Make The Metaverse Work For You

By Janani G. Vikram

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The metaverse is in the making—an exciting new universe that melds real and virtual worlds, opening up totally unexplored opportunities. Although it has its origins in gaming, it is going to be a gamechanger in fields ranging from education and fitness to marketing and healthcare. Here is a look at some of the impactful applications of the metaverse.

Metaverse—you cannot escape the term—and surprisingly, you cannot define it either because it is evolving so rapidly, bringing more and more technologies and use-cases under its wing each day! Some call the metaverse a parallel universe, but it is not, because it is interleaved with the real one. Some call the metaverse a make-believe world, but in fact, it is not, because real people are doing real business and investing real money in it. So, let us just accept the fact that there is no single holistic definition for metaverse. It is an evolution that we have to understand component by component, and piece together the way we want it to work for us.

Although the term metaverse was coined three decades ago in a sci-fi novel, it gained recognition only recently, with the surge in popularity of massively multiplayer online (MMO) role-playing games like Second Life, Fortnite, Sandbox, Enjin, Decentraland, Minecraft, and Axie Infinity.

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MMO games have evolved to a point where the boundaries between their virtual worlds and the real world are blurring. In fact, it is unfair to call them games anymore, because they have transformed into interoperable virtual platforms where millions of people interact with each other, play games or just chill with friends, own and sell properties, create and trade things, and even perform or attend concerts!

Realising the untapped potential of this nascent marketplace, real-world brands like Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, and Adidas have started marketing their goods in virtual worlds, and even opening showrooms there. Companies, hospitals, universities, and other organisations have also created virtual places to connect with their stakeholders, for various purposes like training, collaboration, or simply bonding! With covid physically separating people, they are turning to the metaverse to bring them together. So, from being a place for geeks to hangout, the metaverse has now become an advanced ‘fusion world’ that brings together the best of real and virtual worlds.

Once again, what’s metaverse?

Imagine the internet in three dimensions (3D)—you being able to move inside it, like you would in your physical world. That is, probably, where the metaverse is taking us. It makes use of advanced telecom infrastructure, artificial intelligence (AI), and extended reality (XR)—that is, virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), mixed reality (MR), and the likes—to create online platforms that are more immersive, interactive, and interoperable than they are today.

These online platforms or virtual worlds can be accessed through apps on your mobile phone, computer, or other digital devices. You will be represented by your avatar in the metaverse. With VR gear, you can immerse yourself completely in the virtual world, but considering its prohibitive cost, many platforms just let users engage through touchscreens. The metaverse also has dynamic digital marketplaces, driven by the forces of demand and supply.

If you want to draw a quick, very basic parallel with the real world, money translates to digital currencies in the metaverse, while assets translate into non-fungible tokens (NFTs). Blockchain technology forms the backbone of these marketplaces, with the tokens and transactions being recorded in it. Real money can be converted to digital currencies through exchanges, and real assets can also be recorded as NFTs in the blockchain. Here is where the blurring of boundaries really happens!

We have been covering all these aspects of the metaverse in detail in the past few issues of Electronics For You. Here, we walk through a couple of exciting and impactful use-cases of the metaverse.

Telemedicine: Try it on the twin first

The metaverse can bridge global divides in the availability of reliable medical care. In many remote regions, there are no skilled medical practitioners and people have to travel several kilometres to get proper medical care. Telemedicine helps not only in such situations where care is not available locally, but also in cases where a complex condition requires an expert’s intervention—and the expert is somewhere across the world.

The situation has improved remarkably post-Covid, with several medical practitioners getting used to treating simple conditions through phone and video calls. According to a Forbes report, just 43% of healthcare facilities had the ability to provide remote treatment to patients before 2020, but today that figure stands at 95%. In the coming years, the metaverse will add quality to quantity, making these online consultations more immersive and interactive. Virtual reality gives a feeling of being in a real clinic, improving the connect between a patient and a doctor. Agreed, VR gear is not yet within reach of the masses, but a small setup in each village is enough to cater to all the families there. Like internet cafes took the Web to the masses, perhaps virtual clinics will take expert treatment to them.

