Facebook’s decision to rebrand its holding company as Meta, to reflect an increased emphasis on the ‘metaverse’, has focused attention on this vision of the future of the internet as an even more immersive experience. Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg talks about the metaverse as representing the evolution of the social technology from text to images to video and now to a virtual world of AR and VR, what he has termed ‘the embodied internet’.
This is not a new idea. Technologists have been using the term ‘metaverse’ to describe a future version of the internet for decades and the gaming industry has a long history of pushing the boundaries of immersive experiences by connecting gamers using VR. Fashion brands have familiarised us with AR through technologies that enable us to try on clothes or cool sunglasses virtually. PWC has estimated that by 2030, 23.5 million jobs worldwide will involve the use of AR and VR for training, meetings and customer service.
Already embraced by healthcare sector
The healthcare sector has already embraced aspects of the metaverse. Surgeons rely increasingly on VR and AR to prepare for operations and guide procedures. Medical training increasingly uses interactive surgical simulation platforms to enable trainees to work through a virtual operation and then compare their approach with that of leading surgeons. Some of these platforms even use haptic technology to replicate the feeling of holding actual surgical instruments.
A future of holographic GPs and virtual patient groups?
If Zuckerberg’s vision is to be believed, one of the most significant developments for the healthcare sector will be the use of virtual reality to support patients. The idea of a 3D holographic GP or consultant appearing in the patient’s home through augmented reality glasses sounds far-fetched, but by mimicking the physical doctor/patient experience, it might help address some of the perceived limitations of telemedicine. This scenario comes with obvious caveat that it will inevitably favour the more digitally literate and confident.
One of the terms used for the metaverse is ‘shared reality’ – a merging of physical and digital worlds in which users can interact with a computer-generated environment and other users. One of the visions presented by metaverse evangelists is of avatars of colleagues working together in a digital office environment. Were this idea to take off, it is easy to imagine it being applied to patient support groups, enabling people to meet virtually in more immersive formats than a Zoom call. Patients represented by personal avatars, meeting with healthcare providers in a virtual community centre. It sounds bizarre, but those of us who grew up in a pre-digital area will recall a time when carrying a personal computer in your pocket sounded like something from a sci-fi movie.
Facebook has deep pockets and a track-record of spotting the next opportunity or at least of acquiring the next opportunity. It is seven years since the company acquired Oculus VR, famous for its VR headsets used by video gamers. Its championing of the metaverse will be a game changer. Even Mark Zuckerberg may not yet know what the future holds, and like all technological innovations there will be hyperbole, but this new, virtual world is coming to a headset near you.