Cycling in the metaverse: How will bike riding change as the internet evolves?
Here's what the predicted rise of virtual reality, augmented reality, and blockchains could mean for our sport.
Here's what the predicted rise of virtual reality, augmented reality, and blockchains could mean for our sport.
It’s early morning and you’ve just rolled out of bed. You put on your cycling kit, head to your spare room, and hop on your smart trainer. As you clip in and start pedalling, you pull on your mixed-reality headset and watch as your virtual garage materialises before your eyes.
Laid out in front of you are dozens of bikes from different eras. Old bikes, new bikes, bikes that could never exist in the real world. After a moment’s thought, you select your 1990 Eddy Merckx Corsa Extra from the rack in front of you – you’ve always been a fan of Andy Hampsten and the 7-Eleven Cycling Team.
Scanning your virtual kit collection you remember you’re still missing the kit that goes with the Corsa Extra. You navigate to your virtual clothing store of choice and seek out the 1990 7-Eleven kit. A third-person view of your avatar confirms the red, white, and green kit looks as great as you’d hoped. You make the purchase with your crypto wallet before loading up Zwift and joining your regular riding buddies for your weekly ride.
As you set out, you find yourself marvelling at the platform’s new rainforest-inspired world. It’s almost like you could reach out and touch the tips of the trees as you ride beneath them.
One of your riding buddies mentions the chaotic sprint that ended yesterday’s stage of the Tour de France. You didn’t catch it, but you vow to do so after the group ride.
After waving goodbye to your pals, you load up your favourite race replay app and navigate to the final 15 km of the Tour stage. And then you’re right there, in the peloton, on your Corsa Extra, wearing your 7-Eleven jersey, duking it out with the best in the world.
It’s all happening right in front of you: riders fighting for wheels, riders yelling at one another, the whir of carbon wheels, the screeching of brakes into a tight corner. It’s as if it were you there jostling for position in the finale of a Tour stage, battling it out for cycling glory.
A scenario like this might read more like science fiction than reality; more like a scene from the book-turned-film ‘Ready Player One’ (see video below) than anything close to the cycling of today. But a future like this could well be on the horizon.
This ‘metaverse’ is already being built and, should it shape up the way ‘Big Tech’ wants it to, it could revolutionalise our lives, in much the same way the internet did when it first emerged in the 1990s. And with an emerging metaverse could come significant changes to the way we cyclists ride and engage with the sport we love.
Join us as we dive down the rabbit hole of future technology and ponder the future of cycling in the world of the metaverse.
At its most fundamental level, the metaverse can be understood as the way we will interact with the next version of the internet.
Web 1.0 was a place you went to consume content from static web pages. In Web 2.0 – the current version of the web – almost every internet user is a content creator – whether by writing blog posts, posting on social platforms like Instagram or Twitter, creating YouTube videos, or even just commenting on articles like this one.
The theory goes that the future version of the internet, Web 3.0, will be defined by the rise of blockchain technology which will serve to decentralise the internet and move power away from the big tech companies. And the metaverse? That’s how some people believe we will experience and interact with that future version of the internet.
So what actually is the metaverse? While the exact details are yet to emerge, we do have an idea of the broad brush strokes.
The Oxford Dictionary describes the metaverse as “a virtual-reality space in which users can interact with a computer-generated environment and other users”. Or as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg described it to The Verge: “You can think about the metaverse as an embodied internet, where instead of just viewing content — you are in it. And you feel present with other people as if you were in other places, having different experiences that you couldn’t necessarily do on a 2D app or webpage, like dancing, for example, or different types of fitness.”
The term ‘metaverse’ has actually been around for some 30 years already. Its first use stems back to a 1992 science fiction novel called ‘Snow Crash’ by American author Neal Stephenson. It would take another decade until the emergence of what many see as the first example of a metaverse: Second Life. In this virtual world (which still exists to this day) users build and explore virtual worlds, and interact and play with one another within those worlds.
There’s been more talk of Web 3.0 and the metaverse in recent years, but the idea really entered popular consciousness in October 2021 when Zuckerberg revealed that Facebook’s parent company would be changing its name to Meta. That announcement came with a series of videos from Zuckerberg (see example above) showing Meta’s vision for the metaverse, what that future might bring, and what Meta’s role in it would be.
