What is the Metaverse?

First - and most important: "THE" one metaverse does not exist! Rather, there are different metaverses. Since the company "Meta" (formerly facebook) announced the development of its own metaverse, the general public understands exactly their platform as "the metaverse". Good marketing, then. But what is really going on with the Metaverse? First, a brief dissection of the term:

Wikipedia describes the metaverse as a digital space created by the interaction of virtual, augmented and physical reality. And also: That the main aspect is to unify the different "action spaces" of the Internet into one virtual reality. By extension, the Metaverse also sees itself as a component of the "Web3" - the extended Web, whose most important component is social exchange. Oha - quite abstract.

Virtual place for the curious and heroes

Let's try it simpler: The metaverse is a virtual world in which people can be together in the same place on a digital platform, exchange ideas and interact with each other. For the time being, this is completely independent of whether this happens on a laptop, a smartphone or VR glasses. The most popular example of such a virtual world for a long time is Second Life. Launched in 2003, it allows users to do exactly what the name promises: build a parallel, second life. With an avatar - a digital counterpart to the real me. This can turn a reserved office worker into a mythical creature or even a superhero. This second, digital identity can also be used to do business: trade in goods (mainly virtual, of course) or offer services. And, of course, social interactions always take place on this basis.

Trend towards the megatrend

Leaving aside the purely playful variants (Minecraft, Fortnite, ...), which can also be called metaverse, the scene gained momentum especially after 2020. From then on, platforms like Decentraland or The Sandbox with less playful intentions gained ground. Also or especially in the actual sense of this statement: Because in fact, digital building land can be acquired in the form of NFTs in various metaverses.

When large game companies announce that they will launch their own metaverse projects, this further fuels the trend toward a digital parallel world. However, all these projects have one thing in common so far: they are aimed at a target group of technology experts and game aficionados. Although the immersion of a parallel world is much more pronounced in virtual reality, the majority of 3D worlds largely take place on the flat monitor of a computer or smartphone. This is not least because the path from the existing metaverses to the ideally wireless headsets involves technical detours that require a bit of technical know-how.

Metas version of the Metaverse

And this is where Meta's Metaverse makes a difference. With the purchase of a Meta Quest (formerly Oculus Quest), you virtually hold the key to a plug & play Metaverse in virtual reality in your hands. Without complex PC installation and without additional setup, a world that can be experienced in 3D is revealed just minutes after activation and can be handled intuitively.

However, those expecting a glamorous, highly developed and detailed environment will be fundamentally disappointed by the first throw: Instead of realistic worlds, you find yourself in a mixture of legless Duplo figures and dollhouse-like rooms. The whole thing just corresponds to the look of games from 25-30 years ago. However, Meta shows great ambition here to create a basis for something bigger. Already with the second technology presentation, the avatars are much more detailed, with legs - and above all, they can read the facial expressions of the VR glasses wearer and display them on the avatar. A novelty on the VR market that makes a significant difference.

Are the investments in VR worth the effort?

Well, the potential is great. VR itself had already moved toward the "Slope of Enlightment" in Gartner's Hype Cycle in 2017 - i.e., the transition to a technology that becomes established and leads to usable applications. The Metaverse itself makes it to the level of an "Innovation Trigger" in the 2022 Hype Cycle. High expectations for technical possibilities that have yet to mature.

If you leave aside the entire aspect of playful applications - and this will certainly be considerable in itself from an economic point of view - you can already guess today what will be possible in professionally oriented applications. One of the most important aspects is that the latest headsets make communication among users extremely intuitive. Anyone who has ever shared a public space in the metaverse knows how surreal but at the same time real contact with strangers can feel.

Is Metas Metaverse just a virtual 3D space?

No, much more. The basis of the Metaverse is a unifying platform. On this, different basics such as the avatar or payment systems can be used in the same way across the most diverse VR applications. On the one hand, this helps to create a uniform UX (user experience/user experience), and on the other hand, it simplifies the development work for providers. When SDKs (software development kits) are available for a wide variety of functions, they no longer need to be developed from scratch for new applications.

