Metaverse – Digital Utopia, Immersive Social Media, Virtual Office, or Something Else?

Photo by Lucrezia Carnelos on Unsplash

The Facebook holding group rebranded this week to Meta and announced they are to start building a metaverse, similar in context to the metaverse from the story Ready Player One (I highly recommend this book – if you’ve not read it I also recommend listening to the version narrated by Wil Wheaton).

Microsoft also announced their metaverse at Ignite yesterday called Mesh. Today, the Microsoft metaverse extends their Teams product which is a collaboration and productivity tool that already connects distributed teams and people together.

Microsoft have looked at the new reality we have of remote working as a standard and an employee choice, rather than an employer benefit and use Mesh to address one of the biggest drawbacks. How to emulate that in the room feel of energy, organic conversation, and in-person human contact. This has been acutely felt by all those who have started new jobs during the pandemic and haven’t met any of their colleagues, compounded by a new remote working policy as companies realise the perpetual benefits of a remote workforce.

Microsoft are directly addressing this with their metaverse to create virtual spaces for people to meet in-person to chat or to collaborate. This isn’t the only application of Mesh, but they want to address the feeling of isolation that comes with regular remote working.

Unlike Meta, Mesh is already here and has well over 100,000 users. Big brand companies have been using it to great benefit by aiding manufacturing and significantly reducing the time required for new-hire training.

Meta and Mesh seemingly centre on creating a connected world in virtual reality (VR) and/or augmented reality (AR).

VR is 100% immersive. Everything you see is computer generated by way of a headset that completely covers your eyes. You can look around and interact with the environment rather than the fixed 2d forward view of watching a screen or television. Essentially it would be like standing in what you’re watching rather than the point of view we’re all used to when looking at screens. VR provides your entire reality.

AR is partially virtual. You see everything in the real world through your own eyes, but by wearing a special pair of glasses, computer generated images overlay various things you look at. For example when looking at your wall you could add a virtual to-do list on a virtual board, or rent artwork that isn’t physically fixed to your wall – it’s only there when you view it through your special glasses. AR provides part of your reality.

It has generated a lot of conversation and speculation amongst the people I know which has been exciting. Most conversation has centered around how it will look and what it will help us do. This has sparked some healthy debate on the effects of the real world on the possibilities of the virtual.

Here are my thoughts on how it will pan out.

Virtual Reality

VR has been around in one form or another since I was a kid (many, many years ago). That completely immersive world holds a child like wonder for me, particulalry the possibilities.

When there was a resurgence a few years ago I was excited for the possibilities, particularly as a gamer. I had visions of exploring new worlds and playing adventures like never before. I could expand my knowledge not just by reading and watching shows, but also by being there virtually. I could also experience places I can’t ever go such as Mount Everest (something of interest to me as a less able bodied individual).

However, I came crashing back down to earth with a bump when I realised a few things:

  • Senses – VR can’t replicate touch, taste or smell. At least not on a consumer basis. Haptic feedback in gloves maybe, but delicate touch and feel across skin, particularly beyond finger tips is out for now.
  • Weather – VR can’t replicate the physical effects of wind, or cold, or horizontal rain, or the heat of sun on your face.
  • Motion – VR requires a vehicle to get you from one location to another unless it’s taking you on a pre-planned journey which defeats the idea of an open world. True, there are rigs like treadmills that enable you to walk or run. But that requires physical effort from the real world, and space to do it. That physical effort is not to be underestimated. Microsoft have overcome this to an extent as you can move between rooms and address a whiteboard.
  • Physical Actions – Actions like climbing, rolling and jumping can’t be replicated but even if they could would require physical effort in the real world.
  • Jeopardy – Possibly the biggest one of all, it can’t replicate sense of vertigo or exhilaration when climbing a mountain, riding a hot air balloon, or sky diving. You can do all these things in a virtual world but when you remove the fear and adrenaline what’s the point.
  • Happiness – Physical exertion releases endorphins which make you feel good, VR can’t trigger that reaction without the associated physical effort.
  • Environment – In a fully immersive world someone(s) have to design everything you see or that happens down to the very last pixel. That’s a lot of effort and as such placing you inside your home or familiar surroundings on a regular basis is unlikely.