The social giant poured US$10 billion into its metaverse expansion in 2021 alone and it is reportedly hiring another 10,000(!) people to further its work in this space. In addition, Meta’s range of VR headsets (Facebook/Meta purchased Oculus in 2014) boasts a 75% share of the global market. All of this makes it clear Meta believes the metaverse will happen, and it wants to play a key role when it does.
But Facebook/Meta is far from the only big player taking the metaverse seriously. Samsung last week revealed its new Galaxy S22 phone on a metaverse platform called Decentraland. Disney recently reiterated its interest in the metaverse by appointing an executive to head up its “next generation storytelling and consumer experiences”. And in January 2022, Microsoft purchased videogame company Activision Blizzard for a cool US$70 billion in a move that Microsoft hopes will position it well for the metaverse future.
And as you might expect, it’s in this videogame realm that the metaverse has the strongest roots.
One of the most popular videogames on the planet, Fortnite, is principally a survival shooter game where 100 players fight it out online to be the last player standing. But Fortnite is also a virtual world of some 350 million people – with up to 15 million people online at any one time – where friends can battle together, spend time together, and create memorable shared experiences together.
The game regularly hosts events, such as this virtual concert performance by pop star Ariana Grande.
Minecraft, the phenomenally popular block-based world builder, has been similarly impressive at bringing and keeping people together, allowing users to create their own virtual worlds and share them with friends. Like Fortnight, Minecraft too, has hosted virtual concerts.
And game-creation platform Roblox, with its almost 50 million daily active users, has also hosted virtual concerts and conventions.
What these videogame platforms offer – beyond simple fun – is connection, community, and shared experiences, all in detailed virtual worlds that keep people wanting to come back over and over. In this way they can be seen as proto-metaverses that could be setting the stage for what online interaction looks like in the future.
Which brings us back to cycling.
While a fully fledged metaverse is still years away, here in the cycling space we already have the building blocks of our own metaverse: Zwift.
There is much that positions Zwift as metaverse-ready. It’s already a massively multiplayer online world; a virtual community where riders interact with one another. It already blurs the lines between the real and the virtual, with riders pedalling in the real world and making progress in the virtual (not to mention the virtual renderings of real-world courses). And it’s a world where collectible digital assets like bikes, kits, and other equipment are front and centre (more on the significance of this in a moment).
The team behind Zwift is well aware of its future potential in this space. Indeed, co-founder and CEO Eric Min told CyclingTips’s Wade Wallace in September 2021 that Zwift is actively thinking about this future.
“I think the next 10 years and the future of the internet is, I think, going to happen in virtual worlds,” Min said. “So we’re well placed to have a role that we want. I want us to be the portal for everything to do with fitness in a 3D [world]. A world where you can have real relationships, you can own assets, and there’s value in those assets.
“You can earn a living, you can sell services, you can buy services. It’s all going to happen in what they’re calling metaverse. And if you think of a metaverse, Zwift is just a planet in that metaverse.”
So what might Zwift look like in a metaverse future? Min seems to hint at deeper social connection and ownership of assets, but perhaps the biggest change could be a greater focus on immersion. Gradient simulators, rocker plates, variable-speed fans – these technologies already exist and point to a future where riding indoors feels increasingly like riding outdoors. And the key ingredient that would seem to tie that all together, to make Zwift feel even more immersive, would be virtual reality (VR) tech.
Indeed, it seems likely VR is set to play a foundational role in what the metaverse will look like as a whole.
VR has been around for half a century by this point, with the first concepts being trialled back in the 1970s. The technology matured in the decades that followed with VR headsets available commercially from the 1990s (e.g. the Forte VFX1)
While VR headsets are far from a ubiquitous household item, they are increasing in popularity, particularly among gamers. VR gaming experiences are available for many of the major gaming platforms and after debuting in 2010, the Oculus Rift – now the Oculus Quest after being bought by Facebook/Meta – has become the world’s biggest VR platform.
But the use of VR is far from isolated to the world of gaming. VR-based social apps, like those that Zuckerberg imagines us all using in the future, already exist.
