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I have seen the future and it's Beat Saber
Read to the end for a really good 4chan thread about Pizza Rolls
OK, Maybe I’ve Been A Bit Too Hard On The Metaverse (Maybe)
The first time I really used virtual reality was many years ago in Japan. I was working in Tokyo and the company behind the “vocaloid” pop star, Hatsune Miku, let me try out a new virtual reality product they were testing that would let you interact with Miku in VR. You’d put on goggles and then you could sit with Miku and watch movies. It was surprisingly well done. And it was an interesting experience, seeing as how Miku, “herself,” is a virtual pop star that performs live via hologram. (Yes, there’s video of this whole thing.)
My next experience with VR was equally gimmicky. About a year later, I rode a “virtual reality rollercoaster” on the top of the Shard in London. You’d go up to the roof of the building, put on a headset, sit on a mechanical bull-looking chair, and it would jerk around in sync with the animated rollercoaster you were watching through the goggles. But because we were so far up — and outside — you could feel the wind in your hair as you “rode” the rollercoaster. I have to admit, it was pretty effective.
Beyond those two standouts, most of the VR that I’ve used has sucked. And even those two examples are not really experiences I’d recreate in my living room. Also, for whatever reason, I’m a person who gets kind of nauseous when I use VR for too long.
So with all of that in mind, I’ve been pretty skeptical of Meta’s virtual reality aspirations. I just have a hard time imagining people putting on goggles in their homes with any sort of regularity. I’m also super bullish on augmented reality, which I see as a much more functional — and interesting — alternative. I’m an avid Pokémon Go player and I love exploring physical spaces filled with digital landmarks and attractions. This week, however, I played Beat Saber for the first time and I feel like I have a newfound understanding of what the metaverse could be like (maybe).
If you’ve never seen or heard of Beat Saber before, it’s a rhythm game like Dance Dance Revolution, but you play it in VR and instead of hitting arrows with your feet, you’re smashing boxes with virtual lightsabers in time to different music. (I absolutely demolished Paramore’s “Misery Business”.) The game was developed by Beat Games and is available for a bunch of platforms, but after Beat Games was acquired by Facebook/Meta/Occulus Studios, it’s become the company’s flagship game more or less. Though, I’ve heard Half-Life: Alyx is also great.
Beat Saber is still, of course, very janky. One of the harder things to learn how to do was use the controllers to actually pick a song. And using a VR helmet with other people in the room, as I did this week, is actually not a great experience. Also, I sweat all over the inside of the headset.
But the thing that I keep coming back to, as someone who spent a lot of time in my teens waiting in line for the DDR machine at the mall, is that I’m not entirely sure Beat Saber is a game that’s made better by virtual reality. Many years ago, on that same trip to Japan that I virtually got to meet Hatsune Miku, I spent some time in a smoky Tokyo arcade playing a rhythm game developed by NAMCO called Taiko no Tatsujin. You play it with two physical sticks and beat a physical drum in time to music. It’s fun as hell. And while it’s not as showy or futuristic as Beat Saber, it is a lot more social. Me and a friend were easily able to pound the shit out of the One Piece theme together next to each other.
Which really sums up my entire take on virtual reality — as it currently exists. I recognize that it’s getting more interesting. And after a night of trying to get a higher score on the Beat Saber level for Fall Out Boy’s “Dance, Dance,” I’m even considering buying one. But I have yet to see anything that is unique to VR being used in VR. And, so, now, I have a new criticism of the metaverse.
Now, my main question isn’t “why are people trying to make it” it’s “why doesn’t it feel new?” It’s actually the same criticism I have of the entire tech industry right now. We’ve emerged into a “post”-pandemic world and all of these companies and platforms have decided that they’ve seen the future and the future is a completely new way of interacting with the internet, which they’re now dead-set on realizing. But, so far, it doesn’t feel like anyone’s making anything particularly new to interact with. Instead, it feels like the same content, same platforms, same games as we’ve always had, but now we have to use a more immersive (and surveillable) and expensive interface to use them.
Also, just in case you were wondering, at the height of my Dance Dance Revolution days I could do “Max 300” on Heavy 😏.
