Saturday, 4 March 2023

Inside the metaverse hype train at MWC 2023

by Berkeley Lovelace

Inside the metaverse hype train at MWC 2023

Metaverse hype was hanging like a multicolored fog over the Mobile World Congress (MWC) connectivity trade show in Barcelona this week.

Conference organizer, the GSMA’s, program pitched attendees into a smorgasbord of metaverse-themed discussions — most of which seemed designed to generate maximum FOMO, as a parade of tech evangelists took to the stage in Spain, armed with a new generation of acronyms and luridly colored slide-decks, urging the audience not to sweat the detail of whatever this metaverse thing is (or isn’t). And just focus on monetizing it before someone else does.

Europe’s carriers are fully onboard the technicolor hype machine. At MWC they sought to train the show’s global spotlight onto the role of network infrastructure — arguing their pipes-cum-platforms will be essential connective tissue for all this sexy virtual world building, connecting “everything, everywhere”, as one overly-ambitious show floor slogan put it — and using that logic as a springboard to press EU lawmakers for a radical rethink of how connectivity is funded in the here and now.

The CEOs of Orange, Telefonica and Deutsche Telekom were among those taking to MWC’s keynote stage to sound off about the hard economic realities of running such critical infrastructure. The returns vs investment situation is becoming unsustainable, they warned. Especially if policymakers want them to deliver a truly immersive future and make this metaverse thing happen. Subsidize our network upgrades or the connectivity party is over, was the thinly veiled message to EU lawmakers.

The paradigm shift carriers are looking for is a new business reality under which they get to charge tech giants for piping data to popular apps in addition to billing consumers for their Internet access. They aren’t calling this double dipping — or even a Big Tech tax. Their lobbying brands the ask a “fair share” for building connectivity’s 3D future.

Telcos’ frustration at the relatively greater success of app makers, when it comes to monetizing highly scalable software running atop their fixed infrastructure, is nothing new of course. Nor is it the first time European carriers have used the MWC stage to try to lobby the EU for more ‘support’. But metaverse hype creates a fresh opportunity to bring out their begging bowl, dressed up in a new brand of distracting dazzle.

It’s too soon to say what will flow from an exploratory EU consultation on future network funding which was launched on the eve of MWC. But the current Commission does appear to have drunk some of the carriers’ Kool Aid. And the EU’s internal market commissioner, Thierry Breton, dropped into the conference in person — taking a turn on the stage himself, where he hyped a vision of “Web 4.0” as “seamless interconnectivity” powering “virtual twins” and “the copy of everything” — before making some encouraging noises about the case for rethinking operator business models — so this is, for sure, an area to watch…

But what is the metaverse anyway? Something immersive, which blends the physical and virtual, was about as close to a plausible-sounding definition TechCrunch heard across three days of connectivity industry chatter this week. However there was no shortage of takes on what it is (or isn’t) — and we also heard claims to the contrary; for example that immersion isn’t a necessary component at all. Consensus there was none.

Predictions of how many trillions the metaverse opportunity could be worth by 2030 also ranged wildly — from $1.7tr (PwC) to $5tr (McKinsey) to $8tr (Morgan Stanley), according to one over-enthusiastic speaker’s slides. However he caveated these guestimates by conceding they’re pegged to a flavor of metaverse that includes NFTs and Web 3… So not actually an immersive 3D future at all then?

With such shape-shifting definitions on show, splashy claims of “tremendous opportunity” felt more than a little unreal. And as TechCrunch hiked across vast exhibition halls, notably less populated than in pre-pandemic years, the metaverse concept seemed to be both everywhere and nowhere; both a major theme of the conference organizers’ programmed discussions and yet elusive at the show itself — at best, a fuzzily drawn theoretical future. One which, outside the pages of science-fiction, still seems largely out of focus — hovering somewhere out there, over the horizon. Maybe.

Enter the metaverse?

Hold that thought! A Day 3 MWC keynote session — emblazed with a call-to-action title: ‘Enter the metaverse’ — was teed-up by a moderator in full hype mode. She kicked off by asking the audience if they’d already been in the metaverse. And a solid smattering of hands shot up immediately. Yet her hot take on this (frankly confusing) display was to express disappointment that she couldn’t see lots more affirmatives. Which was discombobulating to say the least. As if we’d somehow wandered into an alternative reality.

