Are we headed to the Metaverse?
February 16, 2022
Ever since Mark Zuckerberg announced changing the Facebook name into "Meta," the Metaverse evolved into today's newest buzzword. Technically speaking, though, this term was first coined in 1992 in a book called "Snow Crash" by author Neal Stephenson to describe three-dimensional virtual space. Since then, the virtual world as we know it has expanded and evolved in various ways. The Metaverse isn't anything new. It is, however, starting to become more relevant today.
The Metaverse – a quick history
The industrial and commercial applications for this evolving segment are growing, powered by advances in technology like augmented and virtual reality, faster internet speeds, artificially intelligent algorithms, and the closest this civilization has gotten to quantum computing. But what exactly is the Metaverse?
Before that, let's take a quick jump back in time, shall we?
1950 – Cinematographer Morton Heilig developed the Sensorama, a precursor to modern-day virtual reality. His invention was a cabinet-like theatre immersing the user with sensory stimuli such as sounds, vibrations, and even smells to fully immerse an individual into the film.
1968 – Ivan Sutherland and Bob Sproull created the first VR head-mounted display connected to a computer. Sutherland previously describes the "Ultimate Display" as a concept where one could simulate reality indistinguishable from actual reality.
1989 - The world wide web is created by Tim Berners-Lee, eventually opening up the world's information to every home.
1987 – World's first online virtual world, Habitat, is developed by LucasFilm Games for the Commodore 64 computer. Jaron Lanier, the Visual Programming Lab (VPL) founder, coined virtual reality.
1992 – "Metaverse" introduced by author Neal Stephenson in Snow Crash.
2003 – Second Life, a virtual world is developed by Liden Lab. Some call this the proto-metaverse.
2006 – Roblox is launched, allowing users to create, share, and play games with others through an online platform. To date, several brands and celebrities have been making their own spaces within the Roblox ecosystem.
2008 – Birth of the blockchain platform by Satoshi Nakamoto, which eventually helps evolve into the technology behind Bitcoin.
2009 – Bitcoin is released as the world's first cryptocurrency.
2012 – A Kickstarter campaign for Oculus is launched.
2014 – Facebook acquires Oculus, virtual reality hardware and platform company.
2016 – Pokemon Go, a mobile game running on Augmented Reality, launched and has become immensely popular.
2017 – Popular game, Fortnight, is released, offering new concepts in the virtual world through virtual concerts and tours.
2018 – Axie Infinity is launched, introducing the world to a virtual reality gaming experience based on training, trading, and fighting with mythical creatures. This game runs on Ethereum and offers players a play-to-learn experience.
2021 – Microsoft Mesh is released, a platform designed for virtual collaboration across various devices. Also, Facebook changed its name to Meta and announced its plans on the Metaverse.
What is the Metaverse?
All these past events and more contributed to what the modern iteration of the Metaverse is today. Complex as it may seem, the term Metaverse, in some ways, could somewhat be analogous to cyberspace. One thing to remember about the Metaverse is that it isn't simply reliant on one technology to access. Instead, it is a broad spectrum of technologies that could one day create a seamless transition between our actual realities and their virtual ones. Without oversimplifying things, the Metaverse can be akin to our actual reality's digital twin. Succinctly, the Metaverse is a virtual space that allows individuals to interact with computer-generated objects, other users, and environments.
Imagine a virtual world with your surroundings and images captured and represented digitally, rendered in 3D. One that could allow you to interact with these objects and other users. Now, these concepts aren't so far-fetched today as more and more companies are venturing into IoT, 5G, A.I., and more to solve real-world problems. Microsoft, for example, shares in this vision of building a
digital twin for the world around us. One that allows us to navigate, interact, simulate and even predict scenarios in the virtual world before putting them into effect within our actual reality.
However, it will be wrong to say that one company owns the Metaverse. This is a public space open to the entire world to take advantage of. All these tech companies jumping into developments for applications into the Metaverse are simply grabbing a piece of the virtual real estate of this emerging trend.
How do we benefit from the Metaverse?
Even today, the number of devices capable of capturing, sending, and receiving data is growing by the billions. The question is, how can all these play a part in the Metaverse. Let's look at some use cases.
Better ways of remote collaboration
The global pandemic may have forced organizations to work remotely and collaborate. However, this setup is becoming a more permanent fixture than a temporary one. Many solutions have since become available to streamline collaboration between teams, albeit in a virtual setting. Video conferencing applications such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Google Hangouts were some that capitalized on this sudden demand when worldwide quarantines were set into place. However, the digital fatigue of remote workers has become quite natural too. Remote work and collaboration may be here to stay, but it does lack the social interactions that people tend to miss before the pandemic.
