The tech space has been abuzz with talks of the metaverse, especially since Facebook made its announcement last year that it was rebranding itself as Meta. But aside from all the hype and excitement, what does the term metaverse actually refer to? Michael Thompson, faculty chair of the Department of Game Software Design and Production at DigiPen (Singapore), explains that as far as we know, it is the not-yet-realized idea of seamless integration using virtual (VR), augmented (AR), and mixed reality (XR) technologies as a social, working, and economic space. This is in contrast to the very separate VR, AR, and transaction-based software we use today. In other words, the metaverse refers to a fully immersive and digital space that users can exist and interact in as they would in the physical world — think virtual work meetings, conferences, concerts, vacations, family visits, and more.
In a way, these virtual worlds already exist in games such as Second Life or Roblox, where users can control avatars to interact with others. However, these online communities have their limitations, as they largely exist only within their own ecosystems. Perhaps in the future, the metaverse will enable more advanced versions of these digital spaces, allowing for greater and more seamless integration between the virtual and real world. Here are some examples of what users can expect as metaverse experiences become more mainstream and interconnected.
Consumers’ shopping habits were greatly affected when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, with more people turning to e-commerce than ever before. This puts the metaverse in good stead, as it has the potential to make online shopping even more engaging, closing the gap between an online versus in-store shopping experience.
For example, you might be able to browse clothes racks in a virtual store and try on items in your size, all without leaving home. You would even be able to see how clothes and accessories look when paired with something from your wardrobe. Need new furniture? You can “try before you buy” by using AR technology to visualize what that new dresser or chair would look like in your room and see if it matches your existing furniture.
The metaverse would be able to facilitate greater learning and collaboration across many industries, healthcare included. Doctors and nurses would be able to step into virtual hospitals and operating theatres to simulate surgical procedures and hone their skills as many times as they want. Specialists would also be able to use VR to demonstrate intricate and complicated surgical techniques for rarer medical conditions without the need for an actual patient.
Advanced Internet of Things (IoT) systems could also improve monitoring, allowing medical staff to remotely check in on patients. And in the case of medical emergencies? Short-staffed hospitals would be able to call healthcare professionals from other hospitals to virtually assist and oversee medical procedures.
Virtual concerts are not new, but they have been on the rise thanks to digital acceleration in the last two years. In 2019, Fortnite launched its first such show with EDM producer Marshmello. It was a visual spectacle that offered a glimpse of what virtual concerts could look like. Subsequently, Fortnite continued to raise the bar with Travis Scott’s in-game performance in 2020, and Ariana Grande’s in 2021. Both were interactive concerts where the singers had giant avatars that fans could follow to different virtual landscapes and environments. The performers were also able to directly interact with fan avatars in the game.
In another example, TikTok and The Weeknd hosted an interactive livestream on the app where The Weeknd appeared in digital avatar form and performed hits like Blinding Lights. The experience allowed his fans — who tuned in remotely — to vote in the comments section and change the visual theme of the concert. At one point during the performance, fans could also see their usernames and comments appear alongside the artist as he performed in real-time.
As technology continues to advance, artists will find new and innovative ways to engage with fans more intimately. When this happens, fans will have greater ownership and decision-making power during virtual concerts. They will also be able to join meet-and-greet sessions with avatars of their favorite stars inside the metaverse.
4. Work and education
Hybrid and remote work will get a boost as more tools for collaborative, virtual work get developed. Most people are already familiar with video calls and virtual meetings, but imagine being able to walk into a virtual meeting room and interact with your colleagues as if you were all in the same physical space. You — or your avatar — would be able to edit presentation slides together in real-time, give each other digital high-fives when things go well, and network with colleagues from all over the world in online lounges.
The metaverse opens many doors for educational experiences as well. One would easily be able to attend lectures at any university without worries about time differences or geography by listening to AI avatars of actual professors. You would also be able to interact with international classmates from all over the world on a daily basis, facilitating greater knowledge and cultural exchange.
Just last year, the Smithsonian, Adobe, and the Hydrous partnered together to bring an AR educational experience to life. The immersive experience sought to redefine what museums were and was created to let visitors enjoy and explore the Smithsonian’s coral collections remotely in order to raise awareness about the threats to the marine ecosystem. By downloading the Adobe Aero app, viewers were able to thoroughly immerse themselves in the experience from the comforts of their own homes. This is just a glimpse of how emerging technologies can be utilized to enhance remote learning as people tap into the metaverse.
Want to have your afternoon coffee in a trendy French café instead of your boring old kitchen? You sure can. Just make yourself a cuppa and go anywhere in the world using your trusty VR headset. You can even invite a loved one to join you in this virtual environment, interacting with them as you would if you were catching up over coffee in person. The only catch? They’ll have to prepare their own drink before logging on.
Virtual travel will also not be limited to just earth. Explore space, the ocean, or even imaginary worlds as seen in movies — as long as they’ve been recreated in the metaverse.
As with all new technologies, the rise of metaverse experiences will also come with certain downsides as they begin to reframe human interaction. “This will exacerbate what is already happening, in that one group of humans will become increasingly disconnected from their immediate communities,” Michael says. Employees who use computers for work will see even more of their world becoming virtual and globalized. On the other hand, those working in blue-collar industries or in jobs that cannot be digitalized will find themselves becoming more of a disenfranchised underclass. Furthermore, Michael adds that the rise of social media has shown that people tend to seek out those who are as similar to them as possible while avoiding those who are different. “Online social experiences tend to concentrate this effect and allow for echo chambers of extremism and conspiratorial thinking to form,” he says.
It will thus require even more effort on our part to invest in the physical world and a greater effort to find social connections that do not simply reinforce our own biases.