The next speaker, from a Web 3.0/NFT startup called Dimple — a self-styled “interactive metaverse platform” with the goal of bringing “Web 3.0 metaverse and digital goods/NFT projects to the mainstream”, one QR-code bearing physical-to-digital teddy bear at a time (don’t ask) — went on to hype the size of the market opportunity by suggesting that looking at AI generated virtual influencers on YouTube or Instagram was somehow a metaverse experience… So, er, confusion seems to be the tech’s strongest certainty at this point.

“We have a definition of the metaverse that it’s ‘the merge’ of the digital with the physical,” said Nokia’s Leslie Shannon, head of trend and innovation scouting for the telecoms kit maker, taking a stab at defining terms on another of the many metaverse panels peppering the MWC23 agenda. “That’s fundamentally it. There’s a lot more you can put in there — I would add real-time,” she expanded before plugging her book (on, you guessed it, the metaverse).

Shannon went on to argue that the metaverse — or metaverses, plural — is not about immersion; rather she suggested the crux is “real-time presence”.

“It’s linking you in your physical reality with information or a person or a place that is physically somewhere else and bringing that to you in your physical reality but not taking you away from that physical reality,” she offered, before coming to a self-induced hard stop (presumably to avoid things getting too confusing again) — but not before sounding a sceptical note over Web 3.0 evangelists trying to shoehorn their stuff into the metaverse. (“There’s some metaverse iterations out there that are kind of [fad or fraud],” she warned. “Not all metaverses are equal.”)

Also speaking on this (McKinsey-sponsored) panel — which, per its moderator, posed the “provocative” question of whether the metaverse is ‘the future, fad or fraud’ — was VR headset maker HTC’s Alvin Wang Graylin, the hardware firm’s China president and global VP of corporate devices.

He offered a plainer take on what metaverse is — dubbing it “just the 3D version of the Internet”; something he suggested researchers and technologists have been incrementally inching toward the past 30 or 40 years. So just an evolution of the connectivity we already have then?

But what does a “3D internet” actually mean for human communication? And wasn’t Second Life basically doing that around two decades ago?

His remarks during the panel didn’t illuminate why more immersive connectivity is going to be especially interesting or transformative. He just argued that Second Life had been too early but now, decades on, with better tech (and content) coming down the pipe, the same sort of 3D world experience would somehow become more compelling.

“Now you have AI happening all around us where you see, you know, amazing kinds of content created, amazing kinds of interactions,” he offered. “Having hand-tracking, eye-tracking, full body tracking. Without AI, that’s not possible, right. So all of these things are maturing at the same time — so that now you can actually have a satisfactory experience [inside virtual worlds]. That’s something that wasn’t possible 20 years ago.”

Nokia’s Shannon had a more direct go at trying to identify a problem for the metaverse to fix — by suggesting putting screens on people’s faces could save us from having to stare at other types of screens, as we’re doing now, here on the plain old 2D Internet.

“If we want to interface with a computer we have to stare at a screen. And [have] our gaze dead-ending in a screen. That’s the problem you’re talking about right there. And so the metaphor is by taking the screen away, and especially the head mounted devices, that reconnects our gaze with the physical world and the people in it,” she suggested. “I think the metaverse is actually going to solve the kind of unspoken screen problem that we have right now.”

But if we’re talking about adding yet more technology into the already cluttered personal mobile and smart device computing mix — stuff that explicitly needs to sit on the face to work (in the case of AR/VR googles) — a more realistic scenario is surely that we’ll end up with even more distraction and abstraction of the human gaze, not less. However no one on this evangelical panel wanted to talk about information overload and the metaverse.

A different set of speakers, programmed deep in the afternoon of Day 3, had been given a 45 minute slot on the keynote stage to pay lip-service to an emerging spectrum of metaverse-linked concerns — from privacy and information overload; to disinformation/manipulation and new forms of tech addiction; to questions of equity and inclusion atop an already yawning digital divide; to the increasing challenge around explainability and transparency of AI-driven technologies; to the crippling environmental costs attached to energy requirements associated with all this immersive world-building, to name a few of the immediately obvious ones.

This panel was entitled ‘Ethical approaches for immersive realities’ — a name that studiously avoids the M word (presumably as the GSMA didn’t want to derail its own hype train) — and the four speakers (plus talkative moderator) barely had time to make introductory remarks before their allotted stage time was up.