VRChat is a virtual world, not unlike Second Life, where users create avatars, make their own worlds, and spend time with friends. AltspaceVR, owned by Microsoft, does something similar, with a focus on virtual events, “empowering artists, brands, and businesses to easily design meaningful experiences that foster community and connection.”
There are established VR platforms for work and productivity as well. Apps like Immersed, Spacial, and Horizon Workrooms (made by Meta) all create a kind of 3D version of Zoom with users represented by avatars. According to some, these platforms can create surprisingly engaging connections that remove some of the jarring sense of distance that exists in present-day video conferencing.
VR is being increasingly used in a range of industries, from medical sciences to manufacturing, from mining to the military. And there are VR platforms that allow you explore the natural world, like Wander which uses Google Street View to create an immersive experience, or National Geographic Explore which allows you to experience real-world locations as if you’re actually there.
In the fitness space, popular apps like FitXR and Supernatural allow you to do boxing, dancing, or high-intensity interval training sessions in lush virtual worlds. And cycling, too, already has a bunch of VR-enabled offerings, allowing you to strap on a VR headset and head out for a ride in a virtual (or real-world) location.
Holofit offers a stylised videogame-like riding experience from any stationary bike with a cadence sensor.
VZFit offers similar, but rather than using computer-generated graphics, it takes real-world images from Google Street View and creates a riding experience with virtually limitless potential for exploration.
Then there was the intrepid British rider who built his own VR platform that also used Google Street View to help him virtually ride the length of the UK. If you want to keep things even simpler, there are always 360º cycling videos on YouTube that can be watched with a VR headset to provide an immersive experience.
Platforms like these make it easy to see the future applications of this technology in the cycling space. It’s not hard to imagine a tourism board creating a 3D riding experience, for example, to allow users to visit an area virtually. And as time goes on, we can expect these experiences to become more interesting and more engaging, and for other applications for this technology to emerge.
As for Zwift, well, it’s been technologically possible to ride on that platform using a VR headset for more than five years now. But as with all VR cycling platforms, that offering will need to clear some significant hurdles before cycling in the metaverse becomes a desirable reality.
Despite the current and future opportunities offered by VR, the technology is far from perfect. In fact, current technology – while better than it’s ever been – is likely to act as a limiter to more widespread uptake of VR sport, and of the metaverse more generally.
VR headsets are heavy, bulky, the batteries only last a couple hours, and they cut you off from reality in a way that, for many people, is unnatural and unappealing. And in a cycling context, the idea of wearing a VR headset for a hard indoor ride of any length is clearly fraught. The headset quickly becomes a foggy, sweaty mess, the downsides of VR quickly outweighing any of the immersion benefits.
“The big problem with VR at the moment is the form factor; it’s just not conducive to a serious session,” said Zwift CEO Eric Min in an interview with BikeBiz. “If you’re riding for a reasonably long time, you’re going to sweat all over the headset – it’s heavy and eventually you’re going to feel that weight. I think that’s probably about two to three years away from being a really viable option.”
That interview was published in 2017 but Min’s point holds true today.
For some people, riding a bike while wearing a VR headset also leads to feelings of nausea, or a disconcerting disconnect between their real-life body and what they’re seeing.
This is because VR forces an individual to reconcile two different experiences at once – how their body is moving in the real world, and how their virtual body is moving. In cycling, where our weight is constantly shifting, and we’re constantly on the move in three dimensions, that’s a particularly tricky puzzle to solve.
It seems almost certain that VR tech will continue to progress in the future. Perhaps lighter, smaller headsets – something akin to the HTC Vive Flow – will be more appropriate for cycling. But maybe there’s an even better option down the road.
More than a decade ago, theoretical physicist Michio Kaku suggested that internet-enabled mixed-reality contact lenses were the way of the future. For cyclists, this technology would have the potential to create an immersive virtual riding experience without having to worry about sweating all over a hefty headset (not to mention the bike beneath you).
While this technology is still a long way off, progress is being made. In 2020, tech company Mojo Vision made a splash with its plans for its contact lenses which go some of the way to realising Kaku’s vision.
Which brings us to the subject of augmented reality.
While the greatest immersion will be possible with VR, some believe it’s AR – augmented reality – that will form the foundation of the metaverse.
