Exploring the metaverse and the digital future

Sunday 27 Feb 2022 |

Exploring the metaverse and the digital future image

The metaverse: melding physical and virtual worlds

Despite being one of the latest buzzwords in tech, the metaverse can trace its roots back to a 1990s sci-fi novel. Although it lacks a universal definition, it is typically conceptualised as a network of immersive digital environments where people can interact, game, work and shop, often through virtual reality (VR) headsets connected to mobile broadband. There is significant hype and investment among tech and financial communities, which has led to massive market value projections. It has also resulted in some consensus around the principles on which the metaverse should operate: decentralised; interconnected and interoperable; and safe and trustworthy.

Various companies have made the metaverse a strategic priority

Hints of the metaverse are already reflected in some existing applications such as Minecraft, Roblox and Fortnite, which could provide a springboard for the scaled fusion of virtual experiences that has been envisaged. Some parties have displayed a degree of uncertainty and scepticism, but Meta, Microsoft, Qualcomm and other firms in the tech ecosystem are betting big on the metaverse and its potential to characterise the next chapter of the internet. Grand ambitions and long-term funding commitments highlight the desire of companies to lead the charge.

Future digital experiences present opportunities for mobile operators

An increasing number of mobile operators have set out on their metaverse journeys, including AT&T, Verizon, KDDI and SKT (which has developed its own platform called Ifland). There are several ways that operators can participate in the metaverse’s development and capture value, such as by leveraging the advanced capabilities of 5G networks (plus edge compute and slicing technologies) or non-infrastructure opportunities such as utilising current digital identity efforts to generate incremental revenue from new services. However, additional demands on mobile networks could be significant, especially in the case of mainstream adoption.

Tech enablers will underpin sectoral metaverse applications

In addition to high-speed, low-latency mobile connectivity, certain technologies are likely to be central to the metaverse and the fusion of our physical and digital worlds. These include wearables, avatars, artificial intelligence (AI) and blockchain-based non-fungible tokens (NFTs). Combined with 5G (and future 6G) networks, this suite of enablers is poised to disrupt a swathe of industries, such as gaming, entertainment, retail and even architecture and manufacturing. Meanwhile, Seoul has become the first major global city to develop a metaverse platform for public services and cultural events, committing $3.3 million to fund the initiative.

Issues that have troubled the internet era only set to escalate
While opportunities abound, there are multiple barriers to the development of a thriving metaverse that works for everyone. First and foremost, ensuring trust and safety online is a major challenge, with issues such as abuse, bullying and harassment particularly problematic when they impact the wellbeing of children and other vulnerable groups. Challenges relating to cybersecurity, data privacy and false information are also likely to intensify, which will need digital regulation and oversight mechanisms fit for purpose. Even if supply-side issues can be negotiated, action will be required to stimulate user awareness of and engagement with metaverse experiences.

Creating a fully fledged metaverse requires stakeholders to act

As the race to the metaverse heats up, appropriate policymaking will be needed to help turn ambitions into reality while protecting users from harm. Regulatory frameworks will need to facilitate mobile operators’ continued investments in 5G network deployments, ensure fair competition and mitigate concerns pertaining to data privacy, safety and security. As well as planning for the impact of the metaverse on their networks, operators should move now to identify potential opportunities, collaborate with content creators and partner with hardware companies to develop compelling propositions for consumer and enterprise markets.