“Sometimes I think we’re discussing problems that we don’t have without solving the problems that we have,” said Ricardo Baeza-Yates, a professor at the Institute for Experiential Artificial Intelligence of Northeastern University, who sounded world-weary and exceedingly pessimistic about the accelerating direction of tech industry travel. He went on to warn that people must have the right not to participate in these highly immersive commercial spaces being designed to suck them in.

“Today, it’s very hard to have the right to the unconnected — to talk to a person, to do something, to be able to complain without using Twitter, or to be able to ask something without using WhatsApp,” he pointed out. “You see that every day. So if you don’t have the right to be outside whatever some person wants to invent that’s a problem because it’s not a consensus between all the people to do that. So I think that sometimes we’re being forced by technology. And ethics is always [lagging] behind.”

“I think we are moving too much to perception,” he also warned. “We don’t understand reality… How many people will become addicted and then we’ll have another kind of problem — of mental health. Because there’s already people addicted to these things. There’s many people who are really addicted to gaming — and this [immersive metaverse] is one step forward.”

“The best case scenario is a metaverse that is respectful to the analogue,” suggested another of the panellists, Carissa Veliz, an associate professor at Hertford College University of Oxford, also speaking up for the richness of living in the real world. “There’s so much richness in the physicality of life, in how we feel when we see someone in person, when you embrace someone, when you go to a coffee shop and meet with friends.

“Virtual reality can be very rich, and it has a place and it can enrich our lives. But it can never substitute for the physicality of life. So if we neglect the physicality of life — in virtue of the digital — we’re gonna regret it. And by the time we regret, it’s too late. Because the coffee shop has closed, and it cannot be recovered. So the way ahead, is to cherish the analogue as well as a digital.”

“There’s so much a stake,” she added. “Our way of life is at stake. Democracy is at stake. So yes, we have to convince corporations that there is a competitive advantage in being ethical — in having privacy.”

There were not that many people physically sitting in the hall to listen to this panel (albeit, some of the MWC23 keynotes were streamed) — and the audience seemed a bit disengaged from the discussion. But, frankly, it was hard to hear what the speakers were saying (Baeza-Yates had been given a particularly crackly microphone) — let alone start to unpack all the nuanced issues they were raising in the quantum of time allowed.

Conference-goers could also be forgiven for being distracted by thoughts of how to achieve their next coffee ‘pitstop’ — far from any friendly local coffee shops. Tracking down places to get fed and watered at MWC is a very tedious business — involving long walks and queues and paying airport-style prices for airport-quality fare (after which you typically have to hunker down on a corner of bare carpet to eat your expensive plastic salad bowl as all the chairs and tables are already taken). In such hostile physical surroundings, the prospect of being able to teleport into a 3D world and attend a virtual version of the conference almost felt like a disruptive use-case for the metaverse. But, well, that’s probably not the massive selling point the tech industry is dreaming of.

In any case, not attending MWC in person would have meant missing out on experiencing some of the things this year’s exhibitors were touting as metaverse experiences.

Case in point: If you walked a little way over from the hall where HTC’s Wang Graylin had suggested there’s no true metaverse tech to be tapped into yet — and you were willing to queue up for maybe an hour (or just blag your way to the front by claiming to be an influencer), you could take a trip in a VR urban mobility ride parked at SK Telecom’s stand — which was explicitly branded an “AI metaverse” experience.

SK Telecoms urban mobility vehicle AI metaverse experience at MWC 2023

Image credits: Natasha Lomas/TechCrunch

TechCrunch took a very similar VR trip at MWC a full seven years agothe main difference being the earlier VR ride installation was a ground-tethered hot air balloon. (VR + hot air? Yes, really.)

Back then, there was no talk of metaverse; it was all virtual reality hype. (And, well, we know what happened next.) But both these VR rides delivered a very similar experience of scary mock proximity, with the craft seemingly (not actually) soaring alarmingly close to virtual objects that left you clutching on to the physicals for dear life and hankering to be back on terra firma.

Both rides also left a stomach churning sensation that lingered like a bad lunch. So if this is really a taste of the metaverse it’s going to be a tough sell.

But if HTC’s Wang Graylin is on the money, neither of these experiences is really metaverse (yet).

And, well, we tend to agree. Both rides felt more retro than next-gen — harking back to arcade (or fairground) simulator rides from the 1980s. (The ones that paired high octane on-screen motion with jerking locomotion as the faux car you were strapped into jigged atop a cluster of pumping pistons for a thrilling (or sickening) few minutes.)

