The metaverse is already here, on Spotify.
A persistent, consistent experience would change digital work. The rest can wait.
It's the tiny things you miss the most, the things you take for granted until they're gone and you're surprised by how handy they were.
As it was when I started a new Apple Music trial, lured in by the human curators and 6 months of free music to begin again. Music's music—if anything, Apple Music sounded marginally better than Spotify thanks to its Dolby Atmos-powered Spatial Audio (or, perhaps, it's the placebo effect of the new). One album then another, a few auto-suggested songs, and we were off to a good start.
Then I walked away from my desk, opened Apple Music on my phone for a walk and a workout. And we were back at ground zero. Apple Music had my library, alright, but nowhere could I see the song I'd just paused on my computer.
Spotify solved this long ago, showing what's playing now on your account, and which device it's playing on. You can have headphones connected to your computer, and switch songs on your phone, using the Spotify mobile app as a remote for its desktop app. You could shut your laptop lid and walk away with your phone, and continue playing right where you left off.
It's the same Spotify everywhere. The only difference is where you're accessing it. It's as if Spotify is a room with a Monsters, Inc. door—and no matter where you put that door, when you open it, it's your same messy Spotify experience inside, with the same record spinning on the turntable and the same singles laid out to spin next.
It's one of those tiny things that cassette tapes did better than both what came before and after: They remembered where you left off. CDs made up for it, a bit, by being able to skip tracks, but cassette tapes embodied a bit of placemaking, a bit of physical memory like a folded page in a book or a key left hanging near a door to remind you without you needing to remember. You'd start your engine, and the song would start playing right where you left off.
And when it's gone, it's one of those tiny irritations—trying to remember the song that was playing and re-surface it in search—that make tech frustrating and jarring when it shouldn't.
Tech should remember better, if anything, know where you left off and what you were doing and how to pick it back up later. Yet somehow, a sense of place is the very experience tech fails to give us so often. It's more surprising when tech is the exact same everywhere, when it manages to replicate what comes standard in the real world. So accustomed are we to Facebook's always-refreshing feed and Google's ever-changing results that when you can pick up something where you left off, no matter what device you're on, it feels magical.
That's what's tantalizing about the metaverse. More than a virtual office, it's a virtual place that, in Matthew Ball's definition, is "persistent. It never 'resets' or 'pauses' or 'ends', it just continues indefinitely," writes Ball.
It's not so much that you'll be able to walk through a virtual door in the metaverse as that when you do so, everything will be the way you left it. Here's a document and there are your research notes, with spatial memory that'll help you pick up, the way you can find a letter seemingly hidden on your well-cluttered desk.
"The power of the unaided mind is highly overrated," wrote Don Norman in his classic The Design of Everyday Things. "It is things that make us smart, the cognitive artifacts that allow human beings to overcome the limitations of human memory and conscious reasoning."
For we each live in our own umwelt, the world as we perceive it. Part of what makes our world navigable is that we build up a spatial memory. Here are the blinkers, here are the windshield wipers, and we can perform those secondary tasks while driving a car without thinking until we rent a car abroad and find that everything has changed. And suddenly what was easy is anything but.
We expect things to stay the way we left them, for our keys to never stray from the spot where we habitually drop them, for our built environment to work the same day to day.
You wouldn't expect your bathroom door to open inwards some days, outwards other days, for the hot water to randomly come from the right or left of the tap. Yet tech does this to us every day. Facebook, especially. You scroll past something interesting, put your phone away, then try to go back to it only to find your feed's refreshed and that bit of data is gone. It's inconsequential stuff, typically, but still gives you that momentary feeling of loss, like you misplaced your car keys or wallet and now need to waste time finding them.
That's exactly what Spotify solves for. It acknowledges that you're the same person, that Spotify on each device is simply a peek into the same Spotify experience. By showing you what you were listening to on another device, and letting you pick up where you left off, it makes Spotify feel like something you can trust, that you don't have to actively think about what song you left the office or what minute the podcast was at when you answered a call. Interestingly, both Amazon's Kindle and Netflix also do this well, as though media built around an internet-first world figured out placemaking where the digital office never did.
