At this year's Consumer Electronics Show (CES), the issue of the metaverse was mainly played out by one company: the car manufacturer Hyundai. More specifically, Hyundai introduced a kind of metaverse sub-category: metamobility. The company has developed this concept to envision what mobility might look like in the metaverse era.
Metamobility is Hyundai's vision of using a mix of technologies to expand human reach of the world. The company has a video that illustrates what it means: A father is sitting with his young daughter in a futuristic bus. The two barely notice the city silently passing by, as they can use a kind of multi-sensory Augmented Reality to adapt their surroundings to whatever they want. To pass the time on the bus they decide to travel to Mars.
A couple of hand gestures allows them to change the inside of the bus to the Martian surface. However, what sounds like virtual reality is actually much more than that. What the father and daughter are perceiving is not a virtual representation of Mars but the actual surface of Mars simultaneously scanned by a robot. The image is transmitted, as is tactile information – the users can feel the Martian rock and even a sandstorm.
Hyundai calls this form of metamobility “Proxy Experience”, that is a proxy perception of reality. Boston Dynamics' “Spot”, a dog-like robot, acts as the proxy. Hyundai acquired the company, which specialises in autonomous robots and became known through viral videos of its robots, in late 2020.
The company presents further elements of its vision on the Hyundai website. Metamobility includes the Proxy Experience, but also a range of small, networked and modular mobility solutions. Wheel elements, which rotate 180 degrees around a vertical axis in the larger model and totally freely in the small model, are the core element of this. They are designed as autonomous elements that can be networked. The small wheel modules can be freely attached to any stable objects, for example to transport crates, small single-seater cabins or platforms. The core idea: humans should no longer need to go to an object, instead the object will come to them.
Most of the technologies showcased do not even exist in theory – let alone as a prototype or product. Nonetheless, the concept of “metamobility” is more than just a collection of words, as may sometimes appear with other concepts and discussions relating to the metaverse.
But metamobility is made tangible by incorporating well-known technologies (buses, advanced VR and the robot Spot) and everyday events (bus journeys, travel, dreams) into the concept – even though many of the future technologies presented may never become a reality. The example of the bus journey shows us lots of things at once: in the same way that we immerse ourselves today in our smartphones on tedious bus journeys, it could become possible to overcome time and space and instead go to the metaverse – without it being problematic to get there. Virtual and real space are equivalents, with the distinctions becoming more blurred as they converge.
With the very non-specific, abstract future dreams that surround the metaverse at the moment, it is hard to imagine what impact this assumed development might have on our society. However, Hyundai's vision allows us to evaluate certain possible developments: assuming we could actually “remotely” go to other planets at some point without regarding robots as an intermediate medium – what does that mean for the responsibility of our actions?
In terms of self-driving vehicles, there has been much discussion over several years about who is responsible in the event of an accident. Is it the driver, the developer, the company or the car itself? We could ask ourselves a similar question about the metaverse. If damage occurs while I am connected to a robot via Proxy Experience – did I, the robot or the system that connects us cause this damage?
Mark Zuckerberg likes to use the term “Embodied Internet” for his vision of the metaverse. You can interpret this in two ways: either the internet becomes an ad hoc part of the human body. The case then seems quite clear: the robot acted as an extension of myself, and so caused the damage. So I am responsible for it.
However, everything becomes a bit more complicated when this is interpreted differently. “Embodied Internet” then means that internet technologies are embodied. In the Hyundai video, the robot Spot does not act as a mere extension of a single person. It provides the data for the remote experience, but acts independently when requested to do so. This is then the aim of the metaverse: it aims to break down the limits of our present society, including the concept of the acting human and the obedient technology.
So much still needs to be done to make the metaverse and metamobility a reality. Not just in terms of technology, but in our understanding of responsibility as well.
Text: Nils Bühler