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Now & Next: How will businesses use the metaverse? – in partnership with The Economist

Posted on 25 November 2022

Promises to transform every aspect of our daily lives mean the metaverse is not restricted to just gaming, gigs or virtual meetings. Plans cover everything from firefighting and filmmaking to manufacturing and medicine. How will businesses navigate this emerging world?    

Imagine a virtual world that mirrors our own.  In it, you meet colleagues, travel to foreign cities and even get your pilot’s licence.  This world is coming and you’ve probably heard of it.  It’s called “the metaverse.” 

The metaverse would allow that virtual space to operate like the real world does, for everyone, at the same time, with infinite memory and history. 

But if you thought the metaverse was all about gaming, gigs and virtual meetings, think again.  It could transform numerous aspects of our daily lives. 

The heat is unbelievable.

From firefighting and filmmaking…

We’re gonna see people spending more time in immersive experiences.

…to manufacturing and medicine…

Using augmented reality is an opportunity for us to do things better. 

A whole new world is emerging and with it, multi-trillion dollar opportunities. 

If you think the web transformed our lives, the 3D web is going to do much more.

Rob Bredow, Chief Creative Officer, Industrial Light & Magic
One of the recent innovations that we’ve created at ILM is what we call stagecraft, the stagecraft LED wall, which is this immersive environment which filmmakers can use to create their productions.

Industrial Light & Magic is a ground-breaking visual effects company, famous for recent shows like Disney’s Obi-Wan Kenobi.

Where is he? 

In the past it would have taken an army of set designers months to build a set like this.  Now, with ILM’s stagecraft technology, sets can be designed virtually, revolutionising the production process.

Rob Bredow, Chief Creative Officer, Industrial Light & Magic
Stagecraft is ILM’s virtual production toolkit and it’s really an end-to-end solution, so what you see on that LED wall is actually what goes straight into the show.

This is the technology which underpins the metaverse, the ability to conjure up realistic, computer-generated worlds in real time. 
But what exactly is the metaverse?  Ask a lot of people and some might tell you it’s about NFTs or donning a VR headset and jumping into an online world like the game Second Life.  But for companies and professionals working in the field, the metaverse is something far more significant.  Matthew Ball is a leading authority on the metaverse.

Matthew Ball, Author – ‘The metaverse: And how it will revolutionize everything’
For some it is a future state of today’s internet but which operates in a more decentralised fashion.  But for most, especially those which operate Big Tech today, they imagine it as a parallel plane of existence, a 3D virtual simulacra of the Earth but with many fictional elements, allowing us to do what is not possible. 

The term ‘metaverse’ was first coined in Neil Stephenson’s 1992 novel, Snow Crash. 
But the metaverse has its roots in the early gaming industry of the 1970’s.

The player can improve the machine’s ability by revising its programme.

For decades, the videogame industry has been developing software and hardware to create simulations.  Initially, these were very limited. 

Matthew Ball, Author – ‘The metaverse: And how it will revolutionize everything’
These experiences began and put multi-user shared hallucinations with your own rules for real time collaboration with others, to choose and tell your own story but of course it unfolded purely in text, largely without colour.  In the decades that followed we saw persistent improvements in visual fidelity and the number of people who engaged in this world, their cultural impact as well as their economic value. 

The advent of 3D graphics technology transformed video games and fuelled the growth of the gaming industry.  Worth $13 billion in 1997, this rose to $214 billion in 2021.  Today, this technology has come of age.  Graphic software can now create a simulated world’s rules, logic and physics.  It’s already opening up new frontiers for creativity in the film and television industry.

Thank you.  And background action.

Rick Famuyiwa, Executive Producer/Director, The Mandalorian
I’m able to put actors and cameras in this environment and we can see it and play in it and live in it. 

ILM’s filmset was originally powered by Unreal, a 3D computer graphics engine built by Epic Games, one of the world’s largest game makers.  ILM has since developed its own real-time, cinematic vendor engine called Helios and some of the biggest names in the movie business are buying into it. 

Jon Favreau, Executive Producer/Director, The Mandalorian
We could actually get in-camera finish visual effects that would really help us with the quick turn around that television requires. 