Where VR creates a wholly virtual environment for a user to look at (and therefore two versions of their body to make sense of), AR takes an image of the real world and augments it with additional information or virtual objects.
This technology has been around in various forms since the 1990s (or even earlier, depending on how you slice it.) And like VR, AR has applications in a vast range of fields, including apps like Ikea Place which uses AR on your phone or tablet to show you what a piece of furniture will look like in your own space, or Pokemon Go, the hit smartphone game which drops collectible critters into the real world for you to catch and battle with.
And yes, AR has been used in cycling too.
Since 2017, virtual cycling platform Rouvy has used a form of AR to drop a rider’s virtual avatar into real-world video with ride data laid over the top. In 2018 the Bike 3D Configurator app showed the potential AR has in cycling by allowing you to drop a bike of your choice into your local environment, tweak the build to your liking, and observe every detail as if it were right there in front of you.
And in 2020 Specialized launched its new Tarmac SL7 using a similar method, using an AR feature in the Specialized Ride app that allowed you to place the new bike in an environment of your choosing.
It’s not hard to imagine more of this in future, both when it comes to buying real-world bikes (and seeing how they look in your own garage), and bikes to ride on virtual platforms. Perhaps bike brands could use AR to overlay a new bike over an existing bike you bring in store, to help compare geometry and get your fit dialled?
And AR has real potential in the bike maintenance space as well. The following demo from 2018 shows the individual parts of a bike and how it’s built up.
In the future, this sort of tech could also show you an immersive 3D video of what you need to do to fix certain parts of a bike that’s on a repair stand in front of you.
But the AR of the future isn’t likely to be confined to screens of our smartphones, tablets, or computers – it’s likely to be embedded in eyewear. Rather than having to look at a separate screen, AR eyewear will allow us to see the world around us, with additional information layered on top.
As with AR more generally, work has been happening in the wearable AR space for decades now. Indeed it’s nearly a decade since the roll-out of the ill-fated, AR-enabled Google Glass. While that particular product quickly faded into obscurity, Google is reportedly back working in the AR wearables space. And it’s not the only tech giant doing so: Microsoft has been playing with AR eyewear for years and Apple has been working on a mixed-reality headset too. That’s three of the world’s biggest tech brands all investing heavily in the future of AR eyewear.
A few brands have dabbled in cycling-specific AR wearables too. Launched back in 2015, the Senth IN1 claimed to be “the world’s first augmented reality cycling glasses”. They captured video, photos, and overlaid data like ride routes, warnings, and stats into the rider’s field of vision. The project raised nearly AU$100,000 (US$68,700) on Indiegogo.
In 2016 British design firm DCA revealed its work on the Optic helmet that was said to overlay GPS data and ride data on the world in front of the user, plus footage from a rear-facing camera to provide a 360º view for improved safety.
While none of the products mentioned above have had a significant impact on the cycling tech market (if they even made it to market), it’s easy to envision a future where products like these are more viable, particularly with the world’s biggest tech brands now active in this space.
And there’s plenty of opportunity here for cyclists. At the most basic level, your AR glasses could display your ride data in front of you, as the Senth IN1 and Optic promised to do, meaning you don’t need to look down at your GPS to track your progress.
Or, imagine heading out for a ride and trying to beat the Strava KOM/QOM on a particular climb. The simplest option would be to show time splits directly in your field of vision. More exciting would be to overlay video of the KOM/QOM leader on the road out in front of you, showing your progress relative to that rider.
Or as a cycling fan, what about being able to visit a mythical cycling destination like the Muur van Geraadsbergen, and have the recent Tour of Flanders projected in front of you, with all the sights and sounds that come with it. The opportunities here are significant and exciting.
One of the core principles of the imagined metaverse is that it will be interoperable; that different platforms and worlds will integrate seamlessly with one another. Despite Facebook/Meta’s efforts, it seems very unlikely there’ll be one giant metaverse controlled by a single organisation (think of The Oasis in the book and film ‘Ready Player One’). Rather, the metaverse is more likely to be a series of smaller metaverses which users will be able to move between, taking their virtual lives with them.
We can see the precursors to this in the current version of the web. Your Google account can be used to log in to a range of different, unrelated websites, for example, and Google Docs can read Microsoft Word files. And in cycling, your Garmin or Wahoo GPS unit, say, can be set up to automatically pass data through to Strava.