Today, tech giants have started to collaborate to usher in the age of the Metaverse, bringing VR/AR solutions that could bridge the geographical gap for inter-organizational collaboration and possibly add a more human touch to these virtual interactions. Imagine mentors and experts being able to train newly hired engineers using mixed-reality tech inside the Metaverse without having to travel, specialized surgeons able to assist in crucial surgeries across the world, or teachers able to create more interactive, adaptive, and engaging learning virtual environments without sacrificing on meaningful social interactions. These developments allow users in the Metaverse to experience a more seemingly human experience, even if it is done digitally.
One such example is this web-conferencing solution called www.Gather.town. This online virtual interaction platform allows you to control a digital avatar, virtually walk around and interact with people. The team behind Gather Town aimed to make virtual interactions more human. Something vitally important in an age when Zoom fatigue is a stark reality. This solution is helpful for educational, corporate, and even personal uses. Imagine virtual conferences where a user can explore and attend talks and symposiums. They can attend parties, celebrations, or family events with members many miles away; or a virtual office of a multinational company where all employees can "walk" up to a colleague and discuss matters as if they were physically in the same office.
The Gather Town developers have seamlessly allowed you to "hear" conversations as you come closer to a group of people. As if you were physically approaching a group conversing, office workers are now craving a very subtle aspect of the social interactions. Watch one of their videos here and see how the team demonstrates customizing individual digital working spaces and seamless roving interactions within their virtual office.
Microsoft takes this a step further, innovating upon their existing Teams platform by introducing Microsoft Mesh and using their Metaverse gateway product, the Hololens 2.
Mesh further builds on the existing features of Microsoft Teams; the usage of the Hololens aims to create better collaborative and immersive experiences by putting its users into a digital representation of the virtual office space. Combining mixed reality technologies and A.I., users enjoy a complete immersion into the Metaverse's reality using wearable mixed reality devices.
Solutions like these open up many possibilities for virtual office spaces, university or school campuses, conferences, and even personal events like weddings, parties, and gatherings.
Healthcare and fitness
Of course, as remote collaboration in the Metaverse continues to expand, the same perks may also extend into the health and wellness industries. With today's wearables already measuring various biometric data from our bodies, the possibility of medical consultations in the Metaverse becomes very distinctly possible. Patients can now consult with their chosen medical profession despite being miles away.
Mixed reality could soon become a medium of medical instruction as doctors and experts worldwide can now fully interact, train and simulate procedures that can be applied in the real world. The Vuzix Shield smart glasses, for example, could be used by surgeons while being guided by other experts miles away.
The wellness industry could seemingly create a new virtual space that incorporates exercising in the real world but is connected to the Metaverse using wearables that interface our biometric data onto our digital twins. All while A.I. could recommend exercise routines fit for the specific user. Meta recently acquired a subscription-based fitness company called Within - A company that developed the Supernatural app for their Oculus Quest using digital avatars of instructors; the app employs motion-tracking technology to create fitness routines.
The Metaverse could even be a venue to help with mental health too. In June 2020, the FDA cleared a VR game called EndeavorRX developed by Akili Interactive to help treat children suffering from attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). American war veterans are also being treated for PTSD using a therapeutic VR called Bravemind. The Metaverse opens up a plethora of opportunities.
New economies in the Metaverse
Gartner, Inc is predicting that by 2026, 25% of people will be spending at least an hour a day in the Metaverse. Whether that hour is spent working, shopping, learning, or simply socializing, people will find more ways than one of the things to do in the Metaverse. In the same way that people today have learned how to live on social media by sharing the food we eat or showing off the places we visit, the Metaverse would be an integral part of our daily lives one day.
With the recent boom of NFT sales in the art world, a more practical application of e-commerce may soon rise with digital products and services in the Metaverse. Many companies have started developing their piece of the Metaverse real estate by investing in their Metaverse solutions, some of which were mentioned earlier. As the virtual world converges with a world of mixed reality, NFTs, or Non-fungible tokens, could play a vital role in creating actual transactions in these virtual worlds.
Founded in 2004, Roblox currently has 47 million daily active users and 9.5 million developers who can create customized experiences through user-created games and worlds. Inside this shared virtual universe is an in-game economy where players can buy, sell and trade digital assets using an in-game currency called "Robux." Their developers are paid using Robux, which real-world currencies can also purchase. Sound familiar? It should. The digital assets that can be sold, bought, and traded are like NFTs, while the in-game currency, Robux, would be like the cryptocurrency. Although the central universe isn't created on the blockchain just yet, South Korean blockchain company Playdapp has launched the PlayDapp World, within the Roblox ecosystem.
