A virtual world you can't ignore
The metaverse is still emerging. But it offers value today.
First, the concept
The metaverse is often envisioned as a single virtual “place” that supports a wide range of activities, from socializing and gaming to working and trading digital assets. People, represented by avatars, move easily and seamlessly from activity to activity, and from place to place. No matter where they go or what they do, their avatars (and their digital credentials) stay the same due to wide-ranging interoperability.
In this digital world, virtual and augmented reality technologies (VR/AR) enable avatars to move and interact as naturally as their physical-world counterparts do. People are no longer bound by geography, and the relationship between the physical and digital is completely redefined.
But let’s get real
In reality, “the” metaverse does not exist. Instead, there are multiple metaverse programs and platforms, each with its own applications, key selling points and target demographics. There's no single set of credentials, and no way to seamlessly move from one metaverse to another.
Each virtual world, as well as the infrastructure underpinning it and the ethos behind it, differs drastically from the next.
The metaverse, therefore, is a catch-all term that encompasses all these platforms and infrastructures, as well as how they converge to create value and new experiences.
This dynamic in-between phase, however, is not a time to stand still. If the past is prologue in the world of evolving and emerging technologies, the lights can come on quite suddenly. When they do, you’ll want to have your place in the metaverse ready for company.
With all the potential that the metaverse has to offer—customer engagement, employee experience, new revenue channels, more effective and efficient business operations—it’s best to take a pragmatic approach to gain a critical foothold in the virtual world: building on what exists today to generate value immediately, while retaining the agility to scale for tomorrow.
The here and now of the metaverse
How to get immediate value, apply the right tools and avoid pitfalls in today’s metaverse
The makings of the metaverse
The six building blocks that make the metaverse work
While the metaverse as a whole is still evolving, its component technologies and tools—and the underlying concepts that support the new experiences—are ready for use right now.
The hard stuff: technologies, tools and systems
AR/VR—there’s room for two
VR and AR offer different experiences, and neither is right or wrong. Use cases that demand a fully immersive experience will benefit more from VR use, whereas others that depend on interacting with the real world will necessitate AR, which layers digital items over the physical world.
So, it’s not so much a case of which is better than what meets the case-by-case requirements. That’s why Meta is building a VR platform, while Niantic (the maker of Pokémon GO) is using persistent digital objects and information to supplement the real world. The hardware is also converging; Meta, Apple and Lynx are all working on mixed-reality devices enabling both AR and VR use.
Web3—integral to but not synonymous with the metaverse
Metaverse platforms can be either web 2.0- or web3-based. The decision comes down to decentralization and the democratization of control.
The core principle of web3 is wresting control—over data, finance, ownership, rules of operation and identity—from a central authority. One way to accomplish this is with distributed ledger technologies. These technologies enable cryptocurrency to bypass banking and financial systems, nonfungible tokens (NFT) to provide records of digital ownership, and smart contracts to automate processes based on activity stored on the blockchain.
Platforms that use web3 concepts see these capabilities as differentiators giving them the ability to support certain functionality, such as creating and selling digital land or using a crypto wallet for digital identification and payments.
5G—the fiber of the metaverse
5G will play an essential role in delivering a streamlined metaverse experience because it solves the longstanding problem of bulky and uncomfortable VR/AR hardware.
Currently, VR/AR headsets require powerful embedded processors because content is processed on the device itself or with the help of a connected computer. That makes the hardware cumbersome, hot and difficult to move around with. With the higher bandwidth of 5G, however, content can be processed elsewhere and then streamed to the device.
Services such as Google’s Stadia or Microsoft’s Xcloud already deliver high graphical fidelity content to low-power machines, but the experience can be patchy and requirexs a high-speed connection and proximity to data centers.
Widespread 5G promises to remove these quirks and allow a seamless experience at home and while on the move, and will also allow other sensors to feed into the experience. Doing so will enable metaverse platforms to utilize digital twins (virtual representations of physical objects) that replicate their real-life counterparts.
On the softer side: underlying concepts
Social interaction—we’re still only human
The metaverse is made for social interaction. The key is that the benefits of in-person communication can now be transferred to a digital experience and enhanced beyond what can be achieved in the real world.
With the metaverse, friends living on different sides of the world can feel as if they are in the same room and watch movies, interactive performances or sports regularly, all without the burden and cost of travel. Workers can collaborate remotely and remove the isolation of working from home. Specialized experts can collaborate from afar, such as the surgeons on different continents performing a remarkable operation to separate conjoined twins, leading to success that may never before have been possible.
Gaming—not just for fun
To get an idea of where the metaverse is headed, keep an eye on games and the engines that power them.
In many cases, metaverse platforms are built with the same tools used to create games, such as Unity or Unreal, so they will share some feature sets. In fact, the ability to create and manipulate digital assets and environments is borne out of functions in video games.
