What a difference a year makes (notwithstanding the doldrums of a pandemic). This time last year, metaverse had the lowest possible rating for the number of searches in Google Trends. By November of 2021, it had the highest possible rating.
The term has become so prominent that one of the most recognizable brands on the planet—Facebook—changed its name to Meta. While the popularity of associated technologies such as VR have ebbed and flowed for years, there is more to it now. We are hitting a perfect storm in which real-time engines, such as Unity and Unreal Engine (owned by Epic Games), virtual reality (Oculus and HTC), augmented reality (Apple, Magic Leap), 5G MEC (AT&T and Verizon), blockchain, digital currencies and yes, AI, are coming together. The power and financial resources converging are comparable to the nascent internet in the 1990s (see: Microsoft’s gambit of nearly $69 billion to acquire Activision/Blizzard).
The noise and hype add skepticism to the metaverse’s validity. But the concept itself, and many of the ways it will impact our lives, now and in the future, are misunderstood, or overlooked.
In the future, the metaverse could make the internet seem as antiquated as the telegraph. Today, people shop, bank, read the news, and much more online. The internet is effective but still differs from the experience of doing these activities in person. A person online shopping isn’t interacting with a stylist or browsing the clothing racks, for example. I am referring to copresence, an attribute of our experiences within the metaverse that is the result of our brain’s cognitive response. Interactions in the metaverse give us the impression that we are having real experiences and creating real memories—because we are.
The use cases are not limited to shopping, of course. Broadly speaking, the metaverse has the potential to solve significant challenges, particularly when it comes to making technology more human.
The potential for education
Immersive experiences possess an ability to make digital interactions feel more human. This favors the use of Metaverse technologies like virtual and augmented reality for certain use cases. While we are only beginning to scratch the surface, powerful applications for learning and education are already here.
Learning professionals measure success through effectiveness. Efficacy is one of the most pressing issues facing eLearning that existed prior to COVID. When the pandemic struck, it forced us into a massive laboratory in which many of our tasks—including learning—were gated by videoconferencing. Although there are downsides to eLearning, which are often exacerbated by inequalities related to access to technology, research found that it was effective, at or near the level of in-person programming.
VR learning takes it a step further. PwC found that learners trained with VR were up to 275% more confident to act on what they learned after training—a 40% improvement over in-person classroom learning, and a 35% improvement over eLearning.
VR and AR learning experiences have the ability to surpass the passive, tell-and-test, click-through methods that we know lack engagement and efficacy. The dynamic, highly interactive, and often emotionally realistic content created by XR learning professionals reaches users in a more meaningful way. Learning in the metaverse can connect learners from all over the world and empower them to interact in meaningful ways while providing unprecedented accessibility. That learning is more interactive and impactful, by allowing us to simulate everything from a conversation to a surgery.
The challenges of accessibility
Those with disabilities or impairments (visual, hearing, and more) will require accommodations, so they can gain full access to what the metaverse offers. Access to the necessary hardware can also be cost-prohibitive. Like the internet, it demands we employ a strategy to make metaverse access equitable for those who may not have the means to participate. But there is something rather inspiring about this discussion.
The metaverse has not even truly been born (where we are in its gestational period is a topic for another day). Relative to the time it took for us to realize the internet was not going to autonomously provide accessibility, we are doing well. This will continue to take deliberate investment and dedicated resources, but the metaverse community is already prioritizing design discussions and platform decisions to drive more access, sooner.
Additionally, the technology of the metaverse is inherently decentralized, so what took years, or even decades, to accomplish with other technologies insofar as representation and accessibility are first-order priorities. This is vital because those who may not have access to the metaverse could be the groups that benefit from it most.
For example, imagine the benefits that a first-generation college student would reap by experiencing a virtual university classroom. Think about how much the staff in a rural hospital could gain from immersive training on cutting-edge medical techniques. Now, consider these possibilities juxtaposed to the challenges our education systems face globally, as our youth and the workforce face skills gaps and reskilling and upskilling deficits like we’ve never seen before, and academic programs struggle to keep pace.
The hypothesis of a program from SAP and Jobs for the Future (JFF) works at the intersection of these ideas, suggesting that providing high school-aged learners with access to immersive learning technology would yield a positive impact on their ability to develop the skills needed for gainful employment. In its first deployment, the “Skill Immersion Lab” program demonstrated that over 85% of learners felt more confident speaking with others after completing immersive learning experiences. Eighty-five percent reported that their ability to find the right words to express an idea improved during the program. Furthermore, 90% of learners acknowledged that they went back to check their answers to see how they could improve when they finished a lesson. Their synopsis on the program concluded that immersive learning content delivers results, and the next priority should be getting it into the hands of as many learners as possible.
This type of engagement combined with an acceleration of our abilities to learn subject matter gives the metaverse learning content impacts we’d previously only fantasized about.
The impact on human connection
My iPhone reminds me of how much average screen time I consume. Combined with hours of video conferences and time spent sending emails, I represent a microcosm of the increasingly digital lives people lead today. The same goes for my kids, as they alternate between schoolwork and homework, the school’s web portal, social media, texting, FaceTime, and video games. The portion of our lives that we spend digitally keeps increasing, but what would happen if these interactions were better?
Unlike email and other internet communications, the metaverse has the power to mimic or properly convey human interactions. The sense of presence and emotional realism make the difference. Their spatiality provides familiarity and relatability to the physical world. A virtual conference call limits the fidelity and nuances of facial expressions and body language. Further, it places a physical, digital barrier between people. However, in a VR or AR meeting, I could see the gestures of my colleague’s avatars as they listen and speak with me, as well as get a sense of co-presence as I would if we were physically together. We all benefit when we are more cognitively and emotionally connected to each other.
More personal digital interactions may also yield the benefit of making us more intentional about our lives offline. We will gain back time as immersive collaboration and learning make us more productive. This will allow us to recapture time in our days—time we can spend connecting with the physical world and the people in it. The metaverse has the potential to deliver an equilibrium offsetting the negative effects of digitalization, making the time we spend online feel more human and connected, and helping us enjoy more of the lives we lead away from technology.
I know many people may think that the metaverse is just the latest chapter in a long line of buzzwords and tech jargon. But I believe it deserves the amount of hype it has received in recent months, as it provides an immense opportunity, a gateway to a better future. It’s up to us to step through that door and make the most of the metaverse in an equitable and responsible manner.
Stephen Fromkin is the cofounder and chief content officer of Talespin