On October 28, 2021, Mark Zuckerberg got up on stage and announced Facebook's rebranding to Meta and its intent to build out a new business line around the metaverse concept. Just a few days later, Microsoft's CEO Satya Nadella put forward his own idea of the metaverse at Microsoft Ignite. Seeing two of Silicon Valley's most influential companies pitch a vision of avatar-driven virtual reality collaboration sparked our collective curiosity. At the heart of it lies the question, "What is the metaverse, anyway?“
If you strip back the narrative of the companies selling you the solutions, the metaverse can be viewed as technological convergence. Years of development on mixed reality, AI, immersive digital environments, and real-time communication are culminating in a totally new user experience. The metaverse makes the digital as real as the physical. At least, that's the vision.
It will be years yet before the metaverse visions pitched to us from Silicon Valley stages are realized. In the meantime, understanding the individual technologies contributing to that vision can help CIOs realize business value today. Join me as we delve into the metaverse.
Brian Jackson Research Director, CIO
Info-Tech Research Group
From pop culture to Silicon Valley
Sci-fi visionaries are directly involved in creating the metaverse concept
The term “metaverse” was coined by author Neal Stephenson in the 1992 novel “Snow Crash.” In the novel, main character Hiro Protagonist interacts with others in a digitally defined space. Twenty-five years after its release, the cult classic is influential among Silicon Valley's elite. Stephenson has played some key roles in Silicon Valley firms. He became the first employee at Blue Origin, the space venture founded by Jeff Bezos, in 2006, and later became chief futurist at augmented reality firm Magic Leap in 2014. Stephenson also popularized the Hindu concept "avatar" in his writing, paving the way for people to embody digitally rendered models to participate in the metaverse (Vanity Fair, 2017).
Even earlier concepts of the metaverse were examined in the 1980s, with William Gibson’s “Neuromancer” exploring the same idea as cyberspace. Gibson's novel was influenced by his time in Seattle, where friend and Microsoft executive Eileen Gunn took him to hacker bars where he'd eavesdrop on "the poetics of the technological subculture" (Medium, 2022). Other visions of a virtual reality mecca were brought to life in the movies, including the 1982 Disney release “Tron,” the 1999 flick “The Matrix,” and 2018’s “Ready Player One.”
There's a common set of traits among these sci-fi narratives that help us understand what Silicon Valley tech firms are now set to commercialize: users interact with one another in a digitally rendered virtual world, with a sense of presence provided through the use of a head-mounted display.
CEO Mark Zuckerberg rebranded Facebook to make his intent clear
Mark Zuckerberg is all in on the metaverse, announcing October 28, 2021, that Facebook would be rebranded to Meta. The new brand took effect on December 1, and Facebook began trading under the new stock ticker MVRS on certain exchanges. On February 15, 2022, Zuckerberg announced at a company meeting that his employees will be known as Metamates. The company's new values are to live in the future, build awesome things, and focus on long-term impact. Its motto is simply "Meta, Metamates, me" (“Out With the Facebookers. In With the Metamates,” The New York Times, 2022).
Meta's Reality Labs division will be responsible for developing its metaverse product, using Meta Quest, its virtual reality head-mounted displays. Meta's early metaverse environment, Horizon Worlds, rolled out to Quest users in the US and Canada in early December 2021. This drove a growth in its monthly user base by ten times, to 300,000 people. The product includes Horizon Venues, tailored to attending live events in VR, but not Horizon Workrooms, a VR conferencing experience that remains invite-only. Horizon Worlds provides users tools to construct their own 3D digital environments and had been used to create 10,000 separate worlds by mid-February 2022 (“Meta’s Social VR Platform Horizon Hits 300,000 Users,“ The Verge, 2022).
