Into the Metaverse: Business Cases, Enterprise Opportunities and a Gold Rush

June 22, 2022

Written by Alex Lawrence

“If you recall, IoT was hype some years ago,” Jiani Zhang pointed out. 6GWorld was chatting with Zhang about cutting through the metaverse hype. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time the digital industries have got carried away by technology talk.

Capgemini Engineering’s Chief Software Officer has been working with clients in a variety of industries to understand the potential behind the excitement. Although the metaverse has been a focus of much attention since Facebook’s transition to Meta, there is still a good deal of confusion about why, especially outside of the telecoms and digital spheres; these are the companies Zhang mainly works with.

“I would say they’re testing the waters,” she explained. “They have a little bit of FOMO [Fear Of Missing Out]. So for them it’s much more experimental, and the experimental piece varies in terms of willingness to invest.”

Replacing Experience With Environment

Part of the uncertainties around the metaverse lie in misconceptions of what it may be like and what the point of it is. “It’s not Ready Player One,” Zhang said. The idea of an experiential metaverse where avatars gather to chat is, she feels, quite limiting for the imagination.

 “If you dig under the covers of what metaverse could be, the possibilities of the technology and the data behind it, you’re starting to stitch together an environment,” she suggested, “and I think that that changes the concept.”

When we talk about “the metaverse”, for example, we don’t need to think of a direct analogue to how the physical universe operates, or even that we need to think of it as a singular domain. “I think a lot of enterprises are starting to realise that not all of this goes either onto the public web or the public metaverse,” Zhang noted.

In which case, let’s say you have an instance of a private metaverse– what can you do there? Zhang gives an example from a client of hers, a large-scale manufacturer aiming to build several more factories in the coming year.

Unsurprisingly, this is a huge capital investment. In the past couple of years, with a need for being able to flexibly manage a line and conduct quality control remotely, this has also changed the demands in any given factory.

So, for example, even if people are able to go back to work as before, some of the automation needs to be there to enable remote operation if needed… and if it’s there, it will change the way the equipment is used and the movement of people and goods around a factory. Optimising this will be a new problem.

“It’s very difficult to plan that in any type of CAD [Computer Aided Design] environment, so if you were able to load in a floor plan or a factory plan into the metaverse, and you can have an avatar in the metaverse to walk station to station all according to the right size ratios, then you can start to formulate whether or not a layout even makes sense,” Jiang explained.

“It’s a big shift in terms of pre-planning before you actually build.”

Further Down The Rabbit-Hole

The idea outlined above might sound a little bit like Minecraft for Manufacturing, but the cost savings from knowing exactly how to use a space and how to design it are significant. What’s more, what happens when you’re representing not just a building, but processes and activities? According to Zhang, you get opportunities to train AI on situations where there may be little real-world data.   

She gave the example of training an AI for autonomous driving, which today would use images gathered from, for example, Google Maps’ driving.

“What happens if a kid drops a ball and runs out into the middle of the street? You hope you never take that picture, right? That’s not a situation that you want to see, but as an autonomous mobility system you absolutely need that scenario to be factored into your use case on how that car should react.”

The solution Zhang sees is to simulate a street in the metaverse and then simulate a child running into the street as a way to train the AI in its reactions. Such a simulation could be run over and over again within a private metaverse instantiation, as could other unlikely but important scenarios.

Overall, it seems like the ability to simulate physical entities and then layer data or simulations over the top really brings the concept of a digital twin to life.

It opens up questions over whether it would be possible to take a “public metaverse”, such a simulation of a town, and for companies then to hire it as a testbed for their own projects – for example, for planning cell sites or simulating the impact of new building projects, or even for holding virtual street parties. Absolutely, according to Zhang.

“That’s what is very fascinating: the metaverse can start to bring to light all of these interconnecting and interlacing pieces of data that you otherwise would not have thought about, as an extra data point as you consider the larger landscape as a very advanced version of a digital twin.” 

So right there we find a new form of commercial model – not just using a metaverse instantiation for a company’s own use but hiring it out to third parties for them to test ideas or apply their data and add richness. 

Commercial impacts are, in fact, already being felt. Zhang offered the example of a furniture manufacturer who invited Capgemini Engineering to explore whether it would make sense for them to invest in building a public metaverse environment.

“One of our chief architects stands up in front of the client and says ‘Actually you already have an environment in the metaverse. Someone created your store already.’”

In that situation it turned out well, as the manufacturer’s store had been recreated in a complimentary way and they were able to pick up the reins. All well and good but, as Zhang pointed out, that need not have happened.

“What if someone had actually butchered your brand or did not bring about the right connotations of what you want to be known for?” she pointed out. “If you’re not controlling the narrative, then somebody else will.”

Taming A Wild Frontier?

While the concept of private and public metaverses is certainly arresting, and makes some more interesting options for what’s possible, currently deploying in a “public metaverse” is unstraightforward. 

“I don’t think that it’s a solved situation yet where there’s a way for us all to see a certain type of environment as of yet,” Zhang commented. “Just like when the internet just started. Everyone was coding in various languages. And so some of them would render correctly and some of them wouldn’t.”

There is the potential for a gold rush here, especially for companies able to set actual or de facto standards. This is where some of the pioneer companies who have bet big on the metaverse are competing, according to Zhang.

“Some of these companies are making sure that they start to work through a unified approach, setting standards on how data will be transferred, how data will be published, how the environment will be visualised,” she said.

Indeed, interaction between an immersive VR experience and the “plain” two-dimensional internet is also being scrutinised by large players.

“Apple, for example, has already pre-built some standardization of VR access into their phones today that could support them for all future generations. So once that door becomes open, you can actually use your iPhone to go and look into the metaverse environments.”

Whether we will end up with actual standards, or whether we’ll have the metaverse equivalent of the Pepsi Wars between rival stakeholders trying to dominate a market, is all to play for. However, it’s clear that certain large players are aiming to gain essential positions, whether that’s within a nascent market or within any standards that are being developed.

“Imagine if you were the first – you know, the ‘Internet Explorer of the metaverse’. Obviously things evolve and change, but to have that first-mover advantage and to set that first standard gives you a lot of leverage.”

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