A digital twin of Singapore's Port by Vizzio

The metaverse, which has been the talk of the town for the past couple of years, surged into the forefront yet again due to Microsoft’s recent acquisition of videogame giant Activision Blizzard. Why? Because they saw the deal, valued at some US$75 billion (S$101 billion), as their ticket into the metaverse. 

In other words, they were buying into the future that tech visionaries are dreaming of – one where a combination of technologies like virtual reality, augmented reality and blockchain synergistically create a persistent, simulated digital space far more massive and intricate than what’s come before it.

And Vizzio, a Singapore-based startup cofounded by CEO Jon Li in 2019, is set to capitalise on that future 3D reproduction of a physical environment within a virtual space quickly and efficiently is the name of the game for the startup who’ve already worked with several household names (and the government) after pre-series-a financing. We speak to Li to get the lowdown on how Singapore can best get ahead of competition with regards to the metaverse – and whether he thinks we’ll end up living there forever.

(Related: Lamborghini’s first NFT will (literally) be out of this world)

Do you think the metaverse is here to stay? 

Although the metaverse only started trending recently, the concept is not new. The metaverse is the convergence of the digital and physical worlds, and has already been adopted by gaming platforms. 

Covid-19 has accelerated an increase in virtual interaction, and consequently, the attraction of meeting in a metaverse. Whether the metaverse will develop into a widely used concept depends on accessibility, the quality of content and relevance. The metaverse will not take off if people are required to wear clunky hardware to view low-polygon cartoon-like content. Vizzio’s vision of the metaverse is an access anywhere, highly realistic, or even hyper realistic versions of 3D virtual worlds that can be experienced even via internet browsers.

Now, what we are seeing is an early version of the metaverse. There’s an opportunity for organisations and governments for the metaverse to evolve into an ‘omniverse’ with multiple cross-chain possibilities. Eventually, brands and governments will move towards the metaverse – whether intuitively or on purpose. This creates a new, global economy with massive opportunities and one that’s on track to exceed the current digital economy many times over. For organisations to succeed, they will have no other option but to join and be a part of the new virtual reality. 

The metaverse might work like a digital twin, which is a virtual model of an office or factory connected to its actual physical counterpart in real time. This allows for real time collaboration across different locations to make businesses more productive. 

Furthermore, with today’s advancement in technologies like artificial intelligence and 5G technology, we’re now in a great spot to view and interact with 3D environments and objects. This means that the new technology will no longer be limited to just an esoteric group. By tapping on AI and machines, we can vastly reduce complexities, time and costs while delivering higher-quality results in the metaverse. This is what Vizzio is achieving today.

(Related: Art, memes, and a revolution: a conversation with Metakovan)

Do you think Singapore – and in particular, Vizzio – is set to capitalise on the metaverse?

Definitely! According to a recent report by Google, Temasek and Bain & Co, Singapore’s Internet economy is expected to reach US$27 billion (S$36 billion) in 2025. As our reliance on the digital world continues to grow, we’ll increasingly see the blend between the physical and the digital world, with consumers driving the demand to interact with virtual assets and experiences. Companies in Singapore are looking at their physical assets and wondering how to transfer activities into the virtual world and prepare their business for virtual reality.

However, before we can fully reap the benefits of this virtual reality, there are a few challenges that need to be addressed in 3D capturing and digital twin technologies that make up the foundation of the metaverse. The current industry 3D capture process relies heavily on manually stitching data points and employing expensive tools such as drones.

Vizzio identified this gap years ago and we have built the technology and IP to be the de facto digital content creator for the metaverse. Currently, with our proprietary AI platform, we are able to clone objects, buildings, cities and humans and create accurate, hyper-photorealistic, and hi-res 3D content. We’re also aiming to set up the world’s largest database of 3D objects and search capabilities. Like how you’d think of Google for search engines or Amazon for e-commerce, we want to be the go-to platform and provider for all 3D digital content. That’s of course a huge ambition, but with over 20 patents to our name and counting, we believe we’re in a strong position to create a holistic offering and are continually innovating to bridge the gaps. 

You’ve had an inside look at China and UK in your years there. How do we match up?

Singapore is in the perfect strategic position with the best of both the east and the west. As a Singaporean, I was keen to bring back my experiences and apply my knowledge and expertise in setting up and leading technology firms in both UK and China. 

Despite us being a small country with limited natural resources, we have a forward-looking government that’s pushing to the future with areas such as GovTech, health tech and smart nation initiatives. The government’s unparalleled support for start-ups has also provided us multiple opportunities to grow and accelerate our innovation drive. 

That said, there is much we can learn from China. When it comes to deep tech, China has created a conducive launchpad for startups to innovate and explore opportunities with the private and public sectors. There’s an immense opportunity in Singapore too, and we already have the digital infrastructure and environment for deep tech start-ups like Vizzio. As a Singapore-made startup that is pioneering 3D tech, we look forward to working closely with the government and industry to foster more holistic public-private partnerships.

(Related: Zaha Hadid Architects and leading designers create 3D printed futuristic chairs)

Outside of the metaverse, what other applications are there for 3D technology?

3D capture technology is currently being used in smart city and urban planning, to test efficiencies and optimisations, improve management of resources and build cities of tomorrow. This also includes developing predictive models that can analyse environmental changes such as coastal modelling, or managing sea traffic in ports.

Another application is in the area of safety and security. 3D capture technology enables better building management planning, safety and adherence to regulations. This includes disaster response, where we support organisations in planning safety routes. Another useful application will be in the retail and commerce industry. As what some forward-looking retail brands have already started doing, the metaverse will take the online shopping and advertising experience of consumers and brands to the realms of 3D, enabling them to better visualise and interact with products, in real time.

As an industry player, what are your opinions on NFTs? 

The Internet today offers a digital overlay of the world, which is driven largely by 2D information, text, audio, images and video. As we progress towards Web 3.0, we aren’t just interacting with digital content – we will start buying and owning 3D things like the way we buy, say, songs and books today. In our vision of the “omniverse”, Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs) and cryptocurrencies may just be our new virtual currency to help facilitate business and transactions in the virtual world. Perhaps in the next five to 10 years, we will be able to buy, own and sell homes, furniture, cars, luxury goods and art in this virtual world. Already, we’re seeing a boom in digital real estate as blockchain technology makes such ownership proprietary. However, the qualitative value of NFTs needs to be addressed since it is currently driven by speculation.

And what about living forever in the metaverse?

Films like The Matrix and Ready Player One gave us a glimpse into how our life could possibly be if we were to live our life virtually. However, instead of comparing ourselves to the fictional situation projected on screen and looking at it as lessons to be learnt, we can turn our perceptions towards – how can we make living in a virtual world a positive experience that’s closer to our reality?

It’s easy to get carried away as we build our own version of the metaverse. However, we must not forget the potential it also holds to further build our cities of tomorrow, and solve global challenges we currently face. 

We shouldn’t mistake the metaverse as a place for us to ‘escape’ to. Instead, we should treat it as an alternate universe for us to problem solve, and create new connections to enhance our physical world. We shouldn’t and can never belittle the power of physical connections, so let’s take the metaverse as a way for us to re-evaluate, be inspired and explore new life possibilities.