When worlds collide: In the metaverse, the physical will merge with the virtual
If you’re looking for a weekend binge, the Amazon Prime Video series “Upload” will make you both laugh and think.
The series takes place in 2033, when humans can “upload” their consciousness into a virtual afterlife where they can exist beyond our earthly world. Customer service representatives provide assistance and loved ones can visit from the physical world via virtual avatars.
The comedy/sci-fi show depicts the virtual world as a place where human relationships, emotions, humor and drama exist and can be just as tangible and life-impacting as they are in the physical world.
While the mysteries of the afterlife are beyond my area of expertise, I can say that the formation of a virtual world is on the horizon. This world is rendered in 3D and its visitors can interact with real people, places, businesses and have experiences via avatars.
It’s called the metaverse and is being heralded as the “next dimension of the internet.”
The metaverse entered the spotlight in October last year after Facebook announced its transition to Meta Platform Inc. The company disclosed a $10 billion investment in software and hardware to create a virtual world.
For years prior to this announcement, Meta funded the development, production and sale of Oculus, its virtual reality headset for online gaming. The official name change signaled its confidence in a future beyond immersive gaming.
However, the metaverse concept has been around even prior to Facebook’s existence.
Author Neal Stephenson is often credited with coining the phrase “metaverse” in his 1992 science fiction novel “Snow Crash.” The concept of a virtual world has been around even before that. The term “cyberspace,” for example, was part of pop culture in the 1980s.
The metaverse represents different possibilities.
For some, our life in the metaverse may completely overshadow our experiences in the physical world. We will work, shop and socialize primarily in the virtual world. In this fantastical metaverse, there will be digital twins of physical places and unique virtual worlds to explore.
Frank X. Shaw, corporate vice president for communications at Microsoft, defined “metaverse” as “a persistent, digital world that is connected to many aspects of the physical world, including people, places and things.” He notes that there will be more than one metaverse created by different entities.
Our virtual experiences will become as important as our physical-world experiences and the use of the phrase “real world” will no longer apply exclusively to the physical world.
The business-minded see the metaverse as a new product or driver of the economy. This encompasses sales of the enabling technologies, advertising, cryptocurrencies and a new way to shop and discover products and services.
According to World Economic Forum, there are three key components of a successful metaverse: presence, interoperability and standardization.
Presence refers to the feeling of being in virtual space. This is achieved through virtual and extended reality technologies. The metaverse will not only require a VR headset but will pave the way for other technologies that can be programmed to respond to the virtual environment, including connected devices that use sensors and internet-of-things technology, such as smart watches and fabrics — to communicate and create an immersive experience.
Artificial intelligence will evolve with avatars interacting with users and power their metaverse operations. At some point, one may not even be able to distinguish AI from a human-controlled avatar in the metaverse.
Interoperability means that users can seamlessly travel between virtual spaces with the same virtual assets, such as avatars, currency and other digital items.
Standardization enables interoperability of platforms and services across the metaverse. Common technological standards will be essential for widespread adoption.
Imagine it like this – a metaverse user puts the headset on and “goes” to the mall to shop or simply browse products. Maybe they interact with the staff. Then they leave that shop and walk into the next shop and do the same thing in a seamless experience.
Each shop represents a real-life business working with other businesses to maintain the real-mall experience where the customer can move from one shop to the next. Businesses are already making investments toward the shift to virtual operations.
Microsoft offers products for businesses to participate in the metaverse, such as Microsoft Mesh to build a shared sense of presence on devices, Dynamics 365 and Cloud services that can enable organizations to create digital twins and use AI-powered resources to create natural interactions through speech and vision machine learning models.
BMW has built digital twins of 31 of its factories with photo-realistic 3D environments. The facilities are used to train robots as a meeting place for its designers around the world to meet and experiment on new lines and other functions.
In March, Qualcomm announced that applications will open in June for its Snapdragon Metaverse Fund, which pledges $100 million in investments and grants for those creating foundational technologies and content experiences.
The fund will support developers for extended reality experiences in many areas, including gaming, health, media, entertainment, education and enterprises, as well as AI. The chipmaker has also launched its own projects. It expects its platforms will enable users to engage in the ecosystem.
At this point, we are just dipping our toes into the water of the metaverse before diving in.
Remember the dotcom era of the late 90s? The current phase of the metaverse is like that, but instead of investing in dotcom domains, businesses are eyeing virtual real estate. Instead of deciding if they should purchase an IBM personal computer to access AOL chatrooms and email, consumers are wondering if they should be getting VR headsets to access a 3D digital world.
There is no way to fully predict the impact of the metaverse and related technology, and there is still much to be done to build a truly immersive VR experience. But we’ll have a lot of fun along the way, and we will certainly be amazed once we get there.
Jay R. Shedd is executive vice president of Citadel Pacific, the parent company of PTI Pacific Inc. which does business as IT&E, IP&E. He has more than 30 years of experience in the telecommunications industry, business development, sales and marketing.