In the 1935 science fiction novel Pygmalion’s Spectacles by Stanley Weinbaum, the main character Dan Burke puts on a pair of magic spectacles and enters a virtual world where he interacts with other virtual characters and can taste, touch and smell what they do.
Fast forward nearly seven decades, the virtual world now has a name, in the 1992 novel Snow Crash by bestselling science fiction author Neal Stephenson. The main character, Hiro Protagonist, moves between Los Angeles and a location called the “metaverse“ to gather information about a dangerous drug.
While both Weinbaum and Stephenson were futurists depicting the virtual reality technology that was to come, the 21st century has yet to meet up to the expectations about what a virtual world or the metaverse could be. Both novelists imagined a metaverse where people can act just like they would in the physical world, whether they’re wearing a special device such as virtual reality goggles or not.
Despite the hype surrounding metaverse from technology vendors small and large with systems such as Nvidia’s Omniverse platform, Meta’s Horizon Worlds (a VR social platform used in conjunction with the Oculus app and Quest headset), and avatar creation tools from dozens of vendors, a complete metaverse for organizations has yet to actualize.
Nevertheless, Meta — Facebook’s parent company — is investing heavily in the potential it sees in the metaverse. The tech giant recently said it will build 10 metaverse campuses and universities for virtual learning, complete with VR headsets, as part of a $150 million immersive learning project.
Beyond the worlds of virtual reality and digital 3D spaces, the absence of a commonly agreed-upon definition of the metaverse and ways it can serve enterprises is one of its challenges, said Marty Resnick, an analyst at Gartner.
“Like any other new technology, I think if you look at it from a hype cycle perspective, the real early adopters are figuring out that confusion themselves and being innovative about it,” he said.
This is especially true for enterprises that are still exploring how the metaverse applies to them beyond the hope for (and hype of) ways the technology enhances collaboration in the workplace. Beyond collaboration, the metaverse can be a place for enterprises to train employees and create simulated environments using digital twins or digital avatars.
One definition of the metaverse is “the aggregate of all virtual worlds” that are products of powerful computers, said Mike Bennett, director of education curriculum and business lead for responsible AI at the Institute for Experiential AI at Northeastern University.
Training in the workforce
With this definition in mind, a key enterprise application is using the metaverse for training in several professions and sectors.
For example, a surgeon who just finished medical school or residency could easily enter the metaverse and perform surgery on an avatar before operating on a person. Using touch-sensitive technology like haptic gloves, the surgeon can feel what cutting someone open would feel like in the real world. In this way, hospitals can use the metaverse as their training ground.
Some hospitals are already using VR to train for common medical procedures, such as extracting thin lead wires that connect pacemakers and mini-defibrillators. One technology currently approved by the FDA is Medivis, an AR surgical system that lets surgeons quickly sync with a hospital’s digital imaging system.
Training in the metaverse could also apply to researchers who have access to high-quality images of molecules and can interact with them like they’re a table, turning them around and examining them as if the molecules were in front of them.
“You have these types of baby steps,” Bennett said. “The hype barely covers up the fact that we’ve only taken baby steps for the type of experience for common people that would approximate something like that.”
These trainings are possible using augmented reality or VR with a headset or special glasses. However, for researchers trying to manipulate a high-resolution or three-dimensional image of a virus, a two-dimensional screen could be sufficient.
Digital twin avatars
Enterprises could also use metaverse technology to create digital twins or avatars of people. These twins will not only exist on computer screens as they do now but also, in the near future, be AI-powered holograms or holographic beings assigned different tasks.
These avatars will be helpful for enterprises that rely on personas or key figures that continuously engage with the public, he said. For example, a CEO who needs to engage with multiple stakeholder groups could activate an AI-powered hologram or holographic projection of himself to attend important stakeholder meetings and functions.
“These examples bleed into science fiction, but that shouldn’t surprise us,” Bennett said. “That’s where the concept is born, and science fiction seems to be the motivation behind these developments in the real world.”
While what Bennett is describing may seem out of this world, holograms or holographic projections are not new. The entertainment industry, for several decades, has employed holograms of dead celebrities such as Tupac Shakur, Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley to perform at “live” concerts.
The difference in the metaverse is that the AI-enabled holograms of the metaverse are physical human representations of chatbots. They’re supposed to engage with the world around them and engaged with similarly to chatbots.
However, problems with chatbots being racist, anti-semitic or unethical show that AI technologies such as these require special handling and enough training data to work correctly.
“The real world chatbots have caused significant public problems for a few major corporations now,” Bennett said. “How much more problematic would that be if the chatbot were associated with a virtual body?”
Duplicating physical spaces
Other than using digital avatars, enterprises can also duplicate physical spaces in the metaverse to gain access to information that is hard to get in the real world.