Rob Bredow, Chief Creative Officer, Industrial Light & Magic
So the first time we got to create and use stagecraft was for Jon Favreau’s show, The Mandalorian and he really wanted to advance the state of the art.  Even though it was going to be a TV show, he wanted it to feel like the movies. 

This new technology can also make the business of film production more efficient. 

Rob Bredow, Chief Creative Officer, Industrial Light & Magic
We’ve done an analysis and about half the shots we shoot, they just go straight into the show.  Now, the other half, sometimes they need touch-ups or fixes so, half the work still needs to be done in post but when you’re talking about thousands of shots, that can be a pretty significant streamlining and reduction in that post-production process. 

It’s not just Hollywood; the vast opportunities emerging with metaverse technologies are drawing the interest of some of the world’s biggest companies.  Facebook is so excited, it’s changed its name. 

Our company is now Meta. 

Oh hey Mark.  Hey, what’s going on?  Hi.  Hi, Mark. 

And Meta spent $10 billion dollars on metaverse related technologies in 2021 alone.  And in January 2022, Microsoft announced it would buy Activision Blizzard, a gaming company, for $69 billion to strengthen its position in this emerging market.  In the first five months of 2022, private equity firms, venture capitalists and corporations invested over $120 billion in the metaverse, more than double the total in 2021.  But it’s not only tech giants and big corporations that are set to profit from the metaverse, it offers financial opportunities for small, would be entrepreneurs wherever they are on the planet, sometimes in places you might not expect. 

You don’t have to be in San Francisco, you know, to be able to programme computer games.

Simon Burgess and Max Entwistle are two developers who create virtual experiences on the platform, Roblox.

Max Entwistle
Roblox is a huge online virtual world with hundreds of thousand of different experiences for players to explore, meet other people and roleplaying. 

Roblox, which was launched in 2006, had 58 and a half million daily active users in July 2022.  At the end of that month, it was valued at $25 billion.  There are more than eleven and a half million people developing games for Roblox.  Max and Simon are two of the more successful ones. 

Max Entwistle
We met in about 2010 I think, both as children, and we found each other in like a game on Roblox and just became friends through that basically. 

Their game, SharkBite, developed using the free tools the platforms provides, has now been played over a 100 million times and it nets these recent graduates an income of around $1 million a year. 

Max Entwistle
I remember I was on the plane to Frankfurt in Germany at the time and I just saw the numbers on the game going up and up, seeing more players joining the game and I was just in absolute awe.

Simon Burgess
It’s completely redirected my life.  Before I joined Roblox, I never wanted to be a game developer.  I didn’t think it could be possible.

Max Entwistle
The shark’s currently take it out the back of the boat.

Simon Burgess
I’ll save you.  Yeah, yeah, yeah, quick.  I got you. 

Roblox has its own currency called Robux which users can buy with real money.  It may look like simple games with retro style graphics but this platform is a torchbearer for the metaverse.  Its creators promise ultra-immersive virtual experiences that digitally mirror those in the real world. 

Tami Bhaumik, Vice-President, Civility and Partnerships, Roblox
Many people think we’re Roblox is a gaming company.  We’re not.  We are a technology platform that allows for people of all ages to be able to create and develop experiences born out of their own imagination and publish it out on our platform and then we share it out with millions. 

Matthew Ball, Author – ‘The metaverse: And how it will revolutionize everything’
The experience itself is much of what we imagine the metaverse to be.  Tens of millions of different, interconnected virtual worlds, all seamlessly integrated with who you are, how you communicate, your payment systems, your virtual purchases.

The metaverse is already second nature for children across the world.  Three out of four Americans aged between nine and twelve use Roblox, as do half of ten year olds in Britain.  With that kind of popularity, the platform has caught the attention of major global brands. 

Matthew Ball, Author – ‘The metaverse: And how it will revolutionize everything’
We never say exactly this is when a technology went mainstream or proliferated but at least for Generation Z and Alpha, it certainly appears to be. 

The metaverse has found its place in the cultural zeitgeist, even if nobody knows what its final state will look like.

