The Metaverse… and how it impacts your travel experiences…
Updated: Jan 1
The metaverse has been a hot topic of conversation recently, with Facebook and Microsoft both staking claims. But what is the metaverse? And when will it get here?
Author Neal Stephenson is credited with coining the term “metaverse” in his 1992 science fiction novel “Snow Crash”, in which he envisioned lifelike avatars who met in realistic 3D buildings and other virtual reality environments. Since then, various developments have made mileposts on the way toward a real metaverse, an online virtual world which incorporates augmented reality, virtual reality, 3D holographic avatars, video and other means of communication. As the metaverse expands, it will offer a hyper-real alternative world for you to coexist in.
Inklings of the metaverse already exist in online game universes such as Fortnite, Minecraft and Roblox. And the companies behind those games have ambitions to be part of the evolution of the metaverse.
So what exactly is a “metaverse”? Let’s dive in and explore…
According to Wikipedia, the metaverse (a portmanteau of “meta” and “universe”) is a hypothesised iteration of the internet, supporting persistent online 3-D virtual environments through conventional personal computing, as well as virtual and augmented reality headsets. Current metaverse ambitions are centred on addressing technological limitations with modern virtual and augmented reality devices, as well as expanding the use of metaverse spaces to business, education, and retail applications. Numerous entertainment and social media companies have invested in metaverse-related research and development.
The metaverse is described as a means of manufacturing immersive digital spaces for a range of human activity. To achieve this, some iterations of the metaverse involve integration between virtual and physical spaces and virtual economies. Additional qualities include digital persistence and synchronicity in order to better establish a sense of presence in a realistic environment, along with implementing existing social media elements such as avatar identity, content creation, and social acceptability.
A virtual environment is considered to be the most likely access point to the metaverse. The metaverse's dependency on VR technology places limitations on its development and wide-scale adoption. Limitations stemming from the balance between cost and design include the lack of high quality graphics and a lack of mobility. Lightweight wireless headsets lack image quality, which is optimised for bulky, wired VR goggle systems. Another issue for wide-scale adoption of the technology is the cost, with the HTC Vive Pro 2 headset costing US$799 plus controllers in 2021. Many high-end computers are incapable of powering VR machines, and in a separate report, NVIDIA estimated that 99% of computers on the market were incapable of handling the software requirements for an adequate virtual reality experience.
More sophisticated sensors than are currently available are needed to make AR and VR movements more precise and visual overlays more accurate with higher image quality; visual anchoring, movement tracking, and motion following all need to be handled at scale in order to support these improvements. The widespread adoption of VR largely hinges on sophisticated sensors with the ability to reliably measure depth while consuming little amounts of battery power, all in a portable and affordable model, which has not yet been efficiently produced at a large scale.
Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook (now renamed “Meta”), estimates it could take 5 to 10 years before the key features of the metaverse become mainstream. But aspects of the metaverse currently exist. Ultra-fast broadband speeds, virtual reality headsets and persistent always-on online worlds are already up and running, even though they may not be accessible to all.
Why is it taking off?
Fans of the metaverse see it as the next stage in the development of the Internet. At the moment, people interact online by going to websites such as social media platforms or using messaging applications. The idea of the metaverse is that it will create new online spaces in which people's interactions can be more multi-dimensional, where users are able to immerse themselves in digital content rather than simply viewing it.
The accelerated interest in the metaverse can be seen as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. As more people started working and schooling remotely, there has been increased demand for ways to make online interaction more lifelike.
Who is getting involved?
The idea of the metaverse is attracting a lot of interest from investors and companies keen to be part of the next big thing. Meta chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg said in July that the company will try to transition from being a social media platform to a metaverse one in the next five years or so.
People in the tech industry are nonetheless excited about the Metaverse and the technological breakthroughs in getting to the promised land. Here's a look at what's happening today that could lead to the metaverse of tomorrow.