The updated urban mobility joyride SK Telecom was showing off was immersive enough, sure. We even had to close our eyes a bunch of times to avoid feeling quite so unwell during the visually erratic flight. But, basically, it served up the same rollercoaster-style stomach lurches and drops as the VR hot-air balloon, all the way back in March 2016. Nor was there an obvious improvement in the quality of the content all these several years later. The vista of the high rise harbor city we ‘flew’ around this time looked more myopic than crisply rendered — even mediated through the more modern VR goggles strapped to our faces in 2023. (Screens in 80s’ simulator rides weren’t exactly high def, either of course, but those rides could still give you full-throttle motion sickness.)

At bottom, it’s the same (old) trick. The human brain doesn’t need a lot of stimuli to feel physically unsteady — just sit on a stationary train as another passes slowly by and you can feel like the carriage you’re sitting in is rolling backwards. Certain visual illusions can create a feeling of self-motion (vection), as a result of a large part of your field of vision moving, which may also trigger vestibular illusions (dizziness, vertigo etc) that can leave you with biomechanical illusions (aka, sea legs) once you’re done.

And getting shakily out of SK Telecoms’ mock flying taxi at the end of our brief virtual trip that didn’t really lifted off the show floor we could check off a bit of all three… Tbh, though, it feels like the far bigger trick for the metaverse to pull off would be to deliver a stable, comfortable virtual world experience — one that doesn’t leave the user feeling dog-sick and hankering to get back to the real world.

Bottom line: The idea of spending long stretches of ‘effortless immersion’ in virtual 3D worlds — without nausea, eye strain, headaches or vague and/or unpleasant sensations of discombobulation — still sounds like pure science-fiction to this reporter, more than half a decade after our last unpleasant ride on this hype train.

Far better devices and radically retooled networks — not to mention an infinite supply of amazing content — are going to be needed to get to a more comfortable and/or capable place, metaverse evangelists suggest. None of which are on the horizon as far as we can see. (Unless you’re betting on Apple’s long rumored but much delayed mixed reality headset being a category game-changer — if/when it does eventually land.)

Plus, if you believe Europe’s carriers, the network side of things won’t be ready for lift off unless/until we’re prepared to let telcos generate revenue off of others’ digital content and creativity — with goodness knows what kind of implications for the stuff we get to experience online.

Let’s get phygital, phygital…

All these hard realities haven’t stopped the industry’s metaverse hype train leaving the station, of course. And all four speakers on the ‘future, a fad or a fraud’ panel — which also included reps from telecoms kit maker ZTE; and Tonomus/Neom, a Saudi Arabia-based smart cities builder — duly voted metaverse is “the future” — violently agreeing that some form of ‘phygital’ experience (to use an even less lovely neologism we also saw being bandied about during the week) — is 100% inevitable. Just like the arrival of that oncoming train in the Matrix.

Will humanity leap out of the way of the metaverse hype in the nick of time — or be struck full in the face? We’ll just have to wait and see.

Oddly enough, given the metaverse-heavy programming, Meta — the tech giant formerly known as Facebook before it pivoted to rebrand as “Meta: a metaverse company” — had a very low-key presence at the show. Earlier last month, Kevin Salvadori, its VP of networks, had been listed as a speaker on the ‘future, fad or fraud’ panel. But perhaps he reconsidered when he saw the title — because, on the day, his name went unmentioned and a Meta spokeswoman that we spotted on the show floor was unable to explain why.

A few weeks earlier, the social networking giant had told us it wouldn’t have any spokespeople available to talk about its vision for the metaverse at MWC. (Global affairs VP Nick Clegg was presumably too busy to pop to Barcelona after his recent trip pressing royal flesh in Dubai — a place that’s apparently intent on becoming a top 10 metaverse economy by 2030, whatever that means). So it appeared that the original metaverse cheerleader wouldn’t be showing off its tech in Barcelona.

However we spotted a tiny Meta-branded demo stand tucked away alongside the ministerial program area on an upper walkway above the show floor.

A spokeswomen manning the stand told us the installation had been set up so it could demo its mixed reality product (Quest) to policymakers without them needing to make a detour to see it. Which didn’t exactly sound like a massive vote of confidence in the pull-power of the technology. But she also said Meta had a larger, private demo area at the show — viewable by invite only. (Apparently not intended for press either.) So it’s funny to consider how much of the ‘way-paving’ for future virtual world-building is going on behind closed doors, out of our ear-shot.

