Business leaders are very excited about the Metaverse. Media speculation and vendor hype has whipped them into a frenzy of anticipation over an immersive digital utopia that does not yet exist. Luminaries like Mark Zuckerberg, Eric Schmidt and Satya Nadella are promising a complete transformation of digital experience and unprecedented opportunities for those who get onboard. In response, executives are scrambling to secure their place, spending over $120 Billion (USD) in Metaverse related ventures in the first half of 2022 alone. This mad rush puts technical leaders in a difficult position. They are being tasked with preparing the enterprise to participate in and profit from something that has yet to be fully defined, much less realized.
Even so, certain Metaverse enabling components are available. Platforms for immersive streaming are available for collaborating in a shared virtual space. Design tools for creating three dimensional and even immersive environments are now within the financial and skill level reach of even casual content creators. User experience hardware, such as VR headsets and haptic gloves, is moving from gaming curiosity to business necessity. Each of these tools and the emerging standards they are based on, can be used now to prepare and position the enterprise to take full advantage of the fully realized metaverse as it emerges. If done well, these efforts can actually help the metaverse come into existence.
The idea of the metaverse originated with science fiction author Neil Stephenson in his 1992 novel Snow Crash where it is an all-encompassing, immersive, virtual environment. In this fictional world, people use avatars to interact with the metaverse to work, play and commit various cyber-crimes. Much like the internet of today, in the novel, if a business wants to thrive or an individual wants to interact with society in any way, a presence in the metaverse is mandatory. This is not the metaverse we have today. Nor is it likely to be the metaverse to come.
Gartner defines the Metaverse as “a collective virtual shared space, created by the convergence of virtually enhanced physical and digital reality. The metaverse is persistent; providing enhanced immersive experiences.” This definition introduces subtle but important features often missed when considering the Metaverse.
First, the Metaverse is not necessarily a fully immersive, virtual reality environment. Rather it consists of both enhanced physical and digital reality. While some experiences may indeed be fully synthetic, immersive virtual reality experiences, others may simply overlay digital information on the user’s current physical environment as viewed through Metaverse enabled glasses or goggles.
Secondly, the Metaverse is a collective space, not a single monolithic environment. It will consist of numerous, perhaps even innumerous, independent but interoperable applications and experiences. The Metaverse itself will be a diverse ecosystem encompassing all of these enhanced-experience applications which can be thought of as metaspheres. These experiences should be able to interact more or less seamlessly across both hardware and software platforms. While the Metaverse itself may not yet exist in its fully realized form, a wide variety of metaspheres are already in place and delivering value.
A metasphere is simply an application that exhibits the characteristics of the Metaverse, but largely in isolation. Realized use cases range from fully immersive training routines to unintrusive process instructions projected into the lenses of safety glasses. These applications are being realized with both industrial and consumer grade tools. While larger enterprises often develop their own solutions in-house, system integrators and software development firms are emerging in this space to create custom metaspheres for companies without sufficient resources or expertise to go it alone. The metaspheres currently being utilized all fall into one of three categories: augmented reality, mixed reality, and virtual reality.
Numerous manifestations of all three types of metasphere are already in production use across a wide variety of companies and industries. Some use cases are more successful than others. Public facing, consumer-oriented applications in particular continue to struggle. Among the most spectacular failures was a fully VR concert of the pop band Foo Fighters hosted by Meta, the rebranded Facebook parent. The much-hyped concert intended for Meta Quest 2 VR gear owners succumbed to a plethora of technical issues. Of the 61,000 registered attendees, only 13,000 were able to access any portion of the event. Those that were able to view at least some of the concert were savage in their reviews of the experience. As one technology writer commented, Meta’s Horizon Worlds platform “fumbles at the first hurdle.”
While not all public facing metaverse ventures fail to the extent of the Foo Fighter’s concert, they are without exception difficult, expensive, and risky to stage. In addition, outside of gaming and promotion few practical and monetizable, consumer-oriented use cases have been identified, much less implemented and deployed. In time, such use cases and consumer metaspheres will emerge, mature, and converge into a fully realized metaverse. We just aren’t there yet.
So where are Metaverse technologies bringing value? Within the walls, virtual or otherwise, of the enterprise. Companies are preparing for the Metaverse by exploring how these tools can benefit their employees, their operations and ultimately their bottom line.
Creating internally facing metaspheres has many advantages over attempting to field public facing services. First and foremost, the enterprise is a controlled environment. Even when leveraging services hosted outside the enterprise datacenter, you control who has access, when and to what extent. Most of the failures with public facing metaspheres involve scalability and capacity issues with services, such as the Foo Fighters concert, being overwhelmed and crashing. Keeping the metasphere in house allows you to throttle demand and scale computational resources as necessary and as desired to achieve your goal.
Employees are also somewhat of a captive audience. You can select a specific pool of users to provide a particular metasphere that will benefit both them and the enterprise. You can have those users test various approaches to a solution and provide feedback in way that is not possible with the public. This has the added advantage of keeping your mistakes and failures out of public view while you gain competence and expertise in what is decidedly a new discipline using new technologies.
This experimentation is perhaps the biggest benefit of starting with internally facing metaspheres. It allows you to learn both the tools and how they can most effectively be applied and to do so at the enterprises own pace. While the market sorts out how to monetize public Metaverse offerings, internal metaspheres can provide immediate, practical benefits to the enterprise and potentially identify services that can indeed be made public and monetized. As more and more of these repurposed metaspheres emerge, they will converge and coalesce. From this network of interconnected and interoperable metaspheres, the Metaverse proper will emerge. But this can only happen if they use cases are selected wisely and implemented properly.
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