As the hype continues, enterprises are still pondering and exploring metaverse business use cases. The Stack's Eliot Beer ventures into the virtual world, and looks at if the hype will ever meet (virtual) reality.
At 10:55am my avatar materialises on a courtyard in the middle of a digital campus, along with those of several other journalists. An avatar comes up to us, and we hear their voice telling us how to teleport to the DXC Technology press conference, and later to the beach and music venue.
This is my first time in the metaverse, and I am afraid that I am sceptical.
You may not be excited, but investors and gaming firms are...
I’m far from alone in my scepticism. According to a 2022 Forrester survey, only 28% of online adults in the UK are excited for the metaverse, and in Forrester’s ‘State of the Metaverse’ report, published in March 2022, the research firm concluded the metaverse -- despite the hype and demos -- is “years from actualisation”.
This is despite the billions of dollars being spent on metaverse-related initiatives.
This week alone saw Lego and Sony invest $1 billion each in Fortnite creator Epic Games, whose CEO Tim Sweeney said: "This investment will accelerate our work to build the metaverse and create spaces where players can have fun with friends, brands can build creative and immersive experiences, and creators can build a community and thrive."
Microsoft’s record purchase of Activision Blizzard for $68.7 billion in January, meanwhile, followed by former Disney boss Bob Iger’s investment in metaverse start-up Genies in March, then Sony and Lego’s $2 billion investment in Epic Games, the maker of Fortnite, along with UK start-up Improbable raising $150 million for “interoperable Web3 metaverses” all came with associated noise around the metaverse opportunities.
Bloomberg Intelligence estimates the metaverse market could be worth $800 billion by 2024 – though to get to this figure, they have classified a lot of existing technology as being part of the metaverse. (According to this logic, Bloomberg put the size of the metaverse market in 2020 at $478 billion...)
Forrester meanwhile says the metaverse doesn’t actually exist yet, and won’t until users can move seamlessly from one virtual environment to another; much as users click a hyperlink to move from one website to another: "[T]he metaverse will manifest over the next decade, in stages. The fully federated metaverse will contain standard protocols for the presence, persistence, and transfer of identity and assets."
As Richard Kerris, NVIDIA’s VP of Omniverse Platform Development, told the research house as quoted in its report: "The metaverse requires connective tissue for it to be a reality" -- and that's a way off.
Collaboration: The killer metaverse business use?
Ahead of the DXC press event, I built my avatar during a training session, after downloading the 1GB+ Virbela virtual environment software. The avatar-building exercise reminded me of computer games from 15 years ago, with clunky controls which took me a few moments to figure out. After toying with some wild hair and outfit combinations, I settled on a look that was basically as close to the real-world me as I could get.
Heading into the conference, my fellow journalists have also chosen fairly conservative avatars.
We’re all shown into a boardroom, and asked to take our seats, which most of us manage after a couple of false starts – I see a couple of people bouncing in and out of chairs, as I do myself. On the walls are large screens showing DXC’s presentation, which I can zoom in on with one click, to fill my screen. (There are also controls to change slides – but it turns out, unlike in Teams, this changes the slides for everyone. Over the course of the press conference, the slides occasionally jump backwards and forwards at random, as people fail to figure this out.)
Metaverse enterprise use case scenarious abound, but...
“Workplace collaboration using metaverse-style experiences can reduce the cognitive load generated by videoconferences — Zoom fatigue — and help employees and organizations solve a variety of collaboration problems in natural environments that mimic offices but allow deeper use of digital tools,” says Forrester.
The company believes enterprise innovation is the “surprise route” to metaverse adoption – and despite my scepticism, following my experience in DXC’s virtual world, this makes sense. With open spaces, names above every avatar, and plenty of spaces to talk in private, there is a clear metaverse business use case for collaboration.
“What Accenture does, right now, it is giving a new quest headset to every new employee, and is conducting employee orientation activities and so on, in a virtual space that they call the nth floor,” says David Truog, VP and principal analyst at Forrester, and one of the authors of its metaverse report.
According to Truog, organisations across a lot of different sectors have been quietly trying out virtual environments and other metaverse business use cases: “Companies are doing all sorts of pilots and experimentation, not things where they're necessarily having a demonstrable ROI today. Because it's clear where things are going, even if it's going to be some time before it's fully actualised.
“One of the people I interviewed a few days ago for my own research was pointing this out, that you don't want to say, ‘oh, well, we'll wait till the metaverse is fully actualised and then I'll get going and get involved’ – that's you'll be caught flat footed,” he adds.