Meta's demo stand for Horizon Quest at MWC 2023

Image credits: Natasha Lomas/TechCrunch

How long will it be before some kind of metaverse exists for anyone to hop into? To our eye that’s a bit like asking how long is a piece of string. But HTC’s Wang Graylin stuck out his neck this week and suggested the full Neal Stephenson Snow Crash vision (I mean, assuming humanity actually wants that!) could be as soon as five years away! Or, well, possibly ten.  

“A lot of people think that the metaverse is already here. I just want to re-emphasise we’re just starting to get into that process,” he said. “For the metaverse as it’s intended, as it’s described in something like Snow Crash, we’re probably five to 10 years away… A lot of people say ‘Oh, we’re building the metaverse or we’re building a metaverse’. None of those are really true. If they’re telling you that they probably don’t know what they’re talking about.”

He went on to predict that “most people will migrate to an XR device to do a full immersive experience in this 3D Internet” over this several year/up to a decade-long period — laying out a rose-tinted scenario under which the former smartphone-focused VR headset maker is set for a massive upswing of fortune in the coming years, from VR niche ‘zero’ to mainstream metaverse ‘hero’. Which sure sounds convenient for his employer.

What exactly he was basing this bullish forecast on (besides wishful thinking) wasn’t clear. But he did volunteer the idea that China could be the first country to create a critical mass of momentum which drives the development needed to turn a fictional concept into a real-world reality.

“There’ll be places like China that will try to create a national managed metaverse across multiple enterprises that are running within that region,” he predicted. “Whichever [government] creates a large enough critical mass will be able to teach us a lot in terms of having a multi-100 million or billion user type of environment — will teach us what is the proper way to manage a 3D Internet? And the types of experiences, the type of services that are going to be needed. And the types of equipment that will be preferred, etc. The topic and use-cases that will be most suitable.

“So I think China is actually in a very good position to be one of — or if not the first country — to create a billion person metaverse experience. And I think could actually be very helpful for creating learning about the task to the rest of the world.”

Unfortunately, the panel ran out of time to delve into what a billion person metaverse entirely controlled by the Chinese Community Party might look and feel like for citizens living under the regime’s tight societal controls. (Or indeed for Uyghur Muslims — whose very physical existence China stands accused of trying to wipe out.)

The speakers also didn’t have time to weigh in on what the rest of the world might ‘learn’ from watching the development of a massive state-surveilled metaverse in China — but hopefully the main takeaway from that would be what not to use metaverse technologies for.

Earlier in the session, Nokia’s Shannon had offered her own fuzzy prediction on when something truly worthy of the metaverse label might exist. But she mainly encouraged delegates not to sweat such details — and just lean into making it happen — suggesting that, like the Internet, it’s a case of build it and they will come. All you need to do is believe! (Or “imagine possible”, to borrow another of the show floor slogans we cringed over.)

“Where we are in terms of the metaverse is kind of the 1993 time of the internet,” she said. “We’re at a point where we can see that there’s something here. We’re not really sure what it is — so we really have to, and this sounds kind of silly, we really have to believe. And we really have to build the infrastructure. Because once the infrastructure is in place, the entire end — all the way from the headsets, through the networks, to the data centres to the cloud — when all of that’s in place, that’s when the creatives can come in and show us what this thing is really for.

The GSMA’s annual conference is always big on buzzy talk of ‘accelerating the future’ into humanity’s eyeballs — whatever flavor happens to be in fashion at the time (4G, 5G, ‘intelligent connectivity’, AI etc etc); and usually without really stopping to ask if the claimed next innovation is what most of us want or need (or just another way to try to package and sell more stuff). But the scale of change required to shift the mixed (and at times messy) reality of how humans currently communicate with each other digitally — into some kind of ‘whole body’ real-time networking experience, without that being either horribly gimmicky, violently unpleasant or just a cripplingly expensive form of social gaming — looks truly staggering.

Clearly, a Snow Crash-style scenario isn’t going to arrive overnight — if, indeed, that ever happens. (And it pays to remember that, in the book, the real world has been trashed by corporate interests — giving humans an incentive to plug into a virtual alternative in order to escape a grindingly awful meatspace existence. So the fictional metaverse should really stand as a warning against allowing the hyper-commercialization and transactional capture of public spaces. Except no one in tech seems to have gotten the message.)

