Exploring the utility of the metaverse

Of the various up-and-coming technological developments in the zeitgeist, few are as hyped - and simultaneously unclear - as the metaverse. Its promise is grandiose: nothing short of the next revolution in digital technology. But what does that mean? What does the metaverse do? Who is it for? There is no singular, unified belief of what it will eventually solidify into. (And despite what Mark Zuckerberg might say, there are and will be more metaverses than his behemoth.) Tech insiders claim that the platform will impact almost every aspect of our lives. Given the scope of the implied impact, there are endless regions to study and contemplate. This examination will focus on the enterprise lens.

Many of what are anticipated to be the metaverse’s game-changing properties are locked behind technical barriers and hardware developments that haven’t been broken through yet, but there are forms of a metaverse currently out there and being used by consumers and enterprises. During the 2022 Superbowl, viewers of the big game saw an ad promising virtual classrooms, surgeons practicing on virtual patients, and students interacting with a photorealistic version of ancient Rome. While we can’t reach that iteration of the metaverse yet, exciting, groundbreaking options have already begun to pop up. The NBA began streaming games in VR in 2014, allowing fans to get courtside views for any big game as long as they own a VR headset. The platform has some glitches, and picture quality is something fans complain about, but the experience is truly unique and something many wish other leagues would adopt. In June of 2020, Johns Hopkins Neurosurgeons performed the first AR surgeries on living patients. The spinal surgeries were successful, with surgeons praising the new technology that put data usually found on a separate CT scanner screen in front of their eyes as they worked. All of these advancements may have taken longer than planned, or be glitchy at certain points, but in general, we are on the verge of some exceedingly impactful advancements in technology that we’ll experience in metaverse environments. 

While these developments are impressive and expand the possibilities of the digital space, it’s hard to believe that a visual medium will reach the promise of ‘revolutionary’ in learning, socializing, gaming and marketing. After all, many of the features that seem within reach present as social media (which is essentially just socialization and marketing) in a new visual format. The Co-Founder of the WAX Blockchain (and former VC) William Quigley noted that web3 will bring about the necessary software advancements for the metaverse to operate at full functionality but will be restrained by hardware limitations. He asserts that web4 will focus on hardware and unlock the true game-changing power of the metaverse. Quigley predicts this to be sometime around 2040, since interest and investment in hardware has waned and will only become a key area for investment and development when we have pushed software as far as it will go. The Pew Research Center (which published the research paper The Metaverse in 2040) and Dr. Kai-Fu Lee & Chen Qiufan (authors of AI 2041.) agreed with this timetable.

So if we assume that the metaverse will function in a still innovative but limited way during web3, and then fully blossom when hardware unlocks in web4, what is the utility of the metaverse for enterprise currently, and what will it be in web4?

To begin, let’s consider non-speculative aspects of the metaverse and blockchain that bring immediate utility: concepts that are based on currently available technology and can be (or have been) implemented already. 

Customer service & success - Currently, people can take over your PC, and that can be extremely helpful for users who lack technical sophistication; but what if they could show you how to fix the thing you are struggling with? Imagine being able to see an interactive user manual when fixing a broken washing machine, a disconnected wifi network, or even medical equipment.

Workforce training - No longer will we need to run through a binder of dry, low-context information when we are onboarded at work, or silly role-playing situations with our new supervisor. The metaverse and virtual reality will allow companies to implement soft skills training for employees in new and impactful ways. VR will allow companies to place new employees in real-world job situations, allowing them to practice soft skills to better support peers and customers. When H&R Block ran a VR-based training program for new employees in 2021, they found that customer hold time at call centers dropped by 50%, decreasing the number of dissatisfied clients. Furthermore, allowing people to practice real-world situations in “kind” learning environments allows for a more culturally focused curriculum, including DEI and leadership training.

Sales and marketing - This is the most critical part of the metaverse. The idea of advertising in digital space, creating digital twins for a product, or creating a game-like experience all jump to mind. But, the most essential thing that the metaverse enables is the ability for brands to “own” a social media platform that’s exclusively theirs. This means they can track any and all metrics that matter to them. The metaverse will essentially redefine the term “engagement.” Engagement means how often a post was shared, liked, or commented on. For ads, engagement is the same as posts, but a frequency component also lets businesses know how often a specific person sees the ad. These are great metrics for generally testing out content, but it does not provide much insight into the people seeing it. The metaverse will change the meaning of engagement as it will let companies know who is on their platform daily, who is building worlds, moderating experiences, or anything that requires more time or effort than liking a post. The value here isn’t feedback on content; it is feedback on who interacts with your content and how they interact with it. 

On traditional social media platforms, brands can see likes and clicks; whatever they need to calculate customer acquisition costs and see if a campaign is worthwhile. But what this misses are the people who engage with a product but don’t buy it. Some people are already evangelizing brands and doing work for them without the brand even realizing it. Take the automotive industry. There are tons of “car guys'' who run forums for specific car brands. Many of these people can’t afford the vehicles they discuss, or perhaps own a much older model of the vehicle. These people are working on behalf of the brand based on their own passion for it, but they are not being tracked as they don’t fit into traditional social media metrics. This type of work is engagement, and a brand can track that in the metaverse. 

