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Understanding the Metaverse

The main technologies of the metaverse – augmented and virtual reality (AR and VR), extended reality (XR) for both – are not new. In 1990, the United States National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) introduced the Virtual Interface Environment Workstation (VIEW). The agency created VIEW in partnership with VPL Research, the 1980s virtual reality company founded by Jaron Lanier.

The system featured a headset very similar to today’s VR headsets and clothing and gloves fitted with sensors – DataSuit and DataGlove. For AR, the Fraunhofer Society provided an early example in 2004. The game NetAttack used Wi-Fi networks and semi-transparent personal screens in headwear to superimpose three-dimensional objects on real-world settings.

Players had to find virtual target objects in real environments, carrying a backpack full of gear. The game had features that resemble those of Niantic Pokemon Go AR game that hit in 2016 and was thoroughly discussed in Computer Weekly article The Beneficial (and Frightening) Implications of Reality Virtualization.

Thus, the idea of ​​exploiting virtual elements and environments for production and entertainment applications is not new. What is new, however, is that the technologies required have become considerably more powerful, considerably smaller and considerably cheaper over the past few decades. Gone are the days of backpacks with gear; accommodate lightweight, sensor-equipped smart glasses with advanced display technologies.

Additionally, supporting infrastructure and communication technologies such as the Internet, wireless connectivity, location and navigation systems, virtual payment applications and data centers have come a long way. Dozens of companies have worked feverishly on applications related to the metaverse for many years.

But an announcement from Mark Zuckerberg at this year’s South by Southwest (SXSW) festival in March forced them to put their cards on the table and prove to investors that they’re on top of AR and VR technologies and applications. Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Meta, also participated remotely in SXSW to present his vision during the session Into the Metaverse: Creators, Commerce, and Connection.

Related technologies caught the attention of businesses and consumers, and the metaverse became commercially viable. SXSW highlighted the breadth of use cases, from fashion and music to art and games. Business considerations included branding and workspaces, but also sustainability and communication. And, naturally, the sessions covered a range of technology topics, such as standards, non-fungible tokens (NFTs), non-fungible intelligence and the concept of Web 3.0. .

The conference’s two-stage discussions focused on technologies and use cases. From buzz to reality: the metaverse today and tomorrow offered a cross-industry look at the concept, including Finland’s metaverse ecosystem of startups and companies.

Geoff Bund, head of software partnerships at Varjo, described the use of the company’s high-end XR headsets. The company also recently launched its Varjo Reality Cloud platform, which allows users to stream location-based footage in photorealistic quality to other users’ headsets.

Vesa Koivumaa, Head of Growth at Wärtsilä, a manufacturer of industrial equipment for the marine and energy market, offered insight into how industrial players can leverage the metaverse for training and maintenance applications. . He noted that the “metaverse is a tool for very practical questions”. He mentioned the benefits that VR applications can have in education and training. Maritime trainees, for example, can easily familiarize themselves with different sections of a vessel, and remote operators will have the ability to virtually verify operations or inspect safety components.

Koivumaa also highlighted synergistic technologies. “We cannot consider the metaverse as a single entity; we have to see what else is happening in technologies,” he said, citing translation technologies as an example. Natural translation can substantially improve communication and collaboration, he added.

Coincidentally, at the annual Google I/O developer conference on May 11, 2022, Alphabet showed off a prototype smart glasses capable of displaying real-time conversation translations.

Miikka Rosendahl, Founder and CEO of ZOAN, provided the perspective of metaverse creators. His company designed the world of Cornerstone, a photo-realistic metaverse. ZOAN is also building its own platform in the metaverse after years of accumulated experience in building VR applications.

Leslie Shannon, Head of Ecosystem and Trends Research for Nokia, provided the perspective of a provider of primarily business-to-business telecommunications systems that will create the infrastructure for the growing metaverse. Shannon described the metaverse as “the union of the digital and the physical.”

She noted that while Facebook’s renaming to Meta brought attention to the emerging metaverse, she was frustrated that the focus on Meta’s vision limited the vision of virtual reality and related applications for many. many industrial use cases. Shannon pointed to AR as a catalyst for digital-physical union, saying that AR is “transforming the nature of the relationship between humans and computers.” While people are currently limited to looking at two-dimensional spaces, three-dimensional environments will connect them very effectively to the physical world, she added.

The distinction between AR, VR and XR is another source of confusion, she said. Shannon saw augmented reality and virtual reality as two ends of a spectrum of the union of physical and digital, illustrating the nature of the spectrum by referring to HTC’s Proton prototype. The headset/glasses can switch from VR to AR, physically representing the spectrum. She also noted that for many AR applications, a smartphone is sufficient to provide the digital layers on top of real-world objects and landscapes.

Bund de Varjo added that although the underlying technologies and required development skills are very similar, augmented reality and virtual reality attempt to solve very different problems and meet very different needs. AR and VR are sometimes confused, but very rarely can they be used interchangeably, he said.

ZOAN’s Rosendahl commented that a decade ago there was a debate about which technology – AR or VR – would prevail commercially. The question these days revolves around the nature of the use case and the appropriate technology, he said. Virtual reality is ideal for immersing yourself in a whole world created virtually; AR is good for adding useful layers of information to real-world objects or cityscapes.

The metaverse, in its most fundamental nature – examined in The Developing Metaverse: Business Realities of Extended Realities – enables the connectivity of users who can interact with virtual assets or avatars in an immersive way. Everything else, in my opinion, is negotiable and depends on the design, purpose and applications of such environments.

The metaverse should be treated as a general idea, rather than a concrete definition. I believe that any attempt to define the metaverse in detail will inevitably limit the potential of the types of environments that could emerge and therefore miss the associated business opportunities.

The metaverse can be many things to many people. The potential range of use cases and applications is likely to be more than the sum of its parts – similar to how the Internet has not only established a new way of communicating and doing business, but also created opportunities to design more efficient operations and implement new Business Plans.

Again, limiting our view today of what the metaverse is and what it can be used for will prevent us from envisioning what the new environment will ultimately achieve and enable.

Martin Schwirn is the author of Small Data, Big Disruption: How to Spot Signals of Change and Manage Uncertainty (ISBN 9781632651921). He is also Senior Advisor, Strategic Foresight at Business Finland, helping startups and incumbents find their position in the market of tomorrow.

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