Interestingly, the big tech brands are already working together on the future of the internet, and more specifically the future of extended reality (XR) tech. Google, Microsoft, HTC, Meta, Sony – they’re all part of the XR Association which is “leading the way for the responsible development and adoption of XR”. There’s also a standards organisation already at work ensuring that the metaverse develops in such a way that encourages interoperability.
So why is interoperability important? In Zuckerberg’s words: “You want to know that when you buy something, or create something [in the metaverse], that your items will be useful in a lot of contexts and you’re not going to be locked into one world or platform. You want to know that you own your items, not a platform.”
In the future, you’ll have your avatar (or avatars) which you’ll be able to use across different worlds (avatar creation for the metaverse is already a thing). And if you’re a cyclist, you’ll want to be able to access your virtual bikes and kits in whatever cycling world you choose.
Think back to the Eddy Merckx bike and 7-Eleven kit in the scenario we opened with. Interoperability between platforms means you’ll be able to take that bike and kit with you wherever you go in the metaverse, whether that’s riding along with the Tour de France peloton, going for a leisurely sight-seeing ride in the Swiss Alps, or racing on Zwift.
And as Eric Min told CyclingTips in 2021, Zwift is already thinking about interoperability in a metaverse future.
“Let’s say a customer of Zwift with the same avatar can walk into those other virtual worlds and have that single identity,” he said. “Today, they’re all closed ecosystems, but over the next 10 years, it’s going to open up and be a standard. It’s crazy, but ‘Ready Player One’ is like the sci-fi version of what the world is going to be in the future.
“I would like to see more people innovating within our platform. And I think part of that is that we’re not making it particularly easy for partners to do that. But as I said earlier, the future of these virtual worlds is you need to be able to build an economy, need to be able to create things. You need to be able to create things that you can own indefinitely. It doesn’t disappear.
“People have asked ‘can I buy real estate on Zwift?’ Maybe in the future that is a real possibility. The Hyatt or the Hilton said they would pay to have their hotel in our Richmond map.”
Which brings us to the subject of the metaverse economy. Whether it’s an individual buying a virtual bike and jersey to ride in different worlds, or a hotel chain buying real estate in Zwift, the economy of the metaverse could look quite different to what we see today.
In the past year or so we’ve seen a handful of cycling entities and personalities take the plunge into the murky world of cryptocurrency, and especially into the world of non-fungible tokens (NFTs). As a quick refresher: an NFT is essentially a digital token that denotes ownership of the original copy of a particular asset, like a photo, or video, or any digital object really.
Colnago sold an NFT of its C64 in May 2021 (for more than the cost of an actual C64), Bahrain-Merida minted an NFT version of a kit its team wore once at last year’s Tour de France presentation then destroyed, and Wout van Aert made his three biggest wins available for sale as NFTs in October 2021. And who could forget cryptocurrency brand NextHash’s ill-fated venture into the world of pro cycling team sponsorship.
The whole cryptocurrency/NFT space is more than a little unusual and, for most people, quite difficult to make sense of. And if that’s you, things aren’t likely to improve any time soon.
By many accounts, blockchain technology – that which underpins all cryptocurrency and NFTs – is likely to form the bedrock of the entire metaverse.
By design, blockchains are decentralised. They don’t need a central organisation (like a bank) to manage transactions and ownership of assets – instead these are tracked by the userbase in a public blockchain ledger that is distributed across the network. As researchers Rabindra Ratan and Dar Meshi wrote in an article for The Conversation in January 2022, “If two virtual worlds are interoperable, the blockchain will authenticate proof of ownership of your digital goods in both virtual worlds. Essentially, as long as you are able to access your crypto wallet within a virtual world, you will be able to access your crypto stuff.”
So your virtual bike and kit collection? It will likely be because of blockchain technology that you’ll be able to bring that with you between worlds, in your crypto wallet.
As for cycling specific NFTs, they have the potential to actually be, well, somewhat useful in the metaverse. At the moment, owning an NFT gives you little more than the right to say you own that NFT. In most cases, others can still download the same image or video file you paid for. But in the metaverse? Maybe you’re the only one who owns that virtual rendering of the Colnago C64. Maybe you’re the only one that can take it for a ride in whatever metaverse world you like, and have it sitting in your virtual garage afterwards.
