It can be hard to wrap your head around the "metaverse," the expanding galaxy of online experiences that companies like Apple, Meta) and Microsoft envision as the next stage for the internet. Fortunately, the curious don't merely have to imagine this emerging digital domain — you can start to explore it today.
Your ticket: One of the interconnected augmented and virtual reality devices that are now on the market and that allow you to tap into a growing class of immersive video games, workplace collaboration tools,and other applications that seek to meld the physical and digital worlds.
"The metaverse is not just a virtual reality that we opt into instead of real life," said Michael Pachter, a tech and gaming analyst with investment firm Wedbush. "It'll be a diverse experience for everyone, a lot like today's internet. When you work, you might sit at a traditional desktop, and on the go you use a phone. One does not replace the other. Instead, different devices enhance and extend your experience. The metaverse will be similar."
It's important to note that, in its current form, the metaverse exists as a primordial soup of old and new technologies — as well as some advancements that are still on the drawing board. It will require updated cloud infrastructure, novel operating systems and fully immersive apps. This software layer will rest on top of augmented and virtual reality hardware.
"Gaming is the 'killer app' of the metaverse," Pachter said. "It's the thing everyone can understand right away. So are work apps. These products will push early adoption."
While it might take a decade or more for the market to mature, major tech firms are already investing billions in metaverse products. The gateway for most of us will be VR and AR glasses. For example, Apple is likely to enter the augmented reality headset market soon, according to media reports, with a pricier device targeted at early adopters. The iPhone-maker's biggest rivals, and dozens of startups, have had a head start designing mixed-reality products for businesses and consumers.
Following are some of the most interesting metaverse products that you can buy and use now.
HoloLens 2 - $3,500
Microsoft's Hololens is expensive, and it's not built for consumers — yet. The mixed-reality headset is aimed at businesses in manufacturing, health care and other industries, but it originated as a headset for Microsoft's Xbox gaming console nicknamed Baraboo. The Baraboo's screen was blurry and the device heavy. It wasn't clear Microsoft knew how to market the headset which was eventually scrapped before being re-conceived as a business tool.
The Hololens 2 is lightweight and the image quality is crisp. Unlike other virtual reality products that totally block users' vision, the Hololens makes it easy to switch focus from the real world to virtual images on screen. Its software is designed to aid business collaboration, and the headset is clearly priced for corporate customers. That said, it's easy to imagine Microsoft, which also owns the Xbox brand and several game development studios, producing similar headsets for gaming.
Perhaps more than any other device, the Hololens 2 foreshadows a diverse range of potential uses for mixed reality.
Lenovo ThinkReality A3 - $1,499
Lenovo's augmented reality glasses mimic a large virtual workstation and connect with Windows laptops to enable remote collaboration features. The device comes with swappable lenses and frames, allowing it to be customized for comfort.
Magic Leap 1 - $2,295
AR pioneer Magic Leap's first product is underpowered and requires a somewhat clunky external processing unit. The experience, however, can be stunning. It is also the first professional AR device to offer prescription lens compatibility. In short, Magic Leap's first product may be flawed, but it explains why creative professionals are hyped about AR.
Bonus: Your Smartphone
You can experiment with creating and viewing augmented reality right now, if you're running an iPhone with iOS11 or newer, or a modern Android device. Both mobile device manufacturers offer software development kits that let independent developers and large companies build AR apps. Get started now with apps for iOS and Android.
Meta Quest 2 - $399
It's easy to understand why Meta is hot on the metaverse. The social media company exists on today's smartphones as a suite of applications — Facebook, Messenger, WhatsApp and Instagram — that effectively makes it subject to the rules of companies like Apple and Google. For instance,limited the information Meta could gather from iPhone users.
As a result, Meta wants to create both the hardware — the Oculus VR headsets, for example — and the software needed to navigate the metaverse. That would help avoid a similar quandary, where the company becomes dependent on its VR competitors.
Meta's Oculus Quest 2 is one of the most accessible and affordable VR headsets currently available. Unlike many of its rivals, the wireless device does not require a beefy PC. It runs apps and games natively and is easy to use.
The downside is that the apps are limited and the device is low-resolution compared to its more expensive rivals. The headset also requires a Facebook login, though the company says this will change soon.
With the Quest 2's successor expected in 2022, Meta has an opportunity to both grab a lot of first-time VR consumers and retain their current users by offering a compelling new product. If it's anything like the current Oculus suite of VR headsets, Meta's next headset could be a runaway success.
Valve Index - $999
Video game publisher Valve owns Steam, one of the largest online video game markets in the world. So it makes sense that the Valve also makes the Index VR kit. This expensive system ships with a massive visor, location sensors, controller wands and power supply, and requires a powerful external PC. If you can get past those hurdles, the Index offers an unrivaled VR gaming experience.
Vive Flow - $499
HTC's Vive Flow is a relatively affordable, accessible and portable VR system. The glasses' integrated software focuses on mental and physical health. The device also comes with a smartphone app to help track and manage the time you spend in VR.
Bonus: Google Cardboard - $15
Google Cardboard is an affordable and simple way to experiment with virtual reality. The company sells cardboard kits that use your smartphone as a screen. Cardboard apps are easy to download and generally focus on education and entertainment.
In short, the metaverse now resembles the internet in the 1990s, Wedbush's Pachter said. "It's cool to be an early adopter, but the only thing we know is that we don't know the real winners of 'Web 3' stuff like the metaverse. Meta's Oculus has a big first-mover advantage, and Apple knows how to make products people like. But in 1996, the winners looked like AOL Messenger and Microsoft's Internet Explorer."
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