By Oleksii Tsymbal
The past year has been full of bold new tech ideas, and the metaverse is on the top of the list. By posing more questions than answers, the concept immediately found its supporters and opponents. If you have not yet joined either side, it’s time to figure out what the metaverse is: is it advanced virtual reality or something completely new? Can it exist without VR/AR technology? How can you benefit from this? Let’s take it step by step.
Once Again, What is the Metaverse?
Ever since the word “metaverse” took over the Internet, there has been an ongoing debate about what it really means and how the metaverse is different from what we already experience.
Basically, the metaverse is a virtual space in which people can interact with each other using various technologies. This is accomplished through a combination of physical hardware and software. The vision of this concept varies from company to company, but what they all have in common is a network of real-time rendered 3D worlds that a large number of users can dive into simultaneously. The metaverse is conceived as a simulation of the real world where you can work, study, communicate, rest, attend virtual concerts, and the like.
Much of the metaverse is tied to the digital economy, where users can buy and sell goods just like in the physical world, and this plays an important role in shaping interest in the metaverse from brands. Since modern people spend a huge part of their time on the Internet, the metaverse can be a great way for companies to increase revenue by promoting their products on such virtual platforms.
The idea of the metaverse is far from new though, and there have been many attempts to put it into reality. The term metaverse was first used by Neal Stephenson in his novel “Snow Crash” back in 1992. In 2007, the Second Life project appeared, which offered users the chance to experience a three-dimensional virtual reality. Various games such as World of Warcraft, Fortnite and Minecraft also use elements of the metaverse to increase customer engagement. So why now, with Facebook’s announcement of the creation of the metaverse, has this concept resonated so well?
We can find several reasons. The wider adoption of AR/VR technologies, development of 5G, the move to remote work during the Covid-19 pandemic have made the idea of the metaverse more comprehensible for people. All this, along with the fact that such a giant as Facebook began to develop the metaverse, aroused increased attention from investors and ordinary Internet users around the world and added the metaverse to the trending topics of the year.
Since 2014, Facebook has acquired several VR startups with more than $1 billion in funding, confirming that it is serious about building the metaverse and it will be more than one of Facebook’s existing tools. Also, other major market players such as Snap, Nvidia, Unity and Roblox have begun building their own infrastructure for the deployment of such projects.
Does the Metaverse Need AR/VR?
The idea of the metaverse is closely related to technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR). Augmented reality technology allows you to embed virtual objects into the real physical world. VR involves the use of 3D computer modeling, one of the most interesting types of graphic designs, to immerse yourself in a 3D virtual environment. While the metaverse doesn’t necessarily require you to wear a VR headset or other accessories, experts are confident that virtual reality technology will become an integral component of the new ecosystem.
For example, the Facebook metaverse is likely to be available through virtual reality headsets, smart glasses with augmented reality, and in limited ways in desktop and mobile applications.
The company has already announced work on a codenamed “Project Cambria” which will be a premium virtual and augmented reality headset. Meta said the device will support mixed reality and include new sensors that allow the virtual avatar to maintain eye contact and reflect human facial expressions. Improved technology will allow avatars to use the body language and better convey human emotions producing a feeling of real communication in virtual space.
According to Statista, the AR/VR combined market is expected to reach close to 300 billion dollars by 2024, and $100 billion by 2030 as predicted by Morgan Stanley.
Where is the Line Between VR and the Metaverse?
One of the main difficulties in understanding the metaverse is how this concept differs from the virtual reality that we know today. In a nutshell, VR may be an element of the metaverse, but the metaverse itself is much broader. It combines aspects of several digital areas, including social media, virtual reality, augmented reality, online gaming, and cryptocurrencies. VR can ensure real telepresence that is quite different from the video conferencing we are used to.
The metaverse is designed to change the way we consume content, moving it from 2D to a fully immersive, dynamic 3D environment. As a shared virtual space, the metaverse is also expected to change the way people interact with each other, connecting the virtual and physical worlds.
For example, it can greatly increase the level of communication with a virtual team, which is especially relevant in a remote work environment. The metaverse can also transform ordinary video calls into experiences with a sense of a real presence in a virtual meeting room.
