BARCELONA — Mobile World Congress made a big comeback this year — but the term on everyone’s lips wasn’t “smartphones” or “5G.”
Instead, it was the “metaverse,” a vague concept used to describe vast digital worlds in which users can work, play games or even party.
The term has been the talk of the tech world ever since Facebook changed its name to Meta, a rebrand largely aimed at drumming up hype for Mark Zuckerberg’s vision for the virtual universe.
And at MWC, the world’s biggest trade show for the mobile phone industry, the word was repeatedly dropped into keynote speeches and splashed across exhibition stands.
“The metaverse is the buzzword of the moment,” CCS Insight Chief Analyst Ben Wood told CNBC at the show, stressing that it’s still quite a nebulous term.
Things got weird
But if the metaverse is already a hazy concept, things seemed to get even less clear at MWC.
South Korean firm SK Telecom had a “4D Metaverse” ride at its booth throughout the week. Attendees sat down on the ride and wore virtual reality headsets. They were then lifted up and carried around a digital representation of space.
The catch? It was just another variation of the same “4D VR” rides companies like Samsung have showed off at MWC in previous years. In fact, many of the metaverse experiences at MWC were VR-based.
At HTC’s stand, visitors were invited to put on the Taiwanese company’s Vive headsets and walk around a virtual museum. They could also walk around in a small pen while exploring a desert landscape in VR.
Over on the Qualcomm booth, you could get cooking lessons or swat giant 3D insects. Orange was inviting people to climb the Notre-Dame Cathedral in VR with Meta’s Oculus Quest 2 headset.
“There’s the weird, wacky and the wonderful on show here at MWC, all trying to jump on the bandwagon that is the metaverse” Paolo Pescatore, tech, telecom and media analyst at PP Foresight, told CNBC.
“It still feels very much far fetched. And it does almost feel kind of ‘Wild West’ right now.”
Telecom companies have begun taking baby steps into the metaverse, with Spain’s Telefonica even appointing someone as its “chief metaverse officer.” Yaiza Rubio will lead a division aimed at bringing the carrier’s metaverse strategy to life, the company said. What that strategy will be is unclear.
“We are thinking about [what] should be the role of a telco like Telefonica in this new evolution,” Chema Alonso, Telefonica’s chief digital officer, told attendees at MWC.
“We don’t know yet. But for sure, we are going to be analyzing this very carefully … because we believe that this movement is unstoppable.”
By contrast, BT said it hasn’t hired a “chief metaverse officer.”
“At the moment, you can put the word metaverse in most things with job titles or initiatives and it sort of makes something that’s not yet that clear seem very modern and exciting,” Marc Allera, CEO of BT’s consumer brands, told CNBC.
Allera described the metaverse as a natural evolution of the internet, adding that some aspects of the metaverse already exist. “Mixed reality experiences are being created today and they will evolve” he said.
Ironically, Facebook-parent Meta — which fired the starting gun on chatter about the metaverse — didn’t have much of a presence on the exhibition floor at MWC. But the company had a lot to say on its development.
Zuckerberg put out a statement saying its metaverse ambitions won’t be possible unless there are drastic improvements in telecoms infrastructure. Dan Rabinovitsj, Meta’s vice president of connectivity, said today’s fixed-line and mobile networks aren’t yet ready.
“We’re working closely with our colleagues to think about what’s the next step in terms of innovation,” Rabinovitsj told CNBC, adding that Meta is also working with telecoms firms.
Another thing that will require more investment going forward is chips. Semiconductor giant Qualcomm, for example, says chips will need to get smaller, faster and less power-hungry if the metaverse is going to work.
“Pretty much everyone who is making a metaverse device at this point is using our chip,” Akash Palkhiwala, Qualcomm’s chief financial officer, told CNBC — including Meta.
Whatever the metaverse does eventually end up looking like, analysts believe it’s here to stay.
“We’re at the beginning of a long journey,” Wood said. “We’ve already had an interesting step in the right direction with the pandemic because we’re starting to live more blended lives.”
“There will be elements of that which will lend themselves to a metaverse-like experience,” he added. “However, it’s going to be a long, long time.”