The term “metaverse” was first brought into the English lexicon over 30 years ago, with author Neal Stephenson introducing the word in his 1992 book Snow Crash. For a long while after that, the word was largely under-the-radar, thought of as theoretical when it did come up, but the last few years have seen a surge and subsequent crashing of public opinion about the idea. The surge first came in 2021, when the company then known as Facebook, now Meta, announced their intention to shift their business focus largely towards creating this social metaverse, revolving around virtual reality.
In the time since, we have seen about as strong a representation of the Gartner Hype Cycle as one can remember in recent times, and the last year or so has seen the concept firmly within the “Trough of Disillusionment.” However, while public perception of the metaverse idea may be trending downwards, Apple introducing their mixed reality headset, the Vision Pro, with the idea of “spatial computing” has reintroduced many of the same concepts, albeit under a different name. Additionally, there are still plenty of people and companies still working on many of these key concepts.
A lot of the work being done in this area continues to be spearheaded by geospatial companies and those adjacent to the space, because as we’ve talked about before geospatial concepts are central to this idea of a metaverse. While the hype has died down since that article was published, it remains the case, and this point was recently hammered home once again with the release of a report by the WGIC entitled Bringing Geospatial Context to the Metaverse: Considerations for the Next Steps.
The point of this report, as the title suggests, is to bring “geospatial context to the metaverse and provide specific considerations for the next steps towards expanding the value proposition of geospatial technology.” It’s an extensive look at the ways the geospatial industry can lead the way in developing a lot of the backbones for the eventual metaverse, and what needs to be done to reach those points. It’s certainly more than we’ll cover here, but there are a few interesting points worth highlighting, beginning with this quote in particular.
“The geospatial industry and academic communities are taking an interest in harnessing the potential of the metaverse because it provides an opportunity to develop holistic geospatial systems that can perform complex interactions (e.g., simulations for weather patterns using data from digital twins of the ocean, atmosphere, urban environment, geo-demography and insurance) between various geospatial data and social economic, political, financial, and business systems.”
What was particularly notable about this report was the outlining of the ways in which the geospatial industry already has many of the capabilities that are necessary to make the metaverse work in the ways people hope it will. For example, they note that a metaverse will require “online presence across multiple devices,” and while geospatial data traditionally have required “powerful desktops,” recent innovations for remote sensing and in-the-field operations have allowed for that cross-device workability.
Along with that multi-device operation, they discuss the need for real-time capabilities, particularly at large scales, which is arguably the specialty of the modern geospatial industry. With digital twins and BIM, massive amounts of data are streamed, with real-time information, among many stakeholders, all with regularity. And finally, the WGIC mentions the need for content created and controlled by users – pointing to OpenStreetMaps as an example of geospatial’s harnessing of those abilities – the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning (AI/ML), and 3D modeling.
Any realization of the metaverse as a vast, near-ubiquitous entity is almost certainly years away, and it may be known at times by different names – again, harkening back to Apple’s idea of “spatial computing,” there are a number of references to spatial digital twins in the WGIC report. But we are moving towards this reality even through the “trough of disillusionment,” and the WGIC highlights companies still working towards this in the geospatial companies. Those companies – Esri, Hexagon, Oracle, Schneider Digital, TomTom, and Trimble – are working on the location and 3D modeling technology that will power the metaverse when it ultimately arrives.