Discovering and creating new worlds seems to be deeply rooted in the human DNA. The metaverse is the latest incarnation of this primal drive. But are these digital parallel worlds really the future – or are they just hype?
The metaverse – the buzzword of the hour – is the logical next step in the evolution of the internet, if the press and Silicon Valley gurus are to be believed. There’s no getting around it, they say. But what is the metaverse aiming to achieve? Can it really do that? And where does it stand today?
The metaverse’s equivalent of the Big Bang could be said to be the 1992 sci-fi novel “Snow Crash” by Neal Stephenson. It’s where the term “metaverse” in the sense of a virtual parallel world appears for the first time. And in fact the word is still used the same way today. This parallel world is more than just a chat room or an online game. It is a three-dimensional, immersive VR universe that can’t be put on pause and is interconnected with the real world. Just as the internet consists of multiple pages, the metaverse is made up of multiple worlds. Among the best known metaverse worlds are Horizon Worlds by Meta, Old Space VR, Sandbox by Microsoft and Decentraland. Very much in their infancy, these worlds can best be described as prototypes, including in terms of their populations. They can’t be compared with gaming platforms such as Fortnite, Minecraft or Roblox, which already attract several million players on a daily basis. For now, these gaming platforms are self-contained worlds, just like the metaverse prototypes. But the big question is whether they will eventually evolve into a single permeable, compatible universe. Only then will the metaverse be in a position to revolutionize the internet.
At least another ten years
Probably the most vociferous disciple of the metaverse is Mark Zuckerberg. Not only has he changed the name of his company Facebook to Meta, but he also has a fairly precise vision of the kinds of things he thinks we should be doing in the metaverse in the future. True to form, he presented his vision in a highly media-effective and easily understandable way in the form of a marketing video. In it, he meets friends, or rather their avatars, in a futuristic conference room, experiences street art in 3D, and journeys through a forest riverscape where fish can fly. He also predicts that we will have virtual homes complete with home offices and wardrobes filled with virtual clothes, and that we will be able to teleport or click from world to world to shop, game, play sports, and lots more besides. And if we don’t find a world we like, then we can always create one of our own. Exciting? Maybe, but it doesn’t really sound all that new. According to Zuckerberg, what is new is that unlike today’s internet, the metaverse will be designed to feel real and create what he calls a feeling of presence – something he refers to as the defining quality of the metaverse. Key to this experience are devices that allow us to immerse ourselves in these worlds, such as VR glasses. But they are clearly a work in progress. Although the glasses are a lot lighter than they used to be in the early days, they aren’t suitable for wearing for hours on end every day. Other developments are also needed, such as full-body suits that add the sensory dimension to a visit to the metaverse. Zuckerberg and other experts reckon it will take around another ten years for the necessary hardware and software to be developed and for the metaverse to transition from hype to reality.
One issue that is as yet largely unresolved is that of ethics. There have recently been reports in various news media of visitors to the metaverse experiencing sexual harassment, leading to calls for regulators and protective mechanisms. And these are by no means new problems. Second Life, a multi-player online game launched in 2003 in which people interact with each other through avatars and that is often described as the precursor of the metaverse, was unable to solve them. Crime, pornographic content, and the lack of protection for minors ramped up the criticisms, turning the virtual world into an increasingly lonely place.
Invest or hold off?
The metaverse therefore still has a lot of developmental and evolutionary stages to work through. That said, as a completely new economic system it is already firing people’s imaginations. A study by McKinsey & Company predicts that the metaverse could reach a potential value of as much as USD 5 trillion by 2030, with half generated by e-commerce, and virtual learning, advertising, and gaming driving the rest. More than USD 120 billion has already been invested in the metaverse, according to the report, the major factors being technical progress, demographic tailwinds and increasingly consumerled marketing and engagement. The question that remains unanswered as yet, though, is which world or which currency is worth investing in.
What does all this mean for businesses? Should they already be on the front foot, or is it enough to watch from the sidelines for now? On the next double page spread we introduce you to several players who are taking up their positions.
The future of the metaverse not only lies in VR headsets but also in augmented and mixed reality headsets, according to Zuckerberg. A unique AR headset – the only one of its kind in the world – is being developed in Bern by startup Almer Technologies. The Arc is a compact, lightweight system complete with an integrated camera, a unique display and specialized remote maintenance software. It can be used to solve problems remotely in real time in a matter of seconds: the wearer can call up an expert and share what they can see, and the expert can then superimpose their knowledge straight onto the wearer’s field of vision. Completely hands-free.
