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The Metaverse: XR Today Expert Round Table

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The Metaverse, a nascent global communications platform, aims to transform human connections over the next few years. Combining spatial computing and the Internet, the Metaverse aims to merge the physical and digital worlds seamlessly between the real and ‘unreal’ and reshape online interactions.

Efforts to build and grow the Metaverse were triggered by Meta Platform’s massive pivot in October, which saw some of the world’s largest tech companies such as Microsoft, NVIDIA, HTC VIVE, Qualcomm, Google, Varjo, and many others set off in the great virtual space race.

Numerous sectors, both at the enterprise and consumer level, have begun adopting the Metaverse as it takes its first baby steps towards becoming a ubiquitous, holistic, and fully-immersive platform.

Major tech firms and their clients have begun exploring the great unknowns of the Metaverse, bringing the imagination to reality and back via the power of virtual, augmented, and mixed reality (VR/AR/MR).

For our XR Today round table, we are pleased to welcome:

  • Evan Gappelberg, Chief Executive and Founder of NexTech AR
  • Craig Kaplan, Chief Customer Officer for Virbela
  • Jerod Venema, Chief Executive for LiveSwitch Inc
  • Anne McKinnon, Co-Founder and Chief Operating Officer for Ristband
  • Roman Rappak, Co-Founder and Chief Executive of Ristband

We discussed with our panellists their role in developing new technologies for the Metaverse, their views on essential cybersecurity needs, and their views on the future of the platform.

XR Today: How will Metaverse solutions change enterprise-grade remote communications? Will the Metaverse play a significant role in the future of work, and when should we expect this to happen?

Evan Gappelberg: Metaverse solutions will bridge virtual, hybrid, and in-person experiences. Through avatars and human holograms in 3D digitally-simulated worlds, teams will be able to collaborate virtually and connect from anywhere in the world. Colleagues will also be able to see, share, and collaborate on persistent 3D content.

The Metaverse is already playing a significant role in the future of work. It is the convergence of our physical and digital lives, and we are already participating in it.

The release of consumer-grade augmented reality (AR) glasses within the next 2-5 years will be the turning point and enable mass access to digital experiences. There are already use cases in multiple industries.

Craig Kaplan: The Metaverse is actually nothing new, although it has been recently brought to the forefront as large global companies recognize its incredible potential.

At Virbela, we’ve helped our customers create positive professional and educational experiences in the Metaverse for a decade, namely through immersive office campus replicas or specific events that simulate in-person activities at scale, to provide enhanced collaboration among participants.

Using immersive communities for recruiting, global kick-offs, CEO town halls, centralised all-hands meetings, onboarding, company offsites, and unique employee experiences have ultimately led organizations to realize that remote work practices dramatically affect company culture. Virbela fosters these connections between the company, individuals, and their partners and clients worldwide.

Craig Kaplan, Chief Marketing Officer for Virbela

Founded by behavioral psychologists, Virbela has always aimed to overcome the social, emotional and cultural challenges of remote working to build a core utility that adds value to enterprises today and equips them for tomorrow’s offices. We do this by creating a safe, secure, and scalable immersive community through easily deployable and accessible private campuses.

We have already seen Fortune 1000 companies adopt the “enterprise Metaverse” belief that ultimately, the Metaverse is where most people will go to work in the future, freeing large enterprises from heavy real estate costs and business travel while maintaining a culture of togetherness.

Our own team has been working this way for over ten years, with thousands of employees working daily at Virbela campuses. Our clients at Pricewaterhousecoopers (PwC), DXC, and Fujitsu have aggressively adopted this model, and we expect their workforces to use Virbela daily, at scale, in the next 2 years! We’re already working with forward-looking companies, but expect this to be universal in due course.

Jerod Venema: This is already happening. My product team, which is distributed across North America, regularly meets in the Metaverse. It allows them to bring a real-time shared whiteboard that they can literally stand in front of and draw on, just like they were in a meeting room. Having that alone is a game-changer for improved communication.

I think people need to look at this as an additional option to augment standard meetings right now. It’s still too complicated to get started and is obviously still an early technology, but it has progressed massively from the first prototypes I tried out years ago, and the price is getting in range to be just another corporate employee expense.