Simon Burgess
I feel like you could ask a million developers what the metaverse is and everyone have a different definition.  We’re still coming to grasp the concept of it and that it’s got a long way to go, only a very small portion of the canvas has been painted so far. 

The metaverse is starting to offer opportunities to a multitude of industries and new ways to tackle pressing, even deadly, challenges.

The state of emergency has descended in the chaos.

This normal looking plane has some extraordinary technology on board, developed by Lockheed Martin.  As it flies above the Colorado mountains, the plane is digitally mapping the wildfires that rage below and it’s changing how these types of fires are fought. 

Justin Taylor, Vice-President of Artificial Intelligence, Lockheed Martin
Lockheed Martin recognises the impact that wildfires in particular are having on our lives, on our economies and on the climate.

There are helicopters coming in and planes dropping water every few minutes.

Justin Taylor, Vice-President of Artificial Intelligence, Lockheed Martin
So, the capability that were maturing is called Cognitive Mission Manager, or CMM.  As the fire is spreading, we’re able to apply artificial intelligence to predict the fire front behaviour and our goal is to have a 3D visualisation available to those decision makers, to those folks that are deciding how to supress the fire, so they can do so quickly and efficiently. 

The project uses NVIDIA’s Omniverse platform.  It’s a tool that can create a precise digital version of something that exists in the real world, known as a digital twin. 

Richard Kerris, Vice-President, Omniverse Platform, NVIDIA
Digital twins are a true to reality simulation of a virtual environment to the physical environment.  You can think of it as two parts of a journey – the creation of things, whether they are buildings, factories, products, scenarios, worlds etcetera, and then the operation of those things in a digital twin concept.  The way to think of it really is kind of like the operating system for the metaverse.

NVIDIA was founded in 1993 and for the first twenty years made the tech that helped usher in the 3D revolution in gaming.  It’s microchips are suited to powering the hardware and software needed to create the increasingly sophisticated simulations of the metaverse.  As a result, NVIDIA’s chips are up. 

This will be the first $1 trillion semiconductor company.

The company’s market value increased from just under $18 billion in January 2016 to just over $454 billion in July 2022 with revenues growing by nearly 536%.  NVIDIA is now building Earth-2, a supercomputer that is creating a digital twin of the weather across the planet.  The ability to predict the climate decades in advance could be crucial in adapting to the impacts of climate change.  But that’s only just the start.  The metaverse is also set to transform manufacturing across a range of industries.  Amazon, Siemens and BMW are among the big companies that are using digital twin technologies to recreate their processes down to the smallest detail. 

Richard Kerris, Vice-President, Omniverse Platform, NVIDIA
The factory of the future is going to be more efficient, they will be safer, it’s going to be a higher degree of productivity.  You can understand how parts need to come in and be moved around, you can do other things like training the robots in those virtual factories before you commit to them in the physical sense. 

Matthew Ball, Author – ‘The metaverse: And how it will revolutionize everything’
We’re starting to see digital twins, not just of a single environment but multiple environments, large scale environments, daisy chained together in a simulation, creating a digital twin not just of a thing or a place but space itself. 

But there is a potential problem.  As yet, the metaverse lacks an agreed standard for connecting multiple virtual worlds.  Something like the HTML protocol, an agreed standard that defines the appearance behaviour of pages on the web. 

Matthew Ball, Author – ‘The metaverse: And how it will revolutionize everything’
When we think about the metaverse as a 3D elevation of the internet, we require the same sorts of structures, new standards for 3d information, new hierarchies that allow one virtual world to know that another exists, to then communicate and safely, securely and consistently share information.  But almost none of that exists today. 

The race is on to develop the metaverse’s equivalent of HTML.

Richard Kerris, Vice-President, Omniverse Platform, NVIDIA
The thing that makes the metaverse so impactful for everyone, is the seamless ability to go from virtual world to virtual world in much the same way today we go from website to website, it doesn’t matter who devised the browser etcetera. 

Once again, it’s Hollywood that is making the running.  Pixar needed a way for its animators to collaborate effectively, despite working in different studios and often with different tools, so it developed its own software called Universal Scene Description or USD.  In 2016 USD was made open source, free for anyone to use.  It’s still early stages and it remains to be seen whether USD will become the universal protocol of the metaverse.

