This article is part of a VB special issue. Read the full series here: The metaverse – How close are we?
A buzzword among tech buffs, the metaverse can be summarized as a natural evolution of the internet where a network of persistent digital spaces will be populated by people (as digital avatars) hanging out, making a living, and claiming ownership of their digital belongings.
It is expected to take shape over the next decade with technologies such as AR, VR, IoT, 5G, blockchain, and cloud computing coming together and interacting with one another. A few companies are already contributing to the emergence of this virtual space, and they’re big and small and varied in what they do.
On one hand, for instance, tech giants such as Facebook (now Meta) and Microsoft are pumping money into various aspects of the metaverse, starting from AR/VR headsets to communication platforms. Meanwhile, on the other hand, there are smaller players who are working on certain specific elements, like VirBELA for virtual collaboration in work settings, and Second Life for playing around as an avatar in a virtual world.
In the long run, these (and many other) collaborative systems and technologies would be implemented for consumer or enterprise use-cases, allowing people to interact in a way that is far more personal and engaging than Zoom calls.
The exact impact on enterprises will take some time to develop. Take a look at the smartphone revolution that started 15 years ago. At the start, consumer fart apps were briefly the most popular app on the iPhone. People had no actual clue what was being built, but they were sure that something big was on the cards. The smartphone didn’t have an app store at the beginning. 3G networks were terrible. And the batteries were awful. A similar evolution will happen with the metaverse.
Here are some functional areas within the enterprise that are likely to be transformed with the metaverse.
Customer support and experience
Organizations that rely on telephone calls and digital-first channels (automated chats) for customer service will be able to leverage the metaverse to pivot to an absolute virtual-first experience, Nancy Pekala, VP for content marketing and strategy at HGS Digital, said in a blog post. In this experience, digital twins of customer service agents could assist customers in an immersive, shared digital space, helping them assemble, repair, or exchange their products.
This would not only allow customer service agents to do their job better than ever but also build long-term trust between the organization/brand and the customer. For instance, if a customer gets stuck while assembling a piece of furniture, a virtual help desk could literally instruct the consumer using a virtual and manipulatable version of the furniture to give them a clear path to resolve and assemble their purchase.
On the customers’ side, this would be a lot like getting help from a service agent in person.
Sales and marketing
Just like customer service agents, sales and marketing executives within organizations can leverage the metaverse’s ability to recreate the fidelity of real-life communication and visualizations and pitch their products/services to prospective targets, Michael Pryor, head of Trello at Atlassian, told VentureBeat.
According to Pryor, platforms like Zoom do help with sales but the metaverse will make the whole process more lifelike, ensuring effective communication with nuances of body language, tone, and visual cues – while also allowing some level of choice with anonymity at the same time. This would allow customers to be in the virtual outlet and see/experience the product – without actually being there.
A good example of this can be Ralph Lauren’s virtual ski store as well as Drest, an interactive game that allows people to try on different outfits to decide what looks best on them and then connects to an ecommerce platform to buy those looks in the real world. Various automakers, including Nissan and Mercedes, have also created virtual showrooms to give prospective buyers a good look at their vehicles inside out and drive sales.
Organizations, especially those in the retail industry, will also be able to leverage the metaverse for product placement and advertising. It’s hard to envision what these advertisements would look like in the future, but a number of fashion labels are already working in this space, giving a fair idea. Fashion giant Balenciaga, for instance, promoted its real-world collections as digital skins in Epic Game’s Fortnite and launched its own game on Unreal Engine to showcase its Fall 2021 collection. Similarly, Burberry launched in-game outfits for Chinese strategy game Honor of Kings, and fashion-tech startup BigThinx organized a virtual fashion show featuring designs from Rebecca Minkoff, Alivia, and multiple other brands. Many retail players, including Gucci and OTB Group (parent of Diesel), have also set up their metaverse division to make the most of this opportunity.