Anne McKinnon and Roman Rappak: The most important part of any interaction is the human interaction. We’ve all experienced zoom fatigue, but also understand the complexities of existing in a physical room together.

The Metaverse is the best of both worlds, where we have the freedom to work and create from a place of our choosing while also capturing the nuances of expression and how we exist in the real world. It’s a return to the organic way we interact.

For any business, good communication is the foundation of success, and for us, it’s about connecting independent creators with their audiences in AAA experiences.

The Metaverse means that communication can take place seamlessly between physical and synthetic realities and between creators and their audiences, enabling intimate human relationships that are the foundation for professional and personal communications.

Metaverse solutions like ours will bring back meaningful connections in 3D with interactive experiences such as virtual concerts. It will also promote globalisation and cultural exchanges to bring back the concept of a global village where we can understand each other’s social contexts.

The Metaverse will also allow us to tap into the way our minds work in a 3D environment, creating long-lasting impressions and connections that deeply affect us on a personal level while also forging strong brand and business relationships.

Roman Rappak Ristband HS

Roman Rappak, Co-Founder and Chief Executive for Ristband

One can argue that collaboration tools have become available for the Metaverse before it had even arrived. Telepresence, 3D collaboration platforms, and previz and dataviz in 3D are all components of the way we will work in the future, but the Metaverse as we imagine today is in its infancy.

Just as enterprise tools are becoming more widely adopted for remote work, design and collaboration, creators need a platform where they can build their following, collaborate with fellow artists, monetize their work and build their careers. This next generation will grow up in the Metaverse, with what we are doing today laying the groundwork for the careers of tomorrow.

Rather than replace what exists in the real world, our approach is to bring existing talent and skills into the Metaverse. Ristband is a platform where labels connect directly with artists, venues have digital twins, managers coordinate Metaverse tours or digital offerings for their live shows, A&Rs discover music in the Metaverse, influencers create experiences, directors create docuseries or events… every role that exists for our stakeholders in the real world also exists in the Metaverse.

All of this is already happening, but to make the Metaverse accessible to independent creators and unlock the indie market potential, we must empower creatives and their teams with the tools they need for their craft. Nothing like this has existed before.

XR Today: What new benefits arise for businesses employing a Metaverse platform? What security measures are required when deploying a Metaverse platform for enterprise?

Evan Gappelberg: Businesses can experience many benefits from using a Metaverse platform, which includes but are not limited to:

  • Increased speed to market of products, from ideation and design, all the way to sales
  • Collaboration between designers, manufacturers, distributors and end customers
  • Increased conversions and reduced product returns for e-commerce sites
  • New revenue channels such as minting non-fungible tokens (NFTs) and greater utility of Metaverse-ready content (3D models)
Evan Gappelberg NexTech AR

Evan Gappelberg, Chief Executive and Founder of NexTech AR

However, any Metaverse faces two basic sets of security problems: Familiar challenges technologists have been dealing with for decades, and brand new ones built specifically for Metaverse settings.

Today’s threats may still exist, but there is also the potential for newer, novel threats. We need to learn from the mistakes of Web 2.0 and be proactive about Web 3.0.

Technology, business, and government leads should work towards tackling several problems, namely fixing existing infrastructure problems, securing intellectual property rights, improving at managing online identities, establishing a shared code of conduct, setting trust, safety, and privacy policies for virtual worlds, and determining who has the authority to enforce those policies.

Craig Kaplan: The main benefit we hear from customers is that virtual spaces provide an essential feeling of presence that facilitates a sense of community and culture often lacking from dispersed or hybrid teams and 2D work tools.

Customers are able to retain talent, onboard and train faster, as well as create an environment that encourages more unstructured conversations and brainstorms people miss from the office.

We often hear that culture is the biggest driver for change above and beyond the immediate cost savings realized by companies.

We’ve focused on enterprise solutions for 10 years and have experience and knowledge in compliance and security measures. Most Metaverse solutions are built for the consumer or for specific VR training, which are important but narrow use cases that do not impact these enterprises at scale.

