The Burgeoning Reality Continuum
A future-backward perspective by Sylvia Gallusser, Global Futurist @Silicon Humanism, Metaverse Business Strategist @Accenture
When I look back to the year 2023, I can think of a distinctive emerging trend that really caught my attention.
Disclaimer — I might be biased here as my focus is on technology and I am both a futurist and a technology strategist.
I would say that one of the biggest evolutions brought by the early 2020s is what we called “the metaverse” and more generally Extended Reality and a new generation of Internet powered by artificial intelligence, 5G/6G, edge computing, as well as blockchain and web3 technologies.
By the early 2020s, the word “metaverse” had become sort of a buzz word, as speculative fiction, mostly dystopic had come up with this idea of a virtual world, in which individuals could adopt new identities and be whoever they want to be, play all day long in VR headsets, earn virtual goods in gravity-defying environments, all this on a background of climate crisis and social chaos leading people to search for escape in the virtual.
There had been many early experimentations with 3D rendering, virtual reality, digital twins, and the rise of virtual worlds.
1. Thomas Furness who was known as the grandfather of VR had developed advanced cockpits for fighter aircraft while commissioned in the Air Force in the 70s and 80s. He was also a founder of the Virtual World Society and candidly dreamt that this technology would one day solve our deepest societal problems.
2. NASA had already pioneered the use of digital twin technology during its space exploration missions of the 1960s. NASA had notably developed a digital twin to assess and simulate conditions on board Apollo 13.
3. The first consumer virtual world Second Life had been launched in 2003 and still counted 70 million registered accounts early 2023.
The 2020s renaissance
But three factors accelerated the development of a more mature form of metaverse in the mid-2020s and brought us a new version of the internet.
1. The pandemic had been a catalyst, bringing most activities that we used to conduct in real life to the virtual realm. In 2020, as billions of people retreated to their homes under lockdown and shelter-in-place policies, they had no choice but work from home, learn from home, shop and consume from home, socialize from home, entertain and leisure from their living rooms, consult physicians and therapists from their desktop, love each other from a distance, and depart online. Naturally, distant technology usage (such as web conferencing systems, streaming services and virtual reality applications) exploded over that time. But on top of technology, those times were also very creative times, where people would return to hobbies, felt the need to express themselves, and produced lots of artwork and virtual applications.
2. The gaming industry had been an immense driver and the phenomenon had been also amplified with the pandemic — 2 billion users joined Roblox over the pandemic years. (In April 2021, Roblox hit a milestone of 202 million monthly active users). Around the same time, Fortnite counted 400 million registered players. But most importantly, these players were not passive, many of them were actively creating digital assets, avatars, accessories, marking the beginning of the creator economy. This trend was very quickly leveraged by fashion brands who started launching activations on those gaming platforms and address new communities in addition to their traditional audiences.
3. The third decisive element was the strategy of one major tech player which had enormous consequences. Facebook, a well-known social media company with 3 billion monthly active users (at a time where the world population reached 8 billion), had decided to invest heavily in the metaverse. After acquiring Oculus — a startup leading in immersive virtual reality technology — for $2 billion, the company launched its own metaverse platform and changed its name to Meta. The move was controversial, it brought a lot of confusion around the naming of the metaverse — other players in the field (Snap, Google, Apple, Ubisoft) would not openly call their own initiatives metaverse even though they dealt with bringing extended reality experiences to their audience. Moreover, the amount of the investment led to an impressive debt and a series of layoffs, that other players in the industry engaged in as well.
The interesting part of the story is that despite such backlash, the renaming of the tech giant to Meta triggered a wave of investment in the metaverse from myriads of companies: collections of NFTs were minted and dropped, XR applications were launched, in-game activations triggered increased brand awareness. There was an atmosphere of FOMO (fear of missing out) — everyone wanted to be part of the adventure and jumped on the bandwagon.
Another major metaverse growth factor was the role played by companies from adjacent industries. The metaverse was not just pushed by the tech and gaming industry. Players from consumer goods, fashion, entertainment, music, travel, beverages, the quick service restaurant industry, developed not only brand activations in the metaverse but their own platform. It was a decisive moment when Nike purchased RTFKT, created a metaverse division, and launched its .Swoosh platform which contributed to power the creator economy. From there it made sense that each and every company, institution, community could become a major metaverse builder.
And it was one of the most exciting aspects of those times. It was a very creative time, marketing departments felt new energy, artists released their creativity, individuals felt like they belong and were part of something bigger. Hopes in more diversity and equality were carried out through those new technologies.
Use cases as major growth factor
Nonetheless, beyond the hype, it took a while for purposeful use cases to develop. The metaverse was bringing a lot of potential, but it required strong strategic thinking for companies to really embrace what such new technology could bring in terms of value for the customer and the business.
The metaverse turned out to be much more than just another marketing tool. It could enhance the employee experience, especially learning, onboarding, worker-assistance, coaching. In the health industry, it could support patients with distant treatment, check-up, follow-up, physical therapy, counseling, prevention, and awareness. Healthcare providers were able to create more authentic and immersive relationships. In the education system, teachers reached out to children in more memorable ways, though it took a while for public schools to be adequately equipped.
In the corporate world, the metaverse proved to be a fantastic tool to improve enterprise processes, factory operations, supply chains. We could translate a fast-food restaurant’s drive-in operations, an electric car charging station, hospital patient management or airport traffic into a digital twin to improve operations and anticipate maintenance. That was truly fascinating, and I was exceptionally lucky to be part of such projects at Accenture by then.
Towards metaverse 2.0
Today it makes sense that we connect in multimodal-multisensory ways, but before this first version of the metaverse, the internet was still mostly flat, based on text, image, and video.
1. The first internet in the 1990s had been based on data (gathering and organizing information around search).
2. The second generation of the internet had focused on people with the rise of social networks from 2003–2005 on.
3. The third generation included objects and offered more interactivity with IoT (internet of things).
4. Following that, the metaverse was about to bring an internet of places (with geospatial computing, 3D representation, replicas of the world and augmentation with overlayed content) as well as an internet of ownership (brought by web3, decentralized blockchain-based protocols and technology, a tokenization of the transactions, and creator platforms).
5. And now in the 2030s, we advance one step further with an internet of senses, that goes beyond sight, vision, and sound, to include haptics, aromas, neurofeedback. Most materials have become connected and have flexible form factors. Multisensory experiences are part of our daily routine. Reality and Virtual have blended into a large continuum of experiences. After a massive backlash of completely locked-in VR experiences, the convergence of augmented reality (from our phone) and virtual reality (those 3D immersive worlds that could be accessed from VR headsets) has brought an integrated spectrum of reality, or Reality+ as the philosopher David Chalmer (and Matrix) had anticipated.
To my mind, what was particularly enthralling is that this new version of the internet, the metaverse and its multi-modal-multisensory ultimate version, really came to life with use cases, with concrete applications and the desire to solve real-life issues — when the metaverse stopped being the creation of a small elite to be adopted by a larger audience all over the world.
After all, a pandemic, gaming, and a big player’s renaming were not enough to make a change. The true drivers were the invention of meaningful use cases and the participation of all to this immense and global effort. I really remember the early 2020s as years of immense human suffering, a giant and scary unknown, disruptive technological advancement, and fantastic creative energy stemming from all this incredible human resilience.
You can read the full article in the IMCI Magazine, January-February 2023 issue – https://www.flipsnack.com/imcimagazine/imci-magazine-jan-feb-2023.html