Everybody into the Metaverse! Virtual reality beckons big tech

The metaverse, one of the most buzzy terms of the tech industry, could be many things. It could be a virtual world where imagination is the only limit. Or it could be a less fantastical place for holding business meetings without leaving home.

For the tech titans getting behind this big idea, the metaverse could be something more tangible: the next great way to make piles of money.

After 15 years of riding a boom in mobile computing that has turned tech’s biggest companies into giants worth trillions of dollars, the power brokers of the industry believe that controlling the doors into the metaverse and virtual reality could be the centerpiece of a new business, like smartphones and apps or personal computers and web browsers in the 1990s.

Fifteen years is a long time for the industry to wait for a new tech trend to come along. Ideas that many hoped would take central stage by now, like advanced artificial intelligence and quantum computing, are taking longer than some had anticipated. And the technology behind cryptocurrencies and newer ideas like decentralized computing appears promising — but its mainstream appeal is still unclear.

So tech companies are lining up to sell the devices that let consumers into this virtual world and control their experiences once they are inside it. Suddenly, building new things for the metaverse is offering the kind of fresh appeal that comes along only every so often in any industry.

Mark Zuckerberg is so excited about the metaverse that he recently made the attention-grabbing decision to change his company’s name from Facebook to Meta. Google has been working on metaverse-related technology for years. Apple, arguably the biggest winner of the mobile boom, has its own devices in the works. Microsoft is putting a corporate spin on the metaverse, offering a headset to businesses and government agencies.

“Most companies now see that the metaverse is around the corner,” said Matthew Ball, a venture capitalist and an essayist who has written extensively about this concept and the hype around it. “The narrative is a little ahead of the reality of these technologies, but this is a response to the enormity of the opportunity.”

One research firm estimates that the market for metaverse technologies — including games, virtual reality headsets, and other emerging gadgets and online services — topped $49 billion in 2020 and will grow by more than 40% each year.

“This is the evolution of the internet,” said Alex Kipman, who has spent more than a decade shepherding this kind of technology at Microsoft. “If you are a company like Microsoft, you want to participate.”

Focusing attention on the metaverse also allows companies like Facebook to focus on something other than their problems with content moderation, misinformation and regulators accusing them of monopolistic practices. But it could also lead to new scrutiny of old issues like privacy and managing who does what to whom in a virtual world.

The metaverse is not a new idea. Science fiction writer Neal Stephenson coined the term in 1992, and the concept is commonplace among video game companies. For decades, massively multiplayer online games have served as digital worlds where people can meet, chat and do business. Some, like Second Life, an online fad more than a decade ago, were designed as purely social spaces.

In 2014, in a deal valued at more than $2 billion, Facebook acquired Oculus, a startup that made virtual reality headsets — goggles that trick your brain into thinking you are inside a digital landscape. Zuckerberg began describing virtual reality as the next big computing platform, though exactly when that would happen was hard to predict.

Zuckerberg says the metaverse will pervade daily life in ways games do not, offering new avenues for buying goods and services, communicating with friends and family and collaborating with colleagues. But at the moment, Meta’s headsets are cumbersome. Sometimes, they make people sick. They completely cover the eyes, separating people from the world around them.

Apple, a company known for building enormously popular, consumer-friendly devices, is among the many companies working to improve these headsets, a person familiar with the project said. But there are physical limitations holding the technology back.

Apple’s prototype, which resembles ski goggles, requires separate hardware that connects to the headset and must be worn elsewhere on the body, the person said. Apple declined to comment.

Ultimately, many experts argue, Zuckerberg’s vision will be realized only through lightweight eyeglasses that can layer digital images onto what you see in the real world — often called “augmented reality.”

As people walk down the street, they could check the latest sports scores from a digital display that seems to float in front of them. They could sit down for a meeting with people who are right next to them — and others who are not.

Google is among those developing this kind of eyewear. Years after introducing Google Glass — smart glasses that faced enormous backlash over their geeky vibe and casual approach to personal privacy — the company is nurturing a new project.

Last year, Google acquired a startup called North, which had purchased many of the patents behind a smart-glasses project that originated at computer chip giant Intel. The glasses could project digital images directly into the eyes of the people who wore them, and though they were heavier than ordinary glasses, they were reasonably comfortable, according to early testers. Google declined to comment.

But the mainstream appeal of what tech companies are describing is still an open question. Virtual reality that completely covers the eyes “is something you will use for certain tasks — and the experience might be amazing — but it is not something for the general public,” said Nikhil Balram, who helped oversee the development of virtual and augmented reality hardware at Google until November last year.

Intel’s augmented reality project produced a prototype, Vaunt, which was tested with consumers. The leader of the project, Jerry Bautista, said in a recent interview that these glasses showed enormous promise not just as a personal technology that people wanted to use but as a new kind of computing platform that could provide new sources of revenue.

“We were giving away the hardware but making money on the data,” he said. “For every dollar of hardware, we were making three dollars on software and data sales.”

This is why companies like Apple, Google, Microsoft and Meta are exploring similar technologies. For some, they might be a way of selling software and services. For others, they might be a way of selling ads, Bautista said.

But experts say perfecting this technology could take a decade — if not more. Some augmented reality glasses are as small and light as ordinary eyewear, but they do not yet offer the computing power needed to generate the convincing but unobtrusive images that everyday use would require.

“It sometimes feels like ‘10 years’ is code for ‘I have no idea,’” said Balram, who is developing augmented reality glasses at a company called EyeWay Vision after leaving Google.

In 2018, Intel shut down the Vaunt project, before selling many of its patents to North, the startup acquired by Google. Ultimately, Bautista said, the company felt it was just too difficult to answer the many questions surrounding the technology.

Because of privacy regulations in Europe and other parts of the world, he said, the project could end up harming the bottom line more than it helped. The company estimated that 3% of its yearly revenues could be at risk, he said.

Now, many of the world’s most powerful tech companies are facing the same questions.

“We can build amazing things,” Bautista said. “The hardware is not the hard part. The business models are not the hard part. Finding ways these devices can be used is not the hard part. The hard part is: What happens if the data leaks out?”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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