The metaverse can also help with psychological counselling and caregiving. Take the case of a recuperating patient, who requires daily physiotherapy sessions but is unable to travel to a healthcare facility. The therapist can extend the treatment to the patient remotely, using a metaverse space, VR gear, and haptic feedback suits. One space where doctors are betting big on the metaverse is in helping patients with phobias. In the metaverse, doctors can expose patients to situations and things they fear or are allergic to, under controlled environments. They can monitor how the patients react and help them conquer their mind blocks.

Globally, doctors are experimenting with a concept called digital twinning. Research firm CBInsights defines, “A digital twin is a virtual copy of a physical entity or process, such as a patient, anatomical structure, or hospital environment. It’s modelled on data sources including electronic health records (EHRs), disease registries, wearable sensors, and more.” In telemedicine, digital twins would help doctors diagnose the problem better and provide a better prognosis. The doctors can trial the course of treatment on a digital twin before administering to the real patient. Powered by cloud data and AI, it also enables doctors to quickly compare the patients with similar cases, to treat them better. It can also potentially explain some grey areas like why certain patients respond better to a treatment than others.

Apart from profiling the patient, digital or virtual twinning technology can also be used to emulate the processes in the healthcare organisation, to make it more efficient. Companies like IBM and Dassault Systèmes are into digital twin tech. According to a report by Accenture, 66% of healthcare executives expect their organisation’s investment in intelligent digital twins to increase over the next three years. Research by MarketsAndMarkets indicates that the digital twin market is expected to grow to $35.8 billion by 2025, healthcare and defence being amongst the top adopters.

The metaverse, with blockchain technology as its backbone, can also transform the way medical records are maintained. The open and secure nature of the blockchain ensures the safety of an individual’s medical records. It does away with fragmentation and redundancy, and makes the record-keeping transparent and efficient. It also prevents lock-in. When you want to consult a specialist from across the world, you do not have to wait for your current physician to give you a copy of your records. You can retain control over your records and give access to a trusted individual at the click of a button! Chronicled, Ever, and Patientory are some of the blockchain based solutions for medical data management. EMRChain and Plenum Data are some of the homegrown solutions.

Product design: Defy the laws of the physical world

The field of product design is in for a mega upgrade in the metaverse era. There are three aspects to this: improvement in the design process, creation of new products for the metaverse, and metaverse integration in traditional physical products.

When you design a product for the metaverse, you can let your imagination run wild, and can create products that can otherwise exist only in dreams! The metaverse does not follow the laws of physics, so you can create drastically different products and experiences. For example, you can create a house on Mars, shoes that make you fly, or a car that hops!

You can also integrate the metaverse into a real, physical object. For example, an immersive lounge chair, which creates a real-time view of a beach or valley of your choice. In CES 2022, LG showcased a concept car or mobile cabin called the Omnipod, a fully autonomous vehicle with an onboard living space that adapts to the passenger’s unique needs. It has an expansive tunnel screen called the meta-environment screen, which stretches from the floor to the ceiling, helping to recreate a chosen environment, be it your lounge, workspace, bedroom, or garden! The concept cabin is replete with a virtual assistant called Reah, who also adapts to the chosen environment. For a spot of entertainment, you can connect the Omnipod’s tunnel and multimedia screens to get a feeling of virtually entering the movie you are watching! There are exterior cameras, which let you also keep an eye on the road.

The living space of LG’s Omnipod concept car adapts to the user’s needs using a meta-environment screen
Fig. 1: The living space of LG’s Omnipod concept car adapts to the user’s needs using a meta-environment screen (Courtesy: LG)

The metaverse can also drastically upgrade the very process of designing something. You can collaborate with people across the world to create cross-functional objects. You can first create 3D prototypes and test them in a virtual environment to make sure they work as intended before going to the next stage of development. Even for something as simple as a new series of totes or sneakers, you can first launch the designs as NFTs and gauge the customer response, before physically manufacturing the products. This would reduce the cost of development and risk of failure.

Learning: A long way to go

The pandemic made every student realise that learning through online platforms was not the same as being in school with friends, and they are delighted to be back on campus. However, educationalists still worry about what would happen if another such situation arises where kids are unable to go to school. As a workaround, experts suggest that schools attempt a multi-modal education even on a normal day, so that they can quickly transition to a digital mode when required.