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How Cartoons Have Changed Over The Years
A Chronological Instagram
Earlier this week, Instagram’s official Twitter posted a word jumble. At first, I figured Instagram was cryptically gearing up for an announcement that it was launching games or something. Between the New York Times buying up Wordle and Netflix launching games, it feels like everyone has decided that building AOL-style portals complete with games and quizzes and videos is the future of the internet. This actually happens every five-to-seven years, or so. We’re right on schedule for a big “internet consolidation,” which will then, eventually, let to a movement among users to abandon portals, which will start to feel boring, and then everything will break apart again. (More on this in a sec.)
Anyways, Instagram’s announcement was actually teasing something more interesting. A lot of users noticed that it had the word “chronological” spelled out diagonally. Instagram’s non-chronological News Feed is, in my opinion, one of the app’s defining characteristics. I would have never, in a million years, imagined they’d even give users the option to toggle it on and off. But the platform announced today that it’s launching a “Following” feed, which will contain “the latest posts from accounts that you follow, in the order they were posted.” And Instagram is making some other pretty big changes, as well.
In an attempt to keep up with TikTok, the app recently pivoted to video, basically destroying small businesses and restaurants on the app, in particular. Users can now also tag products in posts. But if Instagram is trying to evolve into a TikTok-style app that’s better integrated with E-commerce tools, I’m not totally clear why a chronological main feed would help with that. My only guess is that the main feed on Instagram is actually no longer the main feed. The grid, as it were, is effectively dead and Instagram is mainly an app to consume Stories content now. So perhaps offering a chronological feed is a way to get users back on the News Feed? Or maybe the companies that the run the internet are literally just making random UX decisions in the hopes we don’t notice that internet platforms have effectively not evolved at all since 2012. Who knows!
An Incredible Fight Scene
This was dropped in the Garbage Day Discord this week by lusername. It’s extremely sick.
The Future Of Streaming Entertainment Is Either Cable Or AOL’s Homepage
Let’s continue a thought I started above. It was announced earlier this month that Disney+ will be launching a cheaper, ad-supported version. And YouTube this week announced that it will let users stream full seasons of TV on the platform for free with ads. Meanwhile, platforms like HBO Max, Hulu (it’s still a thing right?), Peacock, and Crunchyroll already offer this. But Netflix’s CFO Spencer Neumann basically told Variety this month that the company didn’t have any plans for bringing in ads. Instead, as I noted above, Netflix is changing in a different way, acquiring mobile game studios, and pushing hard into the gaming space.
But these two very different evolutions have made the definition of a streaming platform extremely fuzzy. And, in many ways, just mean the return of two very old ideas: the cable network and the homepage. Disney+, HBO Max, and Peacock are now essentially just unbundled cable channels. You can pay for them or watch them for free, more or less in the same way you can with a cable box. And what’s funny, over on the Embedded newsletter today, Kate Lindsay wrote about the “pleasantly retro” experience of “sitting down on my couch to watch the latest episode of a TV show, especially as more and more of them have started reverting back to weekly episode drops.” So there really does seem to be a move towards old styles of consuming content.
Netflix, alternately, appears to be trying to evolve into something that could compete with a company like Meta or Roblox — a megaplatform for movies, TV, and video games. Netflix even has a TikTok-esque short-form video product called “Fast Laughs” that it’s experimenting with. But megaplatforms, even if they successfully get VR to catch on, are really just the 2020s version of the homepage. A place that is trying to jam as much content in one place as possible so you don’t go anywhere else. And, hilariously, for all the money companies like Meta and Netflix are investing to become the main place you go to consume content, that cyclical emergence of that idea that usually signals the end of an era. There’s, of course, always the chance that it could work this time, and one company or platform could successfully monopolize our attention, but history isn’t really on their side. Internet content’s natural state is free-range and consolidation has never really worked and usually it blows up pretty badly for any company trying to do it. Those who do not learn from the homepage are doomed to repeat the homepage.
A Thought Experiment
Damn, what ARE you doing in this situation?
There’s A Digital Void Event In DC Tonight!!!
My digital literacy collective has a show in DC tonight! It’s at Union Stage, which I’m told is in an area of the city called “The Wharf”. Quick DC question: Why are there so many food halls? I’m not mad about it, but there are a weird amount here. Anyways, come to the show tonight! We have some amazing guests like Jordan Uhl, Ken Klippenstein, Bridget Todd, Ellie Hall, and a ton more. It’s going to be a blast! You can get tickets here.
Some Stray Links
P.S. here’s a really good 4chan thread about Pizza Rolls.
***Any typos in this email are on purpose actually***