The Metaverse: where is telecom’s place within “the next Internet”?

The Metaverse: where is telecom’s place within “the next Internet”?
It sounds like it’s been ripped from the pages of science fiction – and really, it has – but the Metaverse is being lauded by some as the next phase of communications, offering enhanced online experiences in a shared virtual environment. What role will telco firms play in this possible future?

Just as the telegraph gave way to the telephone, the next networked communications platform will be the Metaverse, a successor to today’s Internet, with virtual and augmented environments rather than webpages, according to today’s futurists and tech soothsayers.

If it sounds like something out of science fiction, that’s because, conceptually, it is – the term was ripped from the pages of Snow Crash, the 1992 dystopian cyberpunk novel by Neal Stephenson.

The Metaverse is a 3D virtual space, like the Internet, where individuals, as their avatars, interact with other users in mixed virtual and physical environments, as they would in a video game; a fashion evocative of fellow sci-fi author William Gibson’s description of cyberspace in his 1984 novel, Neuromancer – a “consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions.”

Never shy about taking their cues from literature, many of the scions of Silicon Valley see it as the future of the Internet.

Apple and Google are investing heavily in virtual experiences and the tech to deliver it. Meanwhile, Facebook is going all in on the Metaverse, with Mark Zuckerberg expressing his desire to build and expand Facebook’s social networking platform in virtual reality.

In the meantime, the world of Games as a Service is providing one of the earliest looks at how a fully-fledged Metaverse may work, as games developers seek to integrate social and entertainment features in their products, accessed via players’ in-game avatars à la Snow Crash.

Tim Sweeney, CEO of Epic Games, aims to build a Metaverse within their flagship title, Fortnite, encouraging users to spend further time in the game through enhanced social options, virtual concerts, film festivals and even a virtual Super Bowl replacement with the Verizon 5G Stadium.

For telcos, the Metaverse could well be the best use case for 5G, providing the speed and capacity for VR and AR applications that more primitive networks may struggle with. The experience could soon host activities such as online shopping, with augmented reality creating virtual environments.

I say soon, because the Metaverse as envisioned by Stephenson may still be some way off, with current tech not yet able to generate flashy virtual experiences indistinguishable from the real thing.

Nevertheless, some companies are already employing 5G and AR to enhance the customer experience; Facebook has debuted Horizon Workrooms, a social network VR experience powered by its Oculus headsets for users to work and socialise together via cartoony avatars, however it received a less-than-stellar reaction to the launch last week.

Not to be outdone, NVIDIA is building its own Metaverse, dubbed the Omniverse, allowing artists and creatives to work and create collaboratively in a shared virtual environment.

Meanwhile, Nissan and NTT Docomo are creating virtual dashboards with Nissan’s Invisible-to-Visible (I2V) system, overlaying car windscreens with information from the car’s onboard sensors and leveraging the cloud to carry out the more strenuous processing.

However, as with all emerging tech platforms, critics are fretting about how the Metaverse may just become the latest theatre for the usual trappings of online life, such as digital manipulation, excessive surveillance and data harvesting.

Though Stephenson previously worked for the company now known as Blue Origin, which just last month launched owner Jeff Bezos to the edge of space, he admits that he was just “making shit up” when he created the Metaverse.

Perhaps our tech overlords should take a second look at their favourite sci-fi books before importing their wildest ideas into the real world – lest we forget that, in Snow Crash, the purpose of the Metaverse was for users to escape rampant economic inequality and the dominance of megacorporations in the real world.

Lucky for us, we don’t live in that nightmarish dystopian future – for now!