Since the dawn of civilization, humans have had only one world in which to live: the real one. But tech visionaries say we’ll soon have an alternative: a virtual world where our digital avatars and those of people in our communities and around the globe come together to work, shop, attend classes, pursue hobbies, enjoy social gatherings and more.
Immersive videogames and virtual concerts have given us a taste of this world. But visionaries say the metaverse, as this world has been dubbed, will be far more engaging and robust, not only mirroring the real world in all its three-dimensional complexity but also extending it to allow us to be and do what previously could only be imagined. Walk on the moon in your pajamas? Watch a baseball game from the pitcher’s mound? Frolic in a field of unicorns—or be a unicorn yourself? In the metaverse, tech visionaries say, just about anything will be possible.
“The metaverse is going to be the biggest revolution in computing platforms the world has seen—bigger than the mobile revolution, bigger than the web revolution,” says Marc Whitten, whose title is “senior vice president and general manager of create” at San Francisco-based
Unity Software Inc.
Unity is building tools and services to enable people to create metaverse content. Other big tech companies are developing hardware and software products for the metaverse, or their own virtual worlds within it, including
, Epic Games Inc.,
“In addition to being the next generation of the Internet, the metaverse is also going to be the next chapter for us as a company,” Facebook CEO
said during a July earnings call with analysts. “In the coming years, I expect people will transition from seeing us primarily as a social media company to seeing us as a metaverse company.”
Entering this vast new realm could mean using common devices like smartphones and computers. But tech executives say specialized glasses—similar to but less bulky and more comfortable than the virtual-reality headsets on the market today—will allow for greater immersion. We’ll also likely see a wider selection of haptic gear that lets users feel virtual objects, as well as hardware like omnidirectional treadmills that can simulate running, climbing and other physical activities.
“The metaverse is going to be the biggest revolution in computing platforms the world has seen—bigger than the mobile revolution, bigger than the web revolution.”
For the metaverse to take off, though, we’ll need upgrades to existing computer systems and technology, tech executives say, including more raw computing power and higher-quality graphics as well as a universal framework that allows users to move seamlessly from one part of the metaverse to another. Also essential, they say, will be programming tools simple enough to allow anyone to create their own virtual realms and experiences, not just skilled developers.
Concerns over privacy and security will need to be addressed as well. And then there’s the matter of the metaverse’s potential pitfalls, including the possibility that people will find the virtual realm so compelling that they neglect their real-world needs.
“There’s a potential to preferring it to traditional life,” Rachel Kowert, an Ontario, Canada-based psychologist who has studied the mental health of gamers, says of the metaverse, adding that the risks are higher for children. “Their primary learning about how to behave and engage with the world is through their peers and social interaction,” she says. “It’s a critical component of how we learn to be people.”
But good or bad—or perhaps both—the metaverse is likely coming our way.
Class Trips to Anywhere, Any Era
Executives from tech companies helping to create the metaverse say it will be vast, with replicas of places in the real world—past, present and future—all rendered in realistic-looking 3-D. It will be capable of supporting an infinite number of users simultaneously, without the lag time that often frustrates players of multiplayer videogames.
For example, any number of students, from anywhere in the world, might meet up for a class trip to ancient Rome, says Nvidia executive Richard Kerris, who is helping oversee a metaverse infrastructure project called Omniverse that will allow developers around the world to collaborate in real time to build metaverse-content-creation software. The students could peer inside every nook and cranny of the Colosseum, with a virtual gladiator powered by artificial intelligence on hand to answer questions.
In the metaverse, tech gurus say, people will see and interact with each other in the form of avatars. But with the anticipated advances in graphics, these would look far more lifelike than the cartoonish avatars familiar to virtual-reality aficionados, according to Daren Tsui, chief executive of Together Labs Inc., a developer of social technologies in Palo Alto, Calif. Avatars also could represent deceased individuals, including family members and friends as well as historical figures, and, with help from artificial intelligence, seemingly bring them back to life.
“The avatar experience will feel so real that you can hardly tell the difference between a virtual meeting and a physical meeting,” Mr. Tsui says. “And the virtual experience will be better.”
Avatars, however, won’t be the only way people appear in the metaverse. Tech executives say we’ll be able to watch video of the real world, including live footage of concerts and athletic events, for example. But rather than having to view events from the limited perspectives producers offer us, we’ll have the freedom to enjoy these events from any angle of our choosing. And with a finger tap, we’ll be able to call up information about artists and athletes we’re watching, such as their standing on the Billboard charts and how many points they’ve scored in a season.
We’ll also be able to mix virtual content with real-world video and interact virtually—for example, by pelting football players with virtual tomatoes. (The players won’t feel a thing.)
Virtual Companions, Weddings and Tourism
Commerce will take place in the metaverse, says John Egan, chief executive of Paris-based forecasting firm L’Atelier BNP Paribas. Among other things, he predicts that metaverse users will buy and sell virtual pets—from lifelike dogs and cats to dragons and other fantastical creatures. He also foresees a market for related services like pet walking and grooming, as the virtual companions could be programmed to require the same kind of care as real-world animals.
Other potential business opportunities include virtual weddings and parties, with vendors creating venues and charging rental or entry fees, according to Mr. Egan. Similarly, private tour guides could take clients to virtual travel destinations. “The potential is unending,” he says.
Metaverse entrepreneurs won’t take cash, tech visionaries say, so transactions might involve credit cards and online payment services like
But it’s likely that cryptocurrency and blockchain technology will play a major role, according to Mr. Egan. This way, for example, those virtual pets could have verified “virtual DNA” akin to the nonfungible tokens, or NFTs, that certify the ownership of digital art. As a result, he says, virtual animals might be “bred” for speed, which could allow for virtual races and betting.
A ‘Metaverse Strategy’ for Business
Real-world businesses will be able to participate in the metaverse as well by offering virtual versions of their bricks-and-mortar facilities, Unity’s Mr. Whitten says. With existing online stores, customers can read product descriptions and make purchases. In the metaverse, customers would be able to visit virtual retail outlets and try out products in 3-D and at full scale before buying. A tall person could check if he or she could stand comfortably inside a camping tent, for example, before purchasing it and having it shipped to his or her real-world home.
Similarly, real-estate agents could use the metaverse to allow people shopping for a new place to live to virtually tour homes anywhere in the world without leaving their own home, according to Nvidia’s Mr. Kerris. They could walk the premises room by room—and could even scan their current furniture and upload it into the homes to see how it would look.
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“Every Fortune 1000 company will have a metaverse strategy,” Mr. Whitten says.
Employers will also take advantage of the metaverse’s shared 3-D environments to allow far-flung workers to collaborate in ways that are impossible with today’s video technology, tech visionaries say. For instance, architects and construction-company executives—no matter where they are in real life—could visit a job site virtually to monitor the construction of a new building, which along with its surroundings would be rendered in highly realistic 3-D.
“The metaverse offers a massive quantum leap for remote work,” Mr. Whitten says. “You’ll be able to design and build things faster, more safely and cheaper than you can today.”
Write to Sarah E. Needleman at [email protected]
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