Metaverse and the hardware that’ll get us there | OPINION

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So, it was back in 2018 when I saw this movie called Ready Player One. The movie halls in India didn’t see a lot of eyes thronging the big screens despite the project being backed by some of the biggest names in Hollywood, like Steven Spielberg. But today, the concepts shown in Ready Player One are being touted as some of the closest examples of what the next phase of the internet could be like. When people ask me: “What is the Metaverse?”, I tell them to first watch Ready Player One. It’s a good representation of what the Metaverse could be. However, there’s a lot more to it than meets the eye.

The Metaverse doesn’t really have a proper definition. It’s not even here yet. It’s currently a science-fiction concept and hasn’t been defined because there’s a lot to be discovered. In general, the Metaverse is where the internet, augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) converge to create a shared online universe where you can be present in a 4-dimensional ecosystem of interconnected technologies. Too complicated?

Basically, it is a virtual world where humans (in a virtual avatar) can work, live, play and interact with each other in real-time. A reason the Metaverse is the buzzword today is that a lot of big tech companies are heavily investing in building technologies for the Metaverse. Even brands such as Gucci, Coca-Cola, and J.P. Morgan are few of the many who have dabbled with the Metaverse so far. Not only that, it has led one of the biggest social media networks in the world to rebrand itself as Meta (previously known as Facebook).

But all this hullabaloo around the Metaverse is just noise if we are not able to figure out how to get enough users online. As per an online report by financial services corporation Citi, it’s predicted that the Metaverse could be worth $8 to $13 trillion by 2030 and could house more than 5 billion users.

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I know, you must be thinking, how are we supposed to get almost 5 billion people to the Metaverse? It’s not like signing up for Facebook on your phone and you’re good to go! A part of the answer lies with the hardware, so let’s talk about some gadgets and accessories that’ll help us become ‘Metazens’!

First Steps Towards ‘Virtuality’

Though the Metaverse is a device-agnostic space, the most commonly known hardware that can help you connect with the Metaverse is a virtual-reality headset. Companies like Oculus (owned by Meta), HTC, HP, and Sony, among many others, have launched their respective VR headsets used for gaming, work, attending virtual conferences, and watching online content. Gaming seems to be the frontrunner for VR headset sales and there’s a good reason why people are investing money in these expensive headsets. Here’s a glimpse of what it could offer.

While some headsets work with the help of a smartphone, there are some that have a built-in processor and storage and aren’t tethered to a computer for that free-movement experience. Having used one for a while now, I still feel that the current generation VR headsets are bulky and need more battery life.

Though VR headsets do a good job tracking your head and hand movements, they still can track your legs. This is where something like the Haritora X comes into play. It’s a motion tracking device for the waist and leg movements and this bundled with the VR headset makes a a good starter kit for your first steps into the Metaverse.

While the above video is a good representation of how we’d like to move in the virtual world, we should all look to start small and invest in VR headsets.

Speaking with Harsh Bharwani, CEO & Managing Director at Edtech institute Jetking, he believes that we’ll nevertheless be capable of having interactions in the metaverse via our telephones and laptops. However, those will become legacy gadgets eventually. In order to immerse ourselves, we’ll need VR headsets. However, for genuine integration among the created and the bodily, augmented reality (AR) gadgets will be needed.

A Sense of Touch

As much as VR headsets are getting us closer to virtual reality, they’re still missing the sense of touch. A Parsian startup called Actronika realised this gap and created a vest called Skinetic that helps you feel tactile sensations. This happens thanks to the company’s native vibrotactile voice-coil motors that can provide a wide variety of sensations. So if an avatar or AI were to tap you on the back or your player took a punch to the abdomen in the Metaverse, the suit will relay that sensation to you via the vest! Cool, right?

A watered-down version of the Actronika is the Owogame Vest which was showcased at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES). But for this technology to work, I feel that game studios will have to add that extra element of haptic feedback in their games and that’s going to be a while.

This sense of touch isn’t limited to the chest or the torso. Some of the brilliant minds at Meta are also working on a similar technology with haptic gloves. So if you’d be shaking hands with someone in the Metaverse wearing these gloves you’d be able to feel that sensation in real-time. Not only that, these gloves will also help you interact with objects in the virtual space where if you pick up a block of wood, you’ll be able to feel that as well. That’s exactly what I am talking about! However, I want the full-body experience and I say this without an implied innuendo. Just like in the movie Ready Player One, where Tye Sheridan’s character uses a full-body suit to make the best of what the virtual world, similarly, we will also need a suit into order to best experience what the Metaverse will have to offer in the future.

Exploring the Virtual World Untethered

In reality we can move freely around the world wherever we want using our feet. That’s not the case with the virtual world. In the Metaverse, users still have to use compatible joysticks and controllers to move their avatar around. That could change with a gadget like the Kat Walk C2 which provides 360-degree free movement in the virtual world from a single spot. It’s primarily an all-direction treadmill with a rig you can pair with your VR headset and joystick. Though you are strapped tightly to the treadmill, you can run, duck and pretty much do all kinds of real-world movements in virtual reality without the risk of running face-first into a wall.

This is the closest you can get to having a free-roam gaming experience from the comfort of your living rooms at the moment. I am sure there will be better iterations of the Kat Walk C2 or similar rigs in the future, and that’s what companies should be aiming for. Creating gadgets for a holistic VR experience.

What’s on the Inside?

You can bet your money on one thing; the Metaverse won’t be controlled by one company. You’ll be able to switch between worlds and able to interact with different universes that could be setup by a Facebook or maybe even an Amazon (virtual shopping, maybe?). But to get your digital avatars online, you also need dedicated machines with powerful GPUs (Graphics Processing Unit) to make sure you’re digital avatar are running around in the Metaverse without any lags or glitches.

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Ashish Agarwal, co-founder of Lepasa Metaverse, an Indian tech startup, says that digital twins or replicas of the real world must be accomplished either by scanning or digital construction. To add to this, GPU’s must be able to create real-time renderings in the cloud or on local devices like VR headsets to make them accessible.

While we are still at a very nascent stage of the ‘Metaverse hardware’ journey, I believe that we are headed in the right direction. Numerous startups and big tech giants have prioritised the Metaverse into their business plans and we are netizens should also prepare ourselves for the transition to the virtual world. And, I said it before and I’ll say it again; to have a rough understanding of what the Metaverse will be like, go watch Ready Player One.

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