Some of the most important security goals are making sure:

  • Our design aesthetic contributes to a safe, secure, and customizable long-term community
  • Soc2 compliance, simple SSO integrations, and strong permission-based capabilities are fundamental needs of the enterprise
  • We give enterprises scale, ease of access (without requiring headsets), and performance of the community to leverage our platform as a 2nd screen application in the workforce

Jerod Venema: I expect there will be a lot of opportunities in retail over the next five years. I actually presented on this exact topic, in the early days of Web Real-Time Communication (WebRTC), how remote streaming could bridge the “brick and mortar” and online shopping experiences. Some of the early adopters like Nike are already heading in this direction.

In more general terms, the Metaverse can create better engagement, meaning more closed deals, better remote healthcare, increased learning, improved collaboration, and so on. It’s a step forward from the traditional Brady Bunch video call experience.

Many security challenges are the same as with deploying any software in your enterprise—maintaining proper access control and not losing your devices. There is a question of accidental sharing of data, if the Metaverse maintains state about, for example, your business meetings, but this really isn’t any different than accidentally exposing your SharePoint site or Google Drive. Strong IT policies and staff education is the answer here.

Anne McKinnon and Roman Rappak: The worst thing that could happen to any business is the lack of an emotional connection between a company and their audience. The Metaverse represents a bridging of the gap that Web 2.0 created between us and a return to a more human and emotional context for social interactions.

When we opened our Partner Labs Program to venues, labels, merch companies, universities, production companies, we found they were all looking for their place in the Metaverse to leverage it as a powerful social and communication tool.

There are many new benefits that arise for our stakeholders, including greater market reach, unlocking new demographics, engaging superfans, and creating one-to-one direct communication with audiences.

Anne McKinnon Ristband

Anne McKinnon, Co-Founder and Chief Operating Officer for Ristband

Additional benefits include physical and digital sales from a singular portal, connecting partners in our ecosystem, access to the latest tech and cutting edge platform to develop and deploy an informed Metaverse strategy, and building community value.

The Internet is the predecessor of the Metaverse, an internet littered with walled gardens, relentless cookies, and point-and-click interfaces. The internet, online games, virtual worlds, and social platforms we already have are a microcosm of the Metaverse that will one day be persistent digital destinations.

There will be interchangeable currencies, varying purposes and aesthetic styles, privacy and data regulations, payment systems, digital goods, and the ability to jump between one virtual destination to another with a single verifiable ID.

Consequently, the lessons it took us so long to learn, from the 1990s to the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) privacy laws, should be taken incredibly seriously, and with the same level of urgency that took us 30 years to obtain, we need to now do in the next 12 months for the Metaverse.

The tech stack of the Metaverse, which includes eye-tracking and biometrics, means our senses are also being monitored and analysed with increasing accuracy.

Information can be extracted from data sets that we may not even be aware of, especially at an early age, like sexual orientation, health, mental illness, personality type, political preferences, and more, leading to user manipulation in many forms.

That said, will adopting the principles of the Internet work for the Metaverse? It’s likely we’ll have to build on them as the medium evolves. Even in the best of democracies, there are rules people need to understand to maintain some form of order.

Regulation of social media, an even more primitive form of the Metaverse, is something we haven’t even figured out yet. It’s going to be much more complicated for the Metaverse, but by working with the community, academics, and security experts, we can make informed decisions to keep our users safe.

XR Today: What are some of the ethical questions your company will consider when developing metaverse solutions? How should your firm build such technologies with clients and consumers in mind?

Evan Gappelberg: There are many ethical questions Nextech AR and other companies must consider when developing Metaverse solutions. First and foremost is the privacy and security of personal, physical, psychological and biological data.

The onus is specifically on infrastructure providers of Metaverse technologies such as Microsoft Azure, Amazon Web Services (AWS), Vuforia, and others, to ensure secure environments.

Other ethical concerns include remaining wary of bad actors, boosting interoperability to directly impact the market by investing time and resources in building industry-wide standards, and diversity and access to ensure equal access to everyone around the world.

Nextech is committed to building an open and interoperable digital future. As a contributing and voting member of Khronos Group and Open XR, we are creating a standard set of interoperable application programming interfaces (APIs).

Work is also happening on WebXR, but the question is whether big players like Apple will support that. Discussions are happening now about how to make interoperable technologies like the GL Transmission Format (glTF) to efficiently transmit and load 3D scenes and models for applications.