In the future, Meta plans to amplify the building tools in its metaverse platform with generative AI. For example, users can give speech commands to create scenes and objects in VR. Project CAIRaoke brings a voice assistant to an augmented reality headset that can help users complete tasks like cooking a stew. Zuckerberg also announced Meta is working on a universal speech translator across all languages (Reuters, 2022).
Investment in the metaverse: $10 billion in 2021
Key People: CEO Mark Zuckerberg
CTO Andrew Bosworth
Chief Product Officer Chris Cox
(Source: “Meta Spent $10 Billion on the Metaverse in 2021, Dragging Down Profit,” The New York Times, 2022)
Microsoft’s view of the metaverse
CEO Satya Nadella showcased a mixed reality metaverse at Microsoft Ignite
In March 2021 Microsoft announced Mesh, an application that allows organizations to build out a metaverse environment. Mesh is being integrated into other Microsoft hardware and software, including its head-mounted display, the HoloLens, a mixed reality device. The Mesh for HoloLens experience allows users to collaborate around digital content projected into the real world. In November, Microsoft announced a Mesh integration with Microsoft Teams. This integration brings users into an immersive experience in a fully virtual world. This VR environment makes use of AltspaceVR, a VR application Microsoft first released in May 2015 (Microsoft Innovation Stories, 2021).
Last Fall, Microsoft also announced it is rebranding its Dynamics 365 Connected Store solution to Dynamics 365 Connected Spaces, signaling its expansion from retail to all spaces. The solution uses cognitive vision to create a digital twin of an organization’s physical space and generate analytics about people’s behavior (Microsoft Dynamics 365 Blog, 2021).
In the future, Microsoft wants to make "holoportation" a part of its metaverse experience. Under development at Microsoft Research, the technology captures people and things in photorealistic 3D to be projected into mixed reality environments (Microsoft Research, 2022). It also has plans to offer developers AI-powered tools for avatars, session management, spatial rendering, and synchronization across multiple users. Open standards will allow Mesh to be accessed across a range of devices, from AR and VR headsets, smartphones, tablets, and PCs.
Microsoft has been developing multi-user experiences in immersive 3D environments though its video game division for more than two decades. Its capabilities here will help advance its efforts to create metaverse environments for the enterprise.
Investment in the metaverse: In January 2022, Microsoft agreed to acquire Activision Blizzard for $68.7 billion. In addition to acquiring several major gaming studios for its own gaming platforms, Microsoft said the acquisition will play a key role in the development of its metaverse.
Key People: CEO Satya Nadella
CEO of Microsoft Gaming Phil Spencer
Microsoft Technical Research Fellow Alex Kipman
Current state of metaverse applications from Meta and Microsoft
Horizon Worlds (formerly Facebook Horizon). Requires an Oculus Rift S or Quest 2 headset to engage in an immersive 3D world complete with no-code building tools for users to construct their own environments. Users can either interact in the space designed by Meta or travel to other user-designed worlds through the plaza.
Horizon Workrooms (beta, invite only). An offshoot of Horizon Worlds but more tailored for business collaboration. Users can bring in their physical desks and keyboards and connect to PC screens from within the virtual setting. Integrates with Facebook’s Workplace solution.
Dynamics 365 Connected Spaces (preview). Cognitive vision combined with surveillance cameras provide analytics on people's movement through a facility.
Mesh for Microsoft Teams (not released). Collaborate with your colleagues in a virtual reality space using personalized avatars. Use new 2D and 3D meeting experiences.
Mesh App for HoloLens (preview). Interact with colleagues virtually in a persistent digital environment that is overlaid on top of the real world.
AltspaceVR. A VR space accessible via headset or desktop computer that's been available since 2015. Interact through use of an avatar to participate in daily events
Current providers of an “enterprise metaverse”
Other providers designing mixed reality or digital twin tools may not have used the “metaverse” label but provide the same capabilities via platforms
NVIDIA Omniverse “The metaverse for engineers,” Omniverse is a developer toolset to allow organizations to build out their own unique metaverse visions.
