Normally at this time of year as I write this I would be preparing to head to Barcelona for the MWC (Mobile World Congress) show with my 451 Research  analyst credentials. Yet this year the event has been cancelled due to concerns over the spread of the current Corona virus outbreak. For 3 days my diary was full of 30 min meetings every 30 minutes with companies large and small to talk about IoT, VR and AR. Now lots of rescheduling is happening but in general any meetings will be over a web conference system, any one of the many available. It’s just a shame there isn’t a better way, one that engages more of us as humans interacting as we do in a physical environment.

What do you mean there is?

MWC sees over 100,000 people and 2,500 exhibitors fill the halls of the Barcelona Fira. It is an absolute crush to move around but there is clearly a lot for anyone to see and talk about at it. Even back in 2006 we were engaging in virtual world conferences and meetings using platforms such as Second Life. As I have often written and talked about many of those are still incredibly memorable, real people, real conversations but mediated in a 3d editable environment. Yet today we still just have web conference tools only with the ability to share a screen to do a presentation. MWC is, for some, about tangible products, seeing and feeling a new device. That just doesn’t work over a 2d laptop screen. Using technologies such as VR or even better using AR, there is the potential to allow people to all gather around and engage with products. There is potential for haptic feedback to. Yes it’s not the same as being there, but yes it is better than a flat streaming video and audio channel.

Ah! But it’s about people

It is certainly true that face to face conversations and human interaction and relationships is what drives a lot of business. Whether that’s behind the scenes or out front with a consumer brand. It is the nuance of the conversations, the things that happen between the scripted presentations that make a difference. Once again, web conference tools tend to strip that away, so they are not ideal. Virtual environments tend to have direct interactions like choosing where to sit or stand, maybe do a little animated dance. That may sound “unprofessional” but until we can capture the essence of who we are to be transmitted digitally from one place to another we have to rely on a bit of over expression. Again, this is not as good as real face to face, but it’s a step closer than a web conference.

It’s never going to go mainstream

I often hear, and have done over the past couple of decades, that all this blurb about virtual worlds for communication is never going to happen, it’s too hard, too out there, it sounds silly etc. It is frustrating that we are not utilizing the technology fully yet, but I think global situations that we have going on will cause a wider population to start asking and maybe demanding more. Clearly a health concern related to mass gathering for an industry that is about communication technology will trigger some sort of consideration. After all there are 100k people who are now out of pocket with airfare cancellation charges and pre-booked often very expensive hotels (the price sky rockets for the most basic room in a city for these large events) all now trying to engage with whatever was going to be shown at the show. We also have companies asking anyone feeling at all unwell to not go into the office, to work from home for 14 days. These people will potentially find the benefits of not commuting outweigh the need to be in an office. However, they will also find that the quality of any meetings that tended to have (depending on the job of course) are not well supported by the tools we all have today. I realize not all activities, work or play, can be done from the comfort of home and we need social contact to thrive mentally too.

Yet at the same time we also have a global climate crisis, with travel, especially by air and car, identified as a major cause of carbon emissions that need to be brought under control. Communication technology is having a massive overhaul with the arrival of 5G at the same time. 5G is of course another major topic for companies at MWC.

Digitizing the world

The evolution of augmented reality is seeing a lot of work being done on being able to understand the physical world in order to be able to add digital artefacts to it in situ. It is now at the point where high end smart phones have specific technology built in to be able to scan and understand distance and surfaces. Just yesterday I used a new app called Display.land to wave my iPhone around the shelves in my office. It captured, in significant detail, everything on there and generated a 3d model that can be manipulated and moved around. I posted it straight away on twitter, though just as a sample movie. This sort of capture is done by a number of companies, but the speed and accuracy of what can be achieved today is impressive compared to the expense and complexity of 3d capture of any sort up until now. So it is not too much of a stretch to say you could get a virtual invite to my actual office where we could have our meeting, equally you could send me the 3d version of your product and I could have it sitting on my desk or outside my office window with AR. Surely that’s better than a web conf? No travel hassle, very much reduced carbon emission and complex, rich and memorable interaction.

Conclusion

Yes I am still a metaverse evangelist. What I still do not fully get is any objection to pushing the boundaries of what we can do with digitally mediated human communication. I know we will get there, obviously not in a big instant switch. There will always be complications in getting out personal carbon atoms around the place so use of tech, even if its consider to be playful or game tech, would seem to be a stunningly obvious answer. See you in the metaverse.