You might think that the hype surrounding ChatGPT has not only pushed the topic of the metaverse out of public discussion but sent it straight into irrelevance. So why are we still talking about it? “Because there are two long-term trends that will be driving this topic in very significant ways,” explains Björn Ognibeni, Strategic Director XRLab-MCM at the University of Münster. He revealed what these are – and what they could also mean for the printing industry – at the Online Print Symposium in Munich.
Trend 1: The Internet is becoming a social place
According to the Strategic Director of the University of Münster, it’s worth taking a look at China, because “e-commerce has started there exactly where we left off. There, the idea of shopping together with friends has long been a normal part of apps,” as he showed using the Taobao app as an example. This is neither Rocket Science nor particularly innovative. At the touch of a button, you connect with a friend, both see the same product on the screen at the same time and can talk about it.
Why immersion is so important
But this is not the only indication of the first major trend – namely, that the Internet is increasingly becoming a social, and therefore not so lonely, place. The pandemic also proved this. Because although online meetings have worked much better than anyone could have imagined before, one thing has been missing. “The feeling of really being with the others. I can’t have that online. Immersion is missing,” Björn Ognibeni explained, building a bridge to the headsets. No, not the headphones with integrated microphone, but the virtual reality glasses, like those recently introduced by Apple, which has entered the metaverse world itself. “You can’t explain it theoretically, you don’t believe it until you try it, but headsets can actually give the feeling of immersion. VR and 3D give the feeling of physical presence,” the expert explained, describing how a colleague was playing table tennis in the office – in virtual space and with VR glasses on his head.
Augmented Society follows Social Presence
“The exciting thing is that the other player can be a computer, but also an acquaintance in a completely different place. The immersion, in interaction with other users, ensures that we develop a social presence – the real feeling of being together with others in one place. The real core of the “metaverse”. This can be summarized in simplified terms as follows: Virtual worlds where you can walk in without an on or off switch and meet real people as avatars and – an essential part of the user experience – interact socially. That’s why not every virtual place is a metaverse – and you don’t necessarily need VR glasses, although they can best create the feeling of immersion.
As far as the market penetration of such headsets is concerned, the expert assumes a gradual development, similar to that of personal computers in the 1990s. At first, computers were only used in companies until it was discovered that they could also be used at home. It could be similar with headsets – and virtual reality (I immerse myself in a virtual world) and augmented reality (virtual and physical reality combine with each other) could become something normal in the long term, perhaps not in two years.
What could eventually emerge from this is what Björn Ognibeni called “augmented society,” “where basically our physical world is constantly getting a digital layer that then connects into the metaverse.”
Trend 2: OMO – Online merge Offline
That, in turn, leads directly to the second major trend, he said, which is that offline and online are merging. “If ‘Glasses’ really work as an AR end device, then we may have a third, major revolution as far as digital technologies are concerned,” Ognibeni said. Then there would be AR Glasses alongside PCs and smartphones. “It will be exciting to see what our world looks like then.” In China, he said, this development has long been part of a trend called “OMO,” online merge offline, and has long been considered in many areas. In Europe, the principle of “OOO” applies, online or offline, “and even omnichannel is still often thought of in two silos that don’t merge. People would rather meet in real life, but – according to Björn Ognibeni – the term reality will have to be redefined sooner or later, “namely when we think of the physical and virtual worlds as one.”
No dreams of the future
The Strategic Director is certain that both trends will drive metaverse significantly in the next two years. The question, however, is what companies will do with it and what can already be done with it today: From seminars in virtual space without any zoom or teams, to the topic of machine visualization, virtual factory planning and building inspections even before the excavators start rolling on the real construction site, to the topic of employee onboarding, which is already taking place today at Bosch, for example, with the help of augmented reality. According to Björn Ognibeni, we are even closer to the industrial metaverse, where virtuality is used to support industrial processes, than some would expect.
Why the metaverse can also be exciting for print shops
And the topics of VR, AR and Metaverse will also gain in importance for print shops – and especially online print shops – sooner or later, at the latest when people’s media usage behavior changes noticeably in this direction. This makes it all the more important, as with artificial intelligence, not to close our eyes. With the help and power of virtual reality, immersive experiences can be developed, greater brand awareness created and loyalty generated. Starting points for print shops could be, for example, showrooms, interactive product catalogs, or applications in the area of customization in general.
I would even go one step further. Because, quite honestly, showrooms are nice, but no one wants to go to a showroom where we just present a stack of business cards or something similar. But what do we want? We want ‘virtual haptics’. The more complex print products become, the more complex packaging, books, brandbooks and the like are made, the more we need virtualization before a product is ready. So I imagine going to a virtual online print shop – uploading my PDF beforehand – and then virtually flipping through my magazine there, turning it over. I can’t smell it, but you can virtually ‘touch’ it, or build up the packaging and touch it. All of those are worlds that we need.
If you’re curious about even more details on the Metaverse, you should take another look at Björn Ognibeni’s presentation at the Online Print Symposium 2023: