During MWC 2023, the metaverse was a recurring topic of conversation. But those who look beyond the show see little content for the time being.
The stand of the South Korean company SK Telecom attracts the attention of every passerby on the exhibition floor. We are also surprised when we see a lifelike white helicopter in front of us from nowhere. Those who want can join the long queue to take a ride with VR glasses on their nose.
To stay in the theme park atmosphere, visitors can also take a look at ‘AI / Metaverse’ land. There, the company shows some use cases for artificial intelligence. In itself there are interesting applications, but not very groundbreaking and, due to the high slapstick content, also anything but informative. If you hope to learn something about the metaverse, you’ve already come home from a barren journey.
Everything SK Telecom describes as “metaverse” this year, it probably just called “virtual reality” a few years ago. And they won’t be the only ones. The M-word adorns many exhibition stands and will also be discussed in detail in many keynotes and panel discussions. Unfortunately, we haven’t become much wiser about why our future should be in a metaverse.
No clear definition
Organizer GSMA has nevertheless done everything to warm up all attendees for the metaverse. The keynote agenda is packed with four days of sessions that aim to prepare companies for their survival in this new world. But what we don’t hear is a clear definition of what the term means exactly.
That becomes completely clear during a panel in which Nokia and HTC are discussing. Leslie Shannon, speaking on behalf of Nokia, rather cryptically describes the metaverse as “connecting the physical world to another reality, without leaving the physical.” HTC’s Alvin Wang Graylin simply calls it “a 3D version of the Internet.”
That a telecom infrastructure builder and a VR hardware manufacturer squabble over the concept of the metaverse illustrates the haze of ambiguity that hangs over the technology. After all, these are the companies that control the building blocks of the ecosystem. If they don’t know what the metaverse is, how can a modest SME know?
Lots of show, little content
The disagreement logically translates into what is happening on the trading floor. The companies present show off with demonstrations, but this is mainly a show that has to compensate for a lack of content. Orange treats visitors to a ‘metaverse dance’. A professional dancer gives the best of himself while on a screen behind him an avatar perfectly mimics the movements (with a few milliseconds of delay). It looks very aesthetically pleasing, but no more.
On the other side, the Spanish Telefónica takes a different tack. On day two, the telecom operator organizes a demonstration in which it takes Olympic badminton champion Carolina Marin to the stock market as a hologram, while at that time she is more than six hundred kilometers from Barcelona. Of course, that includes the necessary show, although this probably gives the most realistic picture of how companies will experience the metaverse.
The convergence of the physical and digital world does offer interesting opportunities in the field of collaboration and customer experience. Employees can interact remotely as if they were in the same room and customers can visit your showroom and place orders from a distance. For example, in 2021 we already attended a virtual meeting at the Salesforce headquarters in San Francisco; Microsoft and Cisco are also working on a virtual layer in their communication platforms.
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At an event where the metaverse is so central, you would expect Meta to also perform a circus number. MWC sounds like the perfect opportunity to preach Zuckerberg’s gospel to Europe. But the opposite is true: it seems that the pioneer of the metaverse concept is reluctantly present.
The company has parked in a deserted corner where it tries to attract as little attention as possible and whoever makes the effort to find the booth can play with a Meta Quest. As if the company wants to distance itself from everything that is said and written about the metaverse during the event.
Reality has gradually caught up with Meta in that respect. Where the company changed its name in 2021 to focus on the entire metaverse event, realism now reigns again. The Reality Labs division had a net loss of $13.7 billion in 2022. Meta also has to make savings in the current economic climate, and then even Zuckerberg can no longer justify wasting billions that have no immediate return.
A precious joke
That the construction of the metaverse will cost many billions of euros is also a common thread throughout MWC. The telecom operators in particular are crying out for help. They now face expensive investments in the 5G networks that should make everything possible and fear that the revenue from the metaverse will remain with the developers of the applications.
The discussion about whether internet giants should contribute to infrastructure costs flares up again during the event. Telecom companies from all over Europe are shoulder to shoulder to put pressure on Europe. European Commissioner Thierry Breton reiterates his sympathy for their position, but the Member States will veto it for the time being.
The debates are not only about the financial picture, but also about the impact that the metaverse will have on people’s mental well-being. Today we already live in a digital world where we can hardly escape a constant stream of notifications. How are you ever going to be able to disconnect when the offline and online worlds become one?
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The last word is far from being spoken about the metaverse, and MWC has raised more questions than answers. Interesting applications will undoubtedly emerge from the technology, but due to confused descriptions and bickering between the parties involved, it currently looks more like a circus.
The hype will not diminish and sooner or later every organization will have to decide whether they want to get on board or not. Whatever your company decides, we can only recommend that you first think carefully about what your company really wants in a metaverse. Those who jump blind will be stuck between two worlds in no time.