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The metaverse is alive and flourishing

Metaverse still up and running:
4 minute read
Metaverse still up and running: Shutterstock

Did you think the metaverse went away? It never did. In the future it will be everywhere, says David Shapton.

To many people, the metaverse is "so last year". Like NFTs (the commercially dubious but arguably true notion that you can "own" a .gif or .jpg and treat it like a tangible asset), there was a popular media boom, followed by a tsunami of mild indifference. Wrapped around notions of a "Web 3.0" where the vague conspired with the enigmatic, NFTs have lost most of their value and burnt the early adopters. If you wanted a safe investment, there were better options. I think there's a pattern here.

The general media rarely reports on developments in embedded electronics, in-car networking or new types of video compression. These can be transformative in their own ways but don't pass the threshold of popular appeal, where they can justify widespread media coverage.

But in the last couple of years the metaverse and NFTs did precisely that: they became major news stories, and unfortunately, it was often not for the best reasons. For me, the best reason would be that the metaverse is immensely interesting and an essential part of the future. But the metaverse hit the headlines because Meta (the company formally known as Facebook) spent untold billions developing its own "metaverse" (which, by definition, is not the metaverse), and because of the profound silliness of some of the business models built around NFTs. (There is value in the concept of NFTs, but it needs to be real, as opposed to bubble-type value.)

There is only one metaverse

To be clear, you can no more develop your own metaverse than create your own internet. I think Meta was trying to get so far ahead of its competitors that when the real (as in "the only") metaverse came along, it would own it de facto. But it was about 180º wide of the mark because what it produced (this is my opinion - not a statement of undisputed fact) was merely a rather traditional-looking game environment that looked OK in VR.

So, has that killed the metaverse? Not by a long shot. It just never really got started.

Except that it did, in a big way, but less in the public eye. And, perhaps the biggest factor, the most potent drivers to develop a fully-fledged metaverse are only peripherally connected with mass or consumer entertainment.

A measure of the public turn-off from the metaverse is that when Apple announced its remarkably polished Apple Vision Pro in June 2023 - easily the most metaverse-oriented device yet - the Cupertino company didn't mention "metaverse" once. Perhaps wanting to avoid the wave of scepticism (and to some extent ennui) around the topic, it wanted to present its glossy device as a new era in computing called "spatial computing". Connected spatial computing is, of course, the metaverse.

Apple's bold new product, rumoured to be launched in early 2024, takes us closer than any of us expected to an actual metaverse experience by incorporating extremely high-resolution graphics (each eye has a 4K display) and numerous motion and position sensors to match the image resolution with positional precision. Thanks to dedicated and powerful processors, it has eliminated the latency (or lag) that has plagued HMDs (Head Mounted Devices) and which made the experience a bit nauseous. It's a tour-de-force that only Apple could have pulled off, and the price, while prohibitive for most, is realistic for visionaries and early adopters, while the mark two versions (or the "S" model, perhaps) will probably be half the price. And once the array of specialist silicon gets integrated onto a single chip and mass-produced, the price could fall to a fifth.

There is a lot of VR hardware out there, but VR is only one of the many aspects of the metaverse and not necessarily the one that will drive it forward through its formative stages.

Nvidia’s Omniverse

Nvidia became a trillion-dollar company on the back of its work in AI. When there's a global AI boom, it doesn't hurt to manufacture the chips almost everyone uses to power their AI foundation models.

Nvidia's Omniverse is a 3D world with engineering-level precision. It allows diverse software and applications to exchange hyper-realistic immersive digital versions of reality. Its ability to reproduce exact physical characteristics on an almost unlimited scale means that it can depict anything from a mechanical watch to an entire car factory.

It's so precise that - for example - engineers and designers can use Omniverse for their principal engineering plans. The same 3D files that describe the car for engineering can model the vehicle in 3D, complete with all its physical characteristics, for virtualised testing.

But that's just the beginning of what becomes possible. With such detailed and accurate digital versions of products, you can use the information across multiple activities. Marketing departments can now build advertising around photorealistic versions of cars - again, from the same data. And the same pool of information will help to build a real-time, dynamic "digital twin" of the road system and the cars using it.

In the future, all cars will have real-time networking systems so that vehicles nearby can exchange information with each other about speed, direction and local objects (houses, lampposts, etc.) so that they can "see" around corners and know when a car that's out of sight has just accelerated. An accurate digital twin model will reflect all the physical characteristics of the objects within it. This will make all cars - and especially autonomous vehicles - significantly safer.

That single example gives us a clue about the future of the metaverse. It may or may not become a consumer sensation: I think it will, but what will almost certainly matter more is that what is now the internet will morph into a real-time connected database of reality - a global "digital twin", if you like.

I've deliberately left AI out of this discussion because it is so hard to predict what influence it will have. Even though AI gives the impression that progress across the board is lightning-fast, in the real, physical world, things take longer. Computing power rather than algorithmic sophistication seems to be the brute-force driver right now. But I suspect a longer-term trend will be that AI foundation models (LLMs etc) will be optimised and run on more economical, sustainable platforms. All of this will help develop digital twins and the elements that exist within them - like autonomous cars.

Eventually, the metaverse will be everywhere - in vehicles, the street, our mobile devices, and even within ourselves. The irony is that while it may become the biggest artificial phenomenon ever, we might not even know it's there. 

Tags: Technology