Omniverse Nucleus is the platform database that allows clients to publish digital assets or subscribe to receive changes to them in real-time.
Omniverse Connectors are used to connect to Nucleus and publish or subscribe to individual assets and entire worlds.
NVIDIA’s core physics engine provides a scalable and physically accurate world simulation.
TeamViewer’s Remote as a Service Platform Initially focusing on providing workers remote connectivity to work desktops, devices, and robotics, TeamViewer offers a range of software as a service products. Recent acquisitions to this platform see it connecting enterprise workflows to frontline workers using mixed reality headsets and adding more 3D visualization development tools to create digital twins. Clients include Coca-Cola and BMW.
“The metaverse matters in the future. TeamViewer is already making the metaverse tangible in terms of the value that it brings.” (Dr. Hendrik Witt, Chief Product Officer, TeamViewer)
The metaverse is a technological convergence
The metaverse is a platform combining multiple technologies to enable social and economic activity in a digital world that is connected to the physical world.
A metaverse experience must combine the three P’s: user presence is represented, the world is persistent, and data is portable.
Mixed reality provides the user experience (UX) for the metaverse
Both virtual and augmented reality will be part of the picture
Mixed reality encompasses both virtual reality and augmented reality. Both involve allowing users to immerse themselves in digital content using a head-mounted device or with a smartphone for a less immersive effect. Virtual reality is a completely digital world that is constructed as separate from the physical world. VR headsets take up a user's entire field of vision and must also have a mechanism to allow the user to interact in their virtual environment. Augmented reality is a digital overlay mapped on top of the real world. These headsets are transparent, allowing the user to clearly see their real environment, and projects digital content on top of it. These headsets must have a way to map the surrounding environment in 3D in order to project digital content in the right place and at the right scale.
Meta acquired virtual reality developer Oculus VR Inc. and its set of head-mounted displays in 2014. It continues to develop new hardware under the Oculus brand, most recently releasing the Oculus Quest 2. Oculus Quest hardware is required to access Meta's early metaverse platform, Horizon Worlds.
Microsoft's HoloLens hardware is a mixed reality headset. Its visor that can project digital content into the main portion of the user's field of vision and speakers capable of spatial audio. The HoloLens has been deployed at enterprises around the world, particularly in scenarios where workers typically have their hands busy. For example, it can be used to view digital schematics of a machine while a worker is performing maintenance or to allow a remote expert to "see through the eyes" of a worker.
Microsoft's Mesh metaverse platform, which allows for remote collaboration around digital content, was demonstrated on a HoloLens at Microsoft Ignite in November 2021. Mesh is also being integrated into AltspaceVR, an application that allows companies to hold meetings in VR with “enterprise-grade security features including secure sign-ins, session management and privacy compliance" (Microsoft Innovation Stories, 2021).
Immersive digital environments provide context in the metaverse
The interactive environment will be a mix of digital and physical worlds
If you've played a video game in the past decade, you've experienced an immersive 3D environment, perhaps even in a multiplayer environment with many other users at the same time. The video game industry grew quickly during the pandemic, with users spending more time and money on video games. Massive multiplayer online games like Fortnite provide more than a gaming environment. Users socialize with their friends and attend concerts featuring famous performers. They also spend money on different appearances or gestures to express themselves in the environment. When they are not playing the game, they are often watching other players stream their experience in the game. In many ways, the consumer metaverse already exists on platforms like Fortnite. At the same time, gaming developers are improving the engines for these experiences and getting closer to approximating the real world both visually and in terms of physics.
In the enterprise space, immersive 3D environments are also becoming more popular. Manufacturing firms are building digital twins to represent entire factories, modeling their real physical environments in digital space. For example, BMW’s “factory of the future” uses NVIDIA Omniverse to create a digital twin of its assembly system, simulated down to the detail of digital workers. BMW uses this simulation to plan reconfiguration of its factory to accommodate new car models and to train robots with synthetic data (“NVIDIA Omniverse,” NVIDIA, 2021).