And speaking of virtual homes, you might be surprised to learn you can already buy real estate in the metaverse. In fact there are a bunch of platforms that allow you to do so: Nifty Island, Republic Realm, The Sandbox, Decentraland, to name just a few.
Maybe your virtual home of the future will be a charming seaside cottage somewhere in Zwift’s Watopia?
It’s not just as cyclists that the rise of the metaverse could affect us. It’s as fans of the sport, too.
Robert Winder is the father of recently retired pro racer Ruth Winder and an entrepreneur with 15 years experience in digital health start-ups. His latest venture is an attempt to evolve the way we interact with cycling media by adding further context to the images and videos we see from the sport today. It’s a venture that paints a picture of what the future might hold when it comes to engaging with pro cycling.
“We’ve got power data, geo data, we’ve got heart rate, cadence, speed, weather, wind direction – everything,” Winder told CyclingTips. “We know pretty much everything about every single rider. And if I took a photo of the bunch or a break and there’s seven riders in there, I could identify who those riders are, I know what equipment they’re riding, at that moment what their heart rate is …
“My vision is simply this: I’m going to combine the image that the 10,000 spectators on the side of the road take (if they take 10 photos each, that’s 100,000 photos on any given race – it’s a massive amount of images). Now we can combine those images with data from riders and geo data, race data, and we can basically create a whole new standard for images which provide context.”
The example he provides is a finish-line shot from the 2021 Brabantse Pijl – a race where his daughter beat Demi Vollering in an incredibly close sprint finish.
“As you interact with the image, the objects that you can interact with become visible to you, and you can see the performance data from that day,” he explained. “You can see the name of the rider, you can go to their socials. You could do things like ‘I want to know what power meter Ruth rides’. You click on the watts icon and it will come up and link you to the SRAM power meter.”
Winder debuted a prototype of his platform at the Cyclocross World Championships in Fayetteville, USA, in January 2022. At the moment it’s just a static, 2D image in a web browser, with regions you can click on to see additional context about an image. But the future potential of this tech is where it gets most interesting.
“How does this relate to the metaverse? So the long-term vision is I can do this in real-time, long term, and I can insert myself into that image so I can move myself around,” he explained. “Inside of that image, I can look at a particular rider. I could link off to the sponsors – the bike manufacturer, the helmet supplier, order a pair of sunglasses. I could do all of that in the physical world as well as in the virtual world. But more importantly, I can actually check out what was happening at the race at that moment in time.
“What I would also be able to do in the future is add additional context. Maybe you have an insert of an audio clip from the rider. ‘I was attacking at this point because the team just laid it all out for me and we were just 1 km into the big climb of the day and I needed to go for it.’ And then you can have the other guy … ‘It was such a huge attack. We had to close the gap and I was all out and I was on the rivet for five minutes.’
“So you get the picture where you can create this new format, which is a new digital object that has way more context in it than just a photo. That could also be truly engaging for people in the context of what’s actually going on.”
In a similar vein to what Winder proposes, watching race highlights could be much more immersive in a metaverse future. Rather than watch a linear highlights video, with selected single-angle highlights edited together, perhaps race highlights in the future will feature 360º footage captured from various vantage points. With VR, fans will be able to watch the race from the perspective they want, looking around within a given shot, and focusing on the moments and individuals they want.
The precursor to this exists already in the in-peloton footage created by Velon (see video below). With 360º cameras and widespread take-up of VR, catching up on the latest race would be a much more engaging experience. And why stop at highlights? Why not watch a race live in immersive 3D via VR? 360º footage from race motos and on-bike cameras could be live-streamed to fans around the world, for the ultimate, immersive viewing experience.
And why engage only as a fan? Why not, as noted earlier, ride along on your smart trainer with the bunch while watching your immersive highlights video or live coverage? Riding along with races has long been a go-to method for some indoor riders; this would take it to another level.
You might be reading this article and getting excited about what the future holds. Or perhaps you’re sceptical about the chances of any of it coming to pass. You might also be worried about the implications of such a future.