As a software vendor, I thus "only" have to worry about the essentials. Let's say I'm building a store where avatars meet to do shopping together. I design the visual form of my store and take care of the user interface. I also integrate the sources for the articles and create the checkout area. What I don't have to worry about is how the avatars are displayed in the store and how they communicate with each other. I also don't need to worry about the payment system, because it is already part of the platform.

This can be compared to the success of the smartphone: manufacturers provide the necessary hardware and software (mobile phone and its operating system), interfaces/SDK (access to sensor technology and frameworks for using functions such as AR or geolocation), and the distribution channel (app store). Developers benefit by having access to a wide range of pre-built technical capabilities. This fuels the development of more and more new applications and is at the same time interesting for the system manufacturers, since they earn money from the sale of the devices - and receive commission via the sale of the apps.

Is Metas Metaverse better than the other metaverses?

Depends a lot on your point of view: For gaming enthusiasts, Metas Metaverse might currently feel like a strong step backwards visually. However, the reduction to the graphical quality does not do justice to the approach of Metas Metaverse. For the professional application area - respectively the application area from which a real benefit arises - things look significantly different: While other Metaversum applications focus on their own world, Meta creates an entire ecosystem in which functions can be used across applications. As a user, I no longer just move between different spaces, but rather between (work) areas with very specific functions.

This has the advantage that entire parts of real work and leisure life can be shifted into the VR realm: From the virtual marketing meeting directly into the workroom where the latest product design models are worked on with the professionals from the development department - in order to work out a round of virtual workout with the colleague after work.

So Meta has not created anything new. The difference is that different freelance developers now have the opportunity to implement their ideas in independent products on a standardized platform. These in turn are integrated into the overall system and thus create an extended benefit for the user.

However, the overall product is still in its infancy. This is demonstrated by facts such as the fact that one of the core applications has not yet been rolled out across Europe: Meta Horizon Worlds has only been made available - as of fall 2022 - in France and Spain. Nevertheless, Meta's key to the Metaverse are the Meta Quest VR headsets. These dominate the market of corresponding products with well over a third share. Despite media reports about extensive layoffs and a more negative outlook for the future, it would be very surprising if Meta leaves this segment.

A look into the future of virtual reality: What is going on besides the existing metaverses?

Among social media platforms, Meta is not the only one with ambitions: Bytedance - the parent company of TikTok is also working on its Metaverse. However, it is still completely unclear what this will look like - and whether it will be coupled with its own VR hardware.

Apple has also been the subject of various rumors in recent months. Until a few months ago, there was mainly information about an AR headset, but recently there is more information about the development of a VR headset. Apple is not a first mover in either of these "realities". The company usually waits until the market starts to develop before coming up with a convincing and mature solution. So it will be interesting to see what can be expected from them. The only thing that is certain is that it is a strongly user-centric approach that fits into Apple's ecosystem between iOS and MacOS. It remains to be seen whether there is "room" for a Metaverse of its own.

Either way, it can be said that the development toward a virtualized Web3 can and probably will bring groundbreaking innovations. Starting with school material that can be taught up close in VR. To training applications, as they are already being used today. To virtual collaboration that makes people completely independent of where they are, yet still takes place in a shared space. Or to the online shopping experience, where items can be perceived in their real size. VR impresses the senses. Together with a platform that brings people together, a whole new form of social togetherness can emerge. Decoupled and yet very close to our fellow human beings.

Interested in bringing your business to the metaverse?

AWE Schaffhausen is a Swiss design and communication agency focusing on B2B and industrial topics. Our specialty is the combination of modern 3D technologies with integrated communication. The brands of our clients are thus not only consistently managed on the classic channels - but also effectively staged virtually.

We look forward to getting in touch with you. Regardless of whether you just want to exchange ideas about VR or AR - or whether you want to talk with us about an upcoming project.

3D for visualizations, augmented and virtual reality
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