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The Metaverse is coming

What does the Metaverse mean for your business? And where should you put your money? Lee Naik unpacks the issue.

TransUnion Africa CEO Lee Naik.

TransUnion Africa CEO Lee Naik.

What exactly comes after Web 2.0? For many futurists, the answer is the Metaverse – a VR- and AR-based successor to the Internet. We got our first mainstream taste of it last year with Pokémon Go, but the Metaverse goes far beyond a cool platform for catching Pokémon.

What is the Metaverse?

It all started the way many of the world's greatest inventions do, with science fiction. The first mention of the Metaverse was made in Neal Stephenson's novel "Snow Crash". The book is set in a world where people alternate between two realities – their life in the real world and one where they interact virtually, be it in fictional bars or businesses, through an avatar.

While many RPG games echo this concept, it turns out this version of the Metaverse doesn't hold much promise for the real world. Instead, the non-fictional version of the Metaverse is shaping up to plug into our real lives. So, as opposed to offering us an alternative reality, it will essentially be a blended, customisable, interactive environment where virtual elements sit on top of physical ones. Think augmented reality rather than Matrix-style VR.

What does it mean for businesses?

Nowadays, many businesses are exploring the applications of VR and AR to enhance their customers' user experiences. There's BMW, taking the first steps towards creating true virtual showrooms. Here at home, we see applications like the Dulux Visualizer, allowing customers to see what their living rooms will look like in any colour, and Interior Architects, monitoring our behaviour to build our spaces around it. VR and AR are even saving lives in the medical industry, helping doctors prepare for surgeries more effectively.

So far, so good – we've been reading about potential VR and AR applications for a while now. So why do we conceptualise it as the Metaverse, rather than just another set of emerging trends? Well, looking at VR as a technology in isolation misses the point.

Just as the Internet was far more than just URLs and servers, and the mobile Web is far more than just smartphones, the Metaverse will also be more than just a couple of VR value-adds. It's an interface, a bridge to very different interactions and forms of communication. And that's going to drastically affect not just the way we do business, but the way we think, in the same vein that mobile has.

Where should you put your money?

The question for most businesses is how to gauge valuable real-world investment for something that doesn't even exist yet. To answer that, let's take things back a bit, to the first iteration of the Internet.

The Internet didn't really exist in public consciousness until the advent of easy-to-use search engines like Yahoo and Google. These companies didn't invest in the "Internet"; they invested in a part of it. And the good news is that most of the moving parts of the Metaverse are already there – VR and AR headsets, WebVR, wearables, social networks, metatagging… the list goes on.

What's still missing is that killer application that will take the Metaverse from a concept to a living part of our everyday reality.

What's still missing is that killer application that will take the Metaverse from a concept to a living part of our everyday reality. Like everything in the tech industry, it'll be a fight to the finish, and you probably won't be surprised to hear who is donning their gloves.

Facebook Spaces, unfortunately, doesn't look as though it will be transporting us into the level of mixed reality we want anytime soon, since it's more focused on shared spaces for avatars right now. The Microsoft HoloLens, on the other hand, brings VR and AR together to allow you to interact with holograms in the real world, albeit via a somewhat chunky head-mounted display.

In my mind, Google Tango and Apple ARKit are much more likely to dominate, giving the Android versus iPhone argument perpetuators even more ammunition than ever before. They both enable users to access mixed reality through their smart devices, meaning they won't have to fork out a fortune for additional specialised tech.

Google or Apple?

While Tango is set to offer more sophisticated augmentations, when it comes to consumers, convenience is king and Apple appears to be winning that battle. It will be launching ARKit through its latest software update iOS 11, and although users of the latest models will get first access, it will soon be available for almost all iPhone and Apple tablet users. That means an instantly established audience, making ARKit a shoo-in for business investment.

It's hard to say that Apple absolutely will be the one to back when there are so many other VR and AR-players in the mix though. So, what should you do while waiting for "the one" – the Neo of the real-world Matrix? This will depend on your industry, business model, and the potential applications of the emerging VR and AR technologies.

Fortunately, there are plenty of resources to keep you on top of all things Metaverse. Most notable among these is the Metaverse Roadmap, which explores the cycles of each of these building block technologies in a range of industries, along with trends, predictions and other useful insights. It's also worth keeping an eye on the hype cycle – Gartner predicts targeted enterprise applications of VR and AR by 2020.

Over and above keeping abreast of new applications, use cases, and the quest for that killer app, now is the perfect time to simply let yourself dream big. Ask yourself, "What could my business offer a virtual world?" I've always found that one good question has a way of leading to more.

You also might find some inspiration on @madewithARKit – worth it if you've got a few hours to kill.


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