Meta — The tech giant formerly known as Facebook has already made significant investments in virtual reality, including the 2014 acquisition of Oculus. Meta envisions a virtual world where digital avatars connect through work, travel or entertainment using VR headsets. Zuckerberg has been bullish on the metaverse, believing it could replace the internet as we know it. "The next platform and medium will be even more immersive and embodied internet where you’re in the experience, not just looking at it, and we call this the metaverse," said Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg last month after revealing the company's rebranding.
Microsoft — The software giant already uses holograms and is developing mixed and extended reality (XR) applications with its Microsoft Mesh platform, which combine the real world with augmented reality and virtual reality. Earlier this month, Microsoft showed off its plans for bringing mixed-reality including holograms and virtual avatars to Microsoft Teams in 2022. Also in the works for next year: explorable 3D virtual connected spaces for retail and workplaces. The U.S. Army is currently working with Microsoft on an augmented reality Hololens 2 headset for soldiers to train, rehearse and fight in. Beyond that, Xbox Live already connects millions of video game players across the globe, too.
Roblox — Video game platform Roblox, founded in 2004, houses scores of user-generated games, including role-playing offerings like Bloxburg and Brookhaven, envisions the metaverse as a place where "people can come together within millions of 3D experiences to learn, work, play, create and socialize." Roblox aims to give users and developers ways to create digital worlds. Its CEO has also talked about future shopping and conducting business on the platform, which has its own virtual economy powered by its Robux currency.
Epic Games — Epic has held concerts by the likes of Ariana Grande and Travis Scott, movie trailers and music debuts and even an “immersive” re-imagining of Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1963 historic “I Have A Dream” speech. And it's developing photorealistic digital humans with its MetaHuman Creator, which could be how you customize your digital doppelganger in future open-world games. Epic also owns a large gaming engine, Unreal, used to develop games and other visual effects like TV show backdrops. Epic CEO Tim Sweeney, a vocal critic of big platforms like Apple and Alphabet Inc's Google, has argued the metaverse will need to be a participatory, common space.
Minecraft — Another virtual universe beloved by kids, the Microsoft-owned Minecraft is essentially the digital equivalent of Legos, where players can create their own digital character and build whatever they desire. As of August, Minecraft boasts more than 140 million monthly active users. During the pandemic, it has exploded in popularity among kids who had to rely more heavily on virtual connections.
Tencent — Chinese tech giant Tencent Holdings Ltd is the world's largest video gaming firm by revenue and has stakes in major game studios like Epic Games and Activision Blizzard. The South China Morning Post reported this year that Tencent has registered many metaverse-related trademarks for its social site QQ.
nVidia — Computer chip maker Nvidia built its Omniverse platform for connecting 3D worlds into a shared virtual universe. It says Omniverse, which is used for projects like creating simulations of real-world buildings and factories, is the “plumbing” on which metaverses could be built.
So now for the million dollar question… What does the metaverse really mean for travel experiences? How will it affect the travel industry? Will this radical progress in virtual reality make people stop traveling? Let’s find out…
Virtual reality in travel
Virtual reality refers to the art of producing videos of images that you can explore from all angles in 360 degrees. In effect, it allows people to have a much detailed view of a place as compared to a video or an image.
On the face of it, virtual reality seems to be detrimental to the travel industry. Why would people get into hours-long flights, hike all day to a summit, and spend loads of money when they can look at the same place through a VR headset in the comfort of their house? But it’s not that straight forward. That is why VR technology has not been as successful some people might have thought. Oculus had an estimated goal of 1 billion sales but has only sold 300,000 headsets.
Metaverse is still in a developing stage and it would be too early to give a verdict. But as far as we know, the metaverse or virtual reality as a whole is far from providing the “real travel experiences”. Even if the scenes become ultra high definition, travellers know that it’s not just about looking at things. It is a complete experience that includes everything from the smells to the weather and most importantly, in the vibe of the place.
The breeze that caresses your skin while you go through the Highlands of Scotland cannot be experienced from your VR headset. The sense of spirituality and awe you feel in Jerusalem is unmatched by anything the metaverse has to present. Looking at a 360 view of the peak of Mount Everest is nothing compared to the sense of achievement you get when you actually climb up there. So it is safe to say that the metaverse cannot replace reality, it is not here to annihilate the travel industry.
