The Metaverse: Promising technology or speculative bubble?
Virtual worlds have been in the news a lot in the last few months. Where skeptics see only a fad, others imagine a true technological revolution that will transform not only industrial processes and work meetings, but also our way of learning and being in the world.
The trend continues unabated. Since the resounding announcement of Facebook (renamed Meta in October 2021 in reference to the metaverse) announcements and investments have multiplied. Microsoft Mesh, Cisco WebEx Hologram, Nvidia Omniverse: These virtual worlds, in which Internet users interact via avatars, could represent an $800 billion market by 2024 according to Bloomberg Intelligence forecasts. But skeptics point to a speculative bubble that will eventually implode like Second Life which, despite the media buzz in the 2000s, has more or less disappeared from the radar.
Almost two decades after the launch of Second Life, these technologies have evolved. Virtual and augmented reality, 3D modeling and artificial intelligence have been democratized. In June 2022, the alliance of big players in the metaverse (Meta, Microsoft, Epic Games and Nvidia) within a consortium to guarantee interoperability between their platforms, facilitate the adoption of these technologies and make them more accessible. Part of the population, such as gamers, is already familiar with these virtual worlds.
“For nearly two decades, the gaming and entertainment industries have offered escape into virtual worlds such as multi-player online role-playing games (MMORPGs),” Atos Scientific Community points out in its report Journey 2026: Unlocking virtual dimensions. Today, new experiences are emerging, renewing entertainment, online shopping and social interactions. The StoryFile project, for example, proposes preserving our personal history so that it can be told through AI, even after our death.
The exploration of virtual worlds
In addition, the potential of virtual worlds goes far beyond the sphere of entertainment and social interaction. Right now, the metaverse is largely a social experience based on virtual and augmented technologies. What we are talking about are virtual dimensions far beyond the metaverse - those that will transform the way companies interact and perceive value. However, there is nothing particularly new in the concept of 'virtualization' of computing, storage and network infrastructures.
In my opinion, the ongoing virtualization process promises to open the field of possibilities in many areas. Virtual dimensions could offer companies almost unlimited opportunities to escape physical constraints and solve all sorts of problems, such as citing climate change and resource scarcity in particular.
The number of use cases to be developed, perfected and even invented seems infinite. Digital twins already enable virtually all kinds of objects to be reproduced. The modeling can be so accurate that results can be predicted for scenarios that have never been encountered before in the real world. It will be fascinating to see how this trend evolves.
The British government has even launched a national program, the National Digital Twin Programme, to develop new economic models, services and markets based on the virtual representation of national physical infrastructure. This will not only improve the quality and safety of the latter, but also reduce their environmental footprint by optimizing resource management in a circular economy approach. In another example, German elevator maintenance and manufacturing company Thyssenkrupp Elevator is using HoloLens technology to facilitate repair and maintenance. Equipped with an augmented reality headset, technicians can benefit from the assistance of an engineer who advises them remotely when they have to carry out a repair on an elevator.
The real world and the virtual world will thus interact ever more closely. We can design something in a virtual job and 3D print it in the physical world, use a TV screen as a window to the virtual world when the TV is not in use.
A technology that's here to stay?
In design and innovation, the metaverse is increasingly seen as an indispensable ally. With the emergence of these new operational modes, the Journey 2026 report explains, “some of these benefits are being translated into the real world in the form of optimized designs in 3D printing, novel molecules and chemical processes discovered using supercomputers or quantum computer simulation, and intelligent automation of physical processes.”
Our very relationship to knowledge could thus be transformed in the era of the metaverse. These technologies significantly improve the effectiveness of learning and development by adding simulated experiences and applications — including the possibility of simulated emotional responses via emerging brain-computer interfaces; these are new existential modes in which the virtual plays a leading role. I also anticipate the growing importance of avatars in the future. Augmented reality and virtual reality are now combined with AI to create the next generation of personalized virtual assistants: collaborative robots (or cobots), holograms, etc.
However, in order to become established in habits and processes, the use cases of the metaverse undoubtedly must demonstrate solid economic, social and environmental benefits. Vice President of the Future of Work team at Forrester, J.P. Gownder says the same: “In B2B, it is critical to try to solve problems economically by making innovations usable and focusing on employee adoption.”
I would also like to draw attention to the new responsibilities that the progression of these virtual worlds entails. Leaders need to be aware of the risks that freedom specific to the new dimensions of the virtual brings: social disconnection, digital divide, threats to property, privacy and sovereignty.
Finally, it will probably be necessary to take into account the energy consumption and the environmental impact linked to the necessary equipment, which are ideally lower than the benefits generated by using these technologies (reduced travel, optimized resource use, etc.) in order to limit the rebound effect of these new digital tools.