The metaverse is currently the “flavor” of the moment for hot tech topics. Facebook made a big splash a few weeks ago when it rebranded the company as Meta. Microsoft recently joined the metaverse party with its Mesh for Microsoft Teams announcement that it will comprehend quasi-metaverse capability into its popular video collaboration tool.
But if you put all hoopla aside, what practical impact will the metaverse have on the average mainstream consumer? Yes, lifelike avatars in highly realistic virtual environments are cool, but how will that change your life? Or is it just a tech fad or gimmick?
Let me lay out a few illustrative examples about how the metaverse will impact your life, hopefully for the better. My hope is that some of these instances will resonate with you.
A simple definition of the metaverse
The metaverse conglomerates various technology elements at a basic level, including video, augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR), where users can exist within a digital world. The metaverse concept draws its strength from a vision where users can play, work and stay “connected” with others, ranging from work events, conferences, virtual vacations and entertainment events.
Like Microsoft’s abrupt pivot to embrace the internet from an operating system integration standpoint in the mid-1990s, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is betting the proverbial farm on the metaverse with investing $10 billion to transform Facebook into a “metaverse company.”
The metaverse is a world that thrives on a future where cryptocurrency and digital art, known as a non-fungible token (NFT), are commonplace. While some people struggle with the concept of NFTs, some digital artwork is getting incredible valuations. Earlier in the year, famed auction house Christie’s sold a piece of digital artwork for $69.3 million, and that’s not chump change.
Mark Zuckerberg is perhaps the most buoyant CEO in Silicon Valley regarding metaverse enthusiasm. While it still may be a decade until sufficient key features are required to enable an immersive metaverse experience to become available, that has not stopped the company formerly known as Facebook from getting the early jump on marketing virtual headgear solutions via its acquisition of Oculus seven years ago.
As I described in my Forbes column a few weeks ago, some headwinds might impede the enablement of the metaverse. Blazing-fast synchronous broadband speeds (exceeding 1Gbps) are needed for a high-quality experience. While next-generation VR gear has become less cumbersome and doesn’t always have to be tethered to a PC, some users might balk at wearing headgear for extended periods. Most consumers are comfortable carrying a smartphone on a 24 X 7 basis. However, the jury is still out whether the typical user will want to do this with VR glasses or goggles (not to mention battery life-related challenges) for extended periods of time.
Microsoft wagers that work-related video conferencing and gaming may be the fastest paths to the metaverse
I think that Microsoft’s approach to the metaverse may represent a more pragmatic embrace of the metaverse’s potential.
In early November, Microsoft unveiled its Mesh for Microsoft Team solution that will bring virtual avatars (if a bit cartoonish) and holograms to its popular enterprise video conferencing platform next year. Microsoft’s approach has more of a mixed reality bent as it brings together the real world with elements of AR and VR.
Microsoft’s capabilities also have applications outside of the traditional enterprise space. Earlier this year, the U.S. Army announced that it would utilize Microsoft’s HoloLens technology in headgear for soldiers to aid in battlefield situational awareness and training exercises.
Microsoft is not ignoring the entertainment realm for its AR and VR solutions. In addition to Microsoft, HP and HTC market several headsets and accessories designed to exploit the VR entertainment potential of the Xbox. Microsoft’s Minecraft, a treasured virtual universe by kids, allows users to create their own digital character and construct whatever they wish.
Another exciting company on the metaverse radar screen is Dreamium Labs, which I wrote about earlier in the year. The company recently launched a smartphone app for users that create a jarringly realistic avatar just from a simple selfie taken on a smartphone. These avatars are customizable with different hairstyles and outfits. The avatars can then emulate the most popular TikTok trending dances and create exportable videos with friends, family and celebrities.
Metaverse-inspired retailing might have the strongest mainstream appeal
Putting gaming and video-conferencing usage models aside, perhaps the most significant appeal of the metaverse for the average consumer lies in shopping and retailing.
Over the past several years, there have been enormous advances in key augmented/3D/AR/VR elements of the metaverse that enable shopping tools that were previously the stuff of Back To The Future Part 2. Several high-profile retailers have created apps that permit their customers to see their clothes (or products) on them or in their homes. Furniture shopping takes on an entirely new dimension with a virtual in-home layout experience that doesn’t require a trip to the store.
The e-commerce space, of course, received a strong dose of adrenalin during the pandemic. New VR and AR technologies will represent an even more significant vehicle for retailers to leverage the e-commerce space for a most robust “omnichannel” shopping experience that brings together consumers’ physical and digital worlds.
A few closing thoughts
It’s unequivocally true that just about every major tech player wants to “own” their unique piece of the metaverse, not just Microsoft and Facebook. Regardless of who the actual winners turn out to me, the metaverse offers profound benefits to everyone. It can enable more imaginative problem solving across multiple industries like healthcare, education, life sciences, architecture, e-commerce and construction.
Unfortunately, the entertainment implications of the metaverse tend to be bright, shiny objects that distract the mainstream audience from understanding its genuine productivity and efficiency benefits potential. Landing a spacecraft on Mars using Oculus glasses may be cool. Still, it pales in comparison to the societal benefits realized when a surgeon performs virtual heart surgery from thousands of miles away.
Like all new technologies, the metaverse will inevitably have some ugly downsides: general addiction, losing track of time, and inability to discern the real and virtual world, just to name a few. There needs to be a broader conversation in the technology space to openly debate these problems as they will inescapably become more acute as metaverse-related technology becomes more robust.
But one could associate these risks with all new technologies, whether it be the rise of the internet, smartphones or gaming. The bottom line is that the metaverse will matter a great deal for the vast majority of people over the next several years, even if the usage models are not completely obvious now to the average person. Here’s hoping that the benefits it creates will more than offset the disruption it creates.
by: Mark Vena
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