Why 2022 could be the year to create your avatar and join the metaverse

Why 2022 could be the year to create your avatar and join the metaverse

This story is part of The Year Ahead, CNET's look at how the world will continue to evolve starting in 2022 and beyond.

At the end of August, I was strapped into a complicated headset that showed me a wild test-drive of the future. A $5,000 lidar-equipped headset was on my head, wired with a tangle of cables to a high-end PC on my desk.

I was wearing the Varjo XR-3, a commercial-grade headset with absurdly high display resolution, eye tracking and the capacity to blend virtual objects into the real world using pass-through cameras. With the headset on, I watched Varjo's staff in several locations around the world remotely operate my headset. I saw the Zoom on my laptop, plus a projected PC monitor in my room. We cast anatomical skeletons onto the floor of my office, floated space stations overhead. I conjured a Volvo car that sat next to my desk, then I climbed inside and sat behind the steering wheel.

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The metaverse -- a term that's come to stand for how a galaxy of companies perceive the next wave of online interaction, immersive technologies and cross-platform commerce -- has come on strong at the end of 2021, promising endless things for endless companies. Originally coined in Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash, and since iterated for years, culminating in Facebook's rebranding as Meta, it's now a blanket term for a new wave of ideas after a pandemic that rewrote our definition of virtual. For an AR and VR industry that was struggling to get traction with some sort of name for itself, the metaverse seems to have sparked something.

But the metaverse isn't just about VR headsets and smart glasses. It's an attempt to redefine our entire relationship with the internet, from virtual communities to ownership of digital content. It snakes into gaming, cryptocurrency, NFTs, teleconferencing software and 3D scanning. It's... a lot. And a lot of it now seems as much about hype as it is about true value. Kind of like, well, the growth of the whole internet.

Cast aside those questions about the metaverse, though, because the very nature of the hardware we use to access it will also be redefined in 2022. Three widely expected headsets should become our new reference points for what the metaverse could turn into. The big players? Meta, Sony and, most likely, Apple. Meanwhile, plenty of other companies are already active in other projects.

My time in that Varjo XR-3 headset showed me the types of tech that will soon be key factors for VR: eye and face tracking, mixed reality and screens that could be good enough to replace everything else.

Project Cambria: Meta's successor to the Oculus Quest

Facebook renaming itself to Meta has ignited everyone's recent metaverse obsession, but the change didn't come out of the blue. Facebook has been deep in AR and VR since the company bought Oculus in 2014. The success of the Oculus Quest and Quest 2 as low-priced, easier-to-use and self-contained headsets has made a giant impact on what the concept of next-gen VR and AR devices could become. But Meta's next headset looks to be more expensive, and could finally be a real bridge to the company's AR glasses aspirations.

Why 2022 could be the year to create your avatar and join the metaverse

We don't know a ton about Meta's "Project Cambria" headset, but it's almost certain to be the Oculus Quest Pro device Mark Zuckerberg discussed with me earlier in 2021. Meta doesn't see this next headset replacing the Quest 2, but instead being a step-up model with some premium features.

The headset should have a much-improved display resolution. Perhaps not as great as Varjo's headset, but maybe more than good enough for doing advanced creative work. The headset will also have face and eye tracking, which could be used to capture emotions and reactions and translate them into avatar animations in VR. Eye tracking has other possibilities, too: Graphics can be enhanced and optimized through a process called foveated rendering, allowing the person wearing the headset to choose things in VR by just glancing at them. Eye tracking also has a whole other level of data privacy concerns.

The Meta Cambria will also have color passthrough cameras that should allow layering of VR onto the real world, achieving a mixed reality without using dedicated AR glasses. I saw this effect, too, on Varjo's headset. If Cambria really does springboard mixed reality, it could allow Meta to explore app development for all sorts of ideas that could eventually land on more glasses-like hardware coming in the next few years.

PlayStation VR 2: Sony's big PS5 metaverse push

We know Sony's successor to the 2016 PlayStation VR headset is coming next year. We know it'll work with the PlayStation 5. We know it'll have all new controllers and a higher-resolution display. We don't know how big a splash Sony's VR headset will make, but the possibilities could be larger than you think.

The still-impossible-to-buy PlayStation 5 is capable of some serious graphics and technology, and it already uses a fast SSD, advanced controller haptics and 3D audio in some of its newest games. Epic Games' Unreal Engine 5 looks like it can take the PS5 and other next-gen gaming hardware to photorealistic levels. Its recent Matrix Awakens graphics demo is an eye-opener. Now, imagine that in VR.

