Published on the 04/02/2022 | Written by Heather Wright
In Neal Stephenson’s 1992 sci-fi novel Snow Crash, the lead characters grapple with the snow crash datafile in the metaverse. Fast forward 30 years, and businesses around the world are grappling with the metaverse – and what their role in it will be.
The metaverse, a term first coined by Stephenson in Snow Crash, was primarily the domain of sci-fi fans until it burst into public consciousness last year when Facebook in particular started pushing the idea, ultimately changing its name in October to Meta.
Other tech companies have been quick to jump onboard. At this year’s CES, every man and his dog was proclaiming their metaverse offerings, from Microsoft Mesh and Snapdragon Spaces’ integrated AR software for the consumer and enterprise sectors, to digital twin robots, smart glasses and haptic jackets to enable you to feel what’s happening in the promised meta-land. Samsung Electronics America even opened a ‘store’ in Decentraland – an Ethereum-based virtual reality platform – saying it was a ‘new metaverse experience [which] brings its spirit as an experiential playground for people to discover the amazing possibilities when technology and culture collide’.
If that has you rolling your eyes, brace yourself, for the metaverse, like most ‘new’ offerings, comes with plenty of hype and hyperbole. But while most – including Meta, nee Facebook, itself – agree that the metaverse is still years away, many are also suggesting companies should be at least considering what it offers for their own business.
“[The] metaverse will allow people to replicate or enhance their physical activities.”
Jeff Wong, Ernst & Young global chief innovation officer made the case in a Fast Company article for business leaders to start taking the metaverse seriously.
He says it has the potential to ‘massively transform the way we work, shop, trade, play, socialise and are entertained both physically and virtually.
“Leaders with a strong innovation infrastructure and execution capability in their organisations should take advantage of the opportunities the metaverse presents,” he says.
Gartner too, says business leaders need to ‘proactively consider’ the impact of the metaverse for future business innovations. It is forecasting that by 2026, 25 percent of people will spend at least one hour a day in the metaverse for work, shopping, education, social media and/or entertainment.
While the metaverse is a world in creation, the basic premise isn’t that complicated. Immersive worlds aren’t new in the gaming world after all, and the metaverse is essentially a network of immersive 3D digital worlds using a swath of technologies including AR, head-mounted displays, IoT, 5G, AI and spatial technologies. Device independent and not owned by a single vendor, it also has an independent virtual economy enabled by digital currencies and non fungible tokens. In theory it would ultimately be a connected, interoperable universe.
“[The] metaverse will allow people to replicate or enhance their physical activities,” says Marty Resnick, VP analyst at Gartner. “This could happen by transporting or extending physical activities to a virtual world or by transforming the physical one.
“Although the goal of a metaverse is to combine many of these activities, there are currently many individual metaverses with limited functionality.”
While for users the metaverse might sound fun – a new, advanced, version of Second Life perhaps – for businesses there’s the potential of heavy investment requirements, not to mention some big shifts in business models, albeit potentially alongside some big opportunities.
That’s not stopping many big names from plunging in.
The gaming sector is leading the charge, selling digital goods in-game, and hosting virtual concerts. Hyundai, meanwhile, launched a Mobility Adventure metaverse space featuring its products and future mobility solutions on Roblox late last year. Warner Bros also took to Roblox to promote a film with a block party, while Gucci launched an interactive virtual exhibit, Gucci Garden, also on Roblox.
Sotheby’s, like Samsung Electronics America, is on Decentraland with a virtual replica of its London New Bond Street Gallery, while accounting firm Prager Metis has opened a virtual three storey property, costing US$35,000, on Decentraland. PriceWaterhouseCoopers meanwhile has acquired virtual real estate in Sandbox.
Meanwhile, the likes of Nike (which acquired NFT studio RTFKT last year and is creating a virtual world, Nikeland), Gucci, Disney and Balenciaga are on meta hiring sprees as they follow Meta – which is recruiting 10,000 people in Europe over the next five years for its metaverse splurge.
Nike currently has multiple job openings for metaverse roles, including a principal innovation engineer.
It’s not all about creating worlds for consumers, though.
Nvidia founder, president and CEO Jensen Huang, says businesses can ‘lean’ on the metaverse, or in Nvidia’s words, omniverse, to increase operational efficiency and reduce wastefulness.
“We waste too much materials because we can’t simulate the logistics and the manufacturing logistics. We waste a whole bunch of things to overcompensate for the fact we don’t simulate.
“We want to simulate all factories in metaverses, in this omniverse, we want to simulate plants in the omniverse, we want to simulate the world’s power grids in omniverse. By doing that we could decrease the amount of waste. And that’s why the economics are so good for companies.”
Ernst & Young India paints the picture of a large manufacturing firm building new smart factories and retrofitting older ones with digital tools to provide mixed reality setups allowing experts in one location to fix problems in distant factories using holoportation or rival offerings.
“It improves efficiency, cuts downtime and helps provide preventative maintenance without sending out expensive teams.”
Some of the most useful applications will be in the induction and training of employees with virtual interactive training, EY says.
That training idea can extend to other areas, from classrooms to training surgeons, for example, while online interactions with digital humans for onboarding employees, customer service, sales and other business interactions, are also options.
Gartner says the opportunities exist across multiple industries.
“Higher education, medical, military and other types of trades can deliver a more immersive learning experience. They don’t need to create their own infrastructure, as the Metaverse will provide the framework.
“Virtual events, having gained popularity over the last two years, can now present more integrated offerings.
“Retail can extend its reach to an immersive shopping experience that allows for more complex products.
Enterprises can achieve better engagement, collaboration and connection with the employees through virtually augmented workspaces.
“Social media can move to the metaverse, where users can interact through three-dimensional avatars.”
Wong, however, notes that early adopters will need to face the challenges of cost, regulation, supply shortages and concerns over safety, including standards.
“The transformative impact of the metaverse will ripple through most sectors beyond media and entertainment – whether it’s a way to try on clothes virtually according to your dimensions in retail shopping, or in training simulations in an educational or job orientation setting, or even in how you interact with a doctor,” he says.
EY says companies should be exploring the metaverse now, at least as far as internal application slike creating digital twins for the office or factory is concerned.
“It need not be an ambitious company-wide rollout, but it is essential to have pilot projects in place and build a core team that learns to integrate the various technologies required.”
Harvard Business Review suggests picking your target demographics and what behaviours are trending with both current and prospective customers now that are indicators of how fast to move into the metaverse; and looking for applications to enable pilots.
Developing digital business strategies that leverage the built-in infrastructure and participants of the metaverse is advocated by Gartner, along with leading idea and innovation management that focuses on new opportunities and business models within the metaverse.
Identifying the unique technology risk, privacy, and security implications is also recommended.