Mobile World Congress 2023: The metaverse in the spotlight despite industry's doubts over its future

Mobile World Congress 2023: The metaverse in the spotlight despite industry's doubts over its future

South Korean company SK Telecom's air taxi mockup was one of the eye-catching demonstrations at the 2023 Mobile World Congress (MWC), the world's biggest telecom industry trade show.

Tech companies and wireless carriers at this week's expo in Barcelona displayed advancements to connect people and businesses online, increasingly in new virtual reality worlds dubbed the metaverse.

Visitor Mark Varahona says he felt woozy after trying the flight experience but is still considering buying a virtual reality headset, the hardware needed to enter any immersive digital universe.

"I was thinking to buy it before coming here. And maybe now I will buy them," he said. "They look quite nice".

The metaverse exploded in popularity after Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg pronounced it the next big thing for the Internet in late 2021, renaming his social media empire Meta and investing tens of billions into the idea.

He portrayed it as a 3D community where people can meet, work and play - doing everything from trying on digital clothes, holding a virtual meeting, or taking a trip online.

But doubts about the viability of the metaverse have been creeping in as the initial hype wears off.

Are plans for the metaverse stalled?

Sales of virtual reality headsets in the US slipped 2 per cent by December from the previous year, according to NPD Research. Reality Labs, which makes Meta Quest headsets, posted an operating loss of €12.8 billion in 2022.

Meta has said it plans to hire 10,000 engineers in Europe to work on the metaverse. When asked for an update, the company said, "our expansion in Europe was always a long-term one planned over a number of years. We remain committed to Europe".

"[The] metaverse has not gone away," said Ben Wood, principal analyst at CCS Insight. "But I think there’s a lot more scepticism about what role it’s going to play, particularly in the consumer domain beyond the obvious areas of things like gaming".

The definition of the metaverse has been hard to pin down, adding to the skepticism. It is not the same as virtual reality and its cousin, augmented reality, said Tuong Nguyen, a Gartner analyst specialising in emerging technologies.

"So AR and VR are very closely related to the metaverse in the same way that computers are related to the Internet," he said. "Think of it instead as evolution of the Internet, which changes the way that we interact with the world".

So how should SK Telecom's flight simulator be defined?

New 5G networks will kickstart metaverse

"Technically, it's not metaverse, but kind of metaverse," said Ken Wohn, a company manager.

South Korea's biggest telecom provider teamed up last year with California’s Joby Aviation to develop an electric air taxi service for the country.

One day, the air taxis might operate autonomously, using high-speed 5G wireless connections, Wohn said.

It was a different experience at French wireless company Orange's metaverse demonstration, where users were transported to a futuristic neon-hued technoscape with lightning bolts, giant robots, and a falcon carrying a green orb in its talons.

A dancing figure appeared, representing the movements of a real-life dancer wearing motion-capture gear. It was a dazzling display, though what consumer purpose it had was not immediately clear.

Miguel Angel Almonacid, Orange’s network strategy director for Spain, said it demonstrates how new 5G networks will eliminate lag for metaverse users watching something happening far away.

The metaverse might be more suited to practical purposes in the workplace, analysts said.

"That’s where we’ll see traction first because the barriers aren’t as high," said Gartner's Nguyen. For example, a worker could use augmented reality glasses to pull up diagnostics or an instruction manual.