Extended Reality in the Metaverse. Where Are We Headed?

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Ever since Facebook announced plans to change its name to ‘Meta’ to signal its entry into the metaverse environment, we have been hearing the term being thrown around a lot more often. However, “Metaverse” as a term has existed for more than a couple of decades now (thanks to Neal Stephenson) and it symbolizes everything that is part of a virtual world that we can interact with. Think ‘ Ready Player One‘, or even ‘ The Matrix‘ for that matter, and we are halfway there!

But how is our future going to be any different with the introduction of the metaverse?

The Metaverse - say what?

It is an infinite virtual environment where anything goes. The metaverse seems to be working on the principle of “anything real can be experienced virtually”. As of now, we have software and devices that enable us to experience the virtual world in smaller doses. We have 3D maps of the world, virtual environments where we can play alternate versions of ourselves but with limited levels of interaction, virtual reality (VR) environments that are enabled by VR headsets and controllers, and a host of other immersive technologies.

One could say that gaming platforms set the stage for the metaverse. We have had interactive games with dynamic environments since the better part of the 2000s. Anyone who has heard of ‘Second Life‘ would know that the game was the first of its kind to include an immersive experience where players could set up virtual versions of themselves, be a part of virtual communities, have virtual meetings (yes, meetings can be that fun!), and do things like buying property or even shop for clothes. We also have other games such as Roblox and Minecraft that allow gamers to create avatars and interact with infinite elements virtually. One of the reasons why games have immersive experiences is the fact that they have that many takers. In fact, the gaming industry is bigger than the sports and film industries combined. Consider this – as of 2021, Roblox had more than 47 million users on its platform! In case you are wondering, this is greater than the population of the U.S.A. Games also have dynamic AI-based mechanisms that let each individual user experience them uniquely – that is, no two users will see the same environment unless they specifically choose it!

Non-fungible Tokens (NFTs) are set to grab centerstage once the metaverse becomes accessible to us. Of course, they are already popular thanks to cryptocurrencies and digital platforms that allow artists to sell their works. Blockchains will act as one of the enablers of the metaverse as it can be used to keep a track of transactions carried out online while protecting data by keeping it unique and clean. The reason NFTs will become even more popular in the metaverse is because of the sheer number of options that are available to every user. Each individual would like to have an entirely unique character in the metaverse and this will be enabled by NFTs. Each and every pixel of an avatar can be unique to an individual and when it comes to expressibility, there is no better way than this in the metaverse. Also, what is stopping one from creating a popular and unique character that could potentially be bought by, say Marvel?

The list of applications of the metaverse is endless. Want to play golf on the Moon? Absolutely. Want to box with Muhammad Ali? You got it! Want your own AH-64 Apache helicopter and go “Get to da choppa“? You go… Well, you get it don’t you? We could have virtual conventions, conferences, and workshops where we could interact with others as though we were there in person. We could also develop applications for children to learn more interactively (maybe have virtual labs, conduct competitions, even teach them skills a la toastmasters!). In fact, children with conditions such as ADHD, ADD or even dyslexia could benefit from the interactive environments made possible through the metaverse. Learning history could never be more fun – we could literally live in the moment by going into the past virtually and look at things that were once a very real part of our world. Of course, these could have their own disadvantages but the positive outcomes are sure to outweigh them.

So…we can lick screens?

Most virtual environments of today are constrained by the devices that we have. We use our computers, mobile phones, tablets, or sometimes, VR gear to experience the reality built on boolean. VR devices have enabled us to enjoy immersive experiences for the past decade or so and the technology has only gotten better through the years. In fact, the metaverse is touted to be enabled by VR technology where existing devices could be used to produce immersive and interactive virtual environments. However, the metaverse is much more than just a VR/AR paradise – it could potentially be the Matrix itself.

VR can change the way we sell products online. As we transition towards a future where VR devices become more affordable, it is easy to see hundreds of thousands of homes owning at least one of these devices. By creating targeted advertisements and creating digital products, it is possible for organisations to interact on a more personal level with every individual customer.

The entertainment industry is set to see a major revamp since they are also in the race to create a unique variant of the metaverse. Big names such as Disney have entered the metaverse race and will probably be interested in bringing the technology to their theme parks. Disney has already started working on integrating augmented reality to develop AR experiences at their different parks and the metaverse could probably be an extension to this virtual space. What this could mean is that more and more people with physical disabilities could visit the parks (virtually or in real-life) and experience the rides just like everybody else. Since Disney is involved in creating a metaverse, it could also light up the path for movies to enter the realm. In 20 years, we could literally be inside a movie, watching things from our own perspectives, rather than sit in front of a screen with 500 others!

One area where we are still behind (of course, they are still incredibly advanced considering our technological progress over the past decades) is simulating life-like motion, animation, and motion tracking. Recently, researchers at Ubisoft were able to develop a new AI-based model called “SuperTrack” that could be used in motion tracking for physically simulated characters. In simple terms, what we had were tackier 3D models that commonly seemed to disobey the laws of physics. However, this new AI enables tracking motions of reference objects and reproducing them in an uncanny manner. This AI was not only able to mimic various motions, but it could also mimic different types of bodies (different animals, humanoids etc). What it means for us is that if this technology becomes a part of the metaverse race then we will be able to experience much more life-like interactions that would make it impossible to differentiate between what’s real and what’s virtual.

Also, the lightning fast developments in the field is something that we can only stare at in awe. Lickable TV screens? Totally true! They happen to be the latest addition to what could possibly be a part of the metaverse. Japanese professor and scientist Homei Miyashata of the Meiji University developed a prototype TV screen, aptly called ‘Taste The TV, that can ‘imitate flavours’. In the metaverse, this could play a vital role in allowing consumers to travel the world and taste the local cuisines, all while sitting on a couch. Haptic technology has been redefining the way we interact with virtual elements. ‘TactGlove‘ is a haptic glove that has been designed to give consumers a “feel” of what virtual environments are like. This is just a couple of examples of the accompanying technologies that are being developed. But this just confirms that our future is set to get a lot more exciting!

Will We Meta?

The metaverse, as an immersive experience for all, could take a while but we are already at the cusp of a new beginning. With more and more organisations like Microsoft, Roblox, Nvidia, Meta, Sony, and Apple taking the metaverse leap, it isn’t all that far-fetched to imagine a virtual world by the end of this decade. However, as the number of players increases, so will the number of options. What this means is that there could be hundreds of limited virtual environments for us to explore (just like the variety of VR-based games we have access to today). It might defeat the purpose of the “metaverse” if more organisations decided to limit their activities or if they were to stay off the grid by not having a standardized suite to access the metaverse. However, with more governments actively participating in the development of metaverses and the technologies that go into enabling them, the possibility of metaverses being standardized across countries is high.

As with anything, technology too can have its own repercussions. There could be scenarios where data breaches could become the norm, children could spend thousands of hours in the virtual world unsupervised or worse, we could even see deepfakes of ourselves doing unfathomable things in the metaverse. But with strict regulations and standards, we might just use the technology for everything good.

We can all agree that the metaverse will definitely become a ubiquitous part of our lives sooner than we can expect. It is in its nascent stages as of now so if you are interested in becoming a part of the metaverse, make sure you rack up relevant skills in the fields of AI, blockchain, cryptocurrency, AR/VR technologies, 3D design, and visual media.

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Future of Industry


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