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The Titanic submersible shows why the metaverse is necessary

The apparent implosion of the Titan, a vessel headed for the ocean floor, shows why we need safe, accessible ways for people to explore our world.


Much of the media has spent the past week enthralled by the mysterious disappearance of a privately owned submersible that apparently imploded during a trip to see the shipwrecked Titanic. 

I wanted to share what appears to be a novel take, but one that I feel is quite important.

The disappearance of OceanGate’s Titan submersible, and the ample resources deployed to find the vessel and its five passengers, has prompted criticism of the “extreme tourism” industry — typically high-cost treks taken by the wealthy or well-connected to some of the most dangerous areas of our planet (and beyond).

As people consider safer ways to explore, I can’t help but think this terrifying scenario is precisely why the concept of a metaverse — that is, a virtual world reachable through some kind of wearable device — will never die. I was glad to see this referenced, albeit seemingly as an afterthought, in Axios this week. 

James Petrick, a professor at Texas A&M who studies tourism and recreation, told Axios that the metaverse is a good alternative for thrill-seekers. 

It takes the death out of it but still gives you the excitement,” he said.

I’ve been writing about the emerging world of virtual reality on The ReidOut Blog for over a year now. And I’ve also written about why the idea holds valence, even as its most vocal proponent — Meta owner Mark Zuckerberg — has seemed to struggle getting his plans off the ground (to the delight of many of his critics). 

But I think the Titan’s frightening disappearance is as good a time as any to reiterate why there’s a need for something that so many people seem inclined to dismiss these days.

As I see it, as long as there are people willing to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to visit the remote corners of our planet, there will always be a demand — expressed or not — for safer, cheaper and more widely accessible methods of getting there. 

Sure, maybe that means we ought to invest in developing better submersibles. Or maybe it means we ought to invest heavily in technology that allows more people to explore these places without needing to actually be there. I also see this incident as an access issue as much as I see this as a safety issue. As in, why should such a profound experience as visiting this historic landmark be confined to the people who have the most money? Or people who have the physical ability to take this trip? 

Personally, I have no desire to hop in a submersible. And I suspect many others share this view. But I think this tragic incident affords us an opportunity — in fact, gives us a mandate — to devise safe ways for people to satisfy their adventurous spirits and educational urges.

I’ve been touched, and have felt a great deal of sympathy, as I’ve listened to nautical experts on television speaking of the Titan’s passengers as inquisitive adventurers. Or simply as people fascinated by the world around them. 

At its best, I think technology can bring us closer to that world, and help us understand it better. And that doesn’t always need to mean visiting a place in person. Sometimes, for safety reasons, it shouldn’t. 

Do I want to travel two miles into the sea for a field trip? Absolutely not. But if you were to drop a high-tech camera down there capable of roaming the Titanic, and strap some VR goggles to my head, I’m pretty sure I’d nerd out over the experience. And I know I’m not alone in that regard.