At first, the metaverse might seem to represent way too much uncertainty for life sciences organizations. After all, this virtual world it still evolving. The promise of the metaverse is an interoperable, persistent space within which people can virtually travel, interact and perform a wide variety of tasks, all with a single identity.
In reality, the metaverse has yet to deliver on that promise. Currently, it’s a disparate set of platforms, applications and games, with each experience walled off from the next. What unites the metaverse today is a common set of technological building blocks that underpin these different experiences: augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), blockchain and gamification, among others. (See our eBook “A pragmatist’s guide to the metaverse” for more on this topic.)
That’s a lot of unknowns. It is understandable, then, why so many life sciences companies—whose actions directly impact public health—have thus far viewed the metaverse with trepidation and have been slow to explore the space.
On the other hand, the life sciences industry also rewards the intrepid. Scientific experimentation is the industry’s lifeblood, and new, groundbreaking therapies require exploration of the unknown. And while the metaverse itself is still evolving, its potential impact is clear. The fact is, there’s a sound argument for staking out a place now—when the barriers to entry are still low and the possible missed opportunity costs are high.
The art of the possible
The metaverse can bridge the physical and digital worlds to advance science and improve health outcomes. This could pave the way for new digital approaches to care delivery and more value-based models that incentivize measurable real-world patient outcomes.
Data sharing and interoperability could gain more prevalence as well, helping to reduce operational costs and improve stakeholder experiences. The metaverse could also enhance collaboration between payers, providers and manufacturers by several orders of magnitude, accelerating therapy development.
Getting started in the metaverse
Life sciences companies that wait until the dust settles may find themselves in catch-up mode. Here are three rules of thumb for traditional pharma companies to follow when planting their flag in the metaverse.
1. View the metaverse as a new channel of interaction
We advise life sciences companies to view the metaverse as part of an engagement channel continuum, evolving from print media to radio and television and continuing through to the internet. What separates each successive interaction channel from the one before it is an advancing degree of immersion.
The metaverse represents yet another step-change in this evolution because it introduces the ability to not only be present within a virtual world but to also engage with that world alongside other users. Augmented reality adds another wrinkle, allowing individuals to experience the virtual and physical worlds together in harmony.
Life sciences companies should frame their metaverse ambitions within this context: delivering enriched, immersive experiences to healthcare providers and patients.
In the medical affairs space, for example, digital engagement consists mainly of screenshares, slide presentations and maybe an informational video. In the metaverse, a medical science liaison could instead use a 3D model to explain to an oncologist, for instance, how a given drug attacks T-cell receptors. This is a significantly higher level of interaction, increasing a pharma company’s involvement and engagement with physicians.
2. Approach use cases with a ‘world-building’ mindset
We’ve been helping life sciences organizations apply the technological building blocks of the metaverse since at least 2017, through projects such as factory digital twins, VR simulations and next-gen lab virtual walkthroughs. The metaverse, then, doesn’t necessarily require completely new skills or capabilities.
If there is a “magic” to the metaverse, it comes not from the technologies that underpin it, but from how those technologies converge to form an open-ended and collaborative platform.
To unlock that potential, organizations must approach their initiatives from a platform perspective and not as a series of point solutions. Building a VR training module for employees of a drug manufacturing facility—in which someone puts on a headset, completes a training module and then never does it again—is not a metaverse experience. A digital twin of that same manufacturing facility, however, in which multiple simultaneous users could explore, discover and experiment with different use cases (including VR training), is.
Much of the added value of the metaverse comes from its open-ended nature. Be careful of taking too narrow of a view. Yes, you’re building for a specific use case. However, if built correctly, that use case will eventually exist within a larger world or ecosystem—and become immensely more valuable when it does.
3. Experiment, but with a purpose
The metaverse is open-ended both because it has yet to reach its end state and because its very nature—collaboration-oriented rather than purely goal-oriented—makes it endlessly iterative. If you truly let the platform inform the use cases as we advise above, then one use case will lead to another and then another. The digital twin of a hospital first built to support a care management use case is the same digital twin that a medical liaison could use to give HCPs a demonstration.
These are situations that cry out for experimentation. However, that experimentation has be directed toward something. That means finding small, quick wins that justify further experimentation and aiming for areas that will capture the attention of key stakeholders. It also means designing beyond a point-solution use case.
Think in terms of pivotability and changeability during the design process. How quickly could you scale a VR training app to make it multi-user or to add a degree of gamification? Do the sensors and connectivity built for your first use case have the flexibility and resilience to support other, as yet unknown, use cases down the road? How can Internet of Things (IoT) data make your digital twin more “real world” and accurate in the future?
Build your metaverse muscle
The primary challenge of investing in the metaverse today is bridging the gap between what it is now and what it promises to be. Build too pragmatically for its current state, and you’re likely to find yourself with a suite of VR and AR applications that do not take true advantage of the metaverse’s open-ended, collaborative nature. Build too much for the future, and it might be difficult to find those early wins that will help to justify a continued business case to leadership.
The sweet spot, then, sits between these two extremes. We recommend thinking of the above tips as muscles to be exercised. Hone your metaverse abilities now to make yourself fit to adapt as the metaverse itself rounds into form. You’ll be preparing, in a way, for the somewhat unexpected.
To learn more visit the Life Sciences section of our website, or contact us.
This article was written by Bryan Hill, CTO and VP of Digital Health & Innovation and Naveen Sharma, Head of Digital Business & Technology in Cognizant’s Life Sciences practice.