Still, in the heavy development phase, this virtual world will soon allow players to buy, sell and trade their unique characters as NFTs. Even if Roblox isn't on the blockchain yet or its in-game currency isn't considered a form of cryptocurrency, it is headed in that direction.
Many brands have started to jump into the Roblox ecosystem. Nike, for example, has launched Nikeland within the Roblox universe as well. Recently, Nike released their NFT project called "Cryptokicks" and is expected to introduce NFTs into Nikeland. In the long term, Nike hopes to use the Metaverse to host in-game versions of worldwide sporting events, similar to the Superbowl, NBA playoffs, or the World Cup.
Even high luxury fashion brands like Gucci have made their way into Roblox with their own virtual space within Roblox called Gucci Garden. This features themed virtual rooms where visitors are immersed in the virtual exhibit of Creative Director Alessandro Michele.
Celebrities have also started using virtual worlds like Roblox and the popular multiplayer game, Fortnight to host online virtual concerts. Big names like Ariana Grande, Travis Scott, and Lil Nas - to name a few- have gone on to perform virtually through these platforms.
As industries start looking at carving their own meta "spaces" within the Metaverse, monetization of premium content, products, and services will undoubtedly arise, thus opening new doors for the world of e-commerce.
Imagine shopping for items such as clothes, shoes, and more. Still, instead of scrolling through pages of product photos, they are displayed in a virtual showroom where you can browse and simulate how they look on you before making a purchase—wondering if that shirt looks good with that pair of pants? VR/AR could simulate that look for you to help you decide. All possibly done with the help of wearables.
Zuckerberg's recent announcement of the name change of Facebook to Meta means one thing; their focus is shifting towards the Metaverse, especially with the company's past and recent acquisitions in the mixed reality space.
What is the technology behind the Metaverse?
Virtual / Augmented Reality Tech
These devices will be the heart and soul of the Metaverse. The immersive experiences envisioned for the Metaverse will all rely on developments in the mixed reality spaces. For example, companies such as Qualcomm and Microsoft are helping pave the way for these technologies to be democratized and made cheaper, more accessible to the public, and primarily, extremely portable. One thing is for sure, the VR modules we are used to today will no longer be just for gaming purposes anymore. Coupled with advancements in augmented reality, immersive experiences will surely change.
Hand in hand with mixed reality technologies, A.I. will play an integral role in helping us make better sense of the terabytes of data that the Metaverse will generate. Even today, A.I. is already widely used in many of our lives. Coupled with machine learning techniques, the potential to process a massive amount of data combined with blazing computing speeds will allow for faster calculations, more precise analytical simulations, and accurate predictions – across various applications.
Not necessarily groundbreaking technology today, but still an integral cog in the bigger picture that is the Metaverse. Recreating the physical world into its digital twin in the Metaverse will indeed require thousands of man-hours to capture and translate our physical world into the Metaverse. 3D reconstruction tools such as scanners and sensors will be needed to recreate the people, objects, and spaces we see around us.
5G and the Internet of Things
Yes, these two fields do go hand in hand. As data speeds get faster and faster, demand for devices that can sense, measure, and transmit data from the physical world will only get higher. Once more cities are equipped with the full rollout of 5G technology, connecting the billions of smart IoT devices all around us will become seamless. Expect new IoT devices specific to interfacing this physical world with the Metaverse to pop up. The Connected Intelligent Edge will be at the forefront, connecting the Metaverse with the rest of the world.
Although the Metaverse itself is still in its infancy stage, investments in this space are significant and show the virtual world's true potential. Not without its cons, many show concern about detaching ourselves from the social world as we know it and find ourselves turning into the digital zombies of the 21st century. There will be other challenges like identity authentication, data security, and privacy. Companies and users alike will need to be vigilant and responsible in handling the shared data as fraudulent activities, and scammers will inevitably make their way into the Metaverse.
Nonetheless, these advances aren't meant for us to escape into the Metaverse and abandon reality. Instead, expand our digital experiences to be more than just viewed from a device's screen. The visions many have for the Metaverse aren't wrong per se. What scares many is how this can be made to be a complete replacement of reality, open to abuse and exploitation for more nefarious purposes. In the end, though, the way Metaverse evolves is, inherently, up to all of us.
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