Despite this, we still need to pull together a lot of different technologies. Apple, Nvidia, and others agreed to the 3D data format of the Universal Scene Description (USD), which originated with Pixar and powers Nvidia’s Omniverse platform. Our products are based on User-Centered Design principles with client and user experiences at the nucleus of all business decisions.

Craig Kaplan: Virbela is built with the employee, front and center. We are empowering our customers to build human-centric workplaces that maximize the happiness and output of individuals and whole companies.

We bring together the best of in-person and remote working to create more genuine and meaningful interactions and a level playing field for all. The proof of this is in our own organization across all EXP World Holdings companies, winning Glassdoor’s Best Place to Work the last 5 years, and recently being listed as #4 in 2022, all without a single brick-and-mortar office across the 20 countries we operate in.

Avatar representation actually allows for a more human experience and interaction, an awareness that happens quickly once users are in-world for a short period of time, as demonstrated by countless studies of the negative effects of video fatigue and video dysmorphia in addition to the organizational siloing created by video and messaging-focused remote work organizations.

Our personalized avatar system provides a blank canvas for anyone, regardless of their ethnic, racial, economic or gender backgrounds, so they can express themselves free from biases and discrimination that may have existed in the physical office.

Since our avatars are not anonymous and our campuses are secure, there’s a sense of safety built into the community. Although there is individuality in building your avatar, we are mindful of not creating designs that would reflect a different socio-economic status or allow for ‘levelling-up’ an avatar design to give a user the perception of power over another.

We are fully customizable, so companies can choose to switch to a fully virtual office or opt for one-off virtual events. They can brand and customize spaces as they see fit, and being desktop first, the platform remains accessible to all to connect users to all work tools and the real world, rather than taking them away from it.

Jerod Venema: Providing equal access is an interesting one. These days, most folks have access to a computer, personally or via one of many shared public options such as local libraries.

If we start creating exclusively metaverse spaces inaccessible without additional hardware, we’re not only creating a barrier to adoption, but between those who can afford hardware and those who cannot.

Jerod Venema LiveSwitch

Jerod Venema, Chief Executive for LiveSwitch

Additionally, the Metaverse does provide people with the opportunity to explore something new. When that happens, inevitably people like to push the boundaries of what’s acceptable or not. We are working with our customers to provide AI-based moderation tools that automatically alert us of bad actors.

This tooling itself can have problems, such as flagging things incorrectly, but in general, ensuring the Metaverse is a high-quality place to be, especially as it is first adopted, is critical to success.

I like to encourage people to read about the history of Disney’s Club Penguin if they’re getting into this space and all of its later unauthorized spinoffs. It shows how important Disney’s ethical approach was to its success and what happens without that kind of approach as well.

Anne McKinnon and Roman Rappak: The Metaverse is one of the biggest opportunities we’ve had to make positive changes in our world since the emergence of the Internet. It’s our responsibility to build Ristband to support our community. We can make the world a better place by fighting to create a platform that has a positive impact on people’s lives socially, culturally and economically.

Where the Metaverse is a recreation, remix, and evolution of the world we live in, it’s also a new opportunity to think about what is right in the real world and what we want from it. What makes us feel safe, happy, fulfilled, connected?

There are great resources and thought leaders in this space asking tough ethical questions and striving to provide answers and insights into our lives in synthetic realities.

We can draw from the work of Marshall McLuhen, Dr Ellen Helsper at the London School of Economics, whose voice is fighting for equality and diversity in new media, and journalist Kent Bye who is guiding the IEEE Global Initiative of the Ethics of XR.

The best thing we can do when approaching this new era of technology is to continue listening to the researchers and voices focusing on the ethics of how human beings can interact using these exciting and perhaps even terrifying new communication tools.

On our end, we protect our users through several methods, including moderation tools, event hosts, reporting and blocking, personal space bubbles, muting users and making others invisible, creating welcoming environments for diverse users, and using safety settings and parental controls for children.

We wrote our first report on Diversity in the Metaverse by speaking with stakeholders and working with our team to explore diversity in virtual worlds. It covers our vision for the Metaverse, what it is, the importance of diversity, various approaches, and what this means for culture and commerce.

It’s intended to be an evolving document and we encourage folks to reach out to us to share their stories and learnings, which will add to the report and share findings with our community and wider network.

 

 

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