Understanding the metaverse

At this year’s South by Southwest in March, many events – not surprisingly – revolved around the metaverse. But what's happened since?

The main technologies of the metaverse – augmented and virtual reality (AR and VR), extended reality (XR) for both – are nothing new. In 1990, the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) showcased the Virtual Interface Environment Workstation (VIEW). The agency created VIEW in partnership with VPL Research, the 1980s VR company founded by Jaron Lanier.

The system featured a headset very similar to today’s VR headsets and sensor-equipped clothes and gloves – DataSuit and DataGlove. For AR, the Fraunhofer Society provided an early example in 2004. The game NetAttack used Wi-Fi networks and semi-transparent personal displays in headgear to overlay three-dimensional objects on top of real-world settings.

Players had to find virtual target items in real-world environments, wearing a backpack full of equipment. The game had features that resemble Niantic’s Pokémon Go AR game that became successful in 2016 and was discussed in depth in the Computer Weekly article The beneficial (and frightening) implications of virtualising reality.

So, the idea of leveraging virtual elements and environments for productive and entertainment applications is not new. What is new, though, is that required technologies have become substantially more powerful, drastically smaller, and much less expensive over past decades. Gone are the days of backpacks with equipment; welcome sensor-equipped lightweight smart glasses with advanced display technologies.

Also, supporting infrastructure and communications technologies such as the internet, wireless connectivity, location positioning and navigation systems, virtual payment applications and datacentres have come a long way. Scores of companies have worked feverishly on metaverse-related applications for many years.

But an announcement by Mark Zuckerberg at this year’s South by Southwest (SXSW) festival in March forced them to put their cards on the table and prove to investors that they are on top of AR and VR technologies and applications. Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Meta, also participated remotely at SXSW to present his vision at the session Into the metaverse: creators, commerce and connection.

Related technologies have caught the attention of businesses and consumers, and the metaverse has become commercially viable. SXSW highlighted the breadth of use cases, from fashion and music to art and gaming. Business-related considerations included branding and workspaces, but also sustainability and communication, And, naturally, the sessions covered a range of technological topics, such as standards, non-fungible tokens (NFTs), non-fungible intelligence and the concept of Web 3.0.

Two stage discussions at the conference took a broad look at technologies and use cases. From buzz to reality: metaverse now and tomorrow offered a cross-industry look at the concept, including the Finnish metaverse ecosystem of startups and companies.

Geoff Bund, head of software partnerships at Varjo, outlined the use of the company’s high-end XR headsets. The company also recently launched its Varjo Reality Cloud platform, which allows users to stream location imagery in photo-realistic quality to other users’ headsets.

Vesa Koivumaa, head of growth for Wärtsilä, a manufacturer of industrial equipment for the maritime and energy market, offered a glimpse into the ways industrial players can leverage the metaverse for applications in training and maintenance. He noted that the “metaverse is a tool for very practical matters”. He mentioned the benefits that VR applications can have in education and training. Maritime trainees, for example, can easily familiarise themselves with the different sections of a ship, and remote operators will have the opportunity to virtually check operations or inspect safety components.

Koivumaa also pointed to synergistic technologies. “We can’t view the metaverse as a single entity; we need to see what else is happening in technologies,” he said, giving translation technologies as an example. Natural translation can enhance communication and collaboration in substantial ways, he added.

Read more about the metaverse

Coincidentally, at annual developer conference Google I/O on 11 May 2022, Alphabet presented a prototype of smart glasses capable of displaying the translations of conversations in real time.

Miikka Rosendahl, founder and CEO for ZOAN, provided the view of metaverse creators. His company has designed the world of Cornerstone, a photo-realistic metaverse. ZOAN is also building its own platform in the metaverse after years of accumulating experience in creating VR applications.

Leslie Shannon, head of ecosystem and trend scouting for Nokia, contributed the perspective of a provider of mainly business-to-business telecommunications systems that will create the infrastructure of the growing metaverse. Shannon described the metaverse as the “union of the digital and the physical”.

She noted that although Facebook’s name change to Meta drew attention to the emerging metaverse, she was frustrated that the focus on Meta’s vision limited the view on VR and related applications for many industrial use cases. Shannon highlighted AR as an enabler of the digital-physical union, saying that AR “transforms the nature of the relationship between humans and computers”. While people are currently limited to look at two-dimensional spaces, three-dimensional environments will connect them very effectively to the physical world, she added.

The distinction between AR, VR and XR is another source of confusion, she said. Shannon regarded AR and VR as two ends of a spectrum of the union of the physical and the digital, illustrating the nature of the spectrum by referring to HTC’s Proton prototype. The headset/glasses can switch from VR to AR, thereby physically representing the spectrum. She also noted that for many AR applications, a smartphone is sufficient to provide the digital layers on top of real-world objects and landscapes.

Varjo’s Bund added that although the underlying technologies and required development skillsets are very similar, AR and VR are trying to solve very different problems and address very different needs. AR and VR are sometimes conflated, but it is very rare that they can be used interchangeably, he said.

ZOAN’s Rosendahl commented that a decade ago, there was a debate about which technology – AR or VR – would win out commercially. Nowadays, the question revolves around the nature of the use case and the appropriate technology, he said. VR is great for immersing yourself in an entire virtually created world; AR is good for adding purposeful layers of information on top of real-world objects or urban landscapes.

The metaverse, in its most basic nature – examined in The developing metaverse: commercial realities of extended realities – enables the connectivity of users who can interact with virtual assets or avatars in an immersive fashion. Everything else, in my opinion, is negotiable and depends on design, purpose and applications of such environments.

The metaverse should be treated as a general idea, rather than a concrete definition. I believe that any attempts to define the metaverse in detail will inevitably only limit the potential of what types of environment could emerge and therefore miss associated business opportunities.

The metaverse can be many things for many people. The potential range of use cases and applications is likely to be more than the sum of its parts – similar to the way the internet not only established a new way to communicate and do business, but also created opportunities to design more efficient operations and implement novel business models.

Again, limiting our view today on what the metaverse is, and can be used for, will prevent us from envisioning what the new environment will ultimately achieve and enable.

Martin Schwirn is the author of Small data, big disruptions: how to spot signals of change and manage uncertainty (ISBN 9781632651921). He is also senior adviser, strategic foresight at Business Finland, helping startups and incumbents to find their position in tomorrow’s marketplace.

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