DXC prides itself on being an early mover when it comes to metaverse business use -- offering the platform as a workplace virtual environment that it is keen to show off, to the press and others. (DXC is an IT services company, created from the merger of HP's Enterprise Services division and CSC in 2017.)
“I think CIOs need to consider as bringing this into their company as another collaboration tool, not as a replacement of traditional video conferencing, but as an complementary tool to bring new experiences to your employees, because there are some experiences that you cannot have with traditional video conferencing,” says Nathalie Vancluysen, head of XR and distinguished technologist at DXC, speaking with The Stack.
She points to DXC’s recent EMEA sales event, which more than 1000 people attended as an interactive virtual event in DXC’s Virbela environment – something which would not be possible with Zoom or Teams (where interaction would be severely limited). And virtual worlds also allow for much more spontaneity.
“Teams and Zoom, those are all scheduled meetings, you go from one meeting to another, we know upfront who we're going to meet. But there's no room for casual interactions and social collisions – in the virtual world, you can bump into a colleague that you haven't seen for many years and just start a new conversation,” says Vancluysen.
The Forrester report also highlights metaverse business use-cases such as digital twins and much more technical collaboration tools as enterprise use-cases.
'The metaverse is going to be a thing'
After the DXC press conference, we all teleport to the beach, where I have a brief ride on a motorboat piloted by a DXB staffer – we go out to "sea", around a small headland, and back. When I press the button to stand up, my avatar drops through the boat and alarmingly close to the propeller, but comes to no harm.
While on the boat the pilot asks a question, and I turn on my microphone to answer. Our conversation is short, but feels natural. While the boat trip was interesting, there was, of course, none of the sensations which would have come with the equivalent real-world experience – on the upside, conversation was easier.
“Yes, [the metaverse] is going to be a thing. This is not going to be stillborn or also-ran. The question is, how long will it take, and what the steps and stumbles will be along the way,” says Truog.
Given his company just produced a rather sceptical report on the state of the metaverse, this seems like a surprising opinion at first glance. But Truog is thinking about the long-term – and he believes the wider metaverse envisioned by Forrester will happen, and the challenges facing it are all surmountable – at least, in theory.
“I don't want to make it sound like just because certain challenges have been overcome in the past, therefore all challenges will be overcome in the future. Some will not. But what the metaverse means, what it is – it's the 3D experience layer of the internet. And therefore, there are certain things that apply to it, like Metcalfe's Law, about the network effect, like the analogy to all the benefits that we've seen on the web,” Truog says.
To be sure, there are plenty of challenges, not least the clear ambitions of companies such as Meta and Microsoft, which are both making attempts to capture the metaverse market and become dominant platforms. In his long-term view. Truog doesn’t believe the same sorts of silos we’ve seen with social media are as likely with the metaverse, partly because this time it won’t be a surprise: “This time, it's quite different" he says.
"Everybody's talking about the metaverse, and therefore, companies are anticipating the problem,” he says. “There certainly will be battles. And there will be vendors who will attempt to dominate.
“I think back to the famous memo that Bill Gates wrote in 1995, called ‘The Internet Tidal Wave’. And he specifically says in that memo, we will dominate the internet… Does Microsoft dominate the internet today? No.”
(Sceptics might point out there was a long period where Microsoft did indeed dominate the internet - but again, Truog takes the long-term view.)
As my experience with Virbela and the DXC event makes clear, there are also much more mundane issues, such as hardware requirements – after an hour in the environment, my Macbook Pro’s fans are whirring. Vancluysen takes care to point out it is possible to adjust the settings on Virbela to allow it to be used on a lower-powered machine – although this reduces the quality of the graphical experience dramatically.
But these, along with audio quality issues, connection issues, and other niggles, are all the sorts of problems the tech industry is good at resolving, given time and a viable metaverse business use case.
But the question remains, will people actually use these tools?
“[While] recognising that some of the technologies in the early stages, to me, it seems like the market forces and market dynamics are aligned, such that the metaverse is coming. And this is the time to start getting used to it, and practising and experimenting and piloting,” says Truog. (Speaking of market forces, Meta today -- April 14 -- revealed that it would be charging creators some 47.5% on sales of digital assets and experiences made inside the company's Horizon Worlds; a metaverse-like space for users of Quest VR headsets.)
At the end of the DXC event, the music comes on, a simulated lighting rig in the music venue starts pulsating, and the DXC staffers show off their dance moves – in this venue, a range of different dance options appears at the bottom of the screen.
I, along with most of the other journalists, stand awkwardly at the side of the venue, cringing. But it occurs to me that this is almost certainly what I would be doing in the real-world analogue of this event – I certainly wouldn’t be dancing in front of strangers. Here, if your dance moves suck, at least you can blame your avatar.