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Thursday, March 23, 2023
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    Welcome to Metaverse. Sort of…

    Kelvin Chan

    BARCELONA, SPAIN (AP) – I climbed into the front seat of the air taxi, buckled the seat belt and braced as the aircraft lifted off. The futuristic cityscape of Busan, South Korea, dropped away, and a digital avatar popped up on the windscreen with a message.

    I couldn’t answer as a wave of motion sickness hit me. The virtual reality goggles combined with motion-simulating seats pitching back and forth and side to side made it feel like I was actually hovering and manoeuvering in the air.

    Welcome to the metaverse – sort of. South Korean company SK Telecom’s air taxi mockup was one of the eye-catching demonstrations at Mobile World Congress (MWC) the world’s biggest telecom industry trade show.

    Tech companies and wireless carriers in Barcelona displayed advancements to connect people and businesses online, increasingly in new virtual reality (VR) worlds dubbed the metaverse.

    Visitor Mark Varahona 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.

    ABOVE & BELOW: Visitors test a SK Telecom VR flight simulation; and a visitor tests a simulator during the Mobile World Congress 2023 in Barcelona, Spain. PHOTOS: AP

    A Orange employee dances during a 5G metaverse dance simulation

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

    He portrayed it as 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. Sales of VR headsets in the United States slipped two per cent by December from the previous year, according to NPD Research. Reality Labs, which makes Meta Quest headsets, posted an operating loss of USD13.7 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 principal analyst at CCS Insight Ben Wood. “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 scepticism. It is not the same as VR and its cousin, augmented reality (AR), said a Gartner analyst specialising in emerging technologies Tuong Nguyen.

    “So AR and VR 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?

    “Technically, it’s not metaverse, but kind of metaverse,” said a company manager Ken Wohn.

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

    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 AR glasses to pull up diagnostics or an instruction manual.

    Spanish startup La Frontera uses the metaverse to provide virtual meetings with “realistic avatars”, said a business development executive Marta Ortiz de Lucas-Baquero as she guided me through the company’s metaverse.

    We arrived first on a beach, with boulders, palm trees and a light blue sea. Her avatar appeared, a head and shoulders with disembodied hands hovering in front of her chest.

    We entered a nearby conference room with a boardroom table, where I used handheld controllers to pick up 3D objects like a toy ray gun.

    Other metaverse applications include training for risky, repetitive or highly detailed procedures, like surgery.

    The beach disappeared, replaced by an overturned tanker truck on fire. A fire extinguisher hung in midair. Ortiz de Lucas-Baquero told me to grab it with my virtual hand and spray it at the flames, which started to die down.

    The virtual world also could be useful for showcasing products too big to move easily, like private jets.

    She said La Frontera has digitally catalogued NetJets’ fleet so customers can inspect different models online. Or they could be too small for humans.

    The scene changed to a sci-fi setting, with crimson walls rising up around us, representing the inside of a blood vessel. Reddish-brown doughnut-shaped blood cells floated past. The blood vessel’s wall opened up, exposing pulsing white streaks on a blue background, depicting neurons in a brain. La Frontera works with pharmaceutical companies to “show how a drug works in the body at a cellular level”, Ortiz de Lucas-Baquero said.

    In this case, it was a medicine to treat multiple sclerosis, which attacks brain neurons.

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