The Metaverse – fact or fiction?
Once the preserve of thought experiments in philosophy textbooks and blockbuster dystopias like The Matrix and Ready Player One, the concept of a metaverse – a virtual world in which we experience the life of our digital twin – may soon be a reality for UK businesses and consumers.
While it is too soon to tell what widespread adoption or commercial success will look like, the interest in a more immersive and interactive online experience is undeniable. Crunchbase reported $3.9bn of venture capital investment in AR/VR start-ups last year, and market research firm IDC estimates AR/VR headset shipments increased 92% year-on-year in 2021. Meanwhile, fashion industry giants like Dolce & Gabbana and Estée Lauder were recently contributors to the first ever Metaverse Fashion Week; global banking leaders HSBC and JPMorgan Chase have invested in plots of virtual land on DLT-based metaverse platforms, and the world’s largest social network rebranded in 2021 to Meta with a mission to “bring the metaverse to life”. Also, according to MetaMetric Solutions, virtual land sales on the four major metaverse platforms hit $500m in 2021 and are expected to top $1bn this year.
Some see the future of the internet as an all-encompassing metaverse, an immersive evolution of the world wide web, while others are considering the application of the metaverse to industry verticals like entertainment and manufacturing. While discussion is likely to continue throughout this year as to what the metaverse is, and perhaps is not, what is clear is that the metaverse will be built on a foundation of many technologies, including communications networks and data infrastructure, high-performance computing, cloud, and edge computing. It will also be enabled by many of the emerging and transformative technologies being developed by techUK members, including distributed ledgers, artificial intelligence, augmented and virtual reality, and eventually quantum.
As it develops, the conversation about the future of the metaverse will not just involve implications for people, society and the economy, but also what this could mean for the tech sector itself. For example, the metaverse has the potential to be a powerful new platform for digital products and services, driving tech sector growth and digital transformation across the economy. It is too soon to tell how significant this shift to the virtual might be, but augmented and virtual reality, haptic technology, and a more immersive and personalised online experience could drive consumer demand in these new digital products and services.
The pandemic showed us the huge potential of technology to facilitate a more distributed virtual workplace and help us keep in touch with friends and family, but we also saw the limits of our current digital tools and how meaningful human contact in settings like schools and social care remain rooted in the physical. While this is unlikely to change entirely, it is possible the metaverse will bring new ways of living and working in a range of sectors – from manufacturing, to retail, to entertainment.
Finding those situations or experiences that are appropriate and fit for the metaverse will therefore be key. Not every interaction will work in the metaverse, but new experiences and opportunities will be possible because of it.
Of course, a more complex and connected virtual world, particularly one fed by IoT data from homes, factories, sports stadiums, and even our own bodies, will need to be built around the principles of interoperability, data portability, responsible and ethical innovation and cyber security. The good news is that concepts like security, privacy and increasingly ethics by design are being built into the core of emerging technologies as they are being developed, rather than bolted on later, which is vital given the constantly evolving online threat environment businesses and consumers are facing.
The ongoing fusion of our digital and physical spaces – through virtual worlds and the parallel development of augmented reality – will also increase the salience of issues like cybersecurity, privacy, digital ethics, data rights and online harms, and the industry will need to be mindful of these concerns and identify and address key questions and issues of concern as they arise as the metaverse moves towards becoming more fact than fiction.
If you want to learn more about what the metaverse could mean for the UK, please register for our upcoming event: Future Visions: Metaverse
In this webinar, the first in techUK’s new Future Visions series, we will convene technology leaders dedicated to the development of the metaverse to answer the burning questions about this new, complex, and exciting opportunity.