Ever since Mark Zuckerberg changed the name of Facebook to Meta and said he would spend $10 billion on the metaverse, there's been a plethora of news coverage of the concept.
But so far, the metaverse is mostly just that—a concept. "The metaverse is not here," says Rolf Illenberger, CEO of VRdirect, which provides virtual reality (VR) technology for enterprises. "At this point in time, the metaverse is a vision."
That vision encompasses many different technologies, including VR and augmented reality, 5G wireless communications, blockchain and even cryptocurrency. "These underlying technologies are very real," says Cathy Barrera, founding economist at consultancy Prysm Group. Even though there is no strict definition of the metaverse, the combination of these technologies "is changing how we interact with digital information," she says.
But there are still technical challenges. "VR headsets have to get better and lighter, bandwidth has to improve and processing power, to render complex 3D graphics, has to increase," says Cliff Justice, U.S. leader for enterprise innovation at KPMG.
As the metaverse evolves, many organizations are trying to figure out how to make it work for them. Already, employers are using the metaverse to improve onboarding and training. Employees are collaborating and interacting in new ways. While business leaders aren't sure of what lies ahead, they recognize that the metaverse has the potential to change—and improve—the way business and work is done for employers, employees and customers.
Businesses Are Entering the Metaverse
Prysm has teamed with the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania to offer an executive education program about the metaverse. The course, for which Barrera is a lead instructor, covers both consumer applications, such as retail stores in the metaverse, and internal enterprise uses, such as employee training, onboarding and collaboration.
Meanwhile, market research firms have been busy forecasting the impact of the metaverse. Early this year, Gartner predicted that 30 percent of organizations worldwide would have products and services ready for the metaverse by 2026. In July, PwC published results of its survey of 1,000 U.S. business leaders, 66 percent of whom said their companies were "actively engaged in the metaverse." But without defining exactly what the metaverse is, it's hard to know what that means.
Internal enterprise applications will likely be the first practical uses, according to several observers. In a March 2022 global survey by Forrester Research, 58 percent of business and tech professionals with knowledge of the metaverse and virtual worlds said their organizations would adopt such solutions to support workplace collaboration within a year, especially to enable what Forrester calls "anywhere work."
In fact, the handful of metaverse pilots underway mostly focus on internal applications:
- Accenture launched its Nth Floor virtual campus before the pandemic and has since expanded it into an "enterprise metaverse." The firm has created digital twins of many of the company's physical offices, which it uses in welcoming new employees. This fiscal year, Accenture expects to use the Nth floor to onboard at least 150,000 new hires.
- KPMG opened its "metaverse innovation hub" in June 2022, which it uses for collaboration, training and client meetings.
- Last year, PwC's Hong Kong office purchased a plot in The Sandbox, a 3D virtual world created for gamers. In addition, the company operates its own metaverse for global training, hiring and client meetings, says Emm Rivet, vice chair of PwC's U.S. technology, media and telecommunications practice, who helps lead PwC's metaverse initiative.
Companies that operate retail presences in the metaverse are already employing "meta-workers," according to Squire Patton Boggs, an international law firm based in Cleveland. For example, a casino in the metaverse platform Decentraland uses humans to work as hosts on the floor of its virtual establishment. Their avatars greet guests and roam the casino floor.
"The employment of virtual workers in the metaverse means that employment-related litigation is sure to follow," attorneys from the firm write.
Innovate in Private
Early pilots are internal and closed for good reason. An open, public metaverse is often compared to the early days of the Internet when the World Wide Web was a new digital frontier with few established rules and many risks. Although Accenture is generally upbeat about the metaverse, "a word of warning is necessary," according to its report Meet Me in the Metaverse."
Just as early innovation in this space can carry outsized value, it can carry outsized risk as well," the report reads. "Leaders are not just pioneering a new digital future, but a new future for human and enterprise interaction, and many of the rules remain undefined."