Even though there are still many questions, we can consider the metaverse as something large-scale and multifunctional, something that is not limited to the VR/AR experience, but is fully revealed when using these technologies. The metaverse has been compared to the next generation of the Internet, providing an enhanced user experience, while VR is just the way to get it.
Use Cases of AR/VR Technologies for the Metaverse
Most people primarily associate the metaverse with gaming, but there can be many more use cases since the global goal of the metaverse creators is to change the way people interact with the Internet. So far, the gaming industry has become the first to receive real benefits from the launch of virtual ecosystems. For example, Activision Blizzard, the developer of World of Warcraft, has earned more than $8 billion in real income from this virtual world.
In addition to gaming, other companies and brands are also trying to follow the trend and find ways to use it for their own purposes. For example, the decentralized service Decentraland, which uses blockchain technology to sell real estate in the form of non-fungible tokens (NFT), recently sold a digital plot of land to a Canadian investment company for 2.5 million dollars. This space is to be used for digital fashion shows accessible through VR headsets and expanding e-commerce services with fashion brands. This is an example of how brands can unlock new marketing opportunities with online virtual platforms.
We have already mentioned the virtual office space that may take on a new look with the development of the metaverse. Unlike Zoom and Skype which we are used to, this technology enhances the feeling of the real presence of the team in one place. Even though the services listed offer various features such as image masking, allowing you to change the background during a conference, the metaverse goes further. It offers 3D rendered avatars to represent you in the virtual meeting based entirely on your movements and even facial expressions.
We can already find similar use cases on the market. Virtuworx is a service combining virtual reality and mixed reality that offers customizable solutions for offices, virtual meetings and other events.
The metaverse is also a new opportunity for advertising, tourism, education, entertainment, retail, design, engineering and many more industries. Potentially any activity from the physical world can expand into the metaverse.
The Future of the Metaverse
The idea of the metaverse definitely looks exciting, but right now it’s hard to tell what the future holds for it. Probably, the development of 5G and the growing interest in VR/AR technologies can really establish favorable conditions for creating something like this. But the creators of the metaverse will have to face a lot of challenges.
One of them is the interoperability of digital items that play a key role in the formation of the metaverse. When purchasing a digital item in the metaverse, you need to secure your rights for it and be able to use it throughout the virtual ecosystem, and not just in a separate game or on a separate platform. This also requires standardizing a currency which will allow the metaverse economy to develop.
Another requirement of the metaverse is real time data synchronization, which at scale can be very complex and costly. This is a new challenge for companies providing data synchronization services, since the metaverse will have to withstand large volumes of load and broadcast quality data while meeting the specific security needs of each user.
Also, the threshold for entering the metaverse is raised by poor Internet connection in many regions and the high cost of hardware that allows you to unleash the full potential of this technology.
Despite such a list of challenges, companies such as Microsoft, Google, Zoom and others are ready to invest in the development of metaverse technology following Facebook plans. For example, Microsoft announced the introduction of mixed reality, including holograms and virtual avatars, in Microsoft Teams in 2022.
With the metaverse relying heavily on virtual and augmented reality, the future of AR/VR companies looks bright as well. Businesses planning to create AR apps or implement virtual reality features have every chance to meet the growing demand in the market. According to Mordor Intelligence, the global VR market is expected to reach $184.66 billion by 2026.
Tying it all together
According to forecasts of tech enthusiasts, the metaverse can become a new stage in the development of the Internet, erasing the boundaries and taking us to a complete immersion in the digital world. VR/AR technologies play a key role in the formation of the metaverses, so in the coming years we will probably see an active growth of the market. If the metaverse is a virtual space, then VR is a way to get there.
However, VR capabilities are generally limited by contemporary hardware, which is expensive and cumbersome for long-term use. As for AR, modern smartphones have made it accessible to billions of users today, making it a go-to technology for the large-scale development of the metaverse.
Still we have a lot of questions about how the metaverse will function, how significant the benefits it provides will be, and how accessible it will be to ordinary users. But undoubtedly, if implemented correctly, the metaverse can be an improved means of online interaction for people around the world.
About the Author
Oleksii Tsymbal enjoys rock concerts, playing mini-football and Airsoft. But most of the time, he’s Chief Innovation Officer, doing a mix of tech, business, and marketing at MobiDev.