An important aspect of gaming that translates well into the metaverse is its use as a platform for building communities and socializing. The competition and the mechanics behind the games give structure to communities, individual friendships and even professional competitions.
An ecosystems mindset—don’t go it alone
As in today’s business landscape, there will be little room for isolated, play-by-themselves applications in the metaverse. Instead, businesses should build their metaverse applications on existing ecosystems and platforms.
While it can be quick and easy to fly solo—i.e., developing a capability that addresses a single use case—it will be almost impossible to scale and, therefore, reap the benefits of metaverse concepts and technologies. Moreover, if a similar application has already gained momentum on one of the large popular metaverse platforms, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to attract people to a solo entity.
A new place for consumer engagement
Establish new customer relationships with immersive experiences
Activating in the metaverse allows companies to reach new demographics, form new consumer communities and vividly show new and existing customers how well their products and services meet their wants and needs. Using immersive tools, companies can also brand themselves as ESG leaders amid increased sustainability concerns.
This is about a company using the metaverse to reach new demographics and new consumers and engage old ones in different ways. It’s about bolstering community and customer experience. It can provide customers with new experiences to interact with product services and other consumers. It can also help surface information from deep within your org and help you get new customers and retain old ones.
Make an immersive impression: show off your products and services while building community
Make an immersive impression: show off your products and services while building community
Platforms that use VR/AR will provide a unique opportunity to give users a true sense of touch, feel and scale—for instance, understanding how furniture will fit and look in their home using AR apps powered by 5G, or the accurate size of a vehicle.
These virtual representations (i.e, digital twins) can also be interactive. With concepts borrowed from gaming, they can offer a tangible, physical experience to remote product experiences that cannot be replicated on a flat screen.
Demonstrating products, or even services, in an immersive virtual space introduces the opportunity for community building since these platforms are shared experiences with social interaction at their core. Platform choice, however, is critical to reaching the target audience, because each platform has its own ecosystem.
Web3 can enable businesses to reimagine how customer loyalty can be instilled, such as through tokenization. This involves providing rewards to the communities that form around businesses’ products and services that can grant exclusive access to events or services in the form of tokens.
Show off your sustainability cred with AR visualization
Boost your sustainability cred with AR visualization
The green credentials and responsible sourcing of a product’s components are difficult to display concisely and engagingly on packaging or a label. Augmented reality, through a mobile device today or on a pair of lightweight glasses in the future, frees up real estate to display this information effectively and impactfully.
Applying gamification concepts, such as a gaming-influenced user interface, would also help businesses turn prosaic and possibly cluttered data into an engaging and informative experience.
Web3 technologies such as blockchain can assure consumers of the accuracy and trustworthiness of the information by providing a secured, immutable way of recording transactions and tracking assets through the supply chain. The metaverse principle of social interaction can further enable information verification, as it can be crowdsourced to bolster the brand and the product's ESG credentials.
The overall experience will fall flat if shoppers need to repeatedly load new applications on their phones or AR glasses to access the information, or if the experience is slow and clunky. As such, the platform and ecosystem the data is stored on, and the 5G infrastructure surrounding it, are as critical as the data itself.
Go virtual with business operations
Reach new levels of operational efficiency and employee engagement
Remote work can be great work in the metaverse. Using metaverse tools, businesses can uplevel the employee onboarding and training experience, while also discovering new ways to work using virtual replicas of physical asset, process, system or environment. Immersive visualization of real-time operational data introduces innovative equipment support options.
A virtual approach to business operations
Turn remote work into great work with virtual collaboration and training and the use of digital twins
Digital twins and virtual recreations of real, physical objects have been around for decades, but metaverse concepts and technologies provide a new way for these recreations to be used as an ecosystem for improving business operations.
For instance, the scanning, modeling and recreation of a logistics company's warehouse using the same types of technology that powers gaming environments offers up a virtual space for a number of activities. For example, using VR to access a digital warehouse can provide a true sense of scale, enabling workers to experiment with more effective layouts and processes and then apply them in the physical warehouse without business disruption.
Training is another example. By incorporating virtual social interaction into training, instructors can guide new hires in a supercharged employee onboarding program. Details on earned credentials can be stored trustlessly on the blockchain, with web3 underpinning the employee experience.
By using 5G to feed sensor information to a digital twin, businesses can create an accurate representation of the real-world object, and the collaboration, training and work done within this metaverse environment can become even more effective and purposeful than what’s done in its physical counterpart.
Work better together even when apart with data visualization and remote assistance
Create new levels of equipment maintenance, support and operations
A metaverse ecosystem can also enable new levels of real-time maintenance and equipment service.
Using the vast reams of data generated by IoT sensors and streamed via 5G, factory workers can use augmented reality to see real-time data on equipment performance, 3D assembly or maintenance instructions in precisely the correct position, hands-free. This frees them from having to hold a tablet or contact staff in a control hub to get the information they need.
