If the metaverse sounds like an empty buzzword to you, some of the technology on display at CES, the world’s biggest tech fair in Las Vegas, can help bring it to life.
In a few years, you might just be able to choose your car from a virtual showroom, take lessons in a digital museum-like setting and try on a scent-enabled virtual reality (VR) headset for an immersive, multisensory meditation session.
Think of the metaverse as the Internet in 3D: a virtual environment you can be inside of - instead of just starting at on a screen - and where you can socialise, work, shop and play.
While Facebook parent Meta made headlines for its huge bet on the metaverse, renaming the company and pouring tens of billions of dollars into the concept, it’s clearly not alone.
Carmaker Stellantis is teaming up with Microsoft to create a showroom in the metaverse, while Disney is betting on the concept to engage fans. Think of being able to get up close to your favourite Disney characters or sports players in a virtual environment.
Mark Curtis, co-lead of the Metaverse Continuum Business Group at Accenture Song, said companies should “look for concepts easy to lean into” when planning their move into the metaverse.
This could be like going to a virtual concert, or buying and trying on digital clothing. Within companies, it could allow workers with Zoom fatigue to interact with colleagues virtually in a more palpable way than staring at a video call gallery.
New digital environments could be in augmented reality (AR) where you're seeing something overlaid on the world around you, or VR where you're entering a completely immersive space.
“This (VR) is what people typically think of when they think of the metaverse because they think of a headset. But it won't all be that. A lot of it will be augmented,” Curtis told Euronews Next.
He emphasised these virtual environments could be of use well beyond shopping experiences, for instance in financial services, to bring up banking advisors alongside 3D visualisations of what your mortgage and personal finances would look like today and in the future.
Creating digital twins is a key promise of the metaverse, but we’re not just talking about cartoon-like avatars of people: buildings, products, factories and supply chains could all have digital twins able to alert companies of any problem in real time.
From immersive education to AR in surgery
The metaverse could also transform or at least complement education; from kindergarten to university.
The creators of Roybi, an educational AI robot, are launching the RoybiVerse, where users will be able to visit an area where they’ll learn about things like dinosaurs or the human body in a museum-like interactive setting.
There, you could for example zoom into the human heart to learn about the inner workings of the human cardiovascular system.
AR and VR are already proving useful in healthcare settings. In Cambridge, England, medical students are using mixed reality headsets to train on “hologram patients”.
Swiss company Arbrea Labs uses AR and 3D simulation to preview the outcome of plastic surgery - from a nose job to breast surgery - for both patients and surgeons.
“This is super important for the patient because it reduces anxiety,” CEO and founder Dr Endri Dibra told Euronews Next.
As with any emerging and disruptive technology, there are plenty of concerns around the metaverse and whether it could allow companies to access even more personal data.
And a lot of people simply don’t like the idea of wearing VR headsets or AR glasses. The tech is still bulky, can strain your eyes and doesn’t feel like something you could wear for very long.
“We’re going to need better glasses,” Kevin Soltani, Head of Strategy at Roybi, told CES attendees as he unveiled the RoybiVerse.
He described how he’d like to see comfortable AR glasses students could easily use to finish the module they didn’t have time to finish while heading to their next class on a different part of the campus.
The headset that makes you smell the metaverse
There’s one emerging field where it feels worth wearing futuristic goggles, though: OVR Technology has developed a headset equipped with cartridges that emit elaborate scents as you immerse yourself in a virtual environment.
One of these - which Euronews Next tried out this week at CES - is a garden where you can pick roses with your hands, bring them close to your nose and smell their perfume. Another one is a campfire where you can roast a marshmallow on a stick to your liking (ie more or less smoky) and smell it.
The result is impressive: the smells are subtle enough that suddenly, the virtual scene you’re in feels much more real, and you find yourself taking deep breaths that help you relax and genuinely enjoy the experience.
Granted, not everyone might like inhaling scented chemicals for very long, but it’s easy to see how the right dose of this tech could work in health and wellness applications, such as meditation and mindfulness sessions to reduce stress for patients in hospitals or palliative care.
“I think we all can think of memories from our childhood of Grandma's spaghetti and meatballs or the perfume of a loved one. But we don't have the same kind of memories from the digital world,” OVR Technology’s founder and CEO Aaron Wisniewski told Euronews Next.
“This allows us to create these experiences, have these memories and connect with one another more meaningfully, and increase our wellness and our happiness”.
To create realistic scents, OVR’s scent cartridges use a palette of eight primary aromas that can be mixed and matched or experienced on their own.
“It can give us the same variety that we experience in the physical world, but not just recreating the physical world,” Wisniewski explained.
“So, with this new palette, we can create new associations, create new experiences that are native to the digital world, but are just equally as impactful as the physical world”.
Hands-free controls for metaverse tech
As VR headsets get more hi-tech, they’re also expensive, still costing in the hundreds of euros, and many people may balk at the idea of giving voice commands in public or being seen gesturing strangely while trying to navigate the metaverse.
Enter Wisear, a French start-up that’s developing a next-generation human-computer interface for this brave new world: smart wireless earbuds that let you control your device by simple, discreet and touchless actions like clenching your jaw.
“When you’re talking about accessibility, it’s essential to have a device that allows you to control your VR headset and AR glasses in a very accessible, simple, intuitive, hands-free and private way,” its co-founder and CEO Yacine Achiakh told Euronews Next.
The tech uses tiny electrodes to read the user's bioelectrical activity coming from their brain, eyes, and facial muscles and interprets these neural signals in real time as orders to control their devices hands-free and silently.
Its AI algorithms have been trained to identify false positives, like when you’re just chewing gum or nervously clenching your teeth.
Right now, Wisear’s tech can be used to answer a call, play a song, hit pause or skip to the next one, but in future it could be used to discreetly control actions in an immersive virtual environment.
Wisear is in talks with earphone manufacturers, VR companies and hearing aid makers in the hope of bringing its tech to market next year.