CEOs, it’s time to enter the metaverse

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These are the questions cropping up in the conversations in the C-Suites of many corporations around the globe and in India. For a term coined three decades ago, ‘metaverse’ has taken a long time to become a part of the mainstream discourse.

Meta, formerly Facebook, has made the metaverse a buzzword. It is not the only one, though. Other companies have been creating tools to provide the immersive experience that makes a metaverse different from the current internet experience.

For some time now, every tech giant—from Google, Microsoft and Tencent to Epic Games and Roblux—have been working on metaverse technology tools, both hardware and software. Google was one of the early ones to experiment with Google Glass (which didn’t catch on) and now Google Lens. Microsoft will roll out Microsoft Mesh in 2022, a mixed reality platform that allows people to appear at an event via ‘holoportation’, where 3D capture technology ‘sends’ a lifelike image to the event.

Tech companies aren’t the only ones in the game—Nike is creating a virtual world, Nikeland. Sensorium, owned by Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, is building a virtual underwater world, Motion World. The most prominent luxury labels in the world, from Louis Vuitton and Gucci to Balenciaga and Burberry, are grappling with ways to fit into the reality of the metaverse. But how will the rise of the metaverse affect average businesses, more specifically the average Indian business?

Twinning in another world

The possibilities of adopting metaverse technologies and creating specialised metaverses are endless. It will be metaverse hardware and software to create digital twins that provide quick practical applications for most traditional businesses. The technology allows companies to develop digital twins—a digital representation of the physical area—of everything from the factory to the conference room.

Consider a large manufacturing firm building new smart factories and retrofitting older ones with digital tools. Mixed reality setups will allow an expert at one spot fix problems in a distant factory location using holoportation or rival offerings.

It improves efficiency, cuts downtime, and helps provide preventative maintenance without sending out expensive teams. A central command room with experts from various engineering fields can monitor and maintain dozens of different locations without travelling physically.

The same technologies will allow for more prosperous office meetings than today’s relatively flat video conferencing tools. Some of the most useful applications will be in the induction and training of employees, where many people can join a giant virtual training room or multiple interactive training rooms to learn more quickly and efficiently. Metaverse tools have both civilian and military applications, from inspecting a building or a bridge to defusing a bomb.

External facing applications include creating digital twin retail spaces, offering a service experience to the customer that would not be possible in the physical world. Companies like Mercedes-Benz, Dell, MTV and Coke have already experimented with it. They are the early movers, but soon others will find that they will be left behind if they don’t adopt it.

The social sphere

Online gaming adoption shot up over the past two years of lockdowns and work-from-home. Massive multiplayer gaming companies offer rich, immersive universes and player experiences. For many businesses, online gaming platforms provide opportunities to advertise their products or create training programmes that simulate actual action in the field.

When Second Life was at its peak, several global brands rushed to put up showrooms, create offices and advertise within that universe. Over time, many dropped out because the return on investment (ROI) was not immediately apparent.

In the metaverse, too, there will be many experiments and mistakes. Still, the branding and selling experience will be richer because the current generation of metaverse spaces that companies are trying to build will be far more sophisticated than Second Life. They will allow seamless movement from the metaverse to real life.

Digital assets in the form of non-fungible token (NFTs) will be created, sold, and traded in the metaverse and the physical world. Cryptocurrencies designed specifically for metaverses will be exchangeable for real currency in different countries. Initially, one can expect some degree of random transactions—like the recent purchase of a plot in Decentraland for $2.4 million—but over time, sanity will prevail.

The most critical application that the social metaverses will offer businesses will be rich consumer data. People often shed their inhibitions and exhibit their natural and deepest desires in virtual spaces. These could provide invaluable insights for designing products and services unavailable today.

The real opportunity

Hardware and software products for metaverse offers opportunities for Indian technology companies, where the focus is on harnessing social and business applications.

The metaverse will need an entire ecosystem to serve various opportunities it offers. From building augmented reality, virtual reality and mixed reality hardware to customizing technology platforms like Azure or SAP to integrating multiple technologies to work seamlessly, the opportunities for Indian technology companies are immense.

A few things will need to come together for the metaverse experience to scale in India and provide opportunities for Indian firms. Low-cost innovations that can bring down the price of AR/VR hardware is one—the current generation of glasses like Oculus or Microsoft Hololens is almost prohibitively expensive for mass adoption.

The Indian government adopting the metaverse in defence, health or education projects can provide a fillip and bring in more Big Tech investments. Big Data captured and generated by metaverse projects opens up opportunities for Indian and global tech companies specializing in analytics.

So that brings into focus the second question: Should companies start exploring the metaverse right away? The answer is yes, at least as far as internal applications like 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. Waiting until rivals have started using these technologies and then getting into it could be disastrous for any CEO.

Prashant Garg is Technology Consulting Partner at EY India.

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