Techno-visionaries and speculative fiction authors have long entertained the notion of a fully virtualized world—one where players can game in a realistic 3D space, hang out in virtual social spots, or even hold church services for massive congregations piping in from all across the world.
In 1992, the author of several mind-bending sci-fi novels, Neal Stephenson, gave this concept a name: Metaverse. Companies like Valve, Oculus, and now Facebook (rebranded as Meta) have chased this dream with mixed success, and in the latter’s case, some controversy.
One of the limiting factors of virtual reality’s (VR) success has been its technological maturity; however, with recent development of 5G and the metaverse, VR seems to be following a similar path as the iPhone.
While it wasn’t the first of its kind, Apple’s flagship smartphone offered an attractive and overall useful package to consumers, making it a success, especially in its second generation with the support of the 3G cellular network. The drive toward mobile data usage and the technologies deployed by major U.S. telecommunications companies pushed smartphones into ubiquity.
Similarly, recent telecommunications technologies seem to be pushing virtual reality into rising popularity. With 5G hitting the airwaves, brand new bandwidth is opening up, leaving the telecommunications industry wondering what the next app that will take advantage of this new capacity is. Their answer is the metaverse.
Verizon foresees a future where virtual reality and augmented reality (AR) are as commonplace as smartphones are now, enabled by a massive increase in data transfers from a nationwide 5G network.
As they describe it, metaverse will transcend beyond gaming and open up new possibilities, such as allowing shoe shoppers to use AR to try on a pair of virtual sneakers or cosmetics before buying the real thing.
The trick is, they don’t just want to deliver the experience; they want to sell the experience, too. As such, Verizon is putting real money behind this, launching metaverse experiences such as a fully virtualized Super Bowl.
And they aren’t alone. China Mobile kicked off its Mobile Cloud VR last year, which is a virtual socialization and shopping app supported by 5G. In addition, SK Telecom recently launched its own metaverse platform.
These companies saw the profits Apple and Google swept by leveraging 3G and 4G advancements, and they seek to get ahead of everyone else by planting their flags in the VR/AR space with their own apps.
How to Experience the Metaverse
High-quality virtual reality and augmented reality experiences can be had right now, but they come with significant limitations. An Oculus Quest 2 is a powerful device that costs less than what people pay for cell phones every year, but all that hardware is packed into an awkward, weighty package that can cause discomfort during prolonged play sessions.
The ill-fated Google Glass promised to bring maps, your calendar, the weather, and a host of other augmented reality services right before your eyes wherever you go. Despite an interesting premise, the product never found its footing, though Google hasn’t given up on it yet.
The right formfactor to experience a metaverse has yet to emerge, it seems.
What’s the Real Vision Here?
Nevertheless, 5G providers like SK Telecom remain optimistic. The company’s vice president Cho Ik-hwan has even commented that the metaverse will become their core business platform as they develop first-party applications meant to occupy what they see as a wide-open space.
“We want to create a new kind of economic system,” said Ik-hwan. “A very giant, very virtual economic system.”
It’s unclear how SK Telecom will achieve that goal. At present, the company and others like it are investing in the development of VR/AR smartphone apps, but a cell phone with a 6-inch display screen doesn’t seem like an attractive formfactor to experience a transcendent metaverse adventure.
Further, the concept of a metaverse is still vague and formative, and even a $10 billion investment from Facebook has yet to give it focus or profit.
Similarly, Verizon’s approach seems unfocused, even self-contradictory. The company promises their metaverse experience will be without limits in a sentence immediately following a statement that you will “be required to abide by rules and regulations just like you would in the real world.”
That type of thinking exposes the real challenge telecommunications faces on this frontier. In this endeavor, they are stepping well outside their existing business models of steadily building infrastructure and entering into a field that demands artistic creativity and dynamism.
That field is more compatible with the “move fast and break things” mentality of Silicon Valley, and even Facebook is fighting an uphill battle.