Metaverse: fashion, education, health care set to grow in the virtual world

Headsets and haptic gloves could leave worlds out of reach of the masses, for now

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The metaverse, a virtual reality platform, hasn't as yet become the life-changing new technology that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg hoped it would.

Having rebranded Facebook as Meta in October 2021, Zuckerberg has placed plenty of importance on it being the next big go-to technology that people will embrace.

The recent Gitex Global event in Dubai — one of the world's latest technology events — offered visitors an opportunity to sample what the metaverse has to offer.

The current education model is not broken, but it does what it was designed to do 200 years ago
Melissa McBride, Somnium Space

The clear winners in this new parallel, virtual and augmented universe would appear to be fashion, education, health care and gaming, offering users a new level of virtual social interaction.

To fully appreciate the immersive experience, most applications that allow entry to explore virtual worlds require a cumbersome — and expensive — headset, haptic gloves, controllers and clothing.

While that could leave the metaverse out of reach for many, some advocates insist the technology will change how we live our lives forever.

New ways to learn

One of those areas is education. Melissa McBride, who displayed her Somnium Space virtual world for teaching children during Gitex, said the metaverse brings new ways of learning to life.

“The current education model is not broken, but it does what it was designed to do 200 years ago,” said Ms McBride.

“The learners are different, so the outcomes and needs are also different. Education now needs to be immersive — this brings the abstract, which needs imagination, to life.”

Users of Somnium Space can navigate around the virtual world as an avatar of themselves, and meet others in the same environment to complete tasks and puzzles.

The platform is paired with a TakeLeap teslasuit, a wearable suit with 68 haptic points capable of simulating a range of physical sensations all over your body.

Somnium is building immersive spaces for learning, with tasks including learning to play a musical instrument such as a horn or making an ice sculpture.

Children typically spend about 20 minutes at a time inside to get a taste of its potential, and many become more confident as a result, Ms McBride said.

“We can’t bring kids to Mars, yet learning about space is inspiring. In the metaverse environment they can visit a Martian landscape where they feel it is real,” she said.

“In a class, some have inhibitions and worry about getting things wrong; that is not the case here. Within five to 10 years, we will likely move towards a decentralised version of education — this is the holy grail of education.”

Bridging gaps

Fashion brands have been quick to harness the metaverse's potential by creating digital shops where avatars try on garments and buy tokens in exchange for clothes in the real world.

Sportswear brand Nike has captured an online audience of millions. Nikeland is the brand’s micro-metaverse built inside the Roblox world, an online gaming platform.

Since its launch in November 2021, it has received more than 21 million visitors and represents 26 per cent of its total brand revenue.

Cevat Yerli, chief executive of the TMRW Foundation, founded Crytek, one of the largest video game developers, and has turned his attention to building 3D simulations, virtual and augmented reality worlds.

“In real life, we physically come together but in digital life, the only way people have come together is via video games,” said Mr Yerli.

“We are not trying to create a dystopian future where we forget the world and only meet online. We want people to be conscious about what is going on in the world and engage.

“It is not escapism, it is a way to bridge gaps.”

One of his projects is Room, part of the “Internet of Life” — a metaverse where real people can meet, collaborate and create without the need for wearable devices.

Meeting rooms can be conducted via a computer or tablet and are more personal than the usual video conferencing.

“Google brought us information, Facebook brought us connectivity — we want to be the technology that brings people together,” said Mr Yerli.

“We are trying to be the second best thing to real life.”

Real-time consultations

The TMRW Foundation supported the Ministry of Health and Prevention in setting up the world’s first metaverse customer happiness service centre, where patients can log in virtually to speak with a doctor.

But metaverse health care is not expected to have a wider impact.

Medcare Women & Children Hospital in Dubai opened a hospital in the virtual world to give patients a preview of a real-life ward experience.

However, the experience requires augmented reality smart glasses that cost around Dh1,500.

“Our ultimate aim is to deliver actual healthcare services by incorporating the delivery of real-time consultations through our team of over 400 medical experts,” said Dr Shanila Laiju, chief of Medcare Hospitals and Medical Centres.

“We expect, in the long-run, traditional telemedicine services to be replaced by a need for metaverse interactions, allowing our patients to receive a more tangible and collaborative service.”

Updated: October 16, 2022, 5:17 AM