Today Facebook officially rebranded as “Meta” underlining their clear intentions to become a leader in Metaverse development. The term "Metaverse” will no doubt trigger a new era of challenging explanations, potential applications, and endless hype within technological circles, just as we saw with the IoT, the cloud, the internet, or electricity. The term metaverse was first coined in Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson’s 1992 sci-fi novel, it refers to a convergence of physical, augmented, and virtual reality in a shared online space. Today, big tech and technology companies are trying to do just that —converge the physical, augmented, and virtual worlds into one connected platform that we all live, work, and play in. If fully realized, the Metaverse promises a disruption on par with personal computing, smartphones, or the internet. It is a world of software, enabled by a new set of hardware that seeks to harmonize our physical and digital experience.
“Just as it was hard to envision in 1982 what the Internet of 2020 would be — and harder still to communicate it to those who had never even “logged” onto it at that time — we don’t really know how to describe the Metaverse,” wrote Matthew Ball, Managing Partner of EpyllionCo. “Even if the Metaverse falls short of the fantastical visions captured by science fiction authors, it is likely to produce trillions in value as a new computing platform or content medium. But in its full vision, the Metaverse becomes the gateway to most digital experiences, a key component of all physical ones, and the next great labor platform.”
In the simplest sense, the Metaverse is a mixed reality platform. Part of that is a visually immersive experience but the Metaverse is about much more than virtual reality. Using augmented reality it will also cross the “meta” divide and become ubiquitous in every part of our always-connected lives. Non-fungible tokens, such as cryptocurrency, are another key part of the Metaverse, but the gaming world probably offers the best examples of a full Metaverse. Games where digital avatars roam and create freely in a virtual world, interacting with the avatars of other real people, exchanging goods and knowledge for currency, then spending it on virtual products and services. The Metaverse, however, is also a digital bridge to the real world, and it is not just for games but for “real” work, education, and recreation.
This may sound like the realms of science fiction to many but so did the internet, the IoT, iPods, and microwave ovens. For many people today, interacting with a smartphone is the first thing they do when they wake up and the last thing they do when they go to sleep, and the vast majority will be connected in some way throughout the day. Navigation systems have long augmented our route to work, accessing network intelligence to “hack” the real world and get you to the office faster and safer. We login to connected computers for hours each day to interact with other real people, exchange goods and knowledge for currency, then spend it on products and services. We already live in The Metaverse, or at least a 2D, low-tech, early testing version —the big question now is, who will build the full version?
“The metaverse is a vision that spans many companies — the whole industry. You can think about it as the successor to the mobile internet. And it’s certainly not something that any one company is going to build,” Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Meta (formerly known as Facebook) told The Verge after the company announced intentions to hire 10,000 people in the EU for metaverse development. “You can think about the metaverse as an embodied internet, where instead of just viewing content — you are in it. And you feel present with other people as if you were in other places, having different experiences that you couldn’t necessarily do on a 2D app or webpage, like dancing, for example, or different types of fitness.”
The COVID-accelerated trends of remote and hybrid work also supports our transition into the metaverse, but it will have to be a gradual transition, not least because of hardware development. The full metaverse will require widespread high-speed connectivity, beyond 5G or 6G, in order to integrate information from billions of sensors and give intelligent real-time augmentation for millions of users. While today’s devices can all be part of the metaverse experience, the future metaverse will probably be symbolized by the introduction of VR headsets for location-specific use, and AR glasses to digitize the dynamic world around us.
Our future visual experience will be augmented with digital intelligence bringing us information on almost anything in visual range, and allowing us to react in the digital world. See something you like and the AI recognizes it to facilitate an instant purchase or location, see someone you like and view their social or dating profiles, see something you don’t like and instantly report it to the authorities. All of that is possible with smartphones, but by overlaying digital information on our view of the world, we become a part of an ‘internet of everything’ that breaks the real-digital “meta” divide. All that needs a lot of computing power in a small pair of glasses, however.
