More than just popularizing virtual worlds in 3D, the ultimate revolution spurred by the metaverse will enable more human and authentic interactions on the internet. But who’s developing the technology for this? One startup company is taking the lead
Any conversation or news about the metaverse is full of promises. There’s talk of large-scale connected immersive virtual environments that incorporate extended reality (XR) modes such as virtual and augmented reality (VR and AR). An unlimited number of people can explore these in real-time, which will take an increasing amount of our work, recreation, education, economy, and personal relationships to sophisticated virtual spaces.
We also hear about the collaborative construction of 3D worlds by virtual communities and of new markets, products, goods, and digital identities that can be transported through different virtual worlds. Theoretically, there will be numerous interconnected spaces in the same way that the internet is a network of networks as we know it now. So, what does this mean in practice today?
In the metaverse, no one knows precisely how this will work because integration standards have yet to be defined. However, anyone following recent advances in the IT field understands that developers and companies alike are building on existing technologies found in the online universes of 3D multiplayer games such as Roblox, Minecraft, and Fortnite. In games like these, which allow massive amounts of user-generated content (UGC), anyone can create their own extensions, digital assets, new games, and new worlds from the components of the system.
Because they’re so extensible, having introduced virtual shows, spaces for brand actions, educational content, and marketplaces where creators can get paid for their work, these games are already being referred to as “metaverses” by some. But subject matter experts such as investor and essayist Matthew Ball, author of The Metaverse: And How It Will Revolutionize Everything, argue that as long as these platforms don’t work even when connected to each other, calling them metaverses is like calling Facebook or some similar platform “an internet.”
In other words, using “metaverse” this way doesn’t make much sense, as the term implies a unified experience that encompasses the entire virtual universe or multiple spaces and doors that are all interconnected.
In any case, the appeal of extensible 3D games is increasing. According to ActivePlayer.io (the leading gaming statistics site), Roblox, Minecraft, and Fortnite have surpassed 650 million combined monthly users, and their growth rate in recent years has been nothing short of impressive. These numbers offer a glimpse of the potential for the “metaverse to come,” which is now on the radar of financial markets and is already causing major technology companies to begin changing direction.
Forecasts indicate a market of more than $1 trillion a year. A new report from Mckinsey & Company states that Microsoft, Nvidia, Apple, Alphabet (the parent company of Google), and above all, Facebook, which changed its name to Meta with the intention of leading the new industry, are reorganizing themselves internally to prepare for the metaverse.
Large corporations, private equity firms, and venture capitalists have committed an estimated US$120 billion in investments related to the metaverse during the first five months of 2022, which is double compared to the whole of 2021. This increase in investments, and in 3D multiplayer games used as reference, raises an important question:
If the metaverse that emerges from this effort is a type of alternate reality filled with fantastical realms like those found on popular online gaming platforms, will it be able to fulfill the promise of a major cultural revolution and take on the proportions of today's internet?
To find an answer, we need to understand what people think the metaverse can do for them. A recent National Research Group survey on the public’s perception regarding the metaverse offers insights into what consumers want, don't want, or might struggle to understand in this new world. The study initially found that:
Researchers then asked more than 4,500 people aged 18 to 64 about the lack of contact in today's digital experiences.
said they miss the physical element when interacting virtually with others.
believe that when people can interact physically, they treat each other with greater kindness.
Data from the study show that most people don’t want the metaverse to serve as an escape from reality but rather as a tool that can satisfy our need for human connections rooted in intimacy and empathy.
The tech industry cannot ignore the public's expectations. Professionals and companies working to shape the metaverse must create ways to make interactions in virtual worlds as human and authentic as possible.
New technologies and devices undoubtedly have a role to play. While the metaverse doesn’t rely on VR/AR glasses and headsets, these can become primary means of access in the same way that smartphones act with the mobile internet.
This explains why big tech companies are working hard to launch user-friendly products that are capable of conveying a realistic sense of presence. Google announced the resumption of public testing of its prototype AR glasses and Project Starline, a communication system that offers a conversational experience closely resembling 3D. Apple is keeping its hardware plans a secret but is expected to launch a VR or “mixed reality” (VR and AR) headset in 2023, according to analysts. Meta also plans a new consumer-grade headset next year, and is also working on its first pair of augmented reality glasses.
But to what extent will experiences focused primarily on vision and hearing be able to meet the expectations of virtual interactions closer to reality, as most of us want?
Our relationship with the real world is closely linked to the physical sensation of being able to touch someone who is close or something that has meaning for us. The metaverse can connect friends virtually and realistically or offer the exciting possibility of manipulating digital elements with your hands if the technology to explore virtual spaces incorporates the dimension of touch into immersive experiences.
Various creators of innovative technologies have already adopted this approach for the metaverse, by developing the first platform that allows users to interact in the virtual world without needing sensitive, cumbersome, and uncomfortable controls or prototype gloves.
The system is called Emerge Home, and is already available to the company's beta community. It includes a laptop-sized desktop device that emits ultrasonic waves and creates a force field in the air. Hand movements amid sound waves allow users to interact directly with virtual reality, opening the door to a new way of transforming the metaverse into being sensitive to touch—and with one’s own hands—into reality.
It doesn't take much effort to realize how this technology can help create a much more complete and captivating immersion, which is what we can see happening in this video:
The advancements of Emerge, a 2Future portfolio company, led the World Economic Forum to name it as one of the Technology Pioneers of 2022. This recognition has been given annually since 2000 to early-stage companies developing and rolling out new technologies and innovations that are about to impact business and society significantly.
Isaac Castro, an Emerge co-founder, believes that our interactions on social media have lost valuable elements over the past decade, such as humanity, intimacy, depth, and empathy. He thinks we need more authentic conversations and to feel closer to each other in the virtual worlds we want to build.
“The transition to the metaverse will not be a technological paradigm shift, but a sociological one,” Isaac explains.
In other words, the focus of the metaverse must be on the human experience, and its purpose should be to strengthen social bonds. Numerous technological and creative challenges lie ahead as we build this vast multidimensional virtual universe. But for the internet to really evolve, the biggest transformation must be in mindsets.