The promise of the metaverse is enormous. While the exact definition of this buzzword still varies depending on sources, some words recur in definitions such as persistent, multi-user virtual worlds, 3D rendering, digital-physical convergence, and immersive. Despite the lack of consensus on the definition, it looks like these features are enough for a bright future for the metaverse.
Currently, we see attention on consumer-focused applications, more specifically in the entertainment domain, with the rise of gaming, arts, and music in the metaverse. While these applications represent a tremendous opportunity for all parties and raise a lot of interest, limiting the potential of the metaverse umbrella will not do it justice. There is another side of the metaverse focused on a more professional, enterprise use that we will call the functional metaverse. Even though it is less entertaining, it remains very promising.
The functional metaverse leverages the same components as its entertainment-focused counterpart but for different purposes. More specifically, one enters the functional metaverse with a purpose in mind, to get something done, which is one of the main differentiators. Within this context, the metaverse is no longer seen as a toy but as a tool.
Functional metaverse applications
Functional and entertainment metaverses have something in common: they mean nothing without their applications. So, what business applications can we find in a functional metaverse? Here is a short and non-exhaustive list of applications that, in my opinion, represent the most significant potential for development in the years to come:
Hybrid work and collaboration
If there is one thing we learned to do virtually in 2021, it is work. The global pandemic changed the way we work, probably forever. First and foremost, hybrid work is here to stay. Nothing can replace human, real-life interactions, but virtual collaboration also has its silver lining. The second learning is that we need more than simple teleconference tools like Zoom, Cisco, or Skype. Stakeholders already understood this as we see more immersive collaboration tools being launched, both from big tech companies (Mesh for Microsoft Teams, Meta Horizon Workroom, or HTC Vive Sync) or from smaller companies (Arthur or Glue). These tools offer various features to bring the virtual experience as close as possible to the physical one: use of avatars, 3D rendering, 3D object creation and manipulation, spacial motion, spatial sound, and many more.
Additionally, work is not solely about productivity. It is also about team-building activities and socializing with colleagues at the coffee machine. The metaverse could witness the integrations and augmentation of such experiences to employees’ hybrid work and collaboration tools. This could end up as an “all-in-one” virtual company experience closer to our former reality.
While hybrid work & collaboration use cases focus more on a company’s internal operations, the metaverse can also benefit various external facing activities. Global marketing can leverage metaverse components for multiple purposes. 3D, persistent, multi-user virtual worlds have no boundaries. They can then be developed to invite and engage with customers worldwide. Many types of virtual spaces have already and can be created, such as conference rooms, demo/welcome centers, agencies, stores, tradeshows, and fairs. The final objective would be to reproduce spaces as close as possible to their real-world counterparts.
Web 3.0 and non-fungible tokens (NFTs) for gamified and collectible marketing thrive in the metaverse ecosystem. NFT collection drops are getting traction from giant corporations like Coca-Cola, Nike, and McDonald’s to engage with consumers. Utility NFTs can contain a variety of metadata such as promotion coupons, whitelisting for IRL or virtual events, and early access to products. This allows companies to build communities of consumers who remain loyal to their brand.
Augmented reality (AR) is another, often underrated, metaverse component. Whether on the phone or via goggles, companies can display and interact with virtual assets in the physical world. Try-before-you-buy techniques are used in the fashion, furniture, and apparel industries. AR also enables brands to engage with consumers in various ways by organizing scavenger hunts, for instance.
Education and training
Just like we had to learn how to work in a virtual environment, our children had to learn how to go to school in a virtual environment. Don’t get me wrong, the potential of education in the metaverse represents more than virtual classrooms that mimic real ones and allow kids to stay on their sofa all day. A virtual environment has the power to augment learning potential via dynamic interactions with learning content. This is what we call gamified education.
Virtual environments enable users to visualize and manipulate in three dimensions much more than digital twins of real-life objects. These virtual elements, such as mathematical equations or data, can be hard to conceptualize. Consequently, virtual visualization and manipulation can facilitate learning.
In addition, by expanding the scope to higher ed and professional training, one can do things in a virtual world that they could not do in the real one. In the context of high qualification training with risks, such as military, surgery, or piloting, the consequences of failures are less dramatic in a virtual environment compared to real life.
Another important aspect to keep in mind is that education is not limited to schools and children. Virtual museums represent a vast potential in the metaverse. Spending one day in a virtual version of Le Louvre in Paris doesn’t compare with the real experience. However, it might still be more compelling than a book with images and could be done from anywhere in the world anytime without the hurdle and carbon footprint of traveling.
Finally, new functionalities of virtual reality headsets can provide education and training optimization by tracking data. This is showcased by HP Reverb G2 Omnicept Edition functionalities that calculate the user’s cognitive load based on biometric data.
This family of applications may be the hardest to conceptualize. Healthcare is strongly related to our physical self and bodies. Imagining a healthcare virtual experience is not an easy thing to do. The potential use cases are endless. To address them in a more structured way, let’s break the patient journey into 4 phases: prevention, diagnosis, surgery, and therapy.
In the context of prevention, I consider both healthcare and wellness to be tightly related. The market for wearables, capturing biometric data, producing reports, and providing lifestyle advice is already thriving. The metaverse could bring this to the next level by digitally twinning users’ health status to an avatar. The virtual self could then be a truthful representation of the global health of a user. Distributed ledger technologies could give users complete control of their personal health data and whom they wish to share it with. That way, they could get relevant advice to improve their lifestyle, prevent diseases, and live healthier. Gamification of wellness is also gaining traction with a surge of applications recording and rewarding training in the form of a game, like Stepn.
Virtual diagnoses were extremely popular in 2021 in the form of telemedicine. The metaverse may continue this trend. Just like more immersive, functional, and interactive tools will replace Skype and Zoom for enterprise collaboration, they will do the same with telemedicine. Also, just like virtual visualization and manipulation can help students learn more efficiently, they can help healthcare specialists provide more accurate and faster diagnostics.
Next is surgery. Virtual reality is already widely used for surgery planning to anticipate potential risks and complications. Augmented reality surgery is also being developed and tested. It can provide surgeons additional, real-time information about patient data, such as 3D visualization of CT scans directly in operation theaters to pay attention to patient anatomy singularities. Eventually, one could imagine a complete digital twinning of operation rooms themselves. These virtual OR could be tailored to the patient, building new disruptive standards for value-based care.
Virtual therapy is getting traction too. Virtual reality headsets are used for mental health therapies (e.g., stress and anxiety treatments) and rehabilitation programs. They optimize therapy results by providing patients with a relaxing, compelling, and entertaining environment. 3D object manipulation is also used to rehabilitate motion-related failures. Sensors can now capture emotions and cognitive loads, significantly improving therapy results. Technological advances will lead us to the development of online virtual therapy centers with persistent 3D worlds customizable to patients’ needs and personalities.
Where do you think the most significant potential for development in the functional metaverse?