10 MINS READ
By practicing the art of the possible, businesses can reach for the impossible.
Current visions of the future metaverse may seem fanciful, but they might accurately predict everyday life in persistent digital worlds. By the early 2030s, it could become perfectly normal to enter virtual or augmented realities for full days of working, learning, communicating, socializing, shopping, or gaming. After all, the building blocks for the fully realized metaverse already exist in some form. And once these technologies mature and coalesce into a complete experience, it’s easy to imagine the transformative speed with which businesses and consumers might embrace immersive digital interactivity that’s as broadly accessible and useful as today’s mobile internet.
But this will take time. “As much as the media wants it to be true, do not expect a fully built-out metaverse to be delivered overnight—or even widely adopted—in the next year or two,” says Howard Schargel, an innovation evangelist at TCS. “Kinks need to be ironed out, costs need to come down, and appropriate pipelines and foundations need to be established.”
In fact, the reality of any complete metaverse is so far off—five to ten years by most estimates, and possibly much more—that competing visions don’t yet agree on basic issues such as its purpose or how it might be governed. At one end of the spectrum are Web3 idealists who envision a universal experience built on decentralized technology—one that’s as open and agnostic as the original ‘world wide web’. At the other end are Web2 companies like Meta (formerly Facebook) that want to maintain centralized control while allowing some degree of interoperability between individual metaverses.
“This distinction between Web2 and Web3 approaches will define business models and monetization opportunities,” says Dr Ashok Maharaj, head of the TCS Extended Reality Lab. “The purpose and experience of the metaverse will differ depending on how each is built for consumer, industrial, or enterprise applications. Those following the Web2 playbook will continue with proprietary or third-party infrastructures, while the Web3 playbook will create infrastructures based on blockchain, self-sovereign identity, and cryptocurrencies or stablecoins.”
Stakes are high. So committed is Meta to its ongoing role as a dominant Web2 hub, for instance, that it is investing billions of dollars in a proprietary realm that might find itself out of step with Web3 consumers, who increasingly expect ownership of their data and experiences.
But even as we emphasize the incomplete nature of a metaverse, it’s important to understand how an enterprise can already use many components to create proto-metaverse experiences for its employees, partners, and customers. This approach is what TCS calls the minimally viable metaverse.
The power of semantics
In an ongoing development process, the words used to describe what doesn’t yet exist may have the power to influence outcomes—and to create confusion.
For instance, even the article chosen to precede metaverse, whether ‘the’ or ‘a’, can carry meaning. ‘The’ metaverse often indicates the concept as a system (like the internet) while ‘a’ metaverse might be understood as a destination (like a website) that may or may not be connected to others. Some dispense with an article altogether and simply say metaverse, but it can be difficult to conceptualize what’s being discussed if someone isn’t well-versed in the subject.
Furthermore, by choosing to rename itself Meta while pushing for fully immersive experiences, Mark Zuckerberg’s company has popularized the perception that metaverse and virtual reality (VR) are interchangeable terms. In fact, the metaverse is just as likely to layer digital elements on the physical world in augmented reality (AR) or to blend the two in mixed reality (MR). The umbrella term extended reality (XR) encompasses all three—whether creating interactivity with AR glasses that digitally enhance a physical space or VR headsets that transport users to a wholly digital realm.
Another common misconception conflates the definitions of metaverse and Web3, while they are far from same thing. Web3 is a decentralized internet ethos—often articulated through blockchain technology—that enables democratized ecosystems benefitting all participants. It may be the frequent foundation for metaverse communities, but is by no means a functional necessity. Conversely, Web3 ecosystems don’t require metaverse technology, unless its members want to interact with XR capabilities.
When you design for the unknown, it is often best to take baby steps.
Finding focus without a focal point
Despite all the variables in play—and the possibility that an unanticipated innovation could disrupt everything before anything is settled—the metaverse’s vast potential creates a sense of urgency to reach a destination that doesn’t yet exist and to which there is no clear path.
So, how should an enterprise proceed with transforming its business strategy for the future when so many tech companies—often with vested interests in competing outcomes—get ahead of themselves by framing what might be in definitive terms of what will be? What should that business do when consultancies add to the confusion by offering divergent perspectives on future developments with long treatises, unique approaches, and branded terms for the same basic concepts? Navigating this uncertainty past ambition, hype, wishful thinking, and posturing toward the unknown metaverse can feel like an impossible task.
TCS can’t predict exactly what the metaverse will look like—no one can. But we can help businesses develop their strategies by demystifying what we know of the metaverse, with a clear-eyed view of what they can do now, what evolving technologies will soon enable them to do, and how that could impact current operations. This empowers those businesses to prepare for the future while continuing to enhance their business processes, find new ways to create value, and become more resilient and agile in the face of change.
The mechanics of the metaverse
It’s an achievable approach that begins with a simple explanation of the metaverse as TCS currently understands it. Though the details are still being worked out, there is a general agreement on its basic outline. And this is our operating definition at TCS: “The metaverse is the convergence of the physical world with the virtual or digital world,” says Quinn Banks, Director, Risk and Cyber Strategy, TCS. “It will be an immersive experience with a self-sustaining, secure, community-driven economy using digital currencies to purchase and own goods in the physical and digital worlds at the same time.”
Important to note: the metaverse isn’t a new technology—it’s a new way of combining existing technologies that many enterprises are already using. The familiarity with essential business technology components makes it easier to understand what the metaverse might become. Here are several of the key technologies that will be incorporated through the cloud, 5G and 6G, mesh networks, IoT, and more:
Extended reality: A blanket term used to describe virtual, augmented, and mixed-reality technologies (VR/AR/MR). These technologies make up the true foundation of the metaverse—proving its value with use cases realized over the past several years.
