[BLT Insight]Is the metaverse really anything new?

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<”Ready Player One”, a movie lauded for its representation of the metaverse>

Since early 2020, we have been forced into the contactless era by COVID-19. We have seen a host of contactless services take off, and the keyword “metaverse” has become a hot topic of conversation. “Metaverse” combines the term “meta” meaning virtual or transcendent and “universe,” and refers to a “virtual world.” 

This definition challenges us to ponder whether the metaverse really is a new thing. We already experienced a heightened interest in virtual reality technology in 2016. That is, the metaverse is not a new technology, but a new definition of the concept of virtual reality with which we are already familiar, as well as our approach to the same. 

What, then, are the differences between virtual reality circa 2016, and the metaverse in 2021? While both virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) are included in the concept of virtual reality in the broad sense, in the following we will compare only VR with the metaverse as we currently know it. 

1. Difference in virtual reality concept: A virtual world identical to the real world (2016) vs. A virtual world separate from reality (2021)

<Example of VR content with an emphasis on reality>

For starters, virtual reality circa 2016 emphasized hardware and software technology to provide realistic contents. That is, “virtual reality” focuses on creating a “realistic virtual world.” Major considerations were how the user’s sense of reality could be improved, and how to make the virtual world as similar to the real world as possible. Naturally, the emphasis was on head-mounted displays (HMDs) which replace a user’s entire field of vision with a virtual 3D representation, and simulator hardware and software technologies which provide a heightened sense of reality when performing virtual reality-based activities.

<A VR head-mounted display (HMD)>

That said, an HMD is not mandatory for VR. So long as a user can perform activities in a virtual environment that is similar to the real world, it qualifies as “virtual reality (VR).” That qualifies screen golf, which involves no use of HMDs but allows players to golf in an environment similar to an actual golf course, and Neofect’s virtual rehab training contents, as virtual reality.

The 2021 metaverse emphasizes “virtual” reality, or “a virtual world separate from reality.” That is, while the metaverse is still part of the VR concept, technologies and services are being developed for a virtual space that is isolated from real space. The metaverse does not insist on HMDs, and the point is to allow the use of services on a separate, non-real, virtual platform through one's smart phone.

<Working on “horizon”, Facebook’s metaverse platform>

In the metaverse, users can express themselves as any character they wish to be represented by on a virtual platform, instead of looking and moving like real-world people. Any appearance will do, so long as it allows a user to move about in a virtual space isolated from reality. Also, in the metaverse, implementing a realistic sense of touch for objects in the virtual space is less important than having objects that exist in real space also exist in virtual space. In short, in the metaverse, providing a heightened sense of reality using virtual avatars and objects comes second to implementing a virtual space platform that is separate from the real world.

2. Difference in the focus of service:: User-centric service (2016) vs. Relationship-centered service (2021)

Virtual reality circa 2016 focused on realizing services for the user him/herself. With the emphasis being on developing contents that a user can personally enjoy, VR game contents where users perform activities and 3D video contents for personal viewing were the mainstream.

But the current metaverse focuses on implementing services that enable mutual communication among large number of users. In the metaverse, there are platforms for users looking to play games, and separate platforms serving as social media for communication among users. Platforms with a specific purpose allow users to network with other users sharing the same purpose of platform use.

<ROBLOX: a virtual multi-game metaverse platform>

To summarize, given that VR technology has not yet been able to fully resolve problems such as nausea, metaverse platforms appear to be an appropriate direction for “virtual reality” to assume. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the metaverse “provides a new virtual space isolated from reality to enable the communication that users have been missing out on”. The metaverse provides a novel experience removed from reality, and as such can afford to be slightly less realistic, and the inter-user communication features mean the metaverse can afford to be less fun than single-player virtual games.

As technology progresses, VR technology is expected to become able to create virtual spaces that mirror the real world even more closely while also addressing the nausea issue. Also, within a space where multiple users are active together, formulating contents that users may find enjoyable could be an easier task. With metaverse platforms having established a direction for VR services, VR technology now has time to work on improving reality and fun. VR technologies in development since 2016 may be harnessed to hopefully accelerate the advent of more realistic metaverse platforms.

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Head Office 1F, 25, Beobwon-ro 3-gil, Seocho-gu, Seoul, 06595 Republic of Korea

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