Right now, the metaverse seems to be both everywhere and nowhere, simultaneously touted as the next great innovation and criticized as over-hyped and over-promised. But what exactly is the metaverse, and which end of the spectrum is closer to reality?
There are many differing definitions of the metaverse, but Gartner defines it as “A collective virtual shared space, created by the convergence of virtually enhanced physical and digital reality.” In this view, the metaverse is persistent, providing enhanced immersive experiences, and once matured it will serve as a device-independent ecosystem for further innovation.
The transition to the mature metaverse will be similar to previous technology shifts, such as the Industrial Revolution or the mobile era, in that its evolution will introduce a new set of technology leaders while potentially displacing some from the previous era. The metaverse will be an evolutionary step in the development of the internet, acting as a collective, shared space born from the convergence of physical and persistent digital content and experiences.
Therefore, there will be only one metaverse in the same sense that there’s only one internet; just as no single entity or organization owns or controls the internet, the same will apply to the metaverse.
The metaverse will evolve across three overlapping phases: emerging, advanced and mature. Here is what technology leaders need to know about each of these phases and the distinctive technology, market and product/service influences that will define them.
Phase 1: Emerging metaverse
The emerging metaverse is the stage that we are in now, consisting of current commercially available products and services such as social networks, online games, e-commerce, cryptocurrencies and NFTs. Depending on their application, these technologies may satisfy one or more characteristics of the metaverse (persistent, collaborative, decentralized and interoperable) but the emerging metaverse is incomplete.
For example, there is no interoperability between different products and services that are currently marketed as “metaverse.” This is not because there is a deficiency in any of these offerings, but because there is no standard for interoperation. Therefore, all existing technologies and applications that are being called “metaverse” today are in fact pre-metaverse, metaverse-inspired solutions or miniverses.
To gain mainstream adoption, any potential metaverse contender must support the functionalities that these existing technologies provide in a convenient and transparent manner. For example, current augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) immersive experiences offer walled-garden glimpses into how the metaverse will look. Such solutions are still considered pre-metaverse, as users cannot move content between applications, nor are they able to move between applications themselves.
In Phase 1, which will last through at least 2024, the most significant challenge for technology leaders will be creating a sustainable and profitable business based on pre-metaverse use cases, such as AR and VR experiences. In this era, technology product leaders should focus on exploring and building precursors to the metaverse. Each of its four key characteristics represents an opportunity and a challenge to define a metaverse product strategy. Current high-value use cases, such as AR and VR experiences, gaming and navigation apps, are promising metaverse precursors.
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Phase 2: Advanced Metaverse
Advanced metaverse solutions will be characterized by the convergence of technologies seen in the emerging phase. This phase is expected to occur between 2024 and 2027.
This convergence will also inspire new technologies that will be required to enable mature metaverse solutions, such as methods to link physical and digital spaces in a navigable way.
Spatial computing technologies are one such example, and will be featured prominently in this phase. For example, this could include technologies to tether digital persistent content to the physical, such as digitally colorizing Greek and Roman statues, or to define location and orientation of a digital object in a physical space, such as having a digital sign facing the correct way on a street.
Technology that populates the information layer of the metaverse will also develop during this phase. This includes innovations that capture, create and integrate digital content to overlay onto the physical world, such as technology to sense and map people, places, things and processes. This will also involve graph technologies that establish processes and relationships between these elements.
Several other independently developed technologies must mature to support the advanced metaverse stage, including:
- Sensor technologies, sensor fusion and technologies that enable data integration. These will give systems a higher degree of context to make geoposed and indexed content useful.
- Products offering packaged business capabilities, such as APIs that provide platforms and product capabilities for other organizations to build upon. This will enable composable metaverse offerings, moving away from the app-based, siloed approach to “superapps.”
- Multimodal user interfaces: These will facilitate the transition to device-independent experiences, while enabling new, intuitive ways to interact with a physical-digital blended world.
- Edge AI and edge computing: These will be needed for sensing (such as computer vision) interaction (such as natural language processing) and rendering of high-volume or high-quality content.
In Phase 2, as the building blocks to the metaverse gradually mature, technology leaders must evolve product portfolios to support metaverse experiences, for example by working with standards and protocols groups to define and track interoperability. Since no single organization will be building the metaverse, it’s important for providers to join or create an ecosystem of content and service delivery partners.
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Phase 3: Mature Metaverse
The mature metaverse will see most applications having features that enable collaborative and multisourced experiences. Interoperable content across digital experiences will indicate the arrival of the mature metaverse.
For example, consider having a dynamically updated digital note anchored to a physical object, such as a traffic signal, that technicians could access and update. Citizens could access an extended layer of this content to report details, like an outage, and since the content is digitally anchored, all citizens can see when the outage was reported instead of duplicating efforts.
Decentralization of data will also enable real-time localized content updates. As an extension of this, city workers can mirror the outage scenario in a purely digital experience to simulate traffic and service disruptions to see the impact due to the outage and repair process. This scenario can also be used for geographically distributed stakeholders to collaborate in real time, enabling synchronous workflows.
Gartner expects that persistent, spatially oriented and indexed content could be adopted by the early movers as early as 2028, but the market characteristics of a mature metaverse will evolve beyond 2030.
From 2028 onward, the vision and potential for the metaverse will become much clearer and easier to manage for both organizations and individual users. It will be built on inspirational use cases and applications discovered in Phase 2, reinforced by the maturation of adjacent technologies such as 5G, computer vision, immersive technology and digital currencies. As such, the aspects and functionalities of the systems required to make a mature metaverse possible will be understood, opening significant opportunities in the infrastructure layer, and vendors will compete to create the backbone of a transformational and potentially ubiquitous system.
Technology leaders evaluating the growth and impact of emerging technologies and trends that enable metaverse experiences play close attention to this evolution spectrum. Consider the available interaction, content and infrastructure opportunities to determine at which stage to enter the market. There will be many opportunities and challenges for product leaders to engage with customers and partners as these technologies mature, but it’s important to consider the potential impact now as it may require changes in business models to effectively capitalize on future metaverse opportunities.
Tuong Nguyen is a senior principal research analyst at Gartner, Inc. covering immersive technologies (augmented, mixed and virtual reality), metaverse, computer vision and human-machine interfaces.