But if human communication is really going to be routed down a path of increasingly immersive, pervasive, real-time 3D virtual connectivity, it sets up plenty of hardware and network kit makers to cash in on (at least) building out the infrastructure — giving them a strong commercial case to set the hype train in motion.

Their use-case is simply making bank for decades to come by being paid to install all the high-density networks and devices a world of metaverse(s) demands. So there’s no great mystery underpinning the muscular evangelism on show at MWC. And the sight of all this hype rumbling down the conference tracks offered a strange semblance of post-pandemic normality — recharging the usual tech industry hype cycles. (Setting up for a routine plunge back into the trough of disillusionment a few years hence, we’d wager.) 

It did kind of miss the boat this year, though. So while, in the world outside MWC, a real breakthrough buzz was crackling around generative AI tools like ChatGPT and Stable Diffusion, the conference agenda had obviously been programmed months before this penny dropped — with panels on everything from the industrial metaverse, to metaverse enterprise solutions, to how metaverse/AI/VR will change education and plenty more — vs little we could find that directly addressed the disruption being generated by generative AI right here and now. 

(Yet another metaverse panel TechCrunch didn’t have time to swing by, given the linear inconvenience of moving across a meatspace confab as vast as the MWC’s eight sprawling halls, considered whether mobile network operators should have a chief metaverse officer? We can only suggest they wait a few years before nailing down that hire.)

Generative AI did creep into the metaverse chatter, though. (And we fully expect to see the field filed under the overarching metaverse umbrella soon enough.)

HTC’s Wang Graylin suggested generative art will solve the 3D internet’s content problem by making it exponentially quicker to create immersive environments for users to hover around in vs doing all that world-building manually. “The biggest thing holding back the metaverse is not network. It’s not hardware. It’s [not] any specific technology, it’s just the lack of quality content,” he suggested. “Once there’s good content, good use case, even [if] the hardware is not perfect, even if the network is not perfect, people will use it.

“I remember when we were using Atari devices. This little white box and those little [paddles], and we were excited about it, right. That was not high fidelity. That was not immersive. But people got into it. And this is, you know, 40 years ago. So, you know, fidelity is not the reason holding back the metaverse.”

Nokia’s Shannon also enthused about the potential for a mash-up between the metaverse and generative AI-powered coding tools — suggesting users will be telling their future smart specs to code them custom macros on the fly — such as by recording and labelling video clips of people they’ve met in certain contexts to create a library of stuff they could refer back to later (she didn’t dwell on the ethics or privacy implications of such a feature, mind).

“[The] democratisation of coding may be the most powerful thing that this combination of the metaverse and generative AI brings,” she gushed. “And we’re not gonna recognise this, we can’t even imagine where this is going, frankly.”

Enter the metaverse keynote session at MWC 2023

Image credits: Natasha Lomas/TechCrunch

However the laundry list of developments needed before a virtual space akin to a Snow Crash-style metaverse could even begin to feasibly lift off the page — and achieve a digital approximation of 3D life — looks long indeed. Generative AI alone isn’t going to move the metaverse needle.

Another speaker who got plenty of solo time on the keynote stage, Nicole Lazzaro, president and founder of XEODesign — a “player experience design consulting company” (while she’s a self-professed “metaverse architect”, as her LinkedIn puts it) — gave a flavor of the neverending to-do list before an entrance to a boda fide metaverse could even exist to let anyone inside.

“We need to cooperate with standards and interoperability,” she began, with the deceptively simple-sounding big picture stuff. “We need generative AI and user created content to fill these worlds — if we want to deal on a planetary scale. And we needed economies to reward and incentivize longer session interactions. So technologies such as crypto mobile payments, edge computing. We need innovation partners to build compelling use cases.

“We need world segmentation and semantic segmentation, world meshing, location anchors. All of these technologies — but put them, not just so that they exist in the world as tech, but actually create experiences for people. And we of course need standards. And this is kind of my favourite one, as a designer-developer: This is the MPEG 4 standard that’s in process right now. And just imagine what could we do with these other layers? A layer for volumetric video, a layer for holographic media… So the video that you play on your devices now are going to have other additional layers, smart contracts. And, in the future, game mechanics, player sentiment. A lot of very interesting things. And a lot of these different layers too… delivery of six [degrees of freedom] media, audio six stuff, haptics that are 3D. All of these things are coming.”

