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Sunday, March 13, 2022

What is the Metaverse?

It used to be that futuristic tech talk centered on artificial intelligence, but recently, all the buzz is around the “metaverse.”

When monolith Facebook rebranded itself “Meta” and later revealed it spent $10 billion on the concept in the 2021 fiscal year alone, the concept of this virtual reality moved to the front and center. Obviously, it is a lot more than using virtual reality headsets to tour museums. But many of us do not know what the metaverse encompasses, or how businesses are moving to incorporate it.

According to Harvard Business Review journalist Janet Balis, the metaverse “includes any digital experience on the internet that is persistent, immersive, three-dimensional (3-D) and virtual.” If that does not clarify anything for you, it may be because the metaverse is in its infancy. It is like trying to predict exactly what the internet is now, 20 years ago; everyone had an idea of what it would become, but no one knew exactly how it would evolve. 

Venture capitalist and expert Matthew Ball writes that the metaverse is the fourth wave of computers, following mainframe computing, personal computing, and mobile computing. “It’s moving into what people call ambient computing,” he says. “It’s about being within the computer rather than accessing the computer. It’s about being always online rather than always having access to an online world.”

The metaverse combines virtual reality and a digital “second life” inhabited by your avatar. You wear a headset that functions as a computing platform and immerses you in a 3-D environment by means of motion-sensing controllers that you hold in your hands. 

Companies Gearing Up Technology

Games like World of Warcraft, in which players inhabit a virtual world where they can buy and sell goods, are involved in developing the emerging metaverse. Fortnite also offers virtual experiences; strap an Oculus headset over your eyes, and you can travel to your virtual home or even attend a virtual concert. While Fortnite creator Epic Games has successfully built a virtual world where you can socialize, buy goods, learn, and play games, there is still so much to the metaverse. 

Companies such as Microsoft, Apple, Google, and yes, Meta, are working furiously on the concept, poaching engineers from each other and fighting to lead the way into this new space. Others, such as chip developer Nvidia, 3-D content creator Unity, and Roblox (where you can create your own virtual game to share with other players), are building the infrastructure for the metaverse. Developers need motion-tracking tools that can sense where a person is looking and where their hands and fingers are. 

Faster internet connections, more powerful virtual-reality headsets, and a massive gaming audience are fueling technological advances. “It’s only in the last few years that a critical mass of working pieces has come together,” Ball says.

Business Applications

This new technology will be useful for a lot more than gaming, however; surgeons will be able to train using virtual, 3-D patients. Product demos can be released to retail employees simultaneously in 3-D. Manufacturing and logistics applications will reduce waste and accelerate improved solutions for businesses. The hybrid home and office work structure makes training and interactions that happen in the metaverse even more relevant.

Companies like Nike are already placing bets on this new reality. Nike recently purchased a company called RTFKT that makes virtual sneakers and other collectibles that are only available in the metaverse. And what about the trend toward social commerce, where virtual immersive experiences will drive buying habits? It was a $36 billion market in 2021. 

Auction house Sotheby’s recently announced that it would curate virtual art in its own metaverse gallery. Non-Fungible Tokens (NFT), singular artistic creations traded and secured via a blockchain (a digital record of transactions), will continue to gain relevance. As people change how they interact, communicate, and transact, companies will have to keep a close eye on trends and the competition.

Older Adults in the Metaverse

Blogger and technology expert Karen Etkin writes in The Gerontechnologist that several “age tech” companies are already using existing metaverse technology. She anticipates that future applications for older adults may include telehealth, in which a doctor located anywhere with an internet connection could “see” your virtual 3-D body. And how about companies that memorialize older adults? There is nothing like leaving behind a hologram that talks and walks like you for future generations to interact with. Etkin theorizes that the biggest impact of the coming metaverse for older adults may lie in its ability to relieve social isolation and loneliness. 

Only time will tell what the metaverse will become, and the only certainty is that it will not be exactly what any one of us envisions. But this technology is already changing the world, and future generations will be very familiar with its constructs. It is worth the challenge to keep up with what will become possible in the future, in terms of both connecting with others and living our best, most healthy lives.