Apple does this well on its devices, Microsoft on Windows PCs. As long as you pick up work on the same device, you're right where you left off. Nintendo does, as well, on devices. Pause Zelda and come back to it a few days later, and your avatar will wake up right where you went to sleep last time.
Web apps—software that runs in your cloud, that works via APIs while you're away, that requires merely a login rather than a backup and install—should be the best at this. You should be able to close a web app and pick up where you left off anytime later.
Close most software on your laptop, though, even the most modern, web-first software, and open it again on another browser or device, and typically you won't pick up where you left off. At best you'll be able to see which files were opened most recently and can reorientate yourself in a few clicks. At worst, you'll have to dig through folders and searches, trying to find what you'd been working on when you left the last device.
There's a split in software, today, on persistency. The best apps let you leave work on one device and pick up on another with everything the exact same as you left it. The more traditional, device-centric apps let you pick up what you were doing on the same device—and at best will sync the work and changes between devices—but you'll need to remember at least a bit of what you were doing before to get back to work.
What if you could get the Spotify feeling, everywhere?
In the heady days of early web apps, one idea that never seemed to die was recreating the desktop on the web. Jolicloud and Nvivo tried. Even Microsoft's first shot at building OneDrive was a Windows Live Desktop with a start menu in your browser. In one of the many takes on the pre-crypto envisioning of "Web 3.0," you'd have an online desktop where your online apps lived, as a bit of placemaking for your collection of otherwise-disjointed SaaS.
We didn't need that. Bookmarks were enough to jump back into Salesforce and Gmail. If anything, you could bookmark a specific Salesforce view or Gmail email and open them directly, as a way to leave your own breadcrumbs to pick up where you left off, something that was often lost in web apps' "native" versions.
Turns out, what we needed was a more persistent experience, not visually 3D with a virtual reality headset, but with a natural representation of time and space.
The desktop metaphor, itself, was a skeuomorphism that lived on, with today's home screens and Mac and Windows desktops still attempting to recreate your messy desk. Maybe, more than messy icons, the brilliant element of the computer desktop was the ability to walk away from it all and come back and pick up where you left off, something that got better over the years as our desktops turned into laptops with dependable enough software and long enough batteries that we'd never really turn them off.
Web apps dropped the ball there. They should have transposed that feeling to every device, that you could start work one place and pick it up another, without needing to remember anything.
They got the data syncing, all right. You can sign into Slack on two devices and see the exact same messages. But good luck finding the thread you were browsing through on your phone at lunch when you go back to the desk. It'd be easier to find a recent message in Messenger, which interestingly by being simpler and sorted by recency gives you more of a feeling of a persistent place than Slack's technically-more-organized channels and threads.
You could lose your laptop, buy a new one, sign into a few accounts, and get most of your data back pretty quick if you're very online. What'd be hard is picking up where you left off, figuring out what you had opened and where exactly you were editing the last time.
It's not that Spotify does this perfectly; close your laptop today and you won't be able to pick up where you left off playing on your phone tomorrow, say. But it's a start, something that makes your Spotify experience—at least right in the same timeframe—feel consistent. "Context," said computer scientist Alan Kay, "is worth 80 IQ points." Even if the data's there, without persistent context you still have to make sense of it, how to find your way around again.
Persistency is only part of what the metaverse is supposed to offer. It's also supposed to be live, for as many people as want to join in, with a fully functional economy that spans digital and physical worlds and lets you move data and digital stuff between both. Spotify gets close, with concert tickets and 3rd party tools to export your playlists, with a list of friends and what they're listening to so you can tune to the same thing at once. Zoom does, too, on the live events and real/virtual world mix—but good luck jumping back into a call on a different device from the one you started it on. Office has long offered the interoperability the metaverse promises, and a whole ecosystem of add-ons, but without the persistency and synchronous work that'd make the metaverse complete.
It's the persistent experience that matters, the thing that would make the greatest difference to today's work SaaS. VR can wait.
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