andreaobzerova - stock.adobe.com
With Microsoft's recent $68.7 billion purchase of Activision Blizzard and Meta's newly revealed AI supercomputer, it's clear that giant technology companies are trying hard to stamp their mark on the metaverse.
The vendors' moves are clearly aimed at building the foundation of what they expect to be the virtual realm of the metaverse, a world that will be inhabited not only by consumers but also by enterprises looking to the metaverse for the next evolution of workplace collaboration and innovation.
Gaming technology companies like Activision are key to helping IT vendors realize the potential of the metaverse for enterprises. Gaming firms may be helpful in solving some of the problems that come with the metaverse, such as how to move across virtual worlds more easily without the dizzying factor caused by many of today's VR headsets.
However, as the tech giants stake their claim to the virtual and augmented environments of the emerging world called the metaverse, major questions loom over what metaverse applications are viable for enterprises, both in the coming years and in the long term.
Also in question are the role of smaller metaverse players and the privacy challenges that this new world brings. An accurate picture of the metaverse remains as blurry as some users' vision after a VR session.
What the metaverse is
Much like the early days of the web, many are still uncertain about what the metaverse actually is.
As of now, references to the metaverse conjure up images of alternative realities such as virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR). The technologies enable users to move between the physical world and an alternative one, whether one that is like the real world or one that needs to be accessed with sensors, headsets or gloves.
These realities are widely used in gaming and have been used by frontline healthcare providers for collaboration among clinicians, for example, and in industry to assist with such jobs as repair and maintenance.
The metaverse is "an infinite domain of shared immersive experiences in which commerce, community, and currency coexists and are co-created," according to a definition in a recently published report by analyst firm Constellation Research.
However, that definition leaves much still unexplained.
Gartner's official stance on the metaverse is that it does not exist in a complete and mature form and so early metaverse trends that are emerging are mostly just ways for vendors to market their brand.
For example, when Meta talks about how its new supercomputer will help create new technologies for the metaverse, the social media company is referring specifically about its own metaverse, the same way companies promote their own brands on the internet.
"Important to the idea of the metaverse is that it is that extension or evolution of the internet," said Tuong Nguyen, an analyst at Gartner.
"We still haven't figured out how to navigate all the different places yet," Nguyen said. "And navigating them requires a certain level of interoperability."
The current stage of the metaverse
How the metaverse will work for enterprises is still largely unclear, but gaming and AI hardware/software giant Nvidia is already out with an avatar- and VR-building building system for enterprises and consumers, as well as digital twin technology around which the vendor is developing its concept of the metaverse.
Digital twin technology helps vendors create virtual copies of a business ecosystem to derive data that might be difficult to gain in the real world.
Enterprises can use digital twins to run simulations and mitigate potential risks such as in the case of autonomous vehicles, supply chains and industrial logistics.
Tuong NguyenAnalyst, Gartner
Nvidia's Omniverse platform enables enterprises to create their own virtual environments and use the metaverse for collaboration and meetings, in effect taking what have become ubiquitous video conference calls from 2D to 3D.
And other applications are ripe for the metaverse, some say.
The Constellation Research report includes other potential enterprise uses for the metaverse such as in customer experience and e-commerce.
Getting to the metaverse
As of now, the only consensus about the metaverse is that it is still unshaped.
"The trend that we're seeing then is everyone is talking about a use case or an application of the metaverse, rather than the metaverse as a whole," Nguyen said.
But augmented and virtual reality experiences currently in use provide a glimpse of what a more wide-ranging metaverse may look like.
"I think there's going to be much better examples as we move along in the same way that, as the internet developed, all these amazing … essential applications have come about that we never we would have imagined before," Nguyen said.
The metaverse will also be an extension of both the internet and the physical world, he said.
"It's not all going to be digital or virtual reality," he said. "We're not going to live in the Matrix," he said, referring to the science fiction film and its virtual world. "I think that's a bit of a silly idea … like 'Oh, my mom's going to sit in VR for eight hours a day because she's retired.' No, she's going to use the metaverse because it's going to tell her all this information."
Innovating for the metaverse
While the tech giants for now are the big players in the emerging metaverse, a host of smaller vendors are also creating technologies for enterprises that can be used in the metaverse or in similar settings.
One such vendor is Hour One, which develops a video creation platform. Using hired human presenters, Hour One uses AI algorithms to turn original footage of the presenter into a limitless number of videos without needing the presenter to sit in the chair again.
