It seems absurd, but there was life before smartphones. It hasn’t always been possible to read emails and newspapers, watch videos and make instant purchases, not to mention talk to people on the other side of the world using a pocket-sized device.
Smartphones are one example of how technological innovations have affected our existence so profoundly and so quickly that we would be emotionally, socially, and economically lost without them. Disruption on that scale isn’t always easy to predict, but the experts are advising us to prepare for another seismic shift in the form of the metaverse.
If it sounds like an invention of science fiction, well, it is. Sort of. The word metaverse is credited to a sci-fi novel called Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson, published in 1992. Stephenson’s narrative is played out in an artificially generated 3D world parallel to, but also overlapping with, the ‘real world’.
The metaverse space is evolving with the use of VR (Virtual Reality) and AR (Augmented Reality), known as XR (Extended Reality) technologies. And if the experts have read their crystal balls correctly, they have the potential to penetrate every corner of human life – from social interaction, travel and education to economy, finance, production, sales, and marketing. No wonder, then, that businesses are already assessing its potential and considering how to prepare for the challenges.
Many B2C companies have already joined the race to the metaverse with the help of next-gen technologies and NFTs, unique digital assets companies and individuals can create and trade. But some are still finding it hard to imagine what benefits this new reality would bring them. To understand the infinite possibilities the metaverse creates, it's also important to understand what the metaverse is not.
“It's not characterised by a single technology, like VR, and it's not controlled by a single company. We define it as an all-encompassing virtual realm, which incorporates new realities such as AR, VR, and XR into a dynamic digital ecosystem,” says
We'll see metaverse applications scale up over the next few years.
“Many refer to the metaverse as the next era of the internet, and I agree. It will ultimately manifest as a digital overlay on to our physical lives, and allow us to engage with people, places and things more dynamically, no matter where we are.”
The metaverse is already being experienced in virtual reality-based work and socialisation platforms that allow individuals to engage with one another through avatars, Subin explains.
“Virtual destinations and events that are held virtually are already common and available to anyone with a VR headset. In the long term, it will manifest the form of more seamless devices, such as AR glasses, more sophisticated wearables, and connected clothing, that allow us to go from ‘hands-on’ to heads-up – we'll no longer need to look down at our smartphones and type into them to send a message, seek information, or get directions.”
Subin’s assessment aligns with initiatives taken by some companies. Wärtsilä for instance provides innovative technologies and lifecycle solutions for the marine and energy customers. The company uses VR for training and AR for maintenance and training to simulate different operational situations.
“We simulate accurate conditions in VR and, for example, can have a captain test the features of a future bridge,” says Markus Mannevaara, Wärtsilä Voyage, Senior Director of Rapid Innovation, who uses VR in creating future products.
“I believe once there is a metaverse, every company will build a presence there for branding purposes. But creating digital twins that would exist in the metaverse is another thing entirely,” he explains.
According to Mannevaara, 3D technology is not a problem, but the equipment to enter extended realities is lacking.
“VR headsets are still heavy and clumsy, and the accurate reconstruction of a ship and its environment is difficult; a very precise data model is needed for the concept to function. Wärtsilä is already measuring and collecting data on wind conditions, wave height and other sailing conditions, and using that to recreate a situation experienced in the past.”
Maybe someday we could actually use digital twins in real-time maintenance and remote-control tasks.
The reconstruction of ships and demonstrating their layout and systems to customers, as well as maintenance staff, for example, requires a high degree of realism, Mannevaara explains.
“In principle, people could immerse themselves in these digital twins – visiting the ship’s bridge, for instance – and ensure that everything is running smoothly. Who knows, maybe someday we could actually use digital twins in real-time maintenance and remote-control tasks.”
But Subin warns that preparations for what lies ahead are crucial. “It’s critically important for society as a whole and businesses to prepare now, to create a preferred future for this technology – not one that the largest companies create for their own benefit,” she says.
“This means creating strategic plans that thoughtfully consider how businesses and consumers should interact in new ways, how platforms should be created to cater to the infinite needs of different individuals and cultures, and providing information about the metaverse now to the general public so that people can be educated to provide informed consent.”