While schools struggled for continuity using e-learning platforms, videos, and chatrooms, in the future the metaverse could be a more effective option. An immersive learning experience with graphics-intensive virtual platforms will empower students to understand concepts better, and to experience how certain things work in the real world. It might be difficult for children to understand how a bank works. What if they could enter a simulated environment and experience it for themselves? The metaverse makes that possible—and it might be a great learning aid even on a normal day.

However, the fact remains that the metaverse is still in a very nascent stage and its constituent technologies are too expensive to have a wide reach. Where it could work wonders is in higher education, upskilling, and corporate training.

Universities such as the University of Nevada at Las Vegas and the University of Miami are experimenting with immersive learning experiences. The University of Miami’s XR Initiative spans subjects like architecture, healthcare, climate change and behavioural research. Medical students, for example, can learn how to administer anaesthesia to a virtual patient in a simulated operating room.

BMW Group uses augmented reality in prototyping
Fig. 2: BMW Group uses augmented reality in prototyping (Courtesy: BMW Group)

Invact Metaversity, founded by former Twitter India head Manish Maheshwari and former Microsoft engineer Tanay Pratap, is a full virtual reality university campus replete with a library, cafeteria, hallways, and a playground. It currently offers a 16-week management course, which students can attend from anywhere using a VR headset. It can bring together students and teachers from around the world. The company claims that students can also enjoy the social nuances of college life in the virtual world.

Upskilling: See you at the top!

According to a PwC report, VR is already known to be effective for teaching hard skills and for job skills simulations, such as a flight simulator to train pilots. However, a survey done by them during the pandemic times showed that VR was, surprisingly, very helpful in soft skills training too! The survey showed that VR can help business leaders upskill their employees faster, even at a time when training budgets may be shrinking and in-person training may be off the table, as people continue to observe social distancing. Learners trained with VR were up to 275% more confident to act on what they learned after training—a 40% improvement over in-person classroom learning and a 35% improvement over eLearning. It showed that employees could also be trained up to four times faster than in a classroom. No wonder then that companies are also turning to the metaverse to train and upskill employees.

Recently, Accenture announced that its 150,000 new hires this fiscal year will use VR headsets to work from the metaverse on their first day. They will meet, collaborate, and learn on the Nth Floor, the company’s virtual campus on the metaverse. Accenture believes this immersive experience is 30-40% more productive than traditional ways of learning.

Earlier this year, Mumbai based XR hardware and software company AjnaLens joined hands with Tata Technologies to digitise 150 industrial training institutes (ITIs) in Karnataka. The ITIs will be equipped with AjnaXR stations to provide immersive skill training. The made-in-India, highly-scalable VR training simulator virtually teleports a trainee to an actual jobsite and provides multi-lingual training. AjnaLens has developed extremely lightweight VR glasses—the AjnaX Glasses—which weigh just around 150gm compared to the average 500gm that popular international brands weigh. This makes it possible for trainees to comfortably wear the glasses and train for long durations. This initiative by the Karnataka government aims to upskill more than 9000 students this year. AjnaLens also provides end-to-end enterprise VR solutions, digital twin solutions, and indigenous defence solutions.

Collaboration and productivity: Work smarter

Companies are betting big on the metaverse to help employees collaborate better, unmindful of geographical distances. Microsoft Mesh, Workplace from Meta (earlier Facebook), Gather, Teamflow, and Virbela are some of the key players in this space. Instead of video-calling colleagues and collaborating using ineffective tools like screen-sharing, the metaverse will enable your avatars to gather in a virtual meeting room and collaborate. In fact, you can probably do things more smartly than in a physical office, because the virtual space would enable you to pull holographic images out of your hat, to explain things or make changes to a prototype!

The metaverse is especially handy in a factory environment, where technicians are using both hands and cannot simultaneously use the laptop. Imagine a mechanic working on something complex. What if he had a headset like Microsoft’s HoloLens to access the schematics and instructions needed to complete the repair? Would he not save so much time? Also imagine, when a mechanic is repairing something and needs an expert’s opinion, how would it be if the expert could see the object being repaired through the eyes of the mechanic and explain things in real-time?