Horizon Workrooms is Meta's business-focused application of Horizon Worlds. It facilitates a VR workspace where colleagues can interact with others’ avatars, access their computer, use videoconferencing, and sketch out ideas on a whiteboard. With the Oculus Quest 2 headset, passthrough mode allows users to add their physical desk to the virtual environment (Oculus, 2022).
AltspaceVR is Microsoft's early metaverse environment and it can be accessed with Oculus, HTC Vive, Windows Mixed Reality, or in desktop mode. Separately, Microsoft Studios has been developing digital 3D environments for its Xbox video game platform for yeas. In January 2022, Microsoft acquired games studio Activision Blizzard for $68.7 billion, saying the games studio would play a key role in the development of the metaverse.
Real-time communications allow for synchronous collaboration
Project your voice to a room full of avatars for a presentation or whisper in someone’s ear
If the metaverse is going to be a good place to collaborate, then communication must feel as natural as it does in the real world. At the same time, it will need to have a few more controls at the users’ disposal so they can focus in on the conversation they choose. Audio will be a major part of the communication experience, augmented by expressive avatars and text.
Mixed reality headsets come with integrated microphones and speakers to enable voice communications. Spatial audio will also be an important component of voice exchange in the metaverse. When you are in a videoconference conversation with 50 participants, every one of those people will sound as though they are sitting right next to you. In the metaverse, each person will sound louder or quieter based on how distant their avatar is from you. This will allow large groups of people to get together in one digital space and have multiple conversations happening simultaneously. In some situations, there will also be a need for groups to form a “party” as they navigate the metaverse, meaning they would stay linked through a live audio connection even if their avatars were not in the same digital space. Augmented reality headsets also allow remote users to “see through the eyes” of the person wearing the headset through a front-facing camera. This is useful for hands-on tasks where expert guidance is required.
People will also need to communicate with people not in the metaverse. More conventional videoconference windows or chat boxes will be imported into these environments as 2D panels, allowing users to integrate them into the context of their digital space.
Facebook Messenger is a text chat and video chat application that is already integrated into Facebook’s platform. Facebook also owns WhatsApp, a messaging platform that offers group chat and encrypted messaging.
Microsoft Teams is Microsoft’s application that combines presence-based text chat and videoconferencing between individuals and groups. Dynamics 365 Remote Assist is its augmented reality application designed for HoloLens wearers or mobile device users to share their real-time view with experts.
Generative AI will fill the metaverse with content at the command of the user
No-code and low-code creation tools will be taken to the next level in the metaverse
Metaverse platforms provide users with no-code and low-code options to build out their own environments. So far this looks like playing a game of Minecraft. Users in the digital environment use native tools to place geometric shapes and add textures. Other metaverse platforms allow users to design models or textures with tools outside the platform, often even programming behaviors for the objects, and then import them into the metaverse. These tools can be used effectively, but it can be a tedious way to create a customized digital space.
Generative AI will address that by taking direction from users and quickly generating content to provide the desired metaverse setting. Generative AI can create content that’s meaningful based on natural inputs like language or visual information. For example, a user might give voice commands to a smart assistant and have a metaverse environment created or take photos of a real-world object from different angles to have its likeness digitally imported.
Synthetic data will also play a role in the metaverse. Instead of relying only on people to create a lot of relevant data to train AI, metaverse platform providers will also use simulated data to provide context. NVIDIA’s Omniverse Replicator engine provides this capability and can be used to train self-driving cars and manipulator robots for a factory environment (NVIDIA Newsroom, 2021).
Meta is planning to use generative AI to allow users to construct their VR environments. It will allow users to describe a world to a voice assistant and have it created for them. Users could also speak to each other in different languages with the aid of a universal translator. Separately, Project CAIRaoke combines cognitive vision with a voice assistant to help a user cook dinner. It keeps track of where the ingredients are in the kitchen and guides the user through the steps (Reuters, 2022).
