Building for a Spatial Future

Companies are waking up to the impact of the metaverse

After years of bubbling away in the background as a futuristic concept, the metaverse has recently exploded into the public consciousness. This is in no small part thanks to the efforts of Mark Zuckerberg and his newly rebranded firm, Meta. For anyone who didn’t see the recent presentation where he announced Facebook’s name change, the CEO discussed how the metaverse will look and feel — impressing and baffling in almost equal measure.

As far as I can see it, Meta wants to deliver as much of the metaverse as it possibly can, providing spaces for socializing, entertainment, productivity and more. But it certainly won’t have it all its own way — big names from the tech industry are joining the metaverse discussion, a trend that I only expect to continue.

No matter what you think of the narrative, the metaverse has become a byword for futurism. It increasingly feels like something that companies in the tech landscape need to talk about, or else risk being left behind. After all, if the metaverse is “the successor to the mobile Internet”, as Mr Zuckerberg described it, then pretty much every company out there — in the tech world and beyond — will need to think about what it means for them.

This generates plenty of questions, not least of which type of content we expect to see in the metaverse. This area is seen as inherently spatial and more immersive, meaning that virtual and augmented reality are vital to the concept. In fact, this might be the one tenet of the metaverse that everyone agrees on. But building engaging and meaningful content will be a challenge for many as we move from 2D mobile Internet to a 3D spatial Internet optimized for extended reality (XR).

I’ve been keeping an eye on major news and announcements from Augmented World Expo in the US this week; the event is a summit for the spatial computing landscape and provides a fascinating insight into what’s next for XR.

An announcement that caught my attention was the unveiling of Snapdragon Spaces, a new platform from Qualcomm that provides a baseline set of tools for developers to create augmented reality experiences. To me, this feels like an attempt to normalize a set of technologies for developers working on augmented reality. This includes support for tracking hands, objects, images and positions, as well as for occlusion, scene understanding, plane detection, spatial mapping and meshing. The platform is also compatible with more than 50 devices that are already powered by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon XR1 and XR2 chipsets.

Qualcomm’s goal is to offer an open portfolio and encourage a wide array of players to get involved. It already boasts multiple participants; hardware players Lenovo, Motorola, Oppo and Xiaomi are joined by operators including NTT Docomo, T-Mobile and Deutsche Telekom. A further set of companies flesh out the software credentials, including Epic Games, another firm seen as a potential metaverse curator, Niantic, OpenXR and Unity. There’s a pathfinder programme already open, featuring developers of well-known XR apps such as Tripp, and wider availability is promised for early 2022.

It’s noteworthy that we’re seeing a wider range of companies choosing to explore the opportunities given by XR. There’s a growing awareness of the potential of spatial computing and its ability to massively disrupt how people interact with machines and technology, much like how the computer mouse, touch screen and voice assistants did. Make no mistake, there’s still quite a way to go on the journey. Hurdles need to be overcome in hardware and software development, consumer awareness and interest, the economics of delivering XR at scale and much more. But what we’re seeing is growing consciousness of the need to be prepared for this next step.

As a result, I believe that momentum for spatial computing is building, and as it spreads more widely, it will only increase the need for developers to engage with the technology. I expect that standards and developer toolkits like Snapdragon Spaces will prove invaluable to many — especially those who aren’t well-versed in XR and need a jump start on their journey. As the number of virtual and augmented reality headsets grows and integration expands, the size of the opportunity will prove increasingly hard to ignore. Like it or not, the metaverse bandwagon rumbles on, and I suspect we’ll start to see more people jump on board.