A CIO’s Introduction to the Metaverse

“Metaverse” is coming. are you ready? Microsoft, Nvidia, and Facebook have announced important apps to give companies a door into the metaverse. Many startups are also building this type of technology.

But what is the metaverse anyway? Is it something CIOs need to have on their radar? What are the use cases for businesses? What are the caveats that institutions should monitor to reduce risks?

What is metaverse?

Metaverse is basically a 3D mixed reality “place” that combines the real/physical world and the digital world. It is persistent, which means that it continues to exist even if you close the app or log out. It is also collaborative, which means that people in this world see the same thing and can work together. Some experts say the metaverse will be a new 3D layer for the Internet. Gartner’s definition goes further, says Tuong Nguyen, Senior Research Analyst at Gartner, specifying that a true metaverse should be interoperable with other metaverses (and thus, many of the current iterations do not match Gartner’s definition yet).

Here’s how Nvidia CEP Jensen Huang put it during his keynote address at the Nvidia GTC 2021 online event this month: “The Internet is essentially a digital overlay on the world. Overlay is largely 2D information — text audio, images, and video — but that’s about to change.” We now have the technology to create new 3D virtual worlds or model our physical world.”

Today’s video conferencing, led by the pandemic, is an example of 2D collaboration. People can participate via laptop cameras and microphones from home, or they can be in the office in a conference room. They can share their screens or use apps that allow a collaborative whiteboard.

Immersive 3D metaverse layers on top of that. Participants can create avatars (digital representations of themselves) and use them to enter a 3D virtual room. In that room, they can collaborate on a virtual whiteboard on a virtual wall or tour a virtual 3D model of a car they are designing, for example.

This is basically the use case that Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella described when he announced Mesh for Microsoft Teams at the tech giant Ignite conference this month. Microsoft will add this capability to its Teams collaboration tool starting in 2022.

This feature combines the capabilities of Microsoft Mesh’s mixed reality platform (announced in March 2021 as a platform for building metaverses) with Microsoft Teams’ productivity tools, according to Microsoft.

Facebook, which rebranded itself as Meta earlier this year, introduced Horizon Workrooms in August, which are VR meeting places for remote collaboration.

Enterprise Metaverse use cases

Collaboration is one of three primary use cases for the metaverse in the enterprise right now, according to Forrester VP JP gownder.

Another basic use case is one backed by the chip giant Nvidia – simulation and digital twins. Huang announced the Nvidia Omniverse Enterprise during his keynote speech at the company’s online AI conference GTC 2021 this month and presented several use cases that focused on simulations and digital twins in industrial environments such as warehouses and factories.

If you represent an organization in an industry with expensive assets — say oil and gas, manufacturing or logistics — it makes sense to put this use case on your radar, according to Gartner’s Nguyen. “This is where augmented reality is really useful for projects right now,” he says.

For example, during his keynote address, Nvidia’s Huang showed a video of a virtual repository built with Nvidia Omniverse Enterprise to enable the organization to visualize the impact of improved routing in an automated order picking scenario. This is an example of a specific use case, but Omniverse itself is Nvidia’s platform to enable organizations to create their own simulations or virtual worlds.

“We built Omniverse for the builders of these virtual worlds,” Huang said at GTC. “Some of the worlds will be for gatherings and games. But a large number will be built by scientists, innovators and companies. Virtual worlds will appear like websites today.”

The third enterprise use case is in business-to-consumer marketing as evidenced by the online gaming platform Roblox, according to Thubder. On this gaming platform that is popular with the pre-teen crowd, users can buy digital clothes to decorate their avatars, and brands alert. For example, clothing brands including Vans and Gucci have created custom branded worlds on Roblox.

Should CIOs put the Metaverse on their technology roadmaps?

Yes, but no need to jump with both feet just yet, experts say.

These examples should be considered by CIOs, Nguyen says. “But you don’t need to have a metaverse presence.” after. “You have to get that frame of reference because of the imperative. You’re not going to be part of this somehow, you’re likely to lose a lot, just like any organization that doesn’t have a website today.”

In fact, it might pay off if you decide to wait for version 2. Microsoft Mesh for Teams allows users to create and use an avatar instead of running their webcams. These personal avatars come complete with facial expressions to convey reactions.

“It is unlikely that this will get the same level of engagement as others who use video in the meeting,” says Tim Banting, Omdia practice lead for the digital workplace. “Thus, Amedia believes that this feature is somewhat of a gimmick.”

However, he adds that some other use cases may appeal to organizations. However, there are other caveats that companies must consider when it comes to hands-on implementation.

“A specific headset, rather than a computer or mobile device, will be required to maximize the user experience,” Banting says. “With many organizations failing to provide business-quality external headphones and webcams to remote employees, organizations are unlikely to justify the cost of virtual reality equipment for regular employee meetings.”

Do you need to develop the skills of your IT workforce?

Many of the benefits of metaverse technology will already be available through existing technology vendors, such as Mesh for Microsoft Teams. Furthermore, Banting notes that in the world of consumer VR, “it’s pretty much a plug-and-play environment with easy setup.”

However, “Where things can get interesting is when companies want to create their own ‘branded’ metaverse. I expect this to be an advanced services opportunity for a new class of partners working alongside marketing.”

Understanding 3D is a rare skill today, Thopder said, so finding people who can develop with Unity or the Unreal Engine could be valuable. But it’s not something everyone will need to jump on right away.

What are the risks?

Think of the Internet. When those first websites came out in the ’90s, there was no way of knowing what lay ahead.

“Thirty years ago, who would have thought we would be here today with trolls, disinformation, hacking, and more,” says Nguyen. “The negative aspects we are talking about will be couched in what we understand today as security, privacy and ethics.”

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