Flights and Firefighting: Businesses push into the Metaverse

By KELVIN CHAN AP Business Writer
BARCELONA, Spain (AP) – I climbed into the front seat of the air taxi, buckled my seat belt and braced myself as the plane took off. The futuristic cityscape of Busan, South Korea disappeared and a digital avatar appeared with a message on the windshield.
I couldn’t answer when a wave of motion sickness hit me. The virtual reality goggles combined with motion-simulating seats that tilt back and forth and side-to-side made it feel like I was actually floating and maneuvering in the air. I also got so nauseous that I had to close my eyes for the rest of the three-minute ride.
Welcome to the metaverse – sort of.
South Korean company SK Telecom’s air taxi model was one of the most eye-catching displays at MWC, or Mobile World Congress, the world’s largest telecom industry trade show. Tech companies and mobile operators showed strides to connect people and businesses online, increasingly in new virtual reality worlds dubbed the Metaverse, at this week’s Barcelona Expo.
Visitor Mark Varahona also felt light-headed after trying out the flight experience, but is still considering purchasing a virtual reality headset, the hardware needed to enter any immersive digital universe.
“I thought about buying it before I came here. And maybe I’ll buy them now,” he said. “You look quite nice.”
The metaverse’s popularity exploded after Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg declared it the next big thing for the internet in late 2021, rebranded his social media empire, and poured tens of billions into the idea.
He envisioned it as a 3D community where people can meet, work, and play—from trying on digital clothes, to hosting a virtual meeting, to taking an online journey.
But doubts about the viability of the metaverse have crept in as the initial hype died down. Sales of virtual reality headsets in the U.S. through December were down 2% year over year, according to NPD Research. Reality Labs, which makes Meta Quest headsets, reported an operating loss of $13.7 billion in 2022.
Meta has announced that it will hire 10,000 engineers in Europe to work on the Metaverse. When asked for an update, the company said: “Our expansion in Europe has always been a long-term one, planned over several years. We remain committed to Europe.”
The “metaverse hasn’t gone away,” said Ben Wood, senior analyst at CCS Insight. “But I think there’s a lot more skepticism about what role it’s going to play, particularly in the consumer space, beyond the obvious realms of things like gaming.”
The definition of the metaverse was difficult to pin down, adding to skepticism. It’s not the same as virtual reality and its cousin, augmented reality, said Tuong Nguyen, a Gartner analyst specializing in emerging technologies.
“So AR and VR are very closely connected to the metaverse, like computers are connected to the internet,” he said. “Instead, think of it as an evolution of the internet that is changing the way we interact with the world.”
So how should SK Telecom’s flight simulator be defined?
“Technically, it’s not a metaverse, but kind of a metaverse,” said Ken Wohn, an executive at the company.
South Korea’s largest telecoms provider partnered with California’s Joby Aviation last year to develop an electric air taxi service for the country.
One day, air taxis could operate autonomously using high-speed 5G wireless connections, Wohn said.
It was a different experience at French mobile company Orange’s Metaverse demonstration, where users were transported into a futuristic, neon-colored techno landscape complete with lightning bolts, giant robots, and a falcon clutching a green sphere in its talons.
A dancing figure appeared, depicting the movements of a real dancer using motion capture equipment. It was a dazzling display, although it wasn’t immediately clear what its purpose was for the consumer.
Miguel Angel Almonacid, Orange’s Network Strategy Director for Spain, said it shows how new 5G networks will eliminate lag for Metaverse users watching something far away.
The Metaverse might be better suited for practical uses in the workplace, analysts said.
“This is where we’re going to see traction first because the barriers aren’t that high,” Gartner’s Nguyen said. For example, a worker could use augmented reality glasses to call up diagnostics or an instruction manual.
Spanish startup La Frontera uses the Metaverse to provide virtual meetings with “realistic avatars,” said Marta Ortiz de Lucas-Baquero, a business development executive, as she guided me through the company’s Metaverse.
We first arrived at a beach with rocks, palm trees and a light blue sea. Her avatar appeared, a head and shoulders with disembodied hands hovering in front of her chest. We entered a nearby conference room with a boardroom table, where I used hand controls to pick up 3D objects like a toy ray gun and a bottle of champagne.
Other uses of the Metaverse include training for risky, repetitive, or highly detailed procedures such as surgery.
The beach disappeared, replaced by an overturned tanker on fire. A fire extinguisher hung in the air. Ortiz de Lucas-Baquero told me to grab it with my virtual hand and spray it on the flames, which were beginning to die out.
The virtual world could also be useful for showcasing products that are too big to move easily, like private jets. She said La Frontera has digitally cataloged NetJets’ fleet so customers can inspect different models online.
Or they might be too small for humans.
The scene morphed into a sci-fi setting, with crimson walls rising up around us depicting the inside of a blood vessel. Red-brown, ring-shaped blood cells floated by, followed by spiked balls. The wall of the blood vessel opened up, revealing pulsating white stripes on a blue background, representing neurons in a brain.
La Frontera works with drug companies to “show how a drug works at the cellular level in the body,” Ortiz de Lucas-Baquero said. In this case, it was a drug used to treat multiple sclerosis, which attacks brain neurons.

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