Should enterprises put the metaverse on ice or is it an opportunity to grow?

The metaverse has been the recent beneficiary of Zuckerberg’s PR push but as Gartner suggests in its recent hype-cycle for emerging technologies, the metaverse is more than 10 years away from being really useful. At a time when budgets are being squeezed amid economic uncertainty, is now the right time for investing in the metaverse?

Businessman having fun play game VR virtual reality goggle in 3D cyberspace futuristic metaverse
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Described by IDC earlier this year, as “a networked world that integrates off and online experiences,” the metaverse has had its fair share of attention, not least because one of its foremost supporters is Meta CEO and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. Ever since Facebook bought VR firm Oculus for $2bn in 2014 (the Oculus name has now been phased out with various headsets discontinued) Zuckerberg has been on a virtual world supporting trajectory of hype. The metaverse has been the recent beneficiary of Zuckerberg’s PR push but as Gartner suggests in its recent hype-cycle for emerging technologies, the metaverse is more than 10 years away from being really useful.

Maybe that’s a little harsh. So many aspects of what will make the metaverse a usable entity already exist. Digital twins and blockchain, for example, but it does beg the question, why would these technologies need the metaverse at all? At a time when budgets are being squeezed amid economic uncertainty, is now the right time for investing in the metaverse?

It’s easy to scoff. VR and AR have been around for a long time and although they are fascinating technologies, they have always lacked killer applications outside of the games industry. The metaverse feels as though, for the moment at least, it falls into the same category. Zuckerberg hasn’t really helped. His bizarre Horizon Worlds avatar unveiling triggered derision. Virtual worlds it seems, can polarize opinion.

This is especially true within enterprise boardrooms, where it perhaps matters most. As CB Insights recently found, mentions of the metaverse on public company earnings calls have cooled from a high of over 400 mentions this time last year. It’s a crude measurement but an indication of changing priorities. Boardrooms are too busy trying to work out the size and shape of the impending economic storm to worry about how they are going to operate in and exploit a virtual platform.

Steve Ingram, technology specialist and partner at Deloitte is not surprised. “It still feels like a solution looking for a problem,” he says. “There’s still a lack of digital awareness on boards so they tend to latch onto things, like the metaverse but then you have to start asking questions. What are we going to do and what are we going to get from it? How much is it going to cost and is there any revenue?”

Ingram suggests that for luxury brands maybe there is some mileage, as they have to be seen to be innovative and attracting younger audiences. He mentions one brand that has created a shop with aisles that you can ‘walk’ down and browse goods. He is not convinced, asking “how is that any better than finding what you want via a menu?”

Everything has to find its ‘why?’ he adds, but it’s also about the users being comfortable with the technology. The hardware required still feels like a barrier to entry and IDC’s predictions of VR headset sales growth do little to suggest mass market appeal. Culturally we are not there yet.

“There’s a lot of things you could do in a metaverse but how do you convince people to do them?” adds Ingram and he has a point. No matter how clever the technology, it has to reduce costs, time, improve productivity or quality of services, otherwise, from an enterprise point of view, it will seem nothing more than an entertainment and social media thing.

And yet, the metaverse will happen. There are too many businesses committed to making it happen for it not to happen. CB Insights’ list of companies that are building each layer of the metaverse is interesting enough but it’s also revealing in how few experiences are in development. Early days of course but it doesn’t feel enterprise focused. Not that this is preventing some organisations from setting their stall out early to try and take the enterprise initiative.

According to Accenture’s recent report Meet Me in the Metaverse: The Continuum of Technology and Experience Reshaping Business, “businesses are racing toward a future that is very different from the one they were designed to operate in — as technologies, such as extended reality, blockchain, digital twins and edge computing are converging to reshape human experiences.”

Racing towards? That seems a little optimistic, although Accenture’s creation of its Metaverse Continuum practice certainly suggests the consultancy is prepared to put its money where its mouth is. The practice says it is “dedicated to designing, executing and accelerating our clients’ metaverse journeys,” and to be fair, it justifies this by listing out services, such as marketing and brand identity, customer experience, future of work and digital commerce. Interestingly, the one case study is a digital twin example for food manufacturer Mars.

Is this enough to convince? Certainly, the value of digital twins. Using real-time data to digitally mirror reality (road use, machines in factories etc) has considerable benefit to industry and enterprise, not just from a service and support point of view but also a product development and policy view. Does it need the metaverse? Perhaps in the future it will. For now, it doesn’t.

Of course, when it really comes down to it, generation Z and generation Alpha will be the real drivers of this. The metaverse needs time and a whole generation of workers open to virtuality. It needs headsets to improve dramatically and costs to come down considerably. Barriers to entry have to be minimal. In reality, we are not there yet but even when we do get there, whether or not this is an enterprise play will still be open to question.