“Miniaturizing things and getting a supercomputer to fit into a pair of glasses is actually one of the bigger challenges, but once you have that, it’s going to enable a bunch of really interesting use cases,” said Zukerberg. “With a snap of your fingers, you pull up your perfect workstation. So anywhere you go, you can walk into a Starbucks, you can sit down, you can be drinking your coffee and kind of wave your hands and you can have basically as many monitors as you want, all set up, whatever size you want them to be, all preconfigured to the way you had it when you were at your home before. And you can just bring that with you wherever you want.”
A future of everyone waving their hands around in Starbucks will be a refreshing change from today’s zombies swiping on phones and a huge step up for the accessibility and productivity of remote work. Leading companies are expected to compete to create the best mixed reality metaverse “workplaces” to drive productivity, loyalty, and recruitment, as we have seen with remote and hybrid work approaches during COVID. In fact, we are already starting to see early signs of this “work metaverse” with the rise of startups like SoWork, whose private beta testing includes major companies like Tinder, who see hybrid and virtual as permanent work shifts.
“It’s been incredibly important to find more permanent ways to extend Tinder’s culture into a hybrid physical and virtual space as we think about the future of how our employees will be working,” said Nicole Senior, VP of Culture and DE&I at Tinder, in a statement.
SoWork is a company based on the belief that every employer will eventually be forced to invest in a virtual work experience for its employees in order to restore the physical office culture in the post-covid, remote work, flexible, and sustainable future of work. Earlier this month, they announced a $15 million funding seed round led by UK-based Talis Capital, and designated primarily for hiring and R&D capital. SoWork is planning to release its private beta version to the public in the first week of November, and already has over 1000 companies on the waitlist.
“Eventually, there’ll be so many companies that have built up a base in whether it’s SoWork or something else, that the benefits of being on those other platforms will start to build up. And then all of a sudden, there are benefits there that [employers] can’t get elsewhere,” Vishal Punwani, the CEO and co-founder of SoWork, told TechCrunch. “It’s like Twitter. In the beginning, [no company] was like ‘oh we must have Twitter.’ But as it became the place where all of the random noise happened, then they said, ‘we want to go there because we want to stay relevant.’”
Established players in digital workplace communication are also taking note of the trend and adding more “spontaneous and serendipitous interactions” to their chat platform towards a virtual workplace model, but the metaverse is about more than just virtual reality. Physical buildings are also expected to play an important role in the augmented metaverse, these sensor-rich, highly defined and controllable spaces will be a frontier of what is possible when blending the real and virtual worlds. Seamless integration of in-person and remote meeting participants, all interacting with futuristic 3D models, virtual walkthroughs and immersive demonstrations, augmented workstations and workplace navigation, and a new world of mixed reality, metaverse, company and customer experiences.
Perhaps the best way to conceptualize the development of the metaverse is how Zukerberg described it, an “embodied internet”. Like the internet, the metaverse will likely develop as a reflection of our beautiful chaotic world, designed for the people by the people and by the companies to get more customers and talent. Retail will be inundated with new ways to immerse consumers in unique virtual/augmented metaverse shopping experiences. Real-world events will include digital engagement while virtual concerts and social events will discover endless new possibilities. Like the internet, a large open metaverse created by the people will be the beating heart of diversity, creativity, and insanity.
“People are very much looking at it as this ‘Ready Player One’ thing, or a VR thing. That’s just about how close that screen is to your face. This doesn’t change the fact that a lot of these things are happening in a space that is already virtual,” said Mike Winkelmann (a.k.a. Beeple) the man who sold an NFT of his artwork for $69 million and is now working on Wenew, an NFT start-up creating ‘the memory palace of the metaverse’. “It’s just going to continue the blend, until we’re all wearing goggles, or living in tanks of goo, after a gradual and disorienting transition from the internet of today, which is, perhaps, more metaversal than it gets credit for. It’s a primitive version of what’s coming.”
The metaverse will be an immersive embodied internet, and that was always going to be the next evolution of our digital world. By the time we get to what we are describing today we may be speculating about the use of brain implants for a “more seamless and unlimited experience” and to stop wearing primitive physical AR glasses. There will be advertising, privacy, and security concerns, as well as counter-revolutions to preserve the real-world experience, but the general trend towards a mixed reality life is clear from the way we use mobile technology today. The cycle of technological development rolls on and the future metaverse chapter looks like it will be an interesting one.