material gains
Alternate Reality is Getting Very Real
The metaverse offers opportunity for escapism and empowerment.
Market research published last summer suggests the total AR/VR market will top $700 billion by 2025, suggesting a compound annual growth rate close to 75%. Those are amazing statistics, although we know investment in virtual and augmented reality has surged during the pandemic. Spending on VR has increased, particularly among consumers constrained to stay at home for extended periods. They have time, and they’re bored. But professional applications are also expanding quickly in marketing, retail, healthcare and manufacturing.

As a concept, AR/VR is closely connected with another emerging phenomenon: the metaverse. The distinction between the two is quite blurred. The metaverse is perhaps best envisioned as an alternative reality whose scope extends throughout the entire internet and into the real world. Although there will be elements of virtual reality, and a VR headset will provide one means of entering the metaverse, the big tech giants are thinking much bigger. Facebook’s parent company has even changed its name to Meta, a clear expression of its ambitions.

We can expect this alternative reality to start becoming accessible through gaming and entertainment applications. People will exist and move around as avatars, go to shops, attend concerts. The chance to style our appearance and create our own reality is a fantastic opportunity for escapism. And who could blame anyone seeking an escape from the real real world?

Expect VR headsets to use flex circuits
Figure 1. Expect VR headsets to use flex circuits and IMS to reduce size and improve thermal management.
Important opportunities exist to improve our working lives, however, as well as the quality of services such as healthcare and emergency first response. With the benefit of instant access to building records through the internet, police or firefighters can capture information about the layout, occupants and fire-escape routes within their field of view to preserve their own safety and provide more effective support to those inside.

The opportunities to enhance mental well-being are perhaps even more profound, particularly in the aftermath of the pandemic. The numbers of people suffering from anxiety-related disorders such as agoraphobia are expected to have increased. Those already suffering, having been compelled to stay indoors for extended periods, will likely have experienced setbacks in their battle. The metaverse could greatly expand the prospects for treatment by providing a controlled environment for a patient to enter, move around in, and deal with challenges that are carefully designed to help build confidence.

In a similar vein, metaverse technology can have a democratizing effect on formerly specialized areas of research, like sports performance. Elite sportspeople are known to employ visualization to prepare mentally for high-pressure events. Rehearsing their responses helps fine-tune performance and strengthen the self-control to achieve their ultimate goal. The desire for outstanding achievement is common, yet few can get the right help to use visualization effectively. The metaverse can provide a suitable environment to try it out, with the aid of online courses delivered by your own personal coaching avatar.

Of course, much depends on the availability of suitable software to create these environments and challenges. The scale of the internet can come to the rescue here, enabling facilities to be made available on a similar basis to today’s mobile apps: Visit your metaverse store for low-cost or even free apps, possibly monetized on a subscription basis or through in-app purchases.

Then there is the question of hardware. Apple is reportedly working on a VR headset that is expected to be extremely lightweight – less than one pound, with later models weighing even less. Of course, headset weight is a key metric for any VR application to avoid discomfort. Weight is even more important in the metaverse, however, where users will expect to be comfortable for extended periods.

Numerous challenges must be overcome when packaging high-computing performance into a wearable form factor. Effective thermal management, of course, is extremely important and a huge challenge. In addition to lightweight for comfort, designers will be under pressure to create attractive designs people will want to wear. We can expect creative solutions, particularly using shaped, insulated metal substrates.

On the other hand, the supply of space-saving technologies like flexible printed circuit (FPC) will experience increased pressure. The automotive sector is already placing a huge demand for FPCs, as vehicle electrification continues to rise. It is reckoned future electric vehicles could contain more than 100 circuits on FPCs.

We can also look forward to exciting developments in sensors for contextual awareness. Leading MEMS sensors are already integrating small, embedded machine-learning cores that enable smarter functionality and faster response than their predecessors. Sensing techniques also are undergoing a significant change with the advent of sophisticated depth-sensing based on infrared time-of-flight measurements. These enable much faster and more energy-efficient 3-D perception than conventional imaging techniques. The sum of all these parts could deliver compact, stylish, low-power and comfortable wearables that enable us to exist quite naturally in the metaverse.

As this concept evolves, I am sure the most successful applications will be those that enhance our connections with each other. I would compare it with the original Facebook, which overpowered competitors and predecessors simply by offering more and better ways for people to interact, in real-time and through various groups, to share as many aspects of their lives and interests as they wish.

No doubt escapism and entertainment will be the main priorities for a sizeable number of metaverse users, but I see many opportunities to help people improve their well-being, achieve ambitious personal goals, and enhance working experiences. It does have great potential to make the real world a better place.

Alun Morgan headshot
Alun Morgan
is technology ambassador at Ventec International Group (ventec-group.com); alun.morgan@ventec-europe.com.