As we enter a new year, it’s time for our annual ritual of synthesizing the lessons from the past twelve months and formulating the outlook for the next twelve. This was the topic of the recent ARtillery Intelligence report, Spatial Computing: 2021 Lessons; 2022 Outlook.
If there’s one term that’s reverberated throughout AR and VR circles more than any other in 2021, it’s the m-word. We’re talking of course about the metaverse. Though it represents legitimate principles, the term has become co-opted and conflated to the point of losing all meaning.
Stepping back, what is the metaverse? We’re hesitant to define something that’s so early and abstract, but there’s some consensus among leading thinkers about what it someday could be. And there are some examples today of metaverse-like experiences (more on those in a bit).
Starting at a high level, the metaverse could essentially have two tracks. One track involves purely virtual and immersive worlds, partly accessed through VR. The second track involves digital twins of the physical world, unlocked through AR. Let’s examine these one at a time…
Starting with the first track, the metaverse broadly involves digital domains that host time-synchronous interaction between place-shifted participants. Mark Zuckerberg calls it an “embodied internet,” offering the connected experiences of the web, but fleshed out in 3D.
One way this happens is through interactions with far-flung friends, represented by avatars. This is usually discussed in VR terms. And today’s examples of metaverse-like experiences include Altspace VR and and VRChat. We also have non-VR worlds like Fortnite and Second Life.
Within this track, there’s some consensus about what the metaverse should and shouldn’t be. For example, it should be interoperable in that users can transport from place to place with consistent identities. It should also be open and not owned or operated by one entity.
These guidelines make the metaverse start to sound like today’s web. And indeed, that could be the model. The web offers proprietary business interest (incentive to innovate), and common standards of interoperability. The latter includes protocols like HTTPS and languages like HTML.
“We already have a metaverse….it’s called the Internet,” MetaVRse founder & CEO Alan Smithson quipped during an ARtillery-moderated panel at the VR/AR Global Summit.
Though tongue-in-cheek, Smithson’s comments carry key insights about the term metaverse, and the conceptual model that underpins it. Though the term isn’t new, it will likely take on new forms of networked presence that build incrementally on the internet that we know today.
As for the physical-world metaverse, this is all about geo-anchored data that signals AR devices to evoke digital content where and when relevant. After all, the Greek root meta means beyond. AR can activate content that goes beyond the physical manifestation of real-world objects.
We also sometimes refer to this as the metavearth, and it aligns with the already-existing principle of the AR cloud. The idea is to add dimension to our physical world, which could have a wider range of use cases than the above metaverse track – everything from commerce to social.
And several companies are already building it. Google created immense value indexing the web over the past 20 years, and now wants to bring that principle to the physical world. This is what we call the “Internet of places,” and Google is well-positioned given its knowledge graph.
Another example is Niantic, which is making moves to build a “real-world metaverse.” Its Lightship platform takes the architecture and learnings of Pokémon Go and bakes them into an AR development kit (ARDK). This will accelerate innovation around geospatial AR experiences.
But an entire tech stack needs to form. We’ll need front end apps, geospatial data (the AR cloud), infrastructure & networking technologies, and content filtration systems or relevance engines to deliver the right content. In other words, what will be the browser for the spatial web?
We’ll pause there and circle back in the next report excerpt to go deeper on metaverse machinations and other activity in spatial computing…