[REPORTER'S DIARY] How much metaverse is too much metaverse?
If you're a tech company looking to release a new product in 2022, the word "metaverse" better appear somewhere in the description. But while metaverse has very quickly risen to become one of the biggest buzzwords in the industry today, not many people seem to actually grasp what it really means.
Taking a walk around CES 2022, a major tech trade show held in Las Vegas, earlier this month offered a glimpse into what the metaverse could become as big tech companies presented their earliest attempts to bring the concept into reality.
While there is still no universally-accepted description of what the metaverse is, the narrow definition is a virtual world where digital representations of people or avatars interact at work and play, as already realized to some extent in gaming platforms like Fortnite, Minecraft and Roblox.
An extended version of the concept points to a three dimensional digital twin of the physical world that supports continuity of identity, objects, payments and many other aspects of the real world, a vision that has not fully come to life yet.
While big corporations and start-ups introduced a wide array of technologies aimed at supporting the metaverse, LG Electronics made a novel attempt to merge digital and physical worlds during the exhibition: It showcased new products virtually at its brick and mortar CES booth.
Bereft of any flashy gadgets, LG’s kiosk was almost peaceful, containing nothing but boards displaying QR codes, in a sea of typically exorbitant pavilions from other participants.
But in the metaverse era, such a format could become more common.
Instead of televisions and appliances on display, the booth was filled with a wooden frame in the shape of house. Wooded sign boards displayed the QR codes that connected visitors to digital versions of its organic light-emitting diode (OLED) televisions, laptops and refrigerators via their smartphones.
A spokesperson for the tech company described the switch as “an experiment to seamlessly connect visitors from the physical space to LG’s digital experience using both virtual and augmented reality technologies.”
But did it work? While the idea was great, the execution wasn't immersive enough to actually attract visitors away from the glitz and glamor of the real-life gadgets next door.
The hardware was also lacking — without VR headsets or AR glasses available, products could only be viewed on smartphones or tablets. Although that small frame might have helped LG a bit, the quality of the 3-D images was also pretty poor.
The viewer could rotate objects on the screen 360 degrees, but again, the low-quality graphics did little to sell the LG products.
As a result, many visitors and some tech YouTubers simply skipped the tech giant’s booth altogether, despite it sitting in a prime spot near the front gate at the Las Vegas Convention Center.
Yet despite the technical hiccups, LG’s experiment provides a critical insight into where we are and where we need to go to actually realize the extended version of the metaverse.
To entice more people — beyond a core group of youngsters and gamers — to the metaverse, the graphics in the digital space should be more realistic than video games or animation. Ultimately, not only the visual aspect of the graphics, but components that concern other senses like touch and hearing will need to be introduced to realistically create a more convincing illusion of a living, dynamic world.
The visual technology behind 3-D computer-generated images has made significant strides in recent years to a point where “virtual influencers” make it onto the cover of magazines and appear in TV commercials, but that progress hasn’t resonated with other sense-related techniques.
To deliver more real-world-like interaction, new technologies like spatial audio for delivering nuanced voices through avatars or haptics for creating the illusion of touch remain essential. Some start-ups are working in these areas, but most of them are still in the early stages.
Even if they make it to the market, integrating the technologies into the metaverse world would require a combination of partnership and investment, a process that could take a while to be properly realized.
Still, the formidable force for accelerating the development will be Menlo Park, California-based Meta, formerly Facebook, that committed $10 billion a year over the next decade to metaverse-related technologies and app services. In Meta’s lab, a prototype of gloves designed to reproduce the sensation of touch was already developed last year.
Other big tech firms like Apple, Google and Microsoft have announced their own metaverse initiatives with differing focuses. Microsoft announced Tuesday that it acquired gaming outlet Activision Blizzard for $68.7 billion in its major bet on the metaverse, while Apple is reportedly developing augmented reality or virtual reality headset.
When such big players throw their hats into the ring, the market tends to grow at a rapid pace with an influx of venture capitalist funding and smaller tech firms following suit.
Another area of focus should be on when the metaverse will actually be useful. Tech firms need to start with fundamental questions like: When do people really want a mixture of the real and digital worlds and why?
LG’s case could be a telling example to indicate that an exhibition might not be the ideal place for the metaverse, unless the technology can deliver unique value to users.
The basic function of a tech exhibition is to show people real-life prototypes or products as vividly as possible, so visitors to trade shows will be less incentivized to enter the virtual world where objects aren't real.
Even for social interactions, companies have to conduct rigorous research as to whether people really want to throw parties via avatar, or just attend small group meetings for specific purposes like watching movies.
In the workplace, employees may want more real-world boundaries than the metaverse can offer, so Zoom meetings might be as far as people are willing to go. An omni-present interface where avatars can roam around the office and talk with each other might be a step too far for some people.
The nature of tech means that there have been numerous “next big things” projected, but only a few have proven to really be the future. If the metaverse is the next big thing, developers should go back to the physical world to discern what people really want from it.
BY PARK EUN-JEE [firstname.lastname@example.org]