"We're kind of creating avatars of people," said Natalie Monbiot, head of strategy at Hour One. "We're really exercising that idea to be able to virtually extend yourself as a human being and to empower yourself in the business world through scaling your own identity and your own ability to communicate."
Hour One has a database of about 100 and counting ready-to-go characters, or presenters, all based on real people who have given the vendor the license to use their likeness. The company then sells these to businesses and enterprises.
"The idea is to help businesses become a more friendly face to engage people with the human touch, but using technology in order to be able to do that efficiently and effectively," Monbiot said.
This use of avatar technology could help create a different kind of work in the enterprise -- an approach to work that adds digital representations of people to work environments.
Alice Receptionist -- a 2016 startup that operates a virtual receptionist and visitor management platform -- uses Hour One's avatars to help its users manage their office building or lobby area with a virtual receptionist.
Based in Las Vegas, the vendor sells its virtual receptionists to organizations around the world. It either uses one of Hour One's premade avatars as a virtual receptionist or programs avatars according to its clients' needs.
In the metaverse, the vendor's technology may enable enterprises to customize avatars without needing to have a physical person re-record their own personification of themselves.
Duality Robotics goes digital twin
Duality Robotics is different from Hour One in that it is not creating an avatar-centered metaverse, but rather a metaverse rooted in digital twins.
Digital twins enable enterprises to create complex scenarios involving multiple machines and humans in various kinds of situations and collect data about those situations, CEO and co-founder Apurva Shah said.
This approach enables users to work around the lack of data that may not be readily available in the physical world, he said.
"If you have an enterprise metaverse with digital twins, you can use it to very intentionally generate the data that your models need," Shah said. "We believe that you want to use both types. So, you want to use physical data or what we call field data as well as synthetic data together because that gives you the best results and gives you the most robust models."
Dealing with bad behavior
The metaverse is expected to serve up challenges for enterprises similar to those they have faced on the internet.
"If you can physically move around people ... there are many opportunities for bad behavior that don't exist on Instagram," said Mike Mason, global head of technology at Thoughtworks, a technology services firm involved in metaverse enterprise applications.
Mason said while the metaverse includes VR, AR and extended reality (a mix of VR, AR and mixed reality), it will be pervasive enough that people will have enough compute resources around their homes that they can interact with the metaverse.
But the hardware and software components in AR, VR, and mixed reality technologies also create serious privacy concerns, said Jon Callas, director of technology projects at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit digital rights group.
One of the privacy worries stems from how connected the devices are to the human body and the data that's being collected as people use the technologies. That data may then be sold to advertisers without the permission of those using the devices.
"Is that device going to be working for you or is it working for the advertisers?" Callas said.
While biometric data that is being collected may be critical to the metaverse system working correctly, the collection process could end up invading some users' privacy, Callas noted.
And removing part of the metaverse functionality, for example, such as taking VR headsets out of a system to eliminate motion sickness-type effects, could diminish the effectiveness of the application.
While the metaverse is still a largely undefined construct, a possible way to address the privacy problem is with policies that control the data that is being collected from those devices, Callas said.
He added that because the technologies that underly metaverse are not new, the tech community has a good deal of experience with them and ought to be able to develop policies to combat potential problems.
"We have had things like the metaverse," Callas said. "Helmets are not completely new; 3D on laptops is not completely new. We've had the things that were of that sort for close to 20 years … and we know a lot about them."
"What we're really talking about is who is getting the data and what are they using it for," he said.
Moreover, vendors and organizations using the technologies should be transparent and ask for and receive consent from users for how data acquired in the metaverse will be used.
With avatars in the metaverse, Callas said the question of representation will be at the forefront.
"In a 3D world, your presentation of yourself is going to be different than it would be in a 2D world," he said.
This is largely because compared to 2D avatars, 3D avatars could before long become "a primary mode of expression rather than a secondary mode of expression."
Another challenge of the metaverse is security, especially with technologies involving avatars and digital twins, which can both be subject to hackers who steal companies' data that was involved in creating both the digital representations..
Technology providers are thinking about these problems, Nguyen said. However, they are also looking at the metaverse in terms of value.
"What do people want? And what is the price to that?" Nguyen said.
And while many say they value privacy, sometimes their behavior doesn't mirror that. Often the same people who want privacy put a lot of their private information online.
Despite the uncertainty surrounding the metaverse, the nascent digital environment will likely grow exponentially in the next few years. The full impact of that growth is yet to be seen.