Though it’s certain to arrive, the future of the metaverse won’t be what most people expect. “Virtual” is not the best way to describe it; instead, mixing the virtual world with reality will be the most viable way for the metaverse to provide value.
If you were to believe all the hype, the metaverse is well on its way to being the next big thing. And that might certainly be true — the global metaverse market is expected to be valued at almost $427 billion by 2027 — but “next” is more of a bold assumption than anything else. The metaverse won’t likely become a reality anytime soon, at least not in the next five years (if not longer). Though several applications have already moved into commercialization, much of the fundamental technology that will support the metaverse is still in the earlier phases of product development.
For the metaverse to reach its fullest potential, the collection of its technology components must first come into maturity. They must also come at lower costs. More importantly, the definition of the metaverse and its future must evolve. In a McKinsey & Company survey, 19% of consumers said they didn’t have a clear understanding of the metaverse. Ask almost anyone in the general public, and they will likely just tell you that the metaverse is a virtual reality (known as VR) device or 100% virtual. Though no doubt a major aspect of the space, the future of this alternate digital reality, mirror world, or whatever you want to call it, entails so much more.
Not Seeing the Forest for the Trees
If IT leaders ever hope for people to “stay” in the metaverse, the technology must support the promise of an immersive experience. Any delay or latency will get in the way. Even a couple-second pause in communication or the experience itself could be a deal breaker for many potential users. And should you want the metaverse to truly mimic that of the real world, there is the interactive element to consider. People will want to see other people’s facial expressions, body language, and so on.
The question then remains, can anyone yet make such a guarantee? It won’t be possible until you have a network powerful enough to transfer an inordinate amount of data in real time. The same can be said for edge-computing technology to improve response times and overall reliability. Even then, however, the metaverse could hit a snag. Users can see and hear one another, but what about touch? You are basically asking people to suspend their disbelief when they can’t feel the shake of a hand, the temperature in a room, the graze of a wall, and a host of other sensations.
In other words, a VR device simply might not be enough. Only when you can simulate those more tangible elements, either through something like flexible sensors or artificial skins, will users be able to connect the actual body to the virtual world. Besides, the human race is social in nature. Virtual meetings don’t deliver the same experience as in-person encounters. Thanks to the pandemic, most people can now attest to that. You miss out on subtle cues and the energy exchange between two people when you only interact in the digital space.
Bringing the Physical Into the Digital
Though it is certain to arrive, the future of the metaverse will likely be different than what many people expect. Some would argue — me included — that virtual is probably not the best way to describe it. While the technology might get to this point, you must question whether everyone will adopt avatars and start interacting with others through this means. Instead, perhaps mixing the virtual world with reality by way of a variety of different devices is a more viable possibility. It could bring in those sensations often lost when left to digital alone.
Take something like eyewear, for example. If you were to integrate a chip, battery, and microdisplay into a hard contact lens, the user could “project” images directly from their eye into the real world. Such technology provides the opportunity for the user to sit down at a table with someone else’s avatar and engage in a discussion somewhere between the physical and virtual realms. It is a mix of two worlds. That’s really the sweet spot for the metaverse. With the help of invisible computing, users are able to straddle the line between physical and virtual.
Wherever the metaverse might go, it probably won’t look or feel like IT leaders expect. Much like the technology components that will build and support this realm, the metaverse is still in its infancy — or, really, it’s nothing more than an embryo. But one thing is for certain: The metaverse will take a mix of virtual and physical to become something of real value for users.
Written by Lu Zhang.
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