Privacy and cybersecurity were top risks cited in PwC's survey. That's no surprise since they are already top of mind for most employers today. But the metaverse will collect exponentially more data. The latest generation of VR simulations can take 2 million unique recordings of body language in 20 minutes, according to Kavya Pearlman, founder and CEO of the X Reality Safety Initiative, a nonprofit that promotes privacy and security in immersive environments. That has broad implications for privacy, especially when it comes to employee data. "You could be denied health insurance based on inferences made from the dilation of your pupils," Pearlman says.
Immersive environments also raise questions about diversity, equity and inclusion. To what extent will companies consider cultural diversity when it comes to avatars, for example? Do avatars have to look like employees, or can they be modeled after imaginary creatures like dragons? Organizations should consider imposing restrictions on avatar appearance, similar to office dress codes, Rivet says.
As for cybersecurity, there are many more ways for hackers to exploit a virtual space. A bad actor could "literally change your reality by manipulating how things appear in the metaverse," Pearlman says.
The immersive, 3D nature of the metaverse will bring new legal challenges. There have already been incidents of alleged sexual harassment involving the metaverse. For example, last fall, a beta tester of Meta's virtual-reality social media platform, Horizon Worlds, reported she had been groped by a stranger on the platform.
The ability to identify and authenticate both people and avatars in the metaverse will be crucial, and not only so you can prevent bad behavior. It is now possible for avatars that look, sound and act like human beings to be driven by artificial intelligence. Should these "meta-humans" be required to reveal that they are AI bots? "People need to know who they are interacting with," Rivet notes.
The metaverse also enables new ways to steal intellectual property and raises new operational and privacy issues, especially in Europe where data privacy rules are strict, says Illenberger, who is based in Munich.
For now, closed environments are the safest path. They not only give companies control but also sidestep the question of interoperability. Metaverse vendors have no incentive to adopt uniform standards, Illenberger says, because they are all trying to establish their own horizontally integrated ecosystems. "The big tech companies are aware that this market opportunity is huge, probably much bigger than the smartphone market," he says. "All of them want to dominate it in the future."
Take This On-Ramp to the Metaverse
That's why it makes sense to use big tech as an on-ramp to the metaverse. These vendors are likely to provide some guardrails for customers, especially regarding cybersecurity. Yet vendors still enable enterprises to set their own policies. Microsoft Teams, for instance, will soon include a bit of the metaverse, says J.P. Gownder, vice president and principal analyst with Forrester, a research and business consultancy.
"Anybody who is using Teams will by the end of this year find some components of Mesh [Microsoft's metaverse platform] woven directly into Teams. So, 250-million-plus Teams users will be exposed to some of the functionality we associate with employee metaverse collaboration," he says. "You'll be able to have an avatar and a 3D conference room space. You'll also have collaborative digital whiteboarding, where you can have multiple people standing next to each other working on a project on the same whiteboard." Other vendors are likely to follow suit, he adds.
Meanwhile, business leaders should consider the extent to which the metaverse makes sense for their organizations and prepare. Hiring was a priority for respondents to the PwC survey. For technical skills, gaming may be a particularly fertile ground.
"The metaverse is largely concentrated in the gaming space today," Justice says. Some companies are already advertising and branding themselves within gaming platforms, he notes. "It's a place to recruit because it's where young talent spends a lot of time."
Even more important, organizations should designate an executive to lead the strategy, Rivet says. "Companies need to have someone whose job is to stay on top of these trends, both in terms of the technology and what their competition is doing," she says. "Because of all the unknown risks, there should be one point of contact and coordination for metaverse initiatives." This person should head a multidisciplinary team that includes representatives from technology, security, regulatory compliance, accounting and human resources, she says.
In PwC's survey, 32 percent of executives said they planned to hire or appoint a metaverse leader. Some 51 percent said they had already designated roles that focus on metaverse activity, although not exclusively.
Meanwhile, no one really knows when—or even whether—the metaverse will move from a hyped-up idea to a practical tool for business. Predictions range from a few years to a decade.
Gownder thinks it will take at least 10 years, even for enterprise applications. He cautions against investing too much, too quickly. "Use the metaverse to solve the problems you have," he says. "Don't make the metaverse itself into a problem you need to solve."
Tam Harbert is a freelance technology and business reporter based in the Washington, D.C., area.
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