Mobile World Congress 2023: The Metaverse in the spotlight despite industry doubts about its future

South Korean company SK Telecom’s air taxi model was one of the most eye-catching displays at Mobile World Congress (MWC) 2023, the world’s largest trade show for the telecommunications industry.

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 says he felt light-headed after attempting the flight experience but is still considering buying a virtual reality headset, the hardware needed to enter any immersive digital universe.

“I thought about buying it before I come 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 as Meta, and invested 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.

Have plans for the Metaverse stalled?

Sales of virtual reality headsets in the United States were down 2 percent year-on-year through December, according to NPD Research. Reality Labs, maker of Meta Quest headsets, reported an operating loss of €12.8 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.”

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“[The] Metaverse isn’t gone,” 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 related 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?

New 5G networks will boost metaverse

“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-based 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 with a green ball in its claws.

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.

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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.