The original PSVR debuted in 2016, a year full of other big VR products including the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and Google Daydream. 2022 could be a similar story. But this time, Sony's ability to lean on the PS5's graphics engine could allow it to lead the way, pitching immersive gaming experiences that won't be as easy to pull off on other hardware. Sony's audience of console gamers could also mean a different focus for immersive communities: Will Sony reexplore the idea of its own early metaverses, like the failed PlayStation Home? Or will the hardware lean on already-established relationships with VR game developers to lead the way on new cross-platform experiences?

The PSVR 2 won't be a stand-alone headset, so it'll need tethering with a USB-C cable to the PS5. But the hardware could allow mixed reality through passthrough cameras in a similar way to Meta's next headset, and reports suggest it'll use eye-tracking technology to improve graphics performance in VR even further. Don't sleep on Sony.

Apple's headset: The elephant in the metaverse

The one headset we can't say is absolutely arriving, but which just about every tech reporter and analyst says is next on deck, is Apple's immersive headset. Apple's been expected to have its own AR and VR hardware for years, and the company's already loaded up on many of the necessary technologies to make it happen. Depth-scanning lidar sensors on recent iPads and iPhones show how the headset could blend virtual and real. Apple's iOS AR tech already allows overlaid AR effects, and it handles movement tracking. Apple's own line of high-powered M1 chips have so far proven to be powerful and efficient in the latest Macs and iPads, the same chip could power Apple's headset, too.

While Apple is also expected to be making its own stand-alone AR glasses at some point, recent reports suggest their first headset will be VR, with mixed-reality capabilities that use passthrough cameras to blend virtual and real -- much like, well, all the other hardware I've just discussed. See a pattern? It's expected to have eye tracking, too, and a display resolution that's high enough to replace your monitor.

This headset sounds like it'll be expensive, although if it's aiming at being a pro tool for creators it could be targeting the Mac Pro crowd before it goes mainstream. It's expected to target areas we've already seen in VR: gaming, communication and maybe even fitness.

Apple's hardware could be a huge step, because it could do something Meta and Sony can't: lean into cross-device and phone compatibility. Apple's headset would almost certainly intercommunicate with iPads, Macs, iPhones and even hardware like the Apple Watch. If it does, that seamlessness (even if it's limited to Apple's own hardware lineup) could give it an edge that devices like the Meta Quest 2 still struggle at. Meta's pushing its hardware into being more cross-platform, but working with phone operating systems remains a big hurdle. Apple could reinvent the way these devices interact.

Phone-connected hardware is emerging

Keep an eye on Qualcomm, too. The chip manufacturer has its chips in most existing VR and AR headsets, but the company's work on connecting smart glasses and phones could be the biggest indicator of how future headsets will work on the go.

A surprising number of existing headsets already work under Qualcomm's umbrella: Lenovo's ThinkReality A3 glasses, the Nreal Light. More are expected.

HTC, a longtime maker of VR hardware, has been testing the waters with the HTC Vive Flow, a smaller set of phone-connected VR glasses that also use Qualcomm chips. Whether these smaller, more phone-connected devices work as well advertised remains to be seen.

Microsoft: A future beyond the HoloLens?

Microsoft's been deep in AR and VR for a long time, having already supported its own VR platform called Windows Mixed Reality. Microsoft's AR headset, the HoloLens 2, is nearing its two-year birthday. Microsoft's working on blending its mobile and PC software into a cross-device ecosystem, called Microsoft Mesh. Teams is getting VR support next year. Will Microsoft also make a new piece of headset hardware, too? The HoloLens 2 is an expensive, business-only product. We're still waiting on the company's next steps, but a VR headset that can do mixed reality (like all the above headsets might be able to do) seems like a logical next step.

Don't forget Google

Similarly, Google remains a major force in the picture. Google already had VR headsets, then killed those headsets, and has developed AR software. But the company's work in these fields went dormant a few years ago. Will Google reemerge with a metaverse hardware product next year? It's unclear, but never count Google out of the picture.

So where will we be at the end of 2022? A small prediction: Expect the metaverse to be redefined and rebranded all over again. A year ago, nobody even talked about the idea of a metaverse. Now it's spread across countless news stories. That rebooting of the interest in a "metaverse" was co-opted by Facebook, but there are plenty of other companies who are trying just as hard to define it on their own terms.

VR/AR Productivity Virtual Reality GamingQualcomm Meta Metaverse Virtual Reality Augmented reality (AR) MicrosoftApple Notification on Notification off Sony