Imagine an intelligent marketer reaching out to someone like the forum moderator and sending them some swag or inviting them to launch a new model. The moderator won’t buy the car, but they know people who will. The moderator is then in a position to tell their friend (who is considering a new car) that X brand did some exciting, innovative thing they were a part of, and it’s clear the brand cares about customers and fans who love their product. Immediately this moderator has just become a fount of word-of-mouth advertising. According to Mckinsey, word-of-mouth is considered 2 times more impactful than paid marketing. Forbes reported that word of mouth marketing drives $6 Trillion worth of sales. The metaverse allows marketers to engage with a set of resources currently unavailable on social media platforms. Social media has opened the door to the creator economy, allowing artists and individuals to begin monetizing their works. But at their core, social media platforms are marketing machines that prompt businesses to use them as marketing services. Think about it, would you pay for a subscription to instagram?

This is not an exhaustive list. Some cases are not included here as they are tied to specific industries that use schematics and CAD designs, where being in 3D is a clear advantage. The idea of virtual conferences is also not included in this list, as it is more or less already here. Data collection for training AI programs is another feature currently available, and there are many others.

At this point, it’s pertinent to pause and consider that the graphics/visual quality of the metaverse experience will not be the jaw-dropping imagery millennials anticipate based on decades of nonstop visual advancement. Current metaverse experiences frequently seem unimpressive, and almost confusing in terms of the grand pronouncements made about the metaverse. This makes sense given the generation’s eyes were trained by Atari… and then Nintendo, Super Nintendo, N64… and then PlayStation and Xbox… and that, alongside digital visual effects in films like Terminator 2, Jurassic Park, The Matrix, The Lord of the Rings, Avatar, and beyond. Increased realism and limitless imagination have trained our eyes to evaluate effects, and be disappointed when they seem to regress backward from what we’ve become accustomed to.

However, Gen Z viewers and gamers are necessarily looking for the same experience or carry the same expectations. The games they grew up with on consoles, computer systems, and smart phones are focused on a more cartoony aesthetic and push new, exciting gameplay styles. The importance of graphic quality mattered less, and innovative frameworks, like sandbox Games, fundamentally changed how they play, which seems to matter more. Furthermore, the lower quality of graphics may allow platform creators to focus on usability and style of gameplay over appearance, and allows for the most dynamic, cutting edge playing styles since the lower complexity graphics won’t challenge bandwidth limitations. This aspect may end up as a boon for the burgeoning metaverse, allowing Gen Z to grow into the space as developers expand and ultimately crack open the potential of the metaverse.

Now that the current enterprise use cases of the metaverse have been explored let’s shift to the less restricted, more empowered version of the metaverse, which will focus on consumer use cases and be turbo-charged by hardware upgrades, innovations, and transformations we can’t entirely imagine today.

Shopping - Changes in the world of commerce have already begun. Online retailers allow users to see what a piece of furniture looks like in their home through AR technology and a smartphone, Warby Parker allows customers to try on glasses through an AR app on their phones, and Shopify recently gave sellers the ability to turn all their products into XR models for a Metaverse focused sales experience. On top of this, items will begin to come with a digital twin. Imagine buying an exciting pair of Nikes: instead of just the shoes, you may get an NFT as well that allows your avatar to wear them or an exciting piece of art that you can sell later.

Socializing - Interactivity is critical here. We modify our clothes, our spaces, our vehicles - everything - to match our preferences and style. Why should this stop at the physical world? We can extend this into our digital world, and especially in the metaverse. Moving from zoom to interactive spaces where we can play with friends and design the space, we will be able to bring our personalities to a new type of space that can echo our real-life aesthetic. It’s not just a display of ourselves, but it includes the objects we touch and feel in the real world. Your friends can pick up a digital twin of a personalized keepsake - the foul ball you caught at Yankee stadium, your TV show collection, etc. - to have a more robust experience of their social life online.

Live events - Imagine attending concerts or sporting events in the metaverse. If you love soccer but can’t make it to Europe to watch Lionel Messi score a goal, you could view the game in the virtual realm and feel like you were there. The NBA already does this, so why couldn’t concerts or other sporting events also be experienced in the digital world?

Travel - The metaverse will do two significant things for travel: it will improve luxury travel and give those with lesser means the ability to view and experience the world. It will give luxury travelers the ability to explore locations before they arrive, allowing them to understand what they actually want to do, ultimately giving this group more confidence in their travel plans. Think of buying a business class seat; is it really worth it? With the unlocked metaverse, this question will be answered for you as you can observe the experience from departure to arrival in advance.

For those without the means to travel, it will unlock the world. In the way Google street view made it possible to see the world on your computer, you will now be able to actually explore locations you cannot get to in person. The environmental impact of this could be huge as we strive to lower carbon emissions from flights and the damage accrued at tourist hotspots. (For example: Redwood National Park had to close the area around the world’s largest tree in order to stop degradation.) Additionally, no monument or museum would ever be closed in the metaverse. You could see Notre Dame without ever leaving home.

The metaverse may do some amazing things in the social realm, but at its core, it offers enterprises the most immediate positive impacts. It is a marketing machine that will allow brands to be closer than ever to customers and identify users who may not purchase a product but can become evangelists. Brands will have the power to identify users who can become word-of-mouth marketers when incentivized genuinely, revolutionizing marketing and the relationship between user and brand. Eventually, other segments of society will catch up in terms of benefitting from the existence of the metaverse. Still, for now, businesses would be well-advised to dive into the metaverse with both feet.

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