Digital twins: Interactive, digital representations of physical objects—including people, places, spaces, and things—that provide a real-time transfer and response of data and analytics. Of particular benefit to industrial and enterprise organizations, digital twins are a one-to-one representation of factories, warehouses, and supply chains, but can be used in other industries where digital replications provide real-time data and responses.
Avatars/Digital humans: A digital representation or extension of one’s personal identity that may resemble oneself—or may take shape as any imaginable character or form.
Wayfinding: A method of communicating real-time directions—whether visual, auditory, or haptic—in physical or virtual worlds. A slow transition to heads-up displays and head-mounted devices will shift focus from the contained space of a mobile device to the surrounding environment.
Social collaboration: A spatial, or three-dimensional, way of socializing and working cohesively with individuals or groups from around the globe. Real-time 3D interactions, experiences, and subtleties form healthier bonds over traditional technological forms of communication.
Blockchain: The future of decentralized computing and the building blocks to the true standards of Web3 and its purpose. Large organizations will have to decide whether to maintain traditional and more centralized forms of storage and computing or to adapt and adopt this new platform and mechanism.
Non-fungible tokens (NFTs): A secure and immutable contract, deed, or title that exists on the blockchain and can be associated with real-world or other digital assets. JPG images dominate the current hype-cycle, but NFTs will begin to replace traditional forms of property titles, trusts, wills, and other legal documents.
Artificial intelligence (AI): Technology that works more efficiently than any human being—or group of human beings—in analyzing the most productive and optimal means of providing suggestions, data, analytics, metrics, and ways to act upon them.
Jon Radoff’s ‘Seven Layers of the Metaverse’ is a useful visualization for mapping these technologies to their purpose.
The integrated nature of metaverse technologies and real-world experiences means privacy and security concerns will need to be managed, protected, and monitored before the metaverse sees mass adoption. “With VR headsets and AR glasses, corporations will be able to track the physical movements of active users and what they look at while collecting data on their head and eye movement, facial expressions, and surroundings,” says Banks. “In the right hands, this behavioral data could enhance the user’s virtual experience. But in the wrong hands, it could expose the user’s identity, eroding trust and exposing vulnerable groups who rely on anonymity, forcing them out of the platform altogether.”
Practicing the art of the possible
At TCS, we think the best way to engage with the metaverse as it gradually takes shape is by experimenting with its components—deliberately and slowly. “When you design for the unknown, it is often best to take baby steps,” says Schargel. “As with any innovative technology or medium, it needs to go through proper testing and optimization.” It is also important to find compelling use cases that add value to the user experience. “Rather than just taking a current real-world experience and creating a copy of it,” says Banks.
Some initial exploration requires little risk or investment. TCS created the NFT Studio, for instance, to show companies how they can use NFTs for a variety of practical purposes. “It enables you to create tokens, transfer tokens, and track their ownership,” says Poulose Mathew, Global Head, Blockchain, Business and Technology Services, TCS. “Those are the three key aspects that can all be customized with additional information or features like expiration dates.” A company might eventually use the NFT Studio to manage ownership of digital assets in the metaverse—avatars, real estate, and the like—while using it now for functions such as issuing tickets to an event with commemorative digital artwork.
But more ambitious opportunities exist, and Schargel proposes three ways a hypothetical consumer package goods corporation could start an intentional journey toward the metaverse. “You should be designing with purpose for the long game: working with the tools, resources, and budget at your disposal; developing an understanding of your short-, mid-, and long-term intent; and putting a plan in place with people who have successfully delivered on some of the underlying components,” he says.
Option 1: Good
A business may begin laying groundwork for its entry to the metaverse with a targeted AR marketing campaign that contains elements of wayfinding, NFTs, and gamification in the style of a largely familiar experience: Pokémon Go. Coexisting in the physical and digital worlds, this requires nothing more of customers than a mobile phone for access to QR codes, coupons, interactive 3D product information, and incentivized collectibles.
Option 2: Better
It could start using many of the metaverse’s core technologies—XR, IoT, mesh networks, and digital twins—to implement a remote training experience that might be cost-prohibitive to undertake in the physical world. Using an interactive format within an immersive environment, the developed approach could teach employees in far-flung locations to use factory equipment in a hands-on experience that increases knowledge in the comfort and safety of a virtual simulation.
Option 3: Best
The most forward-thinking option might be creating a proto-metaverse, in which a cross-section of stakeholders from employees to customers to partners can interact in an immersive digital world. For example, Avapresence—a TCS platform built on AI, cloud, IoT, and blockchain—is already helping enterprises create training and simulation experiences that replicate a sense of physical proximity even when someone is on the other side of the world.
Moving toward the future metaverse with its existing components
The metaverse doesn’t yet exist in the present tense, but many aspects of its likely functionality do. And engaging with viable tests of these capabilities is what TCS calls the minimally viable metaverse. We advise:
Clarifying what the metaverse will be—and what it won’t. Ask a dozen colleagues to define metaverse and you might get a dozen different answers. It’s important to establish a simple operating definition that fits an organization’s business model and customer base.
Identifying relevant technology and skills. There’s a good chance your company has teams that are experienced with multiple metaverse technologies that can be adapted or borrowed for test projects. Repurposing talent and tools might also eliminate natural obstacles to experimental projects.
Using your company’s purpose as a guide. Since so many proto-metaverse tests can support current and future goals, there’s no need to undertake any project that doesn’t serve larger purpose.
Thinking as ambitiously as possible. The metaverse will undoubtedly arrive, perhaps within five years, and pushing aggressively into its technologies can generate learnings that may provide competitive advantage when its augmented, mixed, and virtual realities become an actual reality.
TCS believes this minimally viable metaverse is well within reach—practicing the art of the possible while reaching for the impossible.