In Metaverse, AR to Take Over from VR

FEB 20, 2022

As a kid, I came across in the Valmiki Ramayan a mythological story about the sage Vishwamitra. The story goes that King Trishanku wished to reach heaven in his mortal form and approached the sage. Vishwamitra promised Trishanku his wish, offered the power of his penance and sent Trishanku to heaven.

But Trishanku was pushed back to earth by Lord Indra, the caretaker of heaven. Vishwamitra flew into a rage, stopped the falling Trishanku in midair and created another heaven for the king—Trishanku Swarg. The word Trishanku has come to denote a middle ground or limbo between one’s goals and one’s current state.

Decades later, I came across movies where lives on new planets are beautifully depicted. I thought it won’t be surprising if people desired to visit such worlds. This brings us to the concept of the metaverse where people can visit a magical world of their choice for an amazing time. In the metaverse, a person can choose an interesting character— her avatar—and accessorise it to her liking. In the metaverse, based on the underlying platform that powers it, one can fly around defying physics or better yet, teleport to any virtual world. There will be virtual worlds that could be spawned instantaneously on demand or those that are available continuously for its virtual avatar-clad visitors unless a massive volcano wipes out internet connections in the real world.

Let’s talk real-world examples. Sportswear firm Nike recently announced its virtual world called Nikeland in the metaverse. It’s a space for the brand’s fans to connect, create, share experiences and compete. Enterprises in the B2B space have also started adopting the metaverse for their employees to have productive conversations. These virtual worlds are digital twins of their real world facilities that enable easier employee onboarding, new equipment and process training for enhanced productivity and finally a breakout space for employees to engage with each other. Reliance Industries is investing heavily in creating digital twins of its subsea operations so employees visiting those sites can hereafter become a reality since it requires a click of a button and no real diving.

The metaverse also helps enterprises generate revenue, besides enabling sales training using role-play in realistic customer worlds. For example, Cisco’s Kalki platform not only allows sales training but also provides sales enablement by bringing the customer and the vendor sales team together inside a virtual world similar to that of the customer’s industry.

One of the earliest metaverses most may recall is the platform Second Life that allowed visitors to join and chat with each other using regular computers. Fast forward to 2022— computing devices are about eight times faster at a similar price point and powerful computing devices can be handheld or even head-worn—and a new paradigm of how metaverses can be experienced has emerged, using virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) technologies.

Several products available in the market today, including Facebook’s VR headset Oculus Quest 2, allow users to get a full immersive experience of the metaverse. While VR headsets provide a rich immersive experience, AR headsets like Microsoft’s HoloLens 2 also allow users to not feel disconnected from the real world.

Now, how would one enter a metaverse using an AR headset and explore a new virtual world? What was apt for VR or for PCs need not apply in the same exact means for AR. While it is true that one can experience virtual worlds as well in an AR headset through gestures, I believe AR headset-based metaverse experience is best enjoyed when users see a seamless blend between their real world and the superimposed virtual world. This will allow consumers to comfortably enter the metaverse from their living room or any physical space without the worry of losing sense of surroundings. Wouldn’t it be nice if a regular pair of spectacles like an AR headset in the future allows you to switch between the real world and the virtual world. While most of today’s all-in-one AR headsets are bulky, expensive and have limited computing power, the smartphone-tethered ones are lighter and utilise the phone’s processing power. As of today, a powerful VR headset is about eight times cheaper than a good AR one and thus VR will enjoy good market share in the headset space. AR headset costs will eventually become affordable but the big potential I see today is with a smartphone-based AR experience.

Education at school and college levels has already witnessed tremendous upsurge in the use of AR. A natural extension to the traditional AR experience is through the metaverse where students can connect with each other in virtual labs through regular smartphones and learn content collaboratively. In the manufacturing sector, employees at distant sites can collaborate using traditional smartphones via AR and work together on a holographic digital twin of a network of machines. Likewise, when it comes to sales, virtual customer experience centres can be made available with the click of a button for a customer and enable her to not just interact with the holographic display of products but also have a virtual discussion with the sales team from the experience centre.

Niantic, the parent company of AR game Pokémon GO, is building an AR metaverse to enable a new era of gaming where users can create and share unique experiences with other members. It may be possible that every such experience can then be sold off as a non-fungible token (NFT) in blockchain-based marketplaces, thus creating a much larger value chain.

Epic, Grayscale and a few other organisations have predicted the metaverse market to be worth $1 trillion in the next few decades. If this were to happen, while VR is playing its role in enabling metaverse experiences, I firmly believe smartphone-based AR metaverse experiences will need to take off and that will provide the thrust for the market to reach the estimated numbers.

(Hemanth Satyanarayana is founder and CEO of Imaginate)