How BMW has put all this to work

More than a year ago, BMW Group deployed one of the early examples of the metaverse, when the term was still not so well-known. They deployed an augmented reality (AR) application for vehicle concept and prototype engineering at their pilot plant in Munich. Vehicles and their components are visualised on a platform linked to the BMW Group’s product data management system. Specialists can drag and drop CAD files of components from the web based database to the AR goggles, to reproduce the data in 3D and in their original size in a realistic environment. Users can modify the size and position of components with simple hand movements, literally playing around with the design. People at different locations around the world can team up to review designs and concepts together. This helps identify errors much earlier in the process, saving cost and time later. The company said in a press release that the AR application speeded up the process by around 12 months!

Last November, BMW announced the adoption of Nvidia’s Omniverse to simulate every aspect of its manufacturing. The idea is for each of its 31 factories to have a fully-functioning, real-time digital twin capable of simulating production and finite scheduling, right down to work order instructions and robotics programming on the shop floor. This will help in improving product quality and output, while reducing manufacturing costs and unplanned downtime. It will enable global teams to collaborate on designing and planning the factory in real time. With the digital twin of an entire factory, BMW engineers can quickly identify where and how each specific model’s production sequence can be improved. It also gives BMW the flexibility to reconfigure its factories quickly to accommodate new model launches.

Popular martial arts workout BodyCombat combines fitness with gaming in the metaverse
Fig. 3: Popular martial arts workout BodyCombat combines fitness with gaming in the metaverse (Courtesy: Les Mills)

The company has also armed technicians with RealWear HMT-1 headsets, running TeamViewer, in 347 BMW centres across the US to reduce vehicle service times. Using voice commands, technicians can access and view technical documents on a high-resolution micro-display or remotely connect with BMW engineers for expert advice, all the time keeping their hands free to work! HMT-1’s camera enables offsite engineers to see exactly what’s in front of the local technician, so they can help them troubleshoot the issue in real time. The offsite expert can also markup live video feeds or image stills, which the mechanic can see in the headset’s micro-display. According to BMW, vehicle repairs are now being completed 75% faster. And it also serves the purpose of on-the-job training of local technicians!

In a recent podcast, McKinsey senior expert Richard Ward explained, “BMW’s new all-electric vehicle production line ran as a simulation for six months, building virtual cars on a one-to-one scale in the metaverse, before they actually did the final layout for the factory. And in the process of those six months, they changed the design about 30% from the original. They have not said publicly how much more efficient it was, but they did say that about 30% of what they thought was the world’s best factory on day one of the simulation had to change in the process. These are people who build new factories daily, and they still found that level of learning from the simulation. So, why not practice first in the metaverse, where it’s low-cost, you can do things in infinite ways, and you can make the impossible happen? Those types of things really offer people more efficiency and productivity.”

Military training: Can’t afford to learn on the job!

Governments across the world are experimenting with how the metaverse can be used for military training and strategising.

One of the oft-spoken-about examples is that of flight simulators used to train pilots. And now, real-time information overlay using AR headsets is being used to enable soldiers and technicians to explore weaponry, machinery, automobiles, and other military equipment. This enables them to learn at their pace. The faster learner gets to take the tests earlier! Strategies can also be formulated better using interactive virtual platforms rather than presentations or charts.

We see start-ups coming up with innovative solutions for the defence sector—and the Indian military forces are quick to recognise, collaborate, and utilise these.

One such homogenous solution is the see-through armour developed by AjnaLens. The AjnaESAS (Enhanced Situational Awareness System) helps overcome a key problem faced by the crew inside a tank. It is very difficult to navigate a tank using the small periscopic view. AjnaESAS uses an AR based head-mounted display and a 360-degree camera to offer the crew a 360-degree horizontal field of view. The camera system also has night vision and 4X zoom capabilities. AjnaESAS uses AI to help navigate the tanks through challenging terrains by eliminating blind spots and providing clear images even when the view is obscured by dust or smoke.

