What concrete impacts will the metaverse have on the way we move? Ever since Mark Zuckerberg made it to the headlines by renaming his company Meta, one tends to associate the metaverse with what seems to be their vision and which, 30 years earlier, Neal Stephenson had chronicled in the science fiction novel Snow Crash: a virtual space accessible through a visor, in which each user has their own avatar and can interact with others. In reality, the metaverse is much more than that: it represents an integration of the physical and digital worlds, capable of offering the Internet user a novel experience of reality. In addition to immersive virtual reality, we must therefore consider other technologies, such as augmented reality and mixed reality, but also Artificial Intelligence and the Internet of Things.
Reduced movement, increased mobility
The first effect, and perhaps the most immediate one, we might call indirect. The acceptance of new modes of interaction and the use of new technologies will only reduce our travel. The lockdown periods related to the Covid-19 pandemic have shown us that doing certain jobs (just some), teaching (perhaps not at all levels), and socialising (at least to some extent) is possible even without meeting in person for weeks, thanks to platforms such as Zoom, Teams, Google Meet, and many others. In the metaverse, the experience they are able to offer us will only improve in quality, stimulating us to make an even more substantial use of them. It is no coincidence that companies like Microsoft and Cisco are investing in the creation of virtual reality meeting avatars and holograms capable of increasingly realistic simulations of a co-presence situation.
A new focus for travel: pleasure
The gradual decrease in business travel will increase the significance of leisure travel. The means and places of transportation should live up to expectations. "There is already no long-term future for intercity business travel thanks to the trajectory of online collaboration tools," Devin Liddel, a transportation and digital transformation expert who has worked with Boeing and Toyota, among others, wrote in Fast Company. "Even a 90-minute flight between Seattle and San Francisco - let alone a 14-hour flight to Shanghai - for the purposes of making eye contact and shaking hands becomes wasteful insanity." As a result, cars, trains and planes, as well as train stations and airports, will be more entertainment-oriented and more aesthetically pleasing and designed for comfort.
A revolution for the transportation industry
We are still at the beginning, but the transportation industry will be profoundly transformed by the metaverse. Not only because we will probably be able to test drive a virtual car as if it were real before we buy it, instead of physically going to the dealer. Acura, Honda's luxury brand, launched what it called the first showroom in the metaverse, within the Decentraland platform. What if the same happened for factories? Nvidia and BMW have made the so-called "digital twin" of a production plant, capable of fully replicating its operation. The goal is to simulate current production processes and experiment with new ones before launching them offline, with significant cost reductions and efficiency gains estimated at around 30%. The same approach will be extended to product design, from cars to subway cars. Today, modelling is visible on a monitor, in the metaverse, on the other hand, an engineer will be able to work in direct contact with fully three-dimensional, life-size renderings.
Increasingly intelligent vehicles
What should the vehicles that new applications of the metaverse allow to be designed and tested be like? They should be designed to be able to integrate with the metaverse itself, thanks to advanced technologies such as virtual reality, augmented reality and the Internet of Things. The new aircraft, trains, trucks and automobiles will be computer platforms and will be configured to receive and send data, based on which they will direct their own operation. This will make them hyper-connected with each other and "smart." Think of local buses, streetcars, subways, and trains capable of real-time management of departure and arrival times based on the number of people waiting, or rather, on their way to a station as shown by their smartphone's GPS. The automaker Hyundai, which in June 2021 acquired the robotics company Boston Dynamics, has coined the term meta-mobility to describe how the concept of mobility will be transformed by the metaverse and in particular its union with robotics, which will allow even the most unthinkable smart objects around us to be put into motion.
A brain at the service of the user
What all of this will mean for any user is clear: convenience. The vast availability of data conferred by transportation hyper-connectivity will enable people to make use of it to direct their travel so that it is faster and more comfortable. It is likely that all this will be done by conversing with a virtual assistant and looking at maps, schedules and various information as we walk or ride our bikes, without taking our eyes off the road or the vehicle we are planning to take, and without interruption. In this case, we should imagine a kind of navigator that is able to propose an itinerary truly considering all possible solutions: not only cabs and public transportation such as subways and buses, but also all shared ones such as motorised scooters, mopeds and cars, not forgetting pooling options. Sharing mobility would be strengthened as a result. Once on board, nothing will stop us from donning a visor to dive into virtual reality while waiting to arrive at our destination. Maybe for a ride on that race car we dreamed of.