You can get to the summit of Everest, but you won’t experience the cold on your face, the feel of the rock, the exhilaration of the danger in climbing, the endorphin release from physical exertion or the resulting heightened sense of beauty and accomplishment.

So will a VR metaverse replace the real world? Not any time in the next few decades and possibly never.

However, you could host virtual concerts or other events that have audiences. The cinema experience could be enhanced by being in the film (visually). It could begin to replicate the feeling of being in the room with your friends or family, so be a great benefit to fighting off loneliness.

Microsoft place you in their metaverse specifically to replicate that sense of presence in the room you lose when geographically separated. As yet, they aren’t asking you to go on a virtual expedition up Mount Everest, or simulating a meeting at the summit.

Obvious applications are shopping through advertising and to be honest this is probably where a lot of the focus of Facebook’s Meta will be to make it commercially viable.

Augmented Reality

AR is reasonably new (unless you count 3d TV and movies). I think this is one of the most exciting developments of the modern era and one that will gain greater traction over VR, but it still comes with some limitations.

  • Senses – Like VR, AR can’t replicate touch, taste or smell. At least not on a consumer basis. However, given it’s augmenting you’re surroundings, there is probably less requirement to do so.
  • Weather – AR can’t replicate the wind, or cold, or horizontal rain, or the heat of sun on your face. But, given it layers over your surroundings it’s designed to enhance an existing experience which could easily be outside.
  • Sound – Project realistic acoustic sound based on my room. Not impossible to replicate, but difficult to do accurately today.

It’s very easy to see by comparison how AR and VR have very different applications. AR excites me because it’s purpose is to enhance my reality, not replace it. This is much easier to develop and as a result I predict will end up being adopted far faster than VR.

AR would enable me to:

  • Learn many more things by doing (E.G. if I have a motorbike physically in front of me, the metaverse can show me 3d models of the engine and other components so I can see how something should look vs how my bike looks in the real world)
  • Decorate my house on a whim
  • Enjoy art without physically having it
  • Build 3d models in collaboration with others
  • Have realistic avatars of friends, family or colleagues in the room with me
  • Turn my kitchen table into a games table
  • Virtualise to do lists, notice boards and whiteboards – and make them interactive
  • Replace my physical TV
  • Learn by seeing and interacting rather than watching, listening or reading alone
  • Magnify objects such as road signs
  • and the list goes on

Again, this is a technology that lends itself easily to commercial application such as shopping:

  • Walking into a clothes shop and automatically seeing highlighted clothes from your wishlist and in your size. Showing me information such as % cotton or % recycled material as I browse. Trying on clothes virtually in a mirror before going to the changing room.
  • Interactive advertising in your vision rather than on flyers, notices or billboards.

Sadly this is where my excitement turns into trepidation. I already detest the adverts that appear in news feeds and social media between items. The idea of Meta (Facebook) bombarding me with commercial advertising, or worse, politically motivated advertising everywhere I look puts me off to the point I wouldn’t use their technology.

Summary

AR and VR provide some exciting developments to enhance entertainment and life though there are some hefty limitations. Meta and Mesh are completely predicated on this technology so have limitations to overcome to enjoy mass adoption, particularly in Meta’s case as social media fatigue kicks in. Much like when Kennedy announced in 1961 America would go to the moon and back within a decade while NASA were thinking “we haven’t invented all the technology we need yet”, the metaverse is set to produce some innovations we haven’t seen before.

That said, a completely immersive utopia is much more than a decade away. For it to be for personal consumption it has to be affordable which also means mainstream and likely needs infrastructure beyond a headset and gloves. Replicating much of human reality is either impossible (by today’s physics) or extremely difficult. The AR headsets alone start in the multiple ¬£thousands.

Both technologies lend themselves to aiding friends, relatives and co-workers getting together virtually when they can’t physically to enjoy the feeling of being together, enjoying something together and collaborating together.

The social and collaborate immersive experience is already here through Microsoft Mesh.

AR is likely to gain traction faster than VR though AR hardware is significantly more expensive than VR hardware.

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