Wisconsin State Journal: Madison companies, colleges work to embrace the metaverse

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Wisconsin State Journal | Emilie Heidemann

UW-Madison engineering major Alex Janis uses her hands to bend an aluminum rod, testing how much force it takes to change the shape of the malleable metal. But while the pressure she feels in her hands is real, the aluminum rod exists only in her perception.

That’s because Janis is conducting the experiment inside a virtual reality simulation at UW-Madison’s makerspace on North Randall Avenue. She joins dozens of other students as they navigate this strange, disorienting digital world using hand controllers and headsets that look like large, clunky goggles.

What the students see inside their headsets can be projected onto a screen, offering others a chance to view the video game-like virtual space developed by Madison startup EduReality. The company is one of several Madison-area businesses and colleges building and exploring what many futurists and technology experts see as the next big advance in the internet — the “metaverse.”

“It did seem real,” said Janis, 19, who grew up in Waunakee. “I haven’t done that experiment yet in the class, and I’m excited to, but it’s really cool that you can make a simulation that accurate.”

Over time, the goggles are likely to become less bulky and virtual reality programs more sophisticated in their aesthetic and purpose, said EduReality co-founder Clayton Custer.

EduReality launched in 2021 after Custer and his co-founder, Taylor Waddell, felt they were missing out on hands-on learning experiences amid online courses at UW-Madison — so they built their own.

Other Madison metaverse technologies so far include a mobile application that allows users to create digital art galleries; simulations that help prospective paramedics respond to a patient going into cardiac arrest; and work meetings held on Mars (figuratively, that is). One UW-Madison course even allows students to take a tour of the human brain.

The metaverse combines “aspects of artificial intelligence, augmented reality and virtual reality, along with social media, online gaming and other services,” Lyron Bentovim, CEO of Glimpse Group, a publicly traded startup focused on building and creating the metaverse, recently told Forbes.

The concept has been around for decades. The term was coined in the 1992 book “Snow Crash,” and movies like “Tron” and “The Matrix,” the TV show “Black Mirror” and the book-turned-movie “Ready Player One” have popularized variations of it.

More recently, researchers have touted the metaverse as the next age of the internet, as well as a climate of software and platforms that aren’t dependent on traditional business models like advertising to buy and sell products. Some view it as a decentralized, unregulated, dystopian hub where scams could run rampant, but also a nearly physical “place” where people can escape pandemics, social unrest and war.

As more companies and schools adopt such technologies, government and business leaders should consider the metaverse’s economic consequences — who might get left behind — as well as the shifting workplace landscape that the pandemic has influenced and accelerated, said Madison Region Economic Partnership president Jason Fields.


The builders

Arch Virtual, nestled in a small office above a restaurant in the village of Oregon, has created software that several Madison businesses and educational institutions use for training and workforce recruitment.

Jon Brouchoud, Arch Virtual CEO, said the company started out in 2014 with an interest in architecture — “how three-dimensional worlds visualize building designs.” But once the now-discontinued Oculus Rift virtual reality headset was released in 2016, Arch Virtual quickly made a name for itself, even allowing company employees to have work meetings on other planets, Brouchoud said.