In an effort to create an immersive digital world, the world’s largest tech companies are joining forces with game developers and start-ups.
As one of the most buzzed-about terms in tech, the Metaverse can mean many different things. The only limitation on the world that can be built is your imagination. It could also serve as a more recognizable setting for business meetings that don’t require attendees to leave their homes.
When it comes to the tech tycoons who have jumped on board, the Metaverse could represent something more tangible: a new source of income for them.
After 15 years of riding the mobile computing boom that has turned the biggest tech companies into trillion-dollar giants, the industry’s powerful believe, that controlling the doors into the Metaverse and virtual reality could be the core of a new business, like mobile phones and apps or personal computers and web browsers in the 1990s. Mobile computing has been booming for 15 years.
The industry cannot afford to wait another fifteen years for a new technological trend to emerge. It’s taking longer than expected for technologies like advanced artificial intelligence and quantum computing to gain a foothold in the marketplace. Furthermore, newer concepts like decentralized computing appear promising, but their overall appeal is yet to be determined.
As a result, tech companies are lining up to sell the hardware that allows consumers to enter this virtual world and influence their experiences once they are inside it. Suddenly, building new things for the Metaverse has the kind of excitement that only comes along once in a while in any industry.
Facebook is so enthusiastic about the Metaverse it changed its name to META signaling its intent for the new opportunity. Years have passed since Google began working on Metaverse-related technology at its Mountain View campus. Apple, one of the biggest beneficiaries of the mobile boom, is working on its own devices right now as you read this. Virtual reality headsets for businesses and government agencies are now being offered by Microsoft which is looking at a more corporate path.
A venture capitalist and essayist who has written extensively about the Metaverse and its hype has said that “most companies now see that the Metaverse is around the corner,” he said. However, “the narrative is a little ahead of the reality of these technologies, but this is a response to the enormity of the opportunity.”
Some experts believe there will be a $49 billion market for Metaverse technologies in 2020 and that this market will grow at a rate of more than 40 percent per year for the next five years.
“This is the evolution of the internet,” said Alex Kipman, who has worked at Microsoft for more than a decade in this area. Companies like Microsoft need to participate because they have a stake in this.
Distracting people’s attention from problems with censorship, misinformation, and regulators’ accusations of monopolistic practices by emphasizing the Metaverse helps companies like Facebook. But it could also lead to new scrutiny of old issues like privacy and managing who does what to whom in a virtual world, for example.
Isn’t the Metaverse an old concept? It was coined by science fiction author Neal Stephenson in 1992 and has since become commonplace in the video game industry. People have been meeting, chatting, and conducting business in massively multiplayer online games for decades. While some were gaming experiences others, such as Second Life, which was popular over a decade ago, were designed solely for social interaction.
A virtual reality headset company called Oculus was purchased by Facebook in 2014 for more than $2 billion. Zuckerberg started talking about virtual reality as the next big computing platform, but he couldn’t say when.
When it comes to everyday activities like shopping, communicating with friends and family, and collaborating with coworkers, Mr. Zuckerberg predicts that the Metaverse will become an integral part of our daily lives. However, Meta’s headsets are currently large and inconvenient. They’ve been known to make people sick at times. They completely obstruct the view, isolating the wearer from the rest of the world.
Among the many companies working to improve these headsets is Apple, a company known for making hugely popular, consumer-friendly devices. However, there are physical constraints that prevent the technology from advancing.
There is an additional hardware device that must be attached to the headset and worn elsewhere on the body, according to the person who spoke with The Verge about the Apple prototype’s design. An Apple spokesperson said the company would not comment further.
It is widely believed that Mr. Zuckerberg’s vision can only be realized through lightweight eyeglasses that can overlay digital images on what you see in the real world, a technology known as “augmented reality.”
A digital display floats in front of people as they walk down the street, so they can see the most recent sports scores. Some of their colleagues could join them at the meeting table, while some others might not be present at all.
Eyewear like this is being developed by companies like Google. Google is working on a new project, years after launching Google Glass, which was criticized for its uncool vibe and flippant approach to personal privacy.
Many patents for a smart-glasses project that originated at the computer chip giant Intel were purchased by a startup called North last year. North in turn was acquired by Google signaling further development of the glasses technology. Despite being heavier than ordinary glasses, early testers found the eyewear to be quite comfortable and capable of projecting digital images directly into the wearer’s eyeballs from a distance. Google has declined to provide any additional information.
However, the general public’s interest in what tech companies are describing is as yet undetermined. This type of virtual reality is “something you will use for certain tasks — and the experience might be amazing—but it is not something for the general public,” Nikhil Balram, who worked at Google on virtual and augmented reality hardware, said.
An augmented reality prototype, called Vaunt, was developed by Intel and tested with real-world users. An interview conducted recently with Jerry Bautista, the project leader, revealed that these glasses showed enormous promise as both a personal technology and an innovative computing platform that could generate fresh revenue streams.
We “were giving away the hardware in order to make money off of the information,” he said. Software and data sales generated three times as much revenue as hardware sales.
Hence, the interest in similar technologies from companies like Apple, Microsoft, and Meta. They may serve as a means of promoting software and other products. As Dr. Bautista pointed out, they could be used to generate revenue through the sale of advertising space.
Experts, on the other hand, estimate that it will take at least a decade to fully develop this technology. Although some augmented reality glasses are as small and light as regular eyewear, the computing power required to produce effective but unobtrusive images for everyday use is not yet available in these small and light glasses.
A former Google employee who now works for EyeWay Vision says that “10 years” is “code for ‘I don’t know” when it comes to augmented reality glasses.
Before selling many of its patents to Google-acquired North, Intel shut down the Vaunt project in 2018. Ultimately, Dr. Bautista said, the company decided it was too difficult to answer all of the questions about the technology because of its complexity.
He warned that the project could actually harm the company’s bottom line because of privacy laws in Europe and other countries. He said the company had estimated that 3% of its annual revenue was at risk. Now the world’s tech companies will face similar challenges.
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