“Introducing the Icelandverse” is a new campaign from Inspired by Iceland that parodies Mark Zuckerberg’s recent and stilted video presentation re-introducing Facebook as Meta Platforms. In Zuck’s mind, we’ll all be interacting in a virtual three-dimensional world through avatars. Forgetting the good and/or dystopian aspects of that future digital space for a moment, Iceland just wants to take a gentle jab at the Facebook (Meta) founder, and promote its own country.
“What do we call this no-so-chapter in human connectivity?” says our pale, Zuckerberg-like narrator. “Icelandverse. Enhanced, actual reality. Without silly-looking headsets.” The guide goes on to discuss how “everything has been real for millions of years” (while hilariously trying and failing to open a door), all while speaking in a beautiful studio space with Iceland’s gorgeous landscape as his background.
In early July this year, Shanny Djovani wrote an Up Worlds story, “Travel the world through metaverse". Djovani acknowledge that virtual reality tourism hasn’t gone mainstream, but added that Google’s YouTube and other platforms are building stockpiles of 360- degree videos. Virtual reality, Djovani acknowledged, is limited because it’s mostly pre-recorded content.
Some benefits of the metaverse in travel
Perhaps the most obvious use for this could be inspirational. Anything that allows travellers to experience a hotel or destination whilst considering a purchase has huge potential. In fact, many travel businesses are already using this technology to their advantage. Be it a hotel room or a tourist destination or travel activities, VR can give you a glimpse of reality. So you know exactly what the place is like and don’t have to be disappointed when you actually get there. Knowing what you’re going to get yourself into beforehand gives you confidence. Even the places and hotels that are not getting enough visitors right now because people don’t want to take risks, can build a convincing case for themselves by providing virtual walkthroughs.
Next up would be the booking experience and within that we shouldn’t overlook payments. Again, there is huge potential for an immersive experience that replicates the old-fashioned high street travel agent we all loved. People could ask questions, combine products, pay in a more convenient way or even negotiate a better deal – all whilst feeling they are in a familiar and safe environment.
An extension of this could be the customer service and operations side of things. Even someone on a “real” holiday might still want to plunge into the Metaverse to resolve a customer service issue, order food for their room, be upsold some in-destination experiences, or “see the manager”.
One other very important implication for travel businesses will be how the Metaverse changes the experience of employees. If staff really could gather in the Metaverse not just for meetings, but to conduct real world activities like preparing food (via a robot) or guiding travellers round a museum (as a hologram), then we could employ someone in New Zealand to run a hotel in New York.
On a holistic level and all things taken into account, there is huge potential upside for travel businesses to get involved in virtual reality and the Metaverse. It is a technological trend that has tremendous future for its application in the coming years. More so with all the tech giants throwing tons of money into this new thing called the “Metaverse”, and leading the way for big scale implementation. Miss this at your own peril, like many huge “dead” companies who were dominant in their days and miss the big wave, and soon enough this edge might just become a basic hygiene factor.
And finally, what are the “unknown” unknowns? We don’t know what we know know, and for reference just back to those predictions that people were making about the internet back in the late 1990s versus what really happened. The most obvious question is whether or not any of this will ever actually replace the need or desire for travel experiences in the real world.
Having said that, the transition to working virtually has been much more accelerated than anyone could ever imagine because of the global COVID pandemic. Can you imagine how an environmental catastrophe would affect our ability to travel and subsequent desire for Metaverse experiences? Some food for thought…
If we really have to highlight a risk though it would be this… Unlike the internet boom which was really a wild wild west, the players that might influence how the Metaverse would develop already exist today, tech titans like Apple, Google, Facebook and Microsoft… Are these companies having a stronger hold or influence over travellers a good thing for the travel industry? That might not be the case, and if you really do think so, then you might be living in another “metaverse”…
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