Explainer: Are we ready for metaverse, or is it just a gimmick?

An immersive art installation titled "Machine Hallucinations - Space: Metaverse" by media artist Refik Anadol at the Digital Art Fair, in Hong Kong on Sep 30, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

LAS VEGAS - The metaverse was a new but big theme at the three-day CES 2022 that concluded last Friday, as automaker Hyundai Motor Group spoke about a future where humans in the metaverse could control robots to perform tasks in the real world, and personal-care giant Procter & Gamble imagined new ways to engage consumers.

On the show floors of the annual CES, seen as a barometer of major global tech trends organised by the Consumer Tech Association (CTA), exhibitors and observers differed on whether the metaverse will finally arrive for mainstream consumers.

What exactly is the metaverse and why are tech executives convinced it is the next generation of the Internet? How does it promise to transform the way people live, work and play?

The Straits Times explains.

What is the metaverse?

The term has been around since the 1990s. It refers to shared virtual worlds over the Internet, with a focus on social connection.

Multi-player video games like Fortnite, Roblox and Minecraft, where different players can interact in a shared virtual space, are early attempts of metaverses that have been around for decades.

Over the last two years, the focus has shifted to other purposes like social interaction, workplace collaboration and virtual events.

Fortnite - originally a game focused on gun combat and fort-building - has hosted virtual concerts featuring the avatars of artists like DJ Marshmello and rapper Travis Scott.

There are also non-gaming metaverse platforms already available to the public, like VRChat, Rec Room, Microsoft's AltspaceVR and Meta's Horizon Worlds, previously called Facebook Horizon.

Many companies have begun creating their own metaverses, which can be anything from digital replicas of their physical office spaces to entirely original spaces designed by architects specifically for the virtual world.

Proponents of the metaverse say these 3D virtual worlds will soon become ubiquitous, with new functions on offer like e-commerce, education and even healthcare.

Why the sudden swell of interest?

In a word: pandemic.

Ms Emma Chiu, global director of intelligence at marketing communications agency Wunderman Thompson, said Covid-19 accelerated consumers' desire for more satisfying and immersive ways to connect.

While video conferencing platforms like Zoom and Microsoft Teams became commonplace and essential during the pandemic, they also came with problems like video conferencing fatigue.

"There was a lot of friction," Ms Chiu said, adding that the metaverse could help make online interactions more personal and organic.

She noted that there have been previous attempts to realise the concept of the metaverse, such as Second Life by Linden Labs which was launched in 2003.

Second Life's creators argued that it was not a video game, as it had no set objectives, gameplay mechanics or win and lose conditions. It was billed as a virtual world where people could explore spaces, interact with one another and exercise their creativity. But mainstream consumer interest in Second Life was limited at that time.

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"This was a time when people weren't quite ready to enter and create a digital version of their second life, but now we are seeing potential for gaming to become far more social and interactive," said Ms Chiu.

She also noted how attitudes towards the Internet were more guarded in the early 2000s but they have since changed.

"The way we have progressed, the way we are behaving when it comes to our online selves, is far more open now," she said.

"We are now handing away our credit card details and saving them online without thinking twice."

What will the metaverse be used for?

There can be many interpretations of virtual worlds, just as there is a wide variety of video games available.

"It's whatever you want it to be. The metaverse is a place where we can be together digitally," said Ms Georgina Wellman, vice-president of business development at Sine Wave Entertainment.

Her company creates virtual worlds for clients based on their specifications. She said there was a surge of interest in such services when lockdowns forced firms to shift to remote work, with many looking to replicate the experience of interacting and collaborating in the office.

Whether that virtual office looks like a typical boardroom or a tropical beach at sunset depends on individual company culture and policies, and the same goes for users' avatars, said Ms Wellman.

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"It's your office, so you can say no, it's not appropriate for your avatar to turn up for a meeting in a bikini," she said, adding that human resources departments should start considering these issues.

Mr Christian Gomez Carvajal, chief operating officer of French start-up Aptero, said his company has built virtual spaces for clients like cosmetics company L'Oreal, French airport operator Groupe ADP and Singaporean events company Gardenasia.

