It’s pretty clear that the broader tech industry is abandoning the metaverse, the immersive 3D world that was endorsed by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in October 2021. Zuckerberg once boasted that the metaverse was going to be the successor to the mobile internet.

Zuckerberg’s decision to bet big on the metaverse set off a firestorm within the tech industry with many companies following Meta’s lead and pledging to spend millions on researching and building products devoted to the metaverse. Meta alone said it would spend at least $10 billion annually on its metaverse development. And consulting firm McKinsey estimated that the metaverse could generate as much as $4 trillion to $5 trillion in value by 2030.  

But fast-forward to 2023 and now we have tech companies back-tracking on the metaverse just as quickly as they endorsed it two years ago. Meta last month announced that it was cutting 10,000 jobs, or 13% of its workforce. This comes after the company slashed 11,000 jobs in November. And many of those jobs reportedly are being cut in the company’s metaverse development area. Meanwhile, Zuckerberg rarely mentions the metaverse and has pivoted much of the company’s focus to generative artificial intelligence. In addition, the Wall Street Journal reported last month that Disney was eliminating its metaverse team as part of broader layoffs at the company.

5G and the metaverse

When Silicon Valley embraced the metaverse, wireless companies understandably saw a huge opportunity to tie 5G to this immersive new world. The industry had already been positioning extended reality (XR) as a key application for 5G, because 5G’s low latency and high-capacity pipes made it a perfect fit for XR use cases. The metaverse just made this scenario even stronger because metaverse applications fit perfectly with the wireless industry’s vision of moving big workloads around using the edge, distributed computing and the cloud.  

At Mobile World Congress in Barcelona in late February, nearly every booth on the show floor had a reference to the metaverse. And wireless operators are still touting the metaverse as a perfect tie-in for 5G. In a recent T-Mobile “Sidekicks Conversation” between CEO Mike Sievert and board member (and former Sprint CEO) Marcelo Claure, both executives talked about how the metaverse will be revolutionary for 5G. “The metaverse will require massive connectivity,” Sievert said. “We have a great opportunity with all the changes that are coming,” Claure added. “There will be no revolution without amazing connectivity.”

And while there’s no doubt that connectivity will be key to many future innovations (Claure also mentioned AI and blockchain), perhaps the wireless industry shouldn’t lump all those technologies together and call it the metaverse.

Nokia’s Chief Strategy and Technology Officer Nishant Batra believes that the wireless industry should start thinking differently about the metaverse. Batra said that much of the tech industry’s metaverse applications focused on the consumer. For example, Disney’s metaverse unit was looking at how Disney could use its existing intellectual property for storytelling. And one of Meta’s early metaverse products was a virtual reality headset, the Meta Quest Pro.

Instead, Nokia believes the most promise today resides on the industrial side. “There is some narrowing of the market because of the macro-economic environment,” Batra said. But he noted that many companies are still investing in technologies for the industrial metaverse like digital twins, which creates a virtual model that accurately reflects a physical object.

Batra added that he believes the sweet spot for wireless companies is on industrial metaverse applications that will improve productivity, safety and efficiency. “We see real gains happening in the industrial metaverse,” he said.

It’s too soon to say where all these promising new technologies like XR, digital twins, or AI will lead us in the future. And whether this new world will end up being the metaverse, or not, is unclear.  In the meantime, the wireless industry may want to reconsider its use of metaverse, particularly as Silicon Valley is rapidly abandoning the term.

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