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A new season for immersive technologies

The Metaverse is an evolving concept: immersive technologies offer new business opportunities, provided that design can interpret them for the benefit of experience.

Alex Cascarano
Head of Immersive Design Practice

30.08.23 - 6 mins read

After an elated debut to the general public in October 2021, the Metaverse became the tech world’s obsession and won over investors worldwide. Still, an actual product-market fit absence of headsets soon caused a gradual loss of confidence - followed by a market downturn forcing big tech to focus on efficiency and cost reduction. Worse, the unexpected hype for generative AI took over everyone’s attention.

Nonetheless, Immersive Technologies and Spatial computing are still alive and full of business opportunities.

From the Metaverse to Spatial Computing: reducing the inertia between physical and digital looking for product-market fit

Every time a new technology arises, people react in a somewhat codified way, with polarised opinions and a fluctuating cycle. Initially, the amazement at the novelty gives way to an almost uncritical exaltation. One is convinced that the new technology will radically improve our lives, as if by magic. Subsequently, enthusiasm gives way to dystopian opinions, where that same technology becomes the origin of many adverse effects.

Suppose we observe the famous Gartner curve on the Hype cycle linked to emerging technologies. In that case, we note how immersive technologies, particularly the Metaverse, are in the abyss of disillusionment. However, we see signs of immersive technologies’ maturity toward full productivity and effectiveness.

The real value of immersive technologies is reducing the inertia between physical and digital transition. In this way, technologies such as mixed reality or even the augmented reality of our smartphones can find a place in our daily lives. But we still need to find the right product-market fit.

The state of Extended Reality in 2023 shows this gap. For example, Meta Quest 2 has sold well, with an estimated 20+ million units since November 2020, but that’s broadly comparable to sales of the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5, both of which were released simultaneously and had an easier adoption path.

For most VR shoppers today, the device is their fourth or fifth computer after PC/Macs, smartphones, tablets and consoles. Unless an XR device can replace one of those, consumers and businesses are unlikely to adopt it en masse, even if they occasionally find it amusing or useful. 

Naturally, even in the full maturity phase of the technology, XR devices will not replace an existing category of devices. Still, they will integrate systemically, and there is no doubt that the Spatial Computing market will be a new territory where companies can create innovative products and services.

New opportunities for Spatial Computing

The Apple event of a few months ago was undoubtedly significant. It represented a decisive step in finding a place for this technology and related devices but provided a glimpse of the horizon of opportunities. Vision Pro showed how, with the help of spatial computers, we can entertain ourselves and move part of our daily operations from home or the office, improving engagement and individual and collaborative immersion.

Apple Park during WWDC23

Google, on the other hand, with Geospatial Creator, has shown how people can create immersive AR experiences based on their location on a global level, involving the community in creating a new experience layer within places through the smartphone.

Google Geospatial Creator

Extended Reality will put us in a hybrid environment, combining the intuitive familiarity of an immersive experience with the information richness of the Internet. Spatial Computing will take the form of a diversity of devices, headsets, environmental sensors and smartphones.

This technology will also permeate the Business-to-consumer context. At the same time, its use is already consolidated in the B2B and industrial sphere, where specific on-field training activities are developed through Mixed Reality devices, reducing risks for the operator and costs for the company.

The importance of Design in the new interaction paradigm

Digital technologies have drastically changed how we physically interact with computers and the outside world in recent decades. From the introduction of the mouse and virtual windows to the development of touch screens and voice commands, our bodies have become accustomed to dealing with machines and the tools connected to those machines, through an interface: a point where two systems, subjects, or organisations meet and interact.

As designers, we must break the dichotomy between utopia and dystopia and create the conditions for technology to consciously create real value in people’s lives and lead us towards preferable futures.

With our design ability, above all, we need to create the conditions for technology to be adopted by people.

Identify patterns and metaphors to facilitate adoption

When dealing with new technology, there needs to be a transition that people can get used to so they don’t feel too distant, unfit or scared. As designers, we must do user research and comprehend the metaphors, models, mindsets and patterns inherited from other digital or gaming products that are more effective in familiarising ourselves with an interactive space.

Apple unveiled Vision Pro, a device that most people have never tried and might be wary of, but that is like a big screen with which it will not be challenging to interact since we are already used to it.

A sort of ’California Roll approach’ to immersive technology: something that combines well-known elements (cooked fish and fresh cheese) to get the consumer used to more authentic sushi.

Explore new opportunities and take advantage of technological constraints

Tech companies that offer products are already drawing up guidelines for designing immersive services and experiences. On the one hand, it is a tool for the benefit of designers and developers to encourage standardisation and the creation of solutions compatible with the environment in which they live. On the other, it can limit opportunities for differentiation.

When working on a project, constraints are often perceived as limitations or barriers to possibilities. Instead, it is from the limit that we derive meaning and the directions along which to develop solutions. The limit is a test and growth ground from which innovative solutions arise.

Spatial Computing is a blank sheet where designers will define and codify new interaction paradigms, which, in turn, will enhance new usage scenarios. Therefore, we will be translators and real explorers of a new territory in which we create new contexts.

Why invest in an Extended Reality project

We are in a phase in which new interaction paradigms are being defined, where it is necessary to test and make mistakes to understand the best directions. Not all sectors will be able to have an immediate return from an investment in innovation like this.

But, investing now in such projects allows you to gain a competitive advantage in areas that will become increasingly important over time. Resilient companies must have an ambidextrous approach: enhancing the present while exploring the future to seize emerging opportunities and remain competitive.

Starting pilot projects today allows you to minimise the initial investment and thus understand if the direction is correct or if you need to redirect or divert.

Apple Vision Pro

With the right user experience and spatial interfaces, extended reality could seamlessly integrate our physical and digital lives, serving as background support for daily activities while reducing information overload.

But a poorly designed version of extended reality could also do the opposite, making information overload worse by amplifying the onslaught of ambient noise. With these assumptions, Design will be an interpreter of technology, with the critical objective of favouring both companies’ goals and people’s lives, in a context in which the line between digital and physical will be increasingly nuanced, in which we are no longer simply online or offline but connected.

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