It all started at Federal Institute of Technology (ETH), where Sebastian Beetschen worked on the development of Microsoft’s HoloLens as a student. “Right from the start I knew that what we were making there worked better,” the mechanical engineer says. This led to a dedicated project that took shape in 2020, the year when microengineer Timon Binder, now CTO, also joined the team. A grant from the Swiss Innovation Agency Innosuisse and support from the Canton of Bern enabled the young startup to rent premises and take on staff. At their base at Marktgasse 46 in Bern, their hardware team is now finetuning the Arc. “We produce at least one new model a week.” The versions are manufactured and tested in the in-house design lab. “The time we invest in prototyping will save us a lot of time and money when we start large-scale production later on.” But perfection is not a prerequisite for the product launch: “We offer the system on a subscription basis. Our customers will get updated models regularly.”
“Although producing hardware is hard work and programming software is never-ending, we do both,” Binder explains – just as their role model Apple does. “The main functions should already be available on the headset.” These core applications, along with an app store, are being developed by the Almer software team in Romania. “Our aim is that other developers will create better apps for our headset in the future. When that happens, we’ll have nailed it.”
But essentially they already have: the Arc is currently available to customers in a pilot project. Another 200 will be produced this year, most of which have already been sold. To begin with, no one thought they could do that. “You’ll never crack it, is what we heard from experts and gurus at every milestone we set,” Binder says. And there should be plenty more milestones to come, as Almer Technologies also has plans to develop consumer products to replace cell phones, for exemple. Almer Technologies looks set to nail that too.
Whether in video games, the metaverse, or online stores, more and more virtual worlds are emerging in which products are shown in three dimensions. This is an opportunity the Langenthal-based software company mindcraft AG is grabbing with both hands.
CEO and co-founder Josua Hönger has been programming software since his high school days: “Manipulating pixels is something I have always found fascinating.” His hobby turned into a vocation, leading him to drop out of his computer science degree course at ETH to found a company to distribute his software for mixing music and images. After initial marketing difficulties, he sold the software to a company in London. Today it is used at major events such as the Super Bowl in the USA. “That first episode taught me that it pays to persist.”
Hönger first encountered virtual reality in 2013 when a company hired him to write software for their 3D scanning technology. This inspired him to found mindcraft AG in 2018, a company dedicated to programming complex 3D solutions. Instead of entering the highly competitive market of 3D content production, they have produced what all manufacturers need: a cloud-based platform for distributing 3D content. Sharing 3D content is a lot more complicated than sharing photos: “You can’t just take a 3D scan and send it. The data have to be edited so that the geometry, the mirroring, and the reflection of an object are displayed correctly. It’s an art in itself.”
mindcraft have pulled off this feat with their Meshval-ley platform. Customers have been able to post their content on the cloud since August. Once there, the content is improved and prepared for sharing on a wide range of platforms, for example in a video call as part of a product demo, as a product in an online store, or as an augmented reality artwork for display on your own desk. Although he believes firmly in his product, Hönger is not anticipating rapid success: “We are very pragmatic because it is not yet clear how fast and how large the metaverse will be. But what is certain is that the worlds will need to be filled with data, and we are ready for that.”
SO REAL Digital Twins AG
SO REAL Digital Twins AG, or SO REAL for short, is entrepreneur Charles Flükiger’s latest startup that produces virtual representations of objects known as digital twins. To achieve this, Flükiger developed and patented a process that allows digital images of objects to be created fully automatically. The name says it all, as Flükiger explains: “The digital twins look real, they can be viewed from the inside and outside, and they know their own physical properties. This allows the objects to be inspected in the same way as their real-world counterparts, and they behave like them, too. It’s a world first!” For example, the digital image of a bag can not only be viewed from all sides but can also be opened. “It’s a dimension that most other manufacturers of digital twins haven’t thought of,” Flükiger proudly explains. So how does this SO REAL technology work? “We scan the real-world products with industrial X-ray scanners. The images are then processed by SO REAL software so that the objects, along with all the information, run as plug-ins in all applications and can be easily shared worldwide via the internet or 5G.” Twins can be produced in bulk. “This is a particularly interesting option for museums that have large collections but can only exhibit five percent of them,” says Flükiger. SO REAL wants to help museums bring their treasures out of the archives and exhibit them online so that they can be experienced virtually. “Our scans will not only enable works of art to be examined from all sides. They will bring them to life on a whole new level, for example by getting you so close to the ‘Mona Lisa’ that you can even get a feel for the different layers of paint.”
Another focus market for SO REAL is the fashion industry, which suffers from high rates of returns on online orders – a situation that is neither ecologically nor economically sustainable. With SO REAL’s clothing twins, customers can try on clothes virtually using avatars, giving them a much better idea of what the item will look like on their body. Flükiger can’t yet say for certain which market SO REAL will achieve its breakthrough in: “We have seen that we are still ahead of the curve with our technology. It remains to be seen which market will be ripe for our product first.” He is in no doubt that the SO REAL digital twins’ time will come. And his track record speaks for itself: the self-made man has already built up several companies and is an expert in innovation. “Large leaps in innovation don’t usually come from industry experts but from people or companies that make connections across industries that help them come up with new business ideas. Tesla, Uber, and Airbnb are great examples of this.”