In November 2021, former Facebook/Meta employee Frances Haugen spoke publicly about her concerns for the future Meta was building. “These immersive environments are extremely addictive and they encourage people to unplug from the reality we actually live in,” she said. “I’m also worried about it on the level of — the metaverse will require us to put many, many more sensors in our homes and our workplaces, forcing users to relinquish more of their data and their privacy.”
Furthermore, the image of people spending hour upon hour with a VR headset strapped to their face might seem to you like some sort of dystopian nightmare. Sure, VR might make some methods of communication easier and more immersive, but will it come at the expense of real, face-to-face human interaction? A troubling evolution of faces buried in smartphones?
There are also real questions to be answered about the long-term viability of blockchain technology as a foundational aspect of the metaverse. Critics like programmer and tech writer Stephen Diehl view the blockchain as an incredibly slow and cumbersome technology, “a solution in search of a problem”, and as technology “that barely works”. Meanwhile, many are starting to view cryptocurrencies as little more than Ponzi schemes. And that’s to say nothing of the environmental impact of energy-intensive blockchain technologies.
(If you want to dive deep on the problems with blockchains, cryptocurrency, and NFTs, this lengthy takedown from the Folding Ideas YouTube channel has become a seminal work in this space).
But let’s assume for a moment that the metaverse does emerge as many expect it will. How far away might that future be?
As noted, the foundations are being laid as we speak, and according to Zuckerberg, the first major steps might happen sooner than expected.
“We’re starting to see a lot of these technologies coming together,” he told The Verge in July 2021. “In the next five or 10 years, a lot of this is going to be mainstream and a lot of us will be creating and inhabiting worlds that are just as detailed and convincing as this one, on a daily basis.”
If a metaverse as ubiquitous and engrossing as the Oasis from ‘Ready Player One’ ever does eventuate, it is surely still decades away. But with some of the world’s biggest tech giants investing heavily into building the metaverse – and the technology behind it – it seems almost inevitable that some sort of future like this is going to happen. Exactly what that looks like and how widespread its take-up is, that’s the real question.
It won’t be like flicking a switch – the metaverse won’t just exist one day. It will spring up gradually, with individual worlds growing in significance and reach. And chances are we won’t even refer to it as the metaverse for very long – at some point this is just what the internet will be.
And as for cycling? Well, it’s easy to dream up what could happen, but who knows what actually will. I asked cycling tech writer DC Rainmaker what he thinks cycling will look like in a metaverse future.
“To be honest, I think most of the discussion is largely silly,” he told me via email. “That’s because the precise definition of what exactly the metaverse is, isn’t super precise. At one more technical end, there’s broad ideas of ease of identity movement between platforms (social/financial/etc.), and at the other end, there is everyone wearing VR headsets shopping a 3D version of their local bike shop.
“These concepts are entirely possible with today’s technology. Yet as tech companies like to do, rebranding half-finished concepts is the name of the game.”
He suspects we’ll see more bike brands release bikes via AR in the future, as Specialized did with its Tarmac a few years back.
“I suspect over time, these sorts of things will become more commonplace, in the same way clicking to zoom on a flat picture of a cassette on Amazon today is commonplace,” he said. “At the other end, you’ve got the potential for interactive virtual viewing parties for big races or events, similar to us all watching the Hour Records in a giant YouTube livestream.
“But getting that to some complete 3D-world representation of us inside a stadium? That’s going to take a lot more than just tech companies spinning out new headsets each year at CES [“the most influential tech event in the world” according to its website – ed.] It’s going to take actual real-world thought on what people outside of Silicon Valley really want in an online, potentially 3D world that’s filled with normal everyday people like your grandparents.
“Else, it’ll just be another flash in the pan idea.”
Regardless of where you think this is all going, one thing is clear: cycling outdoors isn’t going anywhere. Sure, maybe we’ll do more of our rides virtually in future. And sure, cycling in the metaverse – as a participant and a fan – is likely to be more immersive, more engaging, and more entertaining than it ever has before. In that sense, there’s much to be excited about.
But in an increasingly virtual, technologically mediated world, I’d argue we cyclists only have a growing appreciation for the pleasure of being and exercising outdoors. The sheer joy of riding a bike outside, in real life, amongst nature, with friends – that’s something that no technology can replace, no matter how immersive.