and practitioner groups such as the Metaverse Standards Forum, Responsible Metaverse Alliance, and XR Guild. While they and others are doing vital work in creating open standards and ethical practices, cities have typically not been participants in these discussions until now.

How you can help

We can’t do this alone — we need your help. We’re actively seeking partners and subject-matter experts to broaden our scope of activities and deepen the discussion next year. We’re specifically seeking partner cities and governments eager to build capacity and begin grappling with these issues now; companies eager to ensure their real-world metaverse is compatible with improving people’s lives; designers, artists, and technologists grappling with new visual languages and wayfinding for an augmented world; and activists determined to not repeat the same mistakes of previous inequitable urban technologies.

We all have a vested interest in ensuring the metaverse is safe and accessible to all — join us today to act on it.

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Greg Lindsay is a generalist, urbanist, futurist, and speaker. He is a 2022-2023 urban tech fellow at Cornell Tech’s Jacobs Institute, where he leads The Metaverse Metropolis — a new initiative exploring the implications of augmented reality at urban scale. He is also the chief communications officer at Climate Alpha, an AI-driven location-analysis platform steering investment toward climate adaptation and more resilient regions; a senior fellow of MIT’s Future Urban Collectives Lab, and a non-resident senior fellow of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Strategy Initiative.

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