“By duplicating a physical space in metaverse-style experience, you gain access to more information about how things are going in a factory, for example,” said J.P. Gownder, an analyst at Forrester Research.
One of the recent projects of the Digital Twin Consortium industry group was taking a LIDAR (light detection and ranging) reading of an entire factory and building a digital twin of the factory. Building this digital twin lets users manipulate a physical space virtually, said CTO Dan Isaacs.
“That whole environment that you sent up virtually, I can now walk through it,” he said.
The ability to manipulate objects in the virtual realm keeps enterprises from physically disrupting their whole factory operation. Duplicating physical spaces in the metaverse can also let consumers be more immersed in the physical experience of using products.
One vendor that already released its version of the metaverse is Meetkai, a conversational AI and virtual reality startup that launched a beta metaverse of the iconic Times Square in New York City.
Michael BennettDirector of education curriculum and business lead for responsible AI, Institute for Experiential AI at Northeastern University
Meetkai is exploring how customers can use the metaverse to represent everyday activities digitally.
For example, retailers might benefit by replicating the experience of shopping inside a brick-and-mortar store, said James Kaplan, Meetkai’s CEO and co-founder. Retailers are already taking advantage of the metaverse. For example, “fast fashion” retailer Forever21 partnered with gaming platform Roblox to let gamers shop for their avatars inside a place called Shop City.
Bankers can also use virtual tellers so consumers can bank in the metaverse, Kaplan said. This option would be useful for consumers who can’t do their banking with chatbots or mobile apps and need a teller.
“For any enterprise that has physical, global presence and wants to recreate it, it makes a lot of sense [in the metaverse],” Kaplan said.
Metaverse for work
In addition to digital twins, another practical and growing enterprise application of the metaverse is collaboration.
Enterprises use the metaverse to “add an element of realism and collaborative capability to distributed workforces,” Gownder said. This includes setting up a 3D room, walking around the room, meeting different people, and digital whiteboarding.
While some observers of the metaverse scoff at the notion of replacing images of corporate meeting participants on a Zoom video screen with avatars, some organizations want to advance the remote work experience. The metaverse is a promising platform for that.
“The kind of collaboration we do now is very abstracted,” Gownder said. “It’s … a very flat 2D screen kind of experience with video and text, but it doesn’t have that three dimensionality.”
Still, virtual collaboration is an area of the metaverse that makes some enterprises skeptical, Resnick said.
“They see a lot of value in being able to get their employees to better collaborate and engage by using metaverse technologies for those things. But the concern is if the employee will like that,” he added. “Will they adopt that kind of mentality to be able to meet that way?”
Organizations are also unsure about measuring success with metaverse technologies since it’s harder to tell whether using the technologies will save money, Resnick said
One metaverse technology currently being used by enterprises is a 3D news studio simulation by Hour One. The AI vendor released a news studio template that lets users choose an avatar newscaster to anchor the news.
Ian Beacraft, a futurist and contractor for DeFiance Media — a news media startup that covers cryptocurrencies, blockchain, AI, robotics and other new technologies — uses 3D simulation to create media content.
“They have automated the production of several elements of almost all the elements of a new segment, and what is left over is the original creative input from the host or the producer of the segment,” Beacraft said.
When a user is on the platform, they can type what they want their avatar to say and select the camera angles. DeFiance also uses the technology to put out breaking news during the 24-hour news cycle.
“We found that the technology would allow us to deliver breaking news in a way that was cost efficient, interesting and on brand and [aligned with] our message for what we represent,” DeFiance Media co-founder Marc Scarpa said. “Having more media available to be consumed in the metaverse is part of our strategy.”
With many vendors already creating virtual spaces for 3D work, the part of the metaverse that enterprises should expect to see in the next few years is a metaverse that lets consumers or employees move from one virtual world to another, said Vishal Shah, GM of XR (extended reality) and metaverse for Lenovo, the multinational vendor of electronics and computer hardware and software.
“Over the next three to five years, you’re going to see a lot of this these technologies mature and this interoperability mature as well,” Shah said.
The China-based vendor has an augmented reality platform for enterprises called ThinkReality that competes with Microsoft’s mixed reality platform Mesh. The Lenovo platform is coupled with its XR glasses.
The 3D glasses let enterprises collaborate in an immersive world — a virtual environment that looks like the real world rather than a digitally manufactured one.
Challenges for enterprises
Even with a host of actual and potential applications of the metaverse, one hurdle for enterprises is that metaverse technologies are expensive, Resnick said.
It is costly to develop technologies that require special equipment like VR glasses.
Another challenge is investing in the right metaverse technology.
“There’s the risk appetite saying, ‘We may want to wait until the market clears up a little bit because we don’t want to do heavy investments in the metaverse that may not be around a few years from now,'” Resnick said.