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The Labs.Monks Reveal Their Top 10 Tech Trends of 2021

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While 2020 felt slow, arduous and sometimes scary, 2021 seemed to have raced by—and the state of the world in January seems almost foreign to today (in the best of ways). That’s why we Labs.Monks—the innovation arm of Media.Monks—have come together to reflect on some of our favorite trends, disruptions and technologies that have emerged in the last year and will set the stage for the next.

First, let’s just talk about the elephant in the room: everyone is incredibly excited about the metaverse, and you’ll find that it’s a running theme throughout many (but not all) of the trends our team has highlighted. So if you’re looking for more ways to understand what “the metaverse” means beyond simply being a virtual world, consider this a nice way to get up to speed with many of the metaverse-adjacent technologies that are sure to mature in the near future. Now, without further ado, let’s dive in!

10. Fashion Gets a New (Virtual) Look

One of the earlier topics we explored this year, in collaboration with our fashion and luxury team FLUX, was the virtualization of fashion. The report anticipated many of the conversations that are now closing out the year—namely, the role of personalized avatars and digital assets within the metaverse. “If there ever was one timely trend we managed to point out and detail, it would be this one,” says Sander van der Vegte, Head of the Labs.Monks. One takeaway that Sander finds especially compelling about the virtualization of fashion is the opportunity that it opens up for a more sustainable industry. “I think sustainability is going to make a big step in 2022,” he says.

Monk Thoughts What’s not to love about testing a new clothing line in the metaverse before determining if it’s popular enough to put it in production? Good for business, good for the world.
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Sander van der Vegte headshot
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9. Digital Humans Come Alive

As a corollary to virtual fashion, digital humans were another trend we explored at the very start of the year that has gained new relevance in recent months. By casting a spotlight on Vtubers (content creators who represent themselves in the form of a virtual avatar), virtual influencers, AI-powered agents and more, our report examined how our perception of what it means to be human may be shifting.

Again, virtual agents and avatars in the metaverse will only accelerate the adoption and acceptance of virtual humans, especially as technology closes the uncanny valley. Andrei Ungureanu, Creative Tech Intern, says: “The digital humans lab report really opened my eyes to how much technology has evolved in breaking the uncanny valley. I always viewed this stuff as gimmicks for attracting attention to games or brands, but by seeing all of the applications I see more value in this area.”

8. Extended Reality Gets its Moment

Extended reality isn’t new; consumer VR headsets were made available as early as the 90s, and social media users have enjoyed AR lenses for years. But neither technology has reached its true potential—though that may quickly change in the next year thanks to lowered device costs and increased adoption throughout the pandemic. “I think the biggest trend for the next and coming years is that expensive and hard-to-use tools will become more easily accessible for the typical user,” says Lennart Croese, Creative Tech Intern, who mentions not only virtual reality headsets but also other emerging technologies like deep fakes.

7. Mirror Worlds Emerge

As extended reality becomes more accessible and palatable to end consumers, AR cloud technology—essentially a 3D spatial map overlaying the real world—is set to give way to a “mirrorworld” that doubles our own. Innovation Director Geert Eichhorn notes that many of the major players in AR are already working towards this goal, with Niantic’s Lightship platform, Google’s Cloud Anchors API and Snap’s acquisition of 3D mapping developer Pixel8Earth each serving as key examples. The benefit? More locally relevant, multi-user experiences. “AR Cloud may start to emerge finally, which will allow us to create very precise experiences and gather technologies together,” adds Luis Guajardo Diaz, Creative Technologist.

6. Motion Capture Captures Consumer Attention

Augmented reality and mirror worlds aren’t the only technologies that will bring the virtual and physical worlds together. With a desire to seamlessly interact with virtual objects and spaces, motion capture technology—with the use of suits or even digitally, like the Oculus Quest’s built-in hand tracking—will become an important link.