Richard Kerris, Vice-President, Omniverse Platform, NVIDIA
We saw this as the potential to be the HTML of 3D as we move forward into a 3D centric web.  So now, everybody has a common way of describing their 3D environment and, you know, companies are working together to advance the format, like we did with HTML.

As some companies focus on wiring up the metaverse, others are busy developing devices to access it and turn science fiction into real commercial opportunity. 

There is nowhere left to go except the oasis. 

Headsets which can superimpose computer-generated imagery on the real world, so-called augmented reality, are opening ever more diverse applications for the metaverse.

We’re getting an exclusive look at one of the military’s latest investments, it’s a futuristic combat goggles that gives soldiers a brand new way to see the battlefield.

In 2020, Microsoft agreed to supply the US military with AR technology in a deal that could be worth £22 billion over ten years. 

Not only can soldiers see in the dark but they can see through smoke and even peak around corners.

Matthew Ball, Author – ‘The metaverse: And how it will revolutionize everything’
New extended or mixed reality devices are essential to some functions, enriching our experience in the metaverse and bringing it into more forms. 

Augmented reality devices are enabling metaverse technologies to make a real difference to how vital services such as medical care are delivered.

This is our consent form for the procedure.

Here at Johns Hopkins University in America, using AR devices in surgery is rapidly becoming routine.

Professor Tim Witham, Professor of Neurosurgery and Orthopaedic Surgery, The Johns Hopkins Hospital
We’re going to be using a new, augmented reality, guided computer system that’s mounted on a headset.

Professor Tim Witham is a pioneering surgeon, who now uses augmented reality to help perform spinal surgery.

Professor Tim Witham, Professor of Neurosurgery and Orthopaedic Surgery, The Johns Hopkins Hospital
The first procedure that we preformed with this technology involved a woman in her seventies who had been suffering for years from low back pain.

During the surgery, a marker is inserted into the patient’s spine.  A CAT scan then creates an image of the spine in relation to the marker, the data is then transferred to the augmented reality headset. 

Professor Tim Witham, Professor of Neurosurgery and Orthopaedic Surgery, The Johns Hopkins Hospital
While I’m looking inside of the patient and putting the screw in, I see a heads up display that has the computerised image that shows exactly where the screw is going.  It’s almost like a GPS system. 

The augmented reality allows Professor Witham to perform the surgery with a consistent accuracy that was previously hard to achieve.

Professor Tim Witham, Professor of Neurosurgery and Orthopaedic Surgery, The Johns Hopkins Hospital
I’ve subsequently done about one hundred cases and we’ve published data on our accuracy or success rate if you will and we’ve found that the device is about 98% accurate in the placement of spinal instrumentation or implants into the spine.  It’s very rewarding to be able to see the development of this new technology and then be able to utilise it in real, clinical use. 

The metaverse is already starting to offer glimpses of its potential to drive change and to shape how we behave in profound ways.  

Timoni West, Vice-President, Product, Digital Twins & AI Unity
I find it very hard to predict what the real market opportunity will be but the one thing that I know for sure is that these new technologies will lead to new behaviours and those new behaviours will unlock markets that I can’t predict. 

But as the metaverse grows, so do the challenges. 

Matthew Ball, Author – ‘The metaverse: And how it will revolutionize everything’
Intel estimates that we need a nearly thousand factor improvement in average computer power, plus a myriad more computing devices to begin with.

And for all its promise to transform how companies and people operate, the metaverse is likely to share the pitfalls of the real world.  One thing seems certain, the idea that the real world is limited to what is physically present nearby will seem increasingly bizarre. 

Matthew Ball, Author – ‘The metaverse: And how it will revolutionize everything’
I like to talk about the metaverse as more than just a tech wave but a societal one, a multi-trillion dollar economic opportunity that will transform nearly every country, industry and person’s life, global. 


Hello.  I’m Tom Standage, Deputy Editor at The Economist.  If you’d like to learn more about this topic, click on the link opposite and if you’d like to watch more of our Now & Next series, click on the other link.  Thanks for watