“We think of the metaverse as a merging of virtual, augmented and physical reality so that we can engage in the digital world as in the physical world,” says Per Ola Kristensson, Cambridge’s Professor of Interactive Systems Engineering. “These are all examples of extending the reality of our world.”
At one end of the spectrum is VR and the kinds of digital worlds already seen in massively multiplayer online games like Second Life, Minecraft, Fortnite and Roblox. In these environments, your digital image, or avatar, can connect, explore and experience virtual spaces with others who are not physically present.
These could be considered “proto-metaverse” technologies and their uptake is huge, says tech entrepreneur Sam Gilbert, an affiliated researcher at the Bennett Institute for Public Policy.
“Take Roblox, a platform which allows users to programme and play online games. In the UK, there are already 9.4 million active Roblox players. In the USA, a staggering 75% of children aged 9 to 12 regularly use the platform.”
At the other end of the spectrum is AR in which devices like smart glasses overlay information on your view of the real world.
While some of these technologies are already in use, others like mixed reality blending of digital holograms with physical spaces have yet to be fully realised. “Currently, truly optical see-through art, where you see digital holograms in front of you, is very difficult to manufacture reliably with the right field of view,” explains Kristensson.
Crucially, the ambition is for all of these digital and real spaces to be ‘interoperable’, meaning we will be able to move seamlessly across experiences and devices, enabled by services and environments that share information and continue to exist when we’re not there.
So how soon will this new world be a part of our lives?
“I would give a time frame of 5–10 years,” says Dr Matteo Zallio, from Cambridge Engineering Design Centre, who helps organisations to navigate ambiguous challenges for designing inclusive and ethical VR and extended reality (XR) experiences.
“With the internet now influencing 50 to 70% of our daily routines and approximately 86% of the global population owning smartphones, it’s evident how rapidly technology has become an integral part of our lives.
“Consider Apple’s Vision Pro glasses, which offer a seamless integration of computer content right into your eyewear. With simple hand gestures, you can effortlessly zoom in or pinch to close a window. The existing technology exemplifies the potential that lies ahead, and undoubtedly, this field will continue to evolve swiftly.”