In the last couple of years, we’ve heard no end of predictions regarding the “metaverse”, with personalities like Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg boldly predicting that it will one day become a crucial aspect of our everyday lives. He may well be proven right, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it will evolve exactly as he envisions.
If you listen to Zuckerberg, the metaverse will manifest itself as an entirely virtual world, experienced through virtual reality headsets. It’s an immersive environment that will act as an alternative, entirely digital world where people come to work and play. Recent moves by companies like Meta Platforms (parent of Facebook), Apple, and Microsoft all seem to indicate that VR headsets will act as the primary vehicle for consumers to interact with these 3D environments.
Virtual reality worlds are designed to be completely immersive, transforming users into an alternative dimension that co-exists with the physical world. Visitors will be represented by customized avatars, enabling them to transform their appearance and mask their identity as they visit different landmarks.
It’s a vision that implies people will want to maintain some kind of separation between their physical and digital lives. The theory is that people will only want to spend some of their time in the metaverse, ensuring they have plenty of time to put down their headsets and participate in the real world too. But it’s not a vision that captures everyone’s imagination.
One vocal opponent to the idea of a virtual reality-based metaverse is Niantic CEO John Hanke, who wrote in a 2021 blog post that he had no interest in such a concept, describing it as a dystopian nightmare. “A lot of people are talking about ‘the metaverse’ these days. Coming off eighteen months of Zoom, Netflix, and Doordash, you can count me out – at least in the form that most folks are imagining, he wrote.
Hanke argues that the metaverse shouldn’t attempt to compete with the physical world and says it’s likely doomed to fail if it tries. He says most people do not enjoy prolonged stays in the virtual world, and so the metaverse should instead seek to improve the physical realm we’re more comfortable in. In other words, the metaverse needs to enhance our physical experiences rather than try to replace them.
Enhancing real experiences
This alternative vision of the metaverse is predicated on the concept of augmented reality as opposed to virtual reality. AR, as it’s popularly known, doesn’t attempt to completely occlude the real world by immersing users in a digital environment. Rather, it overlays digital elements in the real world to enhance our daily lives.
It’s hard not to argue that AR hasn’t already proven to be more successful than VR. The concept achieved global fame with the hit mobile game Pokemon Go, which overlaid graphics onto a real-world view through the user’s mobile device, inviting them to head outside to chase and collect various colorful monsters. It was downloaded by millions of users worldwide. By comparison, very few people today own a VR headset.
Pokemon Go was the first of several popular AR games to take the mobile world by storm, with titles like Angry Birds AR: Isle of Pigs and Jurassic World Alive expanding the concept further. There’s even an AR fitness app, Zombies, Run!, which brings AR zombies into the real world to chase joggers while they’re outside in the real world and encourages them to keep on running.
Augmented reality differs from virtual reality because it can enhance our real-world experiences. With AR, it’s possible to integrate digital objects with the real world and even have them interact with physical objects.
What will an AR Metaverse look like?
The metaverse can evolve into a very different concept by using augmented reality instead of virtual reality. One of the most interesting visionaries in this space is Peer, which is building a kind of immersive social network that overlays the real world. The idea is to encourage people to get outside and interact with people and experiences rather than sit at home scrolling through an endless news feed. Users will be incentivized to post content that will be geo-located in physical locations where other people can find it.
Imagine you’re using Peer’s headset to see the world in augmented reality. If you’re feeling hungry, you can search for nearby restaurants, and their locations will be overlaid in the real world to help you find them. Once you get to your desired restaurant, you might see a digital coupon posted outside by the manager offering a 10% discount. There will be ratings from previous customers, telling you it’s got five stars and delicious club sandwiches.
Or you might be on a road trip, and as you drive past a small, nondescript town, you’ll suddenly see virtual dinosaurs roaming around outside – a free 3D experience created by the local dinosaur museum to entice people to visit.
The beauty of Peer is it doesn’t want people to be stuck indoors on some device but rather get them outside so they can explore the world and enjoy it more.
Augmented reality is still a nascent technology, but the potential applications are almost unlimited. It’ll do much more than just entertain people and advertise business promotions. For instance, in the construction industry, a site manager could use AR to put up a digital sign at the exact spot where a worker needs to perform a certain task. For example, if there’s a crack in the plaster on a wall, the manager can indicate exactly where it is. Or a supervisor in a factory could use an AR map of the facility to identify which machines need maintenance.
Designers could use mixed reality to overlay a planned building onto the real-world site where it is going to be built before it even exists. The landscape architect could then use this to plan how the gardens outside will look.
Augmented reality could have been used in business meetings, allowing participants to overlay graphs and charts in their vision while speaking to their colleagues face-to-face. Someone visiting a car showroom could use AR to gather information about a vehicle’s specifications while admiring the latest Tesla model. Alternatively, it could even be useful for something as mundane as your weekly grocery shopping. As you browse items in the supermarket, your AR headset or mobile can instantly detect the item you pick up and display its nutritional information, best before date, and so on.
Advantage to AR
The potential of augmented reality has long been recognized. As far back as 2018, a survey found that more than 80% of enterprises believed AR would eventually become a familiar part of the business environment. Note that it was a good couple of years before the COVID-19 pandemic forced businesses to think more creatively about collaboration and remote work.
As the first AR metaverses develop and expand, and technologies like 5G become more ubiquitous, these mixed reality experiences are expected to become more common. With blazing-fast connectivity, people will be able to use AR instantly to aid whatever they’re doing, whether they’re at work and need to know how to operate a machine or out and about in town and looking for a place to grab a coffee.
The unique ability of augmented reality to merge the digital and physical realms far surpasses the vision of an isolated metaverse. People don’t want to spend all of their time indoors, trapped in a virtual world. They want to enjoy the real world, and AR can uniquely enable people to do just that.