Microsoft Mesh includes AI resources to help create natural interactions through speech and vision learning models. HoloLens 2 already uses AI models to track users’ hands and eye movements as well as map content onto the physical world. This will be reinforced in the cloud through Microsoft Azure’s AI capabilities (Microsoft Innovation Stories, 2021).
Blockchain will provide a way to manage digital identity and assets across metaverse platforms
Users will want a way to own their metaverse identity and valued digital possessions
Blockchain technology provides a decentralized digital ledger that immutably records transactions. A specific blockchain can either be permissioned, with one central party determining who gets access, or permissionless, in which anyone with the means can transact on the blockchain. The permissionless variety emerged in 2008 as the foundation of Bitcoin. It's been a disruptive force in the financial industry, with Bitcoin inspiring a long list of offshoot cryptocurrencies, and now even central banks are examining moving to a digital currency standard.
In the past couple of years, blockchain has spurred a new economy around digital assets. Smart contracts can be used to create a token on a blockchain and bind it to a specific digital asset. These assets are called non-fungible tokens (NFTs). Owners of NFTs can prove their chain of ownership and sell their tokens to others on a variety of marketplaces.
Blockchain could be useful in the metaverse to track digital identity, manage digital assets, and enable data portability. Users could register their own avatars as NFTs to prove they are the real person behind their digital representation. They may also want a way to verify they own a virtual plot of land or demonstrate the scarcity of the digital clothing they are wearing in the metaverse. If users want to leave a certain metaverse platform, they could export their avatar and digital assets to a digital wallet and transfer them to another platform that supports the same standards.
In the past, centralized platforms that create economies in a virtual world were able to create digital currencies and sell specific assets to users without the need for blockchain. Second Life is a good example, with Linden Labs providing a virtual token called Linden Dollars that users can exchange to buy goods and services from each other within the virtual world. Second Life processes 345 million transactions a year for virtual goods and reports a GDP of $650 million, which would put it ahead of some countries (VentureBeat, 2022). However, the value is trapped within Second Life and can't be exported elsewhere.
Meta ended its Diem project in early 2022, winding down its plan to offer a digital currency pegged to US dollars. Assets were sold to Silvergate Bank for $182 million. On February 24, blockchain developer Atmos announced it wanted to bring the project back to life. Composed of many of the original developers that created Diem while it was still a Facebook project, the firm plans to raise funds based on the pitch that the new iteration will be "Libra without Facebook“ (CoinDesk, 2022).
Microsoft expanded its team of blockchain developers after its lead executive in this area stated the firm is closely watching cryptocurrencies and NFTs. Blockchain Director York Rhodes tweeted on November 8, 2021, that he was expanding his team and was interested to connect with candidates "obsessed with Turing complete, scarce programmable objects that you can own & transfer & link to the real world through a social contract.”
The enterprise metaverse holds implications for IT across several functional areas
Improve maturity in these four areas first
Infrastructure & Operations
Lay the foundation
Security & Risk
Mitigate the risks
Deploy the precursors
Data & BI
Prepare to integrate
Infrastructure & Operations
Make space for the metaverse
Network congestion: Connecting more devices that will be delivering highly graphical content will put new pressures on networks. Access points will have more connections to maintain and transit pathways more bandwidth to accommodate.
Device fragmentation: Currently many different vendors are selling augmented reality headsets used in the enterprise, including Google, Epson, Vuzix, and RealWear. More may enter soon, creating various types of endpoints that have different capabilities and different points of failure.
New workflows: Enterprises will only be able to benefit from deploying mixed reality devices if they're able to make them very useful to workers. Serving up relevant information in the context of a hands-free interface will become a new competency for enterprises to master.
