The physical and virtual worlds continue to merge unabated – and the end result is the metaverse. A digital layer, unconfined by the laws of the physical world, is set to augment our reality and enable countless new applications that will change our everyday life and society forever. Christian Moser, Head of Digital Experience at Zühlke, explains where we stand today and what we can expect to see in the next few years.
What is the metaverse?
Virtual worlds have been around for over 20 years, but until now there’s always been a clear separation between these realms. Modern sensors and high-performance cameras with image recognition are contributing to the increased merging of these worlds. From the real and virtual worlds, as a result, we get the gradual evolution of the metaverse.
Why is there so much fascination with and potential in the metaverse?
Unlike the physical world, virtual worlds aren’t restricted by the laws of physics. Infinite resources, infinite space and an infinite number of creative possibilities are just some of the advantages. Whole worlds can be created with the click of a button. There’s no such thing as logistics, travel time, waste or environmental pollution in the metaverse. Of course, hardware, electricity and computing power are all needed to run the metaverse, but at a much lower level compared to the dimensions of the worlds it contains.
Is the metaverse like a computer game?
The metaverse actually has its origins in 3D games. Games such as Roblox, Fortnite and Minecraft come pretty close to the concept of freely designable virtual worlds. But the vision of the metaverse goes further: in this realm, you can also work, study, visit your doctor, spend time with friends or simply relax. The real world and the virtual world are merging.
How will the metaverse become part of our everyday life?
For the metaverse to become a reality, it requires demand from users as well as the availability of hardware and software. The digital gaming industry is currently valued at around USD 150 billion or three times the annual revenue of the film industry. Over 50 million users spend their free time in virtual worlds like Roblox every day, while Fortnite has increased its user base tenfold to over 350 million users in just three years. In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic has made travelling and meeting up in person more difficult and accelerated the need for virtual interactions, which are as close as possible to the real thing.
What’s the situation regarding hardware and software availability?
As things stand, we’re in a good position in terms of software. The gaming industry has developed efficient and highly optimised 3D engines over the last 20 years. Unreal Engine, Unity and CryEngine are among the best currently on the market. In fact, they’re now so good that they’re regularly used for special effects in films. We’re also making good progress with hardware, but there’s still more work to be done. AR and VR headsets such as the Microsoft HoloLens, Oculus Quest, HTC Vive and PlayStation VR are all available at affordable prices, but their size, weight, resolution and limited field of vision mean they aren’t yet suitable for the metaverse.
How long will it be before hardware suitable for everyday use arrives on the market?
Many major manufacturers are currently working on smart glasses. The aim is to produce glasses that can be worn in everyday situations but come equipped with augmented reality features. However, we might have to wait until 2024 for these products to hit the market. Facebook has announced plans to launch its first-ever smart glasses in 2022, in collaboration with Ray-Ban. Amazon is currently in the beta phase with its ‘Echo Frame’ smart glasses. And Microsoft is developing a consumer version of its HoloLens, which is expected to weigh just 90 g. These examples show just how quickly development is progressing. Another factor is the increasing availability of 5G, which also ensures the necessary bandwidth and latency.
How will the metaverse change our economy?
The metaverse and Web 3.0 are inextricably linked. In contrast to Web 2.0, where identities and large volumes of data are stored in central databases at Google, Facebook and Apple, Web 3.0 is based on blockchains. Data storage is local, anonymised and visible to everyone. This allows identities to be validated and transactions to be traced.
Digital goods available as unique items, including, for example, digital artworks, areas within digital worlds (a kind of domain in the metaverse) and virtual shoes can be secured via NFTs. NFT stands for ‘non-fungible token’. They act as a deed of ownership for a digital asset. NFTs were sold for over USD 10 billion in the third quarter of 2021 alone. On platforms such as Decentraland and Sandbox, you can purchase digital goods that exist in limited quantities.
How will the metaverse change our society?
The metaverse will without doubt change our society. Only time will tell whether this is for better or worse. Potentially, it has the power to bring us closer together. Realistic avatars and virtual meeting rooms will make business trips a thing of the past. Students in remote villages will be able to participate in high-quality educational offerings. The metaverse is also likely to have a positive effect on sustainability. Physical goods are increasingly becoming virtualised. Fashion and art are also presented on a virtual stage. In addition, NFTs give creators the opportunity to earn money in the metaverse.
However, I also see the danger that major players will continue to pressure and influence the everyday lives of many people. Mental and physical health must also be safeguarded in the metaverse. New laws, ethics, rules and standards are required. In addition, the gap between rich and poor will continue to widen unless everyone has access to the metaverse.
Christian Moser joined Zühlke in 2005 and is leading the digital experience practice in Switzerland. He is a technology enthusiast and a passionate designer. Technology trends are fascinating him. They have the power to transform our lives and society.