Monk Thoughts How do we move and see movement in the metaverse? Increasingly, it will be with mocap.
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Portrait of Geert Eichhorn
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Once reserved for film and video game production, motion capture suits may soon make their way into everyday users’ hands with consumer-level versions—providing more precise motion tracking than purely software-driven solutions like computer vision. With Vtubers gaining in popularity, it’s easy to spot the demand for more natural and 1:1 movements. “To embody ourselves in virtual worlds, we’re going to need more accessible ways to represent and visualize ourselves,” says Javier Sancho Rodriguez, Project Manager.

5. Healthcare Gets a Digital Checkup

The pandemic prompted mass adoption of telehealth and other innovations in healthcare—but not without contention. “Healthcare is one of those industries that is influenced by social, political, economic and technological opinions and affects us all so personally, and yet there is so little we can do individually,” says Rushali Paratey, Creative Technologist. “Any innovation or prototype in this field is looked at under the microscope, which makes it extremely tricky to get something into the wheel of the system—but I like thinking about difficult things!” She speaks from experience: as part of our report on how to heal healthcare, Rushali helped the team develop a prototype that translates medical jargon into plain English that anyone can understand, demonstrating digital technology’s power to empower patients.

“Our report hinted at how innovation powered by data could revolutionize the way we see and improve health,” says Geert. “This could have global implications when it comes to identifying new diseases, patterns and cures. DeepMind’s recent breakthrough in determining a protein’s 3D shape from its amino-acid sequence is a strong example.”

4. Game Engines Level-Up Content Production

Game engines—a software framework that includes several tools and features to aid in video game development—aren’t just for games anymore. Unreal Engine, developed by Fortnite developer Epic Games, has been famously used in shows like Westworld and the Mandalorian, not to mention several other films and series. And as the metaverse drives demand for immersive worlds and digital assets, game engines will become crucial in the development of digital experiences now and into the near future.

Monk Thoughts Gaming is an integral part of the metaverse trend, not only because of playful aspects but mainly because the metaverse relies on the same technology and skills we’ve developed over the years in gaming. The metaverse will leverage both and take them to a whole new level.
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Javier Sancho Rodriguez headshot
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3. We Break Some Rules–And Write New Ones

One undercurrent running behind many of the trends of the last year is a desire to break free from convention and old ways of doing—an attitude that drives our team’s thirst for innovation. There’s probably no better example of this in action than enthusiasm around the blockchain and NFTs, which can transform everything from how we shop online to how we pay content creators and much more. All this is to say: expect more disruption as users continue to shake up power structures and democratize their communities.

“I think the biggest innovations will be the ones that satisfy our collective need to break out of restrictions,” says Rushali. “The pandemic caused a lot of restrictions, so we are going to break out of those in the digital world: cryptocurrencies run by decentralized autonomous organizations or maybe even communities governed by them on platforms like Discord or Clubhouse, where people can connect under their own rules.”

2. Crypto Goes Mainstream

Speaking of crypto, many brands took the opportunity to experiment with NFTs and virtual assets throughout 2021. Yet for many, discussion surrounding NFTs remains focused on market speculation and quickly cashing in on hype, detracting from the more revolutionary and utilitarian purposes of the technology. Javier shares his wish for 2022: “We’re already seeing crypto-based products and metaverse as part of our mainstream discourse, but it is very polarized and motivated by a lot of wrong reasons. My hope is that this will settle down into a more nuanced discourse and we can use these opportunities to do good.”

1. Self-Expression and Identity Evolve

The internet has long been a liberating place where people can represent themselves on their own terms. And while anonymity has slowly faded through real-name registration rules on some platforms, metaverse worlds—like Roblox and VRChat—reinforce the utopian vision that you can be anyone online.

Monk Thoughts I’m looking forward to further growth of the metaverse because of the impact it can have on people having more freedom to connect and express themselves.
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Angelica Ortiz headshot
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In addition to that, the ability to adopt different personas can have profound implications for brand building and storytelling. “There’s added pressure to not just deliver any type of content, but content that makes us feel something, be someone and challenges us to think differently.” Angelica adds.

And that’s it! There certainly hasn’t been a lack of innovation over the past year, and as we look ahead to 2022, we can’t wait to see what happens next. But stay tuned, as the Labs.Monks will continue providing regular insights and experimentation into new trends as they emerge. See you then!

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