Enter the metaverse – a shared digital space that promises to change how firms market their products, pitch to clients and enable staff to collaborate. It promises to deliver efficiencies and boost productivity across the board.
Such is the buzz surrounding this technology that a poll of 7,500 office workers conducted for Lenovo in November 2021, found that 44% would rather work in the metaverse than return to HQ. But a similar percentage didn’t believe that their employers would have the expertise to enable this once it became possible, while 59% reported that their firms already weren’t investing enough in IT advances that could improve their productivity.
The metaverse is an amorphous concept and it’s also nothing new. The term was coined in 1992 by US writer Neal Stephenson in his satirical cyberpunk novel Snow Crash. In an interview with Vanity Fair 25 years later, he stressed that he was simply doing his job as a sci-fi writer and “making shit up”, but his book has come to be hailed in Silicon Valley as remarkably prophetic vision.
Just before Mark Zuckerberg announced Facebook’s name change to Meta in October 2021 and outlined his vision for the metaverse, the company acknowledged that it would probably be somewhere between 10 and 15 years before the technology’s full potential would be unleashed.
A statement co-written by its vice-president of global affairs, Nick Clegg, stressed that the metaverse “isn’t a single product one company can build alone. Just like the internet, the metaverse exists whether Facebook is there or not. And it won’t be built overnight… While that’s frustrating for those of us eager to dive right in, it gives us time to ask the difficult questions about how things should be built.”
Although the technology remains in its infancy, this hasn’t prevented firms from forging ahead with plans to profit from it. Nike has been recruiting for a director of metaverse engineering, for instance, while luxury fashion brand Balenciaga is set to launch a metaverse business division. At the end of 2021, Disney’s patent application for a “virtual world simulator” at its theme parks received approval. And Boeing has revealed that it’s planning to design and build aircraft in the metaverse.
But some companies and CIOs may be getting ahead of themselves in this respect, according to Filip Martinsson, founder and COO of Moralis Web3, which has built a toolkit for developers to create metaverse experiences.
“The metaverse remains fragmented and siloed. Right now, the focus is on developing and building the infrastructure needed to support it,” he says. “In the short term, the metaverse doesn’t need to be a primary point of strategic planning for CIOs. I believe that they ought to be looking to develop what they’re already working on – for instance, using data to improve their productivity and/or the customer experience.”
Christoph Heidler, vice-president of global transformation strategy and CIO at cloud security firm Zscaler in EMEA, agrees. “A company should limit the attention it’s paying to this space unless its business model is on a collision course with the metaverse – for instance, if it concerns cryptocurrency, gaming or retail,” he says.
Metaverse builders are keen to create a safe and secure virtual environment in which all users will feel comfortable. But there are plenty of challenges for them to overcome. For example, people using virtual reality (VR) headsets can experience sickness, fatigue and a loss of spatial awareness if they spend long periods interacting in virtual environments. There are also concerns about privacy that will need to be addressed.
Will we be holding meetings in the metaverse?
While these wrinkles are being ironed out, firms that are intent on becoming early adopters of the metaverse should be working out how they can incorporate VR and augmented reality (AR) into their day-to-day operations, Martinsson advises.
Charlie Jones is technology director at NBS, which has designed a collaboration platform for the construction industry. The company is considering how its data can be integrated into virtual environments in the most accessible way, he says, adding that many players in the sector already use VR and AR to bring their plans to life and improve clients’ understanding of projects.
Beyond this, he is sceptical about the practicalities of spending time interacting in virtual worlds, given that the technology is so far from maturity. Bill Gates has predicted that most business meetings will be held in the metaverse by 2024, with workers wearing VR headsets and interacting as avatars, but Jones isn’t so sure.
“For many companies, a video call with screen-sharing is going to be as good as, or more effective than, any metaverse experience,” he argues.
The metaverse’s rate of adoption will be influenced by improvements in interoperability (the ability to move seamlessly among virtual environments) and the usability and reliability of VR hardware. As the technology evolves over time, unforeseen practical applications for it will surely emerge.
“We can expect a few more years before meaningful adoption, which seems contrary to most of today’s headlines,” Heidler says, but he adds that companies need to keep abreast of metaverse developments and review their business models accordingly over the medium to long term.
Martinsson suggests that, once the technology has matured to a certain level, CIOs “will need to start thinking about how their firms can be present in the metaverse and what that presence will look like”.
At that point, they will need to ask themselves several other questions, he adds. These include: can they create virtual experiences for their products or services? If so, what will these look like and how can their value to customers and clients be measured? Are competitors likely to move into the metaverse too?
“The metaverse will play a bigger and bigger role in business as it develops,” Martinsson says. “So these are just some of the factors that companies should consider when putting together their long-term strategies.”