BY MARK E. FORSTER
As we were debating the merits of various VR headsets and discussing the release of Apple’s long-rumored VR glasses, a realization dawned on us: the device that truly reigns supreme in our digital world is the one that’s always by our side — the smartphone. And as the metaverse continues to evolve and expand, it’s becoming increasingly clear that these versatile little devices will play a crucial role in our journey into this new frontier. So, let’s put aside the VR headset debates for now and join together in exploring the endless possibilities that await us in the metaverse, accessible right from the palm of our hands.
In the previous editions of Adello Magazine, we have been exploring and sharing ideas around Extended Reality (XR), which includes Virtual Reality (VR), Augmented Reality (AR), and Mixed Reality (MR), and its relation to the metaverse. Besides highlighting the exciting opportunities XR opens for users and businesses, we also expressed our critical views towards XR in general and described its limitations and existing problems.
In order to dot the i’s and cross the t’s, we would like to explain why XR is not the golden key into the metaverse and how the metaverse is mobile-first.
“The metaverse is mobile-first.” This thought may seem quite controversial at first glance. Let’s dive into the detailed explanation, and the arguments supporting this view.
To begin this discussion, one thing should be clear: The metaverse development is still in its infancy, and just like mothers imagine their children to grow up and become someone some day, each visionary or tech guru has a slightly different idealized vision of the metaverse in maturity.
In an ideal world, users can smoothly immerse themselves in the metaverse and enjoy the continuous fusion of physical and digital experiences. This limitless, decentralized world should offer a new level of inter-human communication and co-creation that would help us create a more inclusive and equal world.
We do not assume that there will be only one single meta-world. Just like today’s Internet, the metaverse will be immeasurable.
Think about it, the vast internet the average user can access and see is actually only about (an estimated) 4% of the entire Internet. 96% remains hidden in the deep and dark web!
Access to the metaverse varies by device and persona used. Like with the current Internet, we use different devices and browsers to access it and might create different personalities to represent our interests and be perceived in a unique way. (Imagine how different profile photos across CV’s, LinkedIn, Tinder, and Facebook profiles vary!) In the metaverse, with avatars disconnected from the actual physical self; likely, we will express our desires and imagination even further, and our avatars can be more distant versions of our actual selves.
Coming back to the metaverse access: to ensure a fully immersive, seamless experience, we, as users, will have a choice of devices to enter the meta-worlds. It can be lightweight glasses, lenses, 3D-rendered holograms, projections, or any other new emerging technology.
This idealized version of the metaverse will set the vector for how software and hardware technology must develop.
Today, there is a misconception that to get a glimpse of the metaverse that exists at this point, one absolutely must have VR glasses. In part, it is due to Meta (fka Facebook) trying to push their ailing platform as the only true metaverse accessible via their Oculus VR glasses. Is it realistic to believe we will spend hours every day wearing a VR headset (in essence, a phone strapped to our head with a battery life of just about 2h)? While we are excited by VR headsets, that point of view seems delusional. Worldwide, we have about 6.4 billion smartphones. And about 25 million VR headsets (which, ask people who have them, are barely used after the first weeks of excitement). Unfortunately for Meta, the numbers just don’t add up to a successful business case with mass adoption: it took the iPhone 2.5 years to hit 50m sold devices. It took the iPad just 1.5 years. After ten years, Oculus/Meta Quest has sold just about 20m devices. A smash hit looks different, indeed. We are curious to see whether Meta will adapt their strategy to reality over time.
Unsurprisingly, successful metaverse platforms like Roblox or Spatial allow their users to be present in the meta-reality by using a smartphone or computer (the metaverse 2D experience). And this strategy is quite successful. Like with gaming, a majority of gamers, up to 83%, use smartphones as their main device. A successful metaverse might just require us to be open about a multitude of access possibilities.
“I think there are right now a lot of attempts to do that [to create a metaverse in 2D]. Some of them are really successful. Think about Roblox and other platforms for the desktop, for instance. Those became immediately successful and gained a broad audience. If the metaverse is a single environment that is interconnected with others, then the first step into it is to provide a platform for people. That can be anything, even mobile, so people will get used to it. And after that, you can implement immersive technologies like VR headsets, etc.”
Indeed, why create user acquisition barriers by forcing them to buy VR headsets to enter the underdeveloped 3D environment of the metaverse when you can give them seamless access via devices they already own and love?
This is important because the ability to enter the metaverse via smartphone or desktop sets an absolutely different direction for the metaverse development and may even accelerate it. Furthermore, it is already happening.
At the Meta Connect 2022 staged exchange between Vishal Shah, VP of the metaverse @Meta, and Andrew Bosworth, CTO @Meta, Shah rhapsodized about how great it will be when people can wander in Horizont World via the web. The experience, he says, “takes their ability to connect people to another level.” But since you’re not a first-class passenger equipped with the Quest’s immersive VR goggles, it’s on par with what you’d get in a web browser or mobile device. Bosworth hinted at why Meta might want to invite people to that second-class experience:
“We can’t give everyone an immersive experience,” he continued, “but it’ll be a while before there are enough headsets out there.”
That is how Meta is working on a mobile and web version of its Horizon Worlds virtual reality platform. With this, users will be able to join Meta World without having a Quest VR headset. In addition, there are discussions about releasing Horizon Worlds on game consoles.
Smartphones have been a staple in our daily lives for over a decade, evolving from basic bricks to complex smart devices. From adding a calendar and games to color screens and internet access, the possibilities are endless.
Now, the metaverse is available on mobile, offering a new level of experience, even though it may not be as immersive as other devices. But mobile devices still offer unique benefits for users.
Certainly, buying a VR headset is more affordable today than it was three years ago. Nevertheless, while everyone has a smartphone, a VR headset is a “nice-to-have” gadget with limited functionality and a bulky build that few people are ready to invest in. Why buy VR for the Metaverse when you can try it on your smartphone?
The inescapable truth is that the VR glasses that exist today and are available for the masses are bulky and heavy. In comparison, mobile phones fit in the pocket and are always with users by default. On top of that, the smartphone’s battery life is far superior (ca. 10h) to that of an average VR headset (ca. 2h).
The adoption of new concepts, like the metaverse, is usually faster and smoother through familiar channels. For the moment, smartphones remain the number-one device. People have been using it for years and now have most of their sensitive information (like banking, photos, messages, contacts, and social media access) connected to mobile.
A second thought
Even though the idea of the metaverse on mobile seems quite attractive, it has flaws. Considering the idealized concept of the 3D immersive worlds, it may seem that mobile prevents the metaverse development toward immersiveness. What if the majority of the users are getting settled into the “second-class metaverse”? What if we come across stagnation in the hardware and software development for the immersive metaverse?
This problem generates another one that may have already occurred in your mind: How is this mobile metaverse any different from mobile games? Isn’t it a step back?
Unlike any game, the metaverse is real-time and endless. It is a parallel world where time never stops or pauses; where users define the course of actions and world development;
where every item, action, or creation is saved and cannot be reset; where everyone has a chance to become someone bigger without fighting “unfair” rules and promotional algorithms of social networks; where community matters more than sponsored voices. Metaverse goes beyond any digital game.
For now, it’s too early to evaluate the full impact of mobile on the metaverse. The one optimistic point remains clear. Using mobile as an entry point into the metaverse will accelerate the growth of the metaverse. And if history has taught us one lesson: more users and usage drive innovation.