Large events and conferences
From press conferences to massive trade shows, metaverse will play a crucial role in making large events truly immersive and virtual for enterprises. This is because, when the technology matures, tens of thousands of people – maybe even millions – might be able to see and interact with each other in the virtual world. Imagine the Travis Scott concert Epic Games held within Fortnite, only bigger and better.
Furthermore, the metaverse won’t be bound by the physical constraints of the real world. Enterprises could easily have an event venue with as many meeting rooms and stages as they want, no questions asked.
Engineering and architecting
Enterprises could also leverage the metaverse to create digital twins that could help with engineering and development efforts. For instance, Boeing plans to leverage Microsoft Hololens and 3D digital avatars to strengthen aircraft engineering and prevent manufacturing flaws. Airbus too had partnered with Microsoft to use Azure Mixed Reality and Hololens to reduce design validation time by 80% and accelerate complex aircraft assembly tasks by 30%.
Beyond this, enterprises could also create immersive digital simulations of their production line and identify bottlenecks that could potentially affect the quality or delivery of their product. This way, they could address the issues – be it a machinery fault or human error – well before they affect the real production process. Automaker BMW is using Nvidia’s Omniverse to simulate every aspect of its manufacturing operations. According to TrendForce, the metaverse could propel global “smart” manufacturing revenue to $540 billion by 2025.
Another important application of the metaverse will be in the area of skill development. Instead of gathering employees and training them on actual pieces of machinery, which could instead be used for production, organizations could set up virtual plants where trainees could learn to perform all essential operations from startup to shutdown. They could also use the virtual environment to simulate accidents/emergencies and train workers on safety response measures more effectively. Currently, organizations have to rely on monotonous training manuals or videos for such tasks.
“Immersive learning and training have been common use cases for the enterprise metaverse,” a Deloitte spokesperson told Venturebeat. “During the pandemic, we virtualized Deloitte University and built an immersive space where colleagues from all over the world met and collaborated in a natural way: we held 50+ events just in the first three months. We built a Hololens 2 experience that brings William Deloitte to life and an AR experience that showcases 3D and 2D art on a dedicated wall in the new Deloitte University in India.
“Additionally, through Deloitte Studio, we built immersive onboarding experiences for our new hires,” the spokesperson said.
Since there are no physical constraints in the virtual world, enterprises could also use the metaverse as a way to ensure effective scenario planning and problem management. For instance, an electric scooter company could simulate operational issues stemming from supplier-side bottlenecks (like shortage of a particular component) and develop strategies to tackle those problems well in advance.
“Solving highly complex and mission-critical operational improvement challenges are areas where metaverses can offer superior solutions. The convergence of artificial intelligence, digital twin, and 3D design creates groundbreaking use cases,” the Deloitte spokesperson said.
“Deloitte helped some of the world’s busiest airports optimize airline landing and taking off through 3D digital twin applications,” they noted. A digital twin has also been created for the Hong Kong International Airport to help authorities streamline the design review for new construction projects and deploy resources effectively for maintenance.
More metaverse to come
We don’t know what exactly the metaverse would look like in the next five or six years but these applications might be a good place to start. As systems evolve, the usecases and applications within the enterprise could also become more comprehensive.
Tuong Huy Ngyuen, a senior principal analyst at Gartner, notes these applications are based on what we know today, but in the future, it will all come down to how enterprises are able to utilize the key features of the metaverse.
“How would persistent data be useful for an enterprise? For example, maybe a digital twin overlay onto a machine for employees to view and interact with (for example for repair and maintenance). Or how would collaborative and interoperable content be used? Maybe to allow multiple parties (employees, customers, vendors, etc) to crowdsource information and knowledge and interact with the digital twin, or other data available to the enterprise. Or how would decentralization be useful? For example, having locally stored and processed information to improve on speed and latency,” he said.
“This is how organizations should be evaluating the metaverse – in terms of these (persistent, decentralized, collaborative, interoperable) aspects and how they impact their business,” he said.
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