The term “immersive internet” refers to what I believe will be the next stage in the evolution of the online environment. It’s about moving beyond flat web pages, images and videos to create experiences that are more engaging, as well as conducive to shared interaction and collaboration. It will include technologies such as augmented reality (AR and virtual reality (VR).
Am I talking about the metaverse? Well, you can call it that if you want. Personally, I'm not a big fan of the term, which has become hugely hyped and laden with a great many connotations.
It’s a fact, though, that the internet is constantly changing – from static web pages to the social web and the mobile web. As it evolves, I believe the emphasis will be on immersive experiences that enable users to interact and engage with each other in far richer ways. When you cut through the corporate hype, I think this is what people really mean when they talk about the metaverse, anyway. But I believe the term “immersive internet” will become more common.
With that in mind, here are some of the stepping stones we will hop across in 2024 as we head towards that future.
The biggest technology sensation of 2023 (and no doubt beyond) has many applications that align with the immersive, engaging online experiences that will be created in 2024. An obvious use case is producing the environments, artwork and other assets that make up digital worlds. Mark Zuckerberg himself has said he sees the potential for reducing the time it takes designers to build 3D environments. Another is creating people and characters to populate the worlds – from customer service chatbots to realistic characters in entertainment-oriented experiences that will talk to you as if they are human. Work done to incorporate realistic, talking characters into existing video game virtual worlds is an indicator of where this could be heading.
Immersive online experiences can engage users through headset-mounted screens and speakers, but for the feeling of really being there, nothing beats being able to reach out and touch the world around you. Device manufacturers are working on haptic gloves that provide sensations of weight or pressure to convince the user they are manipulating objects in the world around them. Others are working on devices that fill in for other missing senses, like smell, by wafting scented vapors through a mask. Full-body suits are being prototyped and brought to market, too, and we can expect more progress in this area throughout 2024 as manufacturers create devices that enhance the sensation of immersion in digital worlds.
Mixed Reality - AR And VR Convergence
Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) are distinct technologies with a huge part to play in building the immersive internet. Put together, though, they have even more potential. For example, think of a live concert that also has a digital twin running in parallel as a virtual event. The virtual audience might enjoy the show via VR headsets, while in-person attendees could put on AR glasses and see the virtual attendees standing in the audience alongside them. This convergence of immersive technology to create blended mixed-reality environments where the barriers between the real and the digital are blurred will become increasingly common.
More Powerful, Versatile Or Lighter Devices
This year, we finally saw the launch of Apple's flagship VR device at a price point that positions it as a tool for creatives or a toy for the very well-off. Next year will see new devices from Meta (the Quest 3 as well as a high-end headset known as Project Cambria) as well as potentially Apple’s AR glasses. Some, such as the Apple Glasses, will attempt to offer new experiences, while others, like Project Cambria will aim for a more high-end, refined experience. Others will focus on lightness and simplicity in recognition of the fact that many people still find the size and weight of current headsets to be a barrier to adoption.
Immersive Training And Education
Outside of gaming and entertainment, the most common applications of VR and AR technology are in training. According to businesses surveyed by PWC in 2022, VR trainees absorb knowledge four times more quickly than classroom learners and are 275 percent more confident when it comes to applying skills they learned in training in the real world. Enterprise companies are leading the way in creating immersive virtual learning environments and training programs, and in 2024, we will continue to see growth in platforms enabling smaller organizations to get involved in this trend, too.
Many brands now use augmented reality to let us virtually try on glasses, clothes, or to see how goods such as furniture and paint will look in our own environment. As interfaces and user experiences become more streamlined in 2024, we can expect to see more refined and feature-rich mixed reality retail experiences emerging. Simultaneously, offline stores are incorporating elements of online retail into their in-store experience, attempting to merge the flexibility and convenience of online shopping with the bricks ‘n’ mortar environment.
Online platforms enabling teams to collaborate and work together remotely will become more immersive and useful in 2024. Remote and distributed working is more popular than ever, but there are still aspects of face-to-face communications that are hard to replicate. As a result, collaborative mixed reality working tools will increasingly harness VR and AR to capture and express the more subtle aspects of interaction that translate poorly to video calls.
Immersive Customer Experience
This trend is all about generating more immersion and engagement at every step of the customer journey. From the time we start looking at marketing material and deciding to make a purchase to taking delivery of, using and interacting with support and after-sales services. With the rollout of the immersive internet, we will see VR and AR more frequently becoming a part of the marketing and sales process and brands investing in building virtual environments where they can interact with buyers to help solve their problems, encouraging them to make the leap from being customers to being lifelong fans.
Sex And The Immersive Internet
It’s well documented that pornography and cybersex were among the prominent drivers of the adoption and commercialization of the internet. So, it would be naïve to think they will be less popular in a more immersive, experiential internet. After all, the immersive internet will be built on the principle of allowing more intimate interactions. VR porn has been available for years, but immersive online spaces also have the potential to enable couples who are separated by distance or people with disabilities that limit their activities in the physical world to experiment and develop sexual relationships.
The internet as it exists today can often be a hostile, discriminatory and unsafe space. So there’s no reason to think a more immersive internet, where interactions seem more real, will be any safer. This means careful thought has to be put into procedures and guardrails that mitigate the potential for harm. Today, children in school are taught about online dangers and to avoid hazards such as cyberbullying or misinformation. Developing strategies for applying this safeguarding behavior to the more immersive and realistic online environments of tomorrow will increasingly form part of the debate in 2024.