Seeking to replicate the successes of mobile computing, tech firms are piling into the metaverse, but device and privacy issues still pose major obstacles.

Boyden's perspectives on the news and trends that are transforming industries

Mobile computing has been very good to the technology sector in the past 15 years or so, garnering trillions of dollars for its biggest players. Having taken mobile mainstream worldwide, tech giants and startups are now moving on to the metaverse, comprising the computer-generated virtual reality space and the devices that allow people to interact with it. Many see the metaverse as the next big platform, on the order of smartphones and mobile apps, or the PCs and web browsers that preceded them.

Enthusiasm for making new devices and building out the virtual universe itself is running high, with Mark Zuckerberg going so far as to change his company’s name from Facebook to Meta in October. Other American tech giants, including Google, Apple and Microsoft, are prioritising development of their own devices and other metaverse technologies. “Most companies now see that the metaverse is around the corner,” says venture capitalist Matthew Ball. “The narrative is a little ahead of the reality of these technologies, but this is a response to the enormity of the opportunity.”

How enormous is the opportunity? The New York Times cites one research firm’s estimate that the market for metaverse technologies, including games, virtual reality headsets and other gadgets and online services, topped $49 billion in 2020 and will grow by more than 40% each year. “This is the evolution of the internet,” says Alex Kipman, Technical Fellow for AI and Mixed Reality in the Cloud and AI Group at Microsoft. “If you are a company like Microsoft, you want to participate.”

Zuckerberg, whose company acquired virtual reality (VR) headset maker Oculus in 2014, believes the metaverse will become a part of daily life. But Meta’s headsets are bulky, and cut users off from the real world by blocking their vision. These problems have yet to be solved, and companies like Apple, Google and many others are working to improve VR devices. Experts say the solution lies in lightweight eyeglasses that use augmented reality (AR), layering the computer-generated world over the real one.

Google is heading in that direction, having moved past the mainstream failure of Google Glass. In 2020 the internet giant acquired Canadian startup North, which makes virtual reality eyeglasses. North itself acquired the patents and tech behind Intel’s Vaunt AR glasses after Intel shut the project down in 2018.

There is doubt that anyone will perfect the technology anytime soon, with experts saying it could take another decade or more. There are lightweight augmented reality glasses on the market, but they lack the computing power to seamlessly project virtual imagery. “It sometimes feels like ‘10 years’ is code for ‘I have no idea,’” says Nikhil Balram, who previously worked on VR and AR hardware at Google and is now CEO of EyeWay Vision, another maker of AR glasses.

Privacy is another persistent obstacle for companies developing metaverse technologies. Jerry Bautista, who led Intel’s Vaunt project, said privacy regulations in Europe and elsewhere could harm its bottom line. The tech sector will need to confront security concerns. “We can build amazing things,” Bautista said. “The hardware is not the hard part. The business models are not the hard part. Finding ways these devices can be used is not the hard part. The hard part is: What happens if the data leaks out?”

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