Dedicated network: Some companies are avoiding the congestion issue by creating a separate network for IoT devices on different infrastructure. For example, they might complement the Wi-Fi network with a wireless network on 5G or LoRaWAN standards.
Partner with systems integrators: Solutions vendors bringing metaverse solutions to the enterprise are already working with systems integrator partners to overcome integration barriers. These vendors are solving the problems of delivering enterprise content to a variety of new mixed reality touchpoints and determining just the right information to expose to users, at the right time.
Security & Risk
Mitigate metaverse risks before they take root
Broader attack surface: Adding new mixed reality devices to the enterprise network will create more potential points of ingress for a cyberattack. Previous enterprise experiences with IoT in the enterprise have seen them exploited as weak points and used to create botnets or further infiltrate company networks.
More data in transit: Enterprise data will be flowing between these new devices and sometimes outside the company firewall to remote connections. Data from industrial IoT could also be integrated into these solutions and exposed.
New fraud opportunities: When Web 1.0 was first rolling out, not every company was able to secure the rights to the URL address matching its brand. Those not quick enough on the draw saw "domain squatters" use their brand equity to negotiate for a big pay day or, worse yet, to commit fraud. With blockchain opening up similar new digital real estate in Web3, the same risk arises.
Mobile device management (MDM): New mixed reality headsets can be secured using existing MDM solutions on the market.
Encryption: Encrypting data end to end as it flows between IoT devices ensures that even if it does leak, it's not likely to be useful to a hacker.
Stake your claim: Claiming your brand's name in new Web3 domains may seems tedious, but it is likely to be cheap and might save you a headache down the line.
Deploy to your existing touchpoints
Learning curves: Using new metaverse applications to complete tasks and collaborate with colleagues won’t be a natural progression for everyone. New headsets, gesture-based controls, and learning how to navigate the metaverse will present hurdles for users to overcome before they can be productive.
Is there a dress code in the metaverse? Avatars in the metaverse won’t necessarily look like the people behind the controls. What new norms will be needed to ensure avatars are appropriate for a work setting?
Fragmentation: Metaverse experiences are already creating islands. Users of Horizon Worlds can’t connect with colleagues using AltspaceVR. Similar to the challenges around different videoconferencing software, users could find they are divided by applications.
Introduce concepts over time: Ask users to experiment with meeting in a VR context in a small group before expanding to a companywide conference event. Or have them use a headset for a simple video chat before they use it to complete a task in the field.
Administrative controls: Ensure that employees have some boundaries when designing their avatars, enforced either through controls placed on the software or through policies from HR.
Explore but don’t commit: It’s early days for these metaverse applications. Explore opportunities that become available through free trials and new releases to existing software suites but maintain flexibility to pivot should the need arise.
Data & BI
Deploy to your existing touchpoints
Interoperability: There is no established standard for digital objects or behaviors in the metaverse. Meta and Microsoft say they are committed to open standards that will ensure portability of data across platforms, but how that will be executed isn’t clear yet.
Privacy: Sending data to another platform carries risks that it will be exfiltrated and stored elsewhere, presenting some challenges for companies that need to be compliant with legislation such as GDPR.
High-fidelity models: 3D models with photorealistic textures will come with high CPU requirements to render properly. Some head-mounted displays will run into limitations.
Adopt standard interfaces: Using open APIs will be the most common path to integrating enterprise systems to metaverse applications.
Maintain compliance: The current approach enterprises take to creating data lakes and presenting them to platforms will extend to the metaverse. Building good controls and anonymizing data that resides in these locations will enable firms to interact in new platforms and remain compliant.
Right-sized rendering: Providing enough data to a device to make it useful without overburdening the CPU will be an important consideration. For example, TeamViewer uses polygon reduction to display 3D models on lower-powered head-mounted displays.
Dr. Hendrik Witt Chief Product Officer,
Kevin Tucker Principal Research Director, Industry Practice,
INFO-TECH RESEARCH GROUP
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