Lazzaro’s take on what the metaverse is actually for — i.e. what are the transformative use-case/s all this complex development is wending its way toward — was a lot less tangible a list.

For starters, the use-cases she sketched sounded more like Disney clichés than radically new ways of being human. Plus, after she’d finished setting out her pre-prepared metaverse wish-list she suggested all this stuff is actually already possible, using existing technologies — so not novel experiences uniquely deliverable via total immersion in the tactile, full-body stimulating simulations of the truly immersive future then?

Or, well, unless her suggestion was that all this next-gen tech will deliver something so hyper-realistic, as a life experience, that people will actually be able to live in these metaverse alternative realities… (Which is of course literally the plot of the Matrix; another sci-fi dystopia where the eponymous, hyper-realistic simulation is just a manipulative nightmare that’s been designed to deprive humans of real stimuli and genuine social connection in order that they can be enslaved for the equivalent of profit by, er, AI… )

“What do you dream about doing in metaverse?” she asked the suits in the auditorium, before laying out her own blue-sky thinking in verbal post-it-note form. “I want to explore Aladdin’s cave — new forms entertainment. I want to gather gems with my bare hands. Like we see here — this is done on Magic Leap. I basically filled this room with CGI trees, hung the treasure, and you can grab it — you can solve puzzles with your body — gather treasure and solve puzzles — so that you can capture the land.

“And where do I want to study? For me, it’s the Library of Alexandria. I want to learn from books to come to life. Here’s where I’d like to learn about the Alhambra, for example. And then after studying, I want to have tea-time with my friends — you know in the library inside the teacup. And I want this to be a venue that can change its AR location, or AR declarations if you will, as easy as printing a new menu.

“I want to then go and participate with my friends — and we’ll solve a diamond heist that takes place across the city — past a series of local landmarks with a secret past. And involve all my friends and play. And then lastly, I want to design a business — with virtual escape room templates and create theme parks that I can rent and sell to my friends. I’d love to put my business online.”

Playing, puzzling, socializing, gambling? It’s almost like tabletop board games should be classified as a proto-metaverse technology.

Away from the glare of the stage spotlight, TechCrunch was reassured to find a little more reality among startups we talked to. Including a couple we found filed under ‘metaverse’ in the exhibitor listing of the official MWC app. Such as South Korea’s Avatory, a realistic avatar builder whose marketing materials talk about making technology to let users “express one’s true-self in the metaverse”. In person, a company rep admitted they’re not actually waiting around for something called the metaverse to happen — but are building technology for existing use-cases like social media.

He even suggested the customizable avatars could be used to embody generative AI chatbots — to sub for human teachers in remote learning use-cases, given actual human teachers may not always be available. (But didn’t try to claim that would amount to a metaverse moment.)

Another startup we talked to, a hardware business out of Israel called Wearables Devices, was demoing a touchless input technology it’s targeting at the face-computing future — with a goal of “setting the input standard for the metaverse”, as it puts it. But even this had been designed to offer something in the here and now — either as a tool to let people interact with content in current-gen AR; or to act as a touchless remote-control for different connected devices (without having to go and physically fiddle with each one).

The conductive wristband the startup was showing off sensed the wearer’s hand movements and finger gestures via the electrical signals they generated — which it then converted into physical inputs, enabling the equivalent of ‘metaverse-ready’ mid-air swipes and clicks. The skin-conductive tech was mounted inside an Apple Watch band, with a companion Watch app for switching between connected devices for the touchless inputting.

A spokesman told us that although it’s putting the product out there for earlier adopters they’re anticipating Apple creating a bigger wave of adoption for AR — the primary use-case for its Mudra Band — when it finally launches its long fabled mixed reality glasses.

He also didn’t deny that, by being early with a novel interface device for mixed reality, it may be hoping to turn heads in Cupertino — positioning itself as a possible acquisition target, given Apple has been known to pick up smaller technology companies, from time to time, as it builds out its own platforms.

Either way, betting on Apple generating momentum for AR in the not-too-distant future seems a far more solid strategy than tethering your fortunes to a fictional concept.

Wearable Devices MWC demo

Image credits: Natasha Lomas/TechCrunch

Read more about MWC 2023 on TechCrunch

Inside the metaverse hype train at MWC 2023 by Natasha Lomas originally published on TechCrunch