the homuncular internet
or, monsters in the metaverse
In 1928, two scientists in Canada jammed electrodes down the brains of 126 people. They did a procedure called an osteopathic craniotomy - removing a bit of the skull, to expose the brain. Then, while keeping the exposed brain warm and moist with lights and a spray of Ringer’s solution, they poked some electrodes into the cerebral cortex and asked the owner of that cortex what they felt, and where they felt it.
The results that Wilder Penfield and Edwin Boldrey got from that experiment are the key to how we’re going to experience the internet.
What they found was this little person - the homunculus that lives in all our brains.
The homunculus is the mapping of our body onto our brains. It’s not a one-to-one mapping - the parts of our body that feel more, tingle more, and move more - are given greater priority in our brains. That’s why the hands and fingers are so large, and why the eyebrows are so expressive, and the tongue…so tonguey?
Those exaggerated features are a big part of how I communicate - how we all communicate. It’s the homunculus in action. Narrowed eyes, upturned lips, tapping fingers. All the emotions we feel writ large in that little monster in our heads.
As Kate Murphy says in the New York Times,
… human beings are exquisitely sensitive to one another’s facial expressions. Authentic expressions of emotion are an intricate array of minute muscle contractions, particularly around the eyes and mouth, often subconsciously perceived, and essential to our understanding of one another.
All that and more gets - literally! - flattened when we use Zoom. The fully featured Grinch in our skulls gets transformed again into a 2D cartoon on the screen. And as much as I’m enjoying remote work, there’s a dulling of the emotions I convey, and those that I receive.
One might say enter the metaverse, but the word ‘metaverse’ has become a catchall for a person’s hopes and dreams about the future of the internet and humanity.
The best definition I’ve seen is by Mathew Ball in the metaverse primer, who says the metaverse is a
Massively scaled and interoperable network of real-time rendered 3D virtual world which can be experienced synchronously and persistently by an effectively unlimited number of users with an individual sense of presence, and with continuity of data, such as identity, history, entitlements, objects, communications, and payments.
The key is that “individual sense of presence”. That’s where Virtual Reality shines.
One might say you have this already. Customizable avatars exist! You can put your Balenciagas on in Fortnite! Roblox is a metaverse! Minecraft is a metaverse!
In the book Experience on Demand, Dr. Jeremy Bailenson, a VR pioneer, writes about the first time he interacted with a 3D avatar of a colleague using Faceshift technology (Faceshift basically mapped a lot of facial features onto a photorealistic 3D model of a face using infrared scans).
Says Dr. Bailenson,
But more importantly, it moved like him, in real time. When he raised one eyebrow, so did his avatar. When he laughed, the avatar performed his laugh—not just any generic laugh, but a laugh I would have recognized anywhere. Even if the avatar face hadn’t looked just like him, I could have picked him out of a lineup in no time at all, just based on his distinct gestures.
Those “distinct gestures” aren’t possible in Roblox or Fortnite. Those are impossible to mimic using a keyboard and mouse or a controller.
The physical tics that make me me are easier to track using a VR headset though. Right now this is not perfect. There’s hand tracking, but it doesn’t track everything the cerebral cortex considers important like facial expressions. Most games are still reliant on the the position of the head mounted display and the controllers to represent the virtual avatar like in the screenshot from Eleven Table Tennis below.
Even so, it amazes me how much emotion and presence can be conveyed with just those two things. I can recognize people I’ve played before not just from their usernames, but how they move their controllers when they serve or how their avatar seems to slump when they lose a point. It feels personal in a way that online games like Minecraft never seems to. It feels like I’m in the room with someone.
(As a side note, this also make online trolling a lot more visceral and intimidating.)
We seem to be moving to a more remote future. I’m still nervous about traveling or being in large groups of people - but I have that unfortunate and essential need to be with people. And in a remote world, I’m going to need to form connections with folks that I cannot meet in person. That can happen now through twitter and discord and zoom - but there’s a gap.
The way to bridge that gap is through a visceral digital presence - by unleashing our homunculi onto the internet.
I’m betting that VR is the way we’re going to do that.
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