Incorporating the metaverse principle of social interaction, remote support assistants can see what AR-enabled users are seeing, from their point of view, and inspect the digital twins of the equipment being worked on. When guiding workers on the steps to take to rectify an issue, they can transmit digital instructions onto the physical objects for them to follow.
Tutorials like these have been a mainstay in video games since their inception. Many years of iterative work has gone into displaying instructions in three dimensions that blend in with and complement the world they refer to, so look to gaming to ensure a seamless and valuable employee experience.
While AR can help workers visualize data, web3 and blockchain systems can store and manage it. The decentralization and trust aspects of the technology are important to ensure that what is being reported is accurate, tamper-proof and secure so that it can be shared with third parties without exposing commercially sensitive data stored in back-end ERP systems.
Averting risk, reaping rewards
Four metaverse hazards to avoid
No technology implementation is without its risks, and those risks are only more pronounced when the technology—like the metaverse—is overly hyped and involves major players from Big Tech.
Here are the four biggest risks to avoid when starting your metaverse journey.
It’s crypto, bro
Much controversy surrounds cryptocurrency and NFTs. While both have a solid technology platform and many practical uses, they are too often applied to the narrow use case of increasing financial value.
This has the effect of viewing all web3 technologies as purely a store of value that must be increased. As a result, many metaverse platforms price out users as they require cryptocurrencies to be bought at inflated prices for very little functionality. This, in turn, negates one of the core tenets of web3 around the democratization of the internet and limits metaverse platforms to the wealthy, the fortunate and, arguably, the digital wrongdoers.
Bottom line: Web3 technologies should only be implemented when they truly create value, not just for the financial benefit of a few token owners.
Virtual ethics are real ethics
Businesses need to clarify acceptable and unacceptable behaviors in the metaverse. Doing so will help to ensure that the tools and procedures are in place for staff to feel safe when using work platforms and can also guide the choice of any consumer-facing platform the company builds on.
Ethical considerations around physical representations abound. How should employees represent themselves if they do not identify with their physical body? What if the metaverse platform used does not support an avatar having a specific item of religious attire or physical characteristic that users feel defines them?
The list of considerations is long and complex, but beginning the thought process now ensures proactive businesses are better prepared to manage fraught considerations in the future.
New data, new security
Collecting personal data in order to sell to third parties has become the de rigueur business model for many technology companies. This will only increase as metaverse platforms attract more users, and AR/VR creates a new form of biometric data that will be invaluable.
The opportunity to know your customer at a deeper level—such as the direction in which they’re looking at any given moment and who they’re standing next to—will mean advertising can become even more targeted and high impact. On the flip slide, this biometric data is deeply personal and, if hacked and stolen, could be used to impersonate users more accurately than previously possible.
Web3 fundamentals of data protection and power decentralization provide some but not all the answers to these issues. The vast amounts of work that go into securing data and regulating its use will be even more necessary as metaverse platforms proliferate.
As much as metaverse platforms and technologies change how people interact with both the real and digital worlds, it is important to view these as tools for solving problems rather than for creating an all-encompassing monolith for future populations to spend their lives within.
Similarly, attempting to apply the metaverse to each and every interaction with customers will only push them away. Creating experiences and services that are unique to the platforms will ensure long-lasting success and scalability as this virtual world evolves, converges and matures.
How to get started
The metaverse may be an amorphous and loosely defined concept, but by taking the right steps, businesses can build for today while preparing for tomorrow.
A pragmatic—and ultimately successful approach—would be to get started now by taking the following preliminary actions:
- Identify business problems to be solved or opportunities to take advantage of that would benefit from the immersive and augmented experiences of the metaverse.
- Avoid individual solutions if possible and leverage already created ecosystems and platforms, as well as the audience they’ve already attracted.
- Build for scale when creating experiences, by considering each metaverse component and how it interacts with the rest of the platform.
- Maintain the highest level of ethics, privacy and security around this nascent and unregulated advancement in everyone’s digital lives.
About the author
Duncan Roberts, Senior Manager, Cognizant Research
Duncan joined the company in 2019 as a digital strategy and transformation consultant in industries ranging from satellite communications to educational assessment. He has advised clients on utilizing technology to meet strategic objectives and discover the art of the possible through innovation.
In 2015, he started developing applications for emerging virtual and augmented reality hardware, working directly with large companies to create new experiences for their customers. He has also advised small startups on using blockchain solutions for advertising within VR and AR. More recently, Duncan turned his passion for closing the gap between innovation and business opportunity into industry-leading research about the metaverse's impacts on consumers and employees.
Before Cognizant, Duncan worked for one of the largest publishing houses in Europe, playing a leading role in the digital publishing revolution, helping transform their operations end to end and launching new, innovative products. He holds a Masters in Philosophy and Classics from the University of St. Andrews.