The applications ranged from immersive staff training experiences to virtual business conferences.

What accompanying hardware is needed?

The virtual spaces built by Sine Wave and Aptero can be entered through a Web browser, with users controlling their avatars using the keyboard and mouse, similar to a conventional computer game.

But there can also be more immersive ways of entering and interacting with the metaverse, such as using virtual reality (VR) or augmented reality (AR) headsets and haptic gloves or suits that can simulate the feeling of touching objects.

There was no shortage of companies offering metaverse-related products and services at CES 2022.

Japanese start-up Shiftall showed off four products:

  • MeganeX, a pair of high-resolution VR glasses that weigh 250g, which is less than half the weight of the popular 503g Oculus Quest 2 headset by Meta;
  • HaritoraX, a body tracking system, which translates a user's movements into signals that can be mapped onto a virtual avatar;
  • PebbleFeel, a device worn on the back that can create hot and cold sensations; and
  • Mutalk, a mask-like private microphone that picks up a user's voice while dampening it for those around the user.

South Korean firm bHaptics offered attendees a chance to try its haptics vest and gloves, which use vibration motors to simulate the feeling of picking up objects or getting struck by objects in VR.

Spanish firm OWO Game had a jersey-like jacket, which also simulates the sensation of being shot, for instance. It works differently from the bHaptics vest in that it uses electrodes and pads that sit against bare skin to deliver electric shocks of varying intensity.

There were also firms showing off more serious business applications of metaverse tech, such as BadVR, an American firm that combines data analytics and visualisation with VR. It demonstrated an application which lets users see how a real forest fire spreads in a virtual 3D space.

Several major exhibitors at CES also offered novel ideas about how users can interact with the metaverse. For instance, Hyundai and LG showed futuristic concept vehicles that will purportedly bring virtual objects and characters into a physical space where users can interact with them.

Many smart TV sets launched at CES also hint at a future where TV sets could act as a central hub in people's homes and gain more metaverse-related functions, similar to how mobile phones have become versatile multi-function devices.

An example of an e-commerce application could involve TV sets allowing people to virtually try on clothes and accessories at home using AR.

Hyundai Motor Group president Chang-Hyeon Song at a Hyundai press conference on Jan 4, 2022 at the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. PHOTO: EPA

People may also carry out activities in the real world through the metaverse, according to Hyundai's vision of the future.

Hyundai shared the concept of a metaverse that will make the barriers of space and time less relevant by letting people hug their dogs from the other side of the planet, or explore remote places like outer space, through robot avatars.

When will the metaverse become mainstream?

Sine Wave's Ms Wellman thinks the metaverse is already happening now, and having an office in the metaverse will soon be totally normal.

Aptero's Mr Gomez Carvajal is convinced most companies will have metaverses or at least 3D interactive websites in five years.

Mr Brian Comiskey, manager of industry intelligence at CTA,

said the technology needed to make the metaverse frictionless and immersive for most users will take about a decade to mature.

This reporter tried out many of the new devices on display on the CES show floor, and while much of the tech was no doubt impressive, it was clear that metaverse peripherals are still at a nascent stage.

Even the most advanced VR and AR headsets today tend to be somewhat heavy and bulky, and the experience of putting them on is often inconvenient, especially for people who wear glasses.

Besides comfort, image quality is still limited and lag is a persistent issue, which can cause feelings of discomfort for users, like nausea or headaches.

Haptics technology showcased is nowhere close to the level required to convincingly recreate the feeling of hugging a dog just yet.

Some of the metaverse experiences on display also felt like gimmicks. For instance, the Hyundai booth let attendees create and customise an avatar to walk around a virtual town and "test drive" its concept vehicle.

This amounted to little more than watching a personalised 3D cartoon character go through a few animation loops, and in no way offered a sense of what it would be like to drive the vehicle.

Samsung also offered a metaverse experience on the Zepeto platform developed by South Korea's Naver Z, which lets users create a virtual home featuring Samsung's latest products. But the experience was basically an exercise in product placement, and the virtual home was not interactive.

Games like The Sims have long offered a superior approximation of what it is like to own a fancy home and expensive furniture.

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