Another of their solutions, AjnaBolt, improves weapon systems with features like thermal sensors for night vision, friend or foe detection (popularly known as IFF—identification, friend or foe), light detection and ranging (lidar), blue force tracking (a GPS-enabled system that gives a real-time picture of the battlefield, which conventional maps cannot give), and so on. Fair-weather weapons can be effectively upgraded to all-weather weapons, providing visual assistance in locating, locking, and engaging targets. When it is combined with a holographic sandboxing system, it helps render a detailed 3D holographic map for planning and preparation. According to the company, “Users can interact and annotate the maps using gesture inputs, enabling them to view the terrain from multiple perspectives and locate tactical advantages in the field. Further, the sandbox facilitates remote networking capabilities, enabling effective coordination between the base and on-field operators.”

Another interesting product is the HoloSuit, manufactured in India by Mysuru based Kaaya Virtualisation Tech. The motion capture suit is embedded with over 40 sensors to capture the wearer’s movement from head to toe. The wearer’s movements are replayed in the virtual world, and the wearer also feels everything that happens there. For example, the user can operate a machine in the virtual world. The user also gets haptic feedback from the suit. If someone touches, shoves, punches, or shoots the digital twin, the wearer can feel it. It is being deployed by the Indian Army to train soldiers. According to news reports, the company has exported it to the South Korean Army as well, and it is also being used by one of the electricity boards in India to train workers to avoid electrical hazards.

Sports and fitness: Run to win

The metaverse will make sports and fitness much more interesting. We are not talking about immersive views of sports events, or trading of sports NFTs, we are talking about serious training and workout. For those of you who find the gym environment rather dull and boring but are unable to take out enough time to go rough it out in beautiful nature trails, the metaverse could be the perfect escape. Clip on your VR headset and you could be running through your favourite landscape with your friends, as avatars though, to keep you company.

Cycle maker Capti has come up with a mind-blowing bike that dynamically switches from an outdoor bike with steering, gliding pedals, virtual shifting and all the works, to a studio cycling bike with fixed handlebars and flywheel! With an immersive 61cm (24-inch) touchscreen, immersive content built on the Epic Games Unreal Engine, 50 maps, 6100 metres (20,000 feet) of elevation and more than 500km of stunning graphics, you get to go on a fresh trail every day. The patent-pending Smart Ride technology auto-configures steering and flywheel to match the workout selected by you, to deliver an immersive experience. With Terrain Adaptive Resistance, the resistance auto adjusts to the grade in the game. When your avatar goes uphill, it gets harder, and then easier when riding downhill, just like riding a bike outdoors. You can do a virtual cycling course, heart rate training, or simply play a fun game that keeps you moving. Fitness is gamified—as you cycle more and more, new levels and content are unlocked.

If running is your thing, then try Zippy, a virtual world that lets you run across major marathon cities like Boston, London, Mumbai, and Tokyo, or through scenic environments like jungle trails and beach runs. The virtual environment syncs with the real-world kinematics of the runner using fitness wearables or treadmill sensors. OliveX’s ultra-immersive running game Zombies, Run! is just the right option for fiction lovers. The accompanying narration and music set the pace for your run, which is a mission to save the world. For example, you run faster when you are chased by the zombies, and slow down to pick up supplies! Or, if it is serious athletic practice that you are thinking about, Ghost Pacer might be of help. A solution developed by runners, for runners, these AR glasses project a live holographic opponent into your field of view, for you to compete with and train against.

Sports and fitness training by celebrity coaches is also on the rise in the metaverse. BodyCombat is a popular martial arts based group fitness cardio workout that is gaining popularity around the world. They recently teamed up with Odders Labs to transform their workout into a high-octane VR gaming app on the Quest platform. Led by their famous program directors Rachael Newsham and Dan Cohen, the game pits players against martial arts challenges across a variety of levels, spanning intergalactic deserts and neo-city skylines. Players earn points for their effort and technique, with the program directors boosting their morale and providing cues and tips throughout the workout.

A survey conducted by Propeller Insights for NordVPN in the US
Fig. 4: A survey conducted by Propeller Insights for NordVPN in the US (Courtesy: NordVPN)

Looks like fitness could become fun after all!

Much more to explore

We saw several more applications of the metaverse in the course of our series so far, ranging from art and entertainment to socialising and marketing.

Socialising

When Facebook changed the company name to Meta, the messaging was clear that the metaverse is the future of socialising. People would no longer be connecting over text chats or even voice or video calls. Instead, they will escape to their favourite virtual hangout in some world in the metaverse, and chill by playing their favourite games or just chatting, as if everyone is sitting together in the same room!

Entertainment

The entertainment industry is also making its presence felt in the metaverse, what with Indian artists like Daler Mehndi and south Indian playback singer Karthik performing in the metaverse. When movies start releasing in the metaverse, it will be a totally transformative experience capable of shaking up the whole industry, because sitting in the living room with a VR headset on, a person can experience the same magic as in a large format theatre with surround sound. The homemade popcorn and coffee would also work out cheaper than in a theatre.

Art

The art industry is benefiting greatly by the metaverse. Digital artists are able to sell their work on the metaverse as NFTs, while art galleries are using the blockchain to certify the authenticity of rare and high-value works of art. Sotheby’s has even opened a store in the metaverse to showcase and auction rare NFTs. Several art galleries auctioned salvaged digital versions of artworks lost in the Ukrainian war to support the artists.

Marketing

Celebrities, brands, sports associations, almost everyone is using the metaverse to market themselves or their wares. Sports clubs are selling trading cards and historic moments as NFTs. Fashion brands are selling NFTs of upcoming products to create awareness and check the market response. From toilet paper to pizzas, brands are floating themed NFTs to connect with the next generation of consumers who are spending significant time in the metaverse!

To spend or not to spend

All said and done, there is always the dilemma that any company faces—whether to invest in the metaverse or not. Privacy and cost are two of the major concerns discouraging companies hoping to foray into this new world.

Privacy

Experts are worried about privacy and safety in the metaverse. While a digital twin, be it of an organisation or a person, is highly beneficial in many respects, it is also a privacy nightmare, because it is, after all, a twin, and carries with it a wealth of personal information.

A survey of 1000+ adults in the US conducted in December 2021 by Propeller Insights for NordVPN showed that 55% of those surveyed did not really know what the metaverse is. 87% were concerned about how the metaverse could affect their privacy. “They think it might be easy for hackers to impersonate others (50%), users’ identities won’t be legally protected (47%), and they will be forced to share even more of their private data, which can be later abused (45%),” NordVPN reported.

Then comes the surprise! Despite all these concerns, 74% said they would join or at least consider joining the metaverse for various reasons, such as experiencing things they can’t in physical reality (41%), communicating with others (40%), escaping their surroundings (28%), or even wanting to become a different person (23%). No wonder organisations are also keen on expanding into the metaverse—where the users and consumers go, they go!

Accessibility

There is also a valid concern about accessibility. Not everyone can afford expensive VR gear. Does that thin down the user base to discouraging levels? Richard Ward of McKinsey explains that between 2D and 3D lies 2.5D, where three-dimensional gaming technology is leveraged, yet the experience isn’t quite truly 3D.

On Ikea’s website, for example, you see images of furniture that you can tilt, rotate, or move around by just swiping with your fingers. Using your camera, you can even fit the object into a real environment to see if it matches with your existing décor. That is 2.5D. In fact, most of the so-called metaverses in India are also in this category. People just experience it on a touchscreen.

This 2.5D logic lowers the barriers to entry, and every company can consider making a no-regrets investment in the metaverse. In the McKinsey podcast, Ward says, “I think that’s really a no-regrets move that allows people to start taking assets they already have, skill sets they already have, and add a little bit of tech, add a little bit of technical capability, and start moving into this 2.5D metaverse environment in a variety of ways.”

“I have conducted ‘tours’ of the metaverse with maybe a thousand people, and every time I strap on one of these headsets and let people experience what’s possible, every single one of them comes away saying they immediately have ideas for how they can bring this into their business. It’s one of those things you need to try, instead of reading about it or watching videos about it. For literally just hundreds of dollars, the metaverse awaits,” he says.

So, what are we waiting for?


Janani G. Vikram is a freelance writer based in Chennai, who loves to write on emerging technologies and Indian culture. She believes in relishing every moment of life, as happy memories are the best savings for the future

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