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October 13, 2022

The city, through the eyes of the metaverse

The virtual world won’t destroy the city, but it will significantly change it.

In the news

Early in the pandemic, some predicted breathlessly that dense urban centers would soon house more tumbleweeds than residents, workers or shoppers. What, then, would the rise of the powerful metaverse do to the cityscape, asked the authors of this recent Harvard Business Review article: “Will it finally be the big upheaval that obliterates the role of cities and density?”

Their answer is: Nah. And for good reason. Since the 19th century, the authors point out, successive waves of innovation “have brought predictions of the demise of physical location and the death of cities. Time and time again, such prognostications have been proven wrong.”

Make no mistake, though: Covid-related shifts, especially remote work, have caused upheavals in cities. The future of city centers is linked to that of the office, and US office occupancy rates, to cite one bellwether, sit at less than half of their pre-pandemic levels. And the metaverse does have the potential to impact the way we experience work, shopping and leisure.

The Cognizant take

When the demise of the office is envisaged, it often involves a scene of employees fully immersed in a virtual reality (VR)-enabled digital world, with no need for a commute to an urban center—just a small room in their home.

The reality, says Duncan Roberts, a thought leader and futurist at Cognizant, is that whereas using VR certainly has benefits related to remote work and collaboration, “the notion of the metaverse is nuanced; it’s not a matter of straight-up replacing the physical with the digital.”

Roberts says a number of technologies and philosophies are converging that will change the way we regard our urban centers, including the workplace. One of these is augmented reality (AR). Rudimentary, phone-based AR is already changing the way we interact with cities. Google Maps can now show directions layered over the real world in real time, and Niantic (the maker of Pokémon GO) is building Lightship VPS, a way for people to share AR experiences through precise positioning.

This “real-world metaverse” will, no doubt, change the relationship between a population and its landscape as AR capabilities move to AR specs, goggles and other head-mounted displays, spurring wider use. Public information, directions, advertising, computer monitors and, indeed, remote workers can all be displayed digitally—but within, and complementary to, a physical environment.

This marriage of the physical and the digital may not be what immediately springs to mind today when we envision the metaverse, Roberts says, “But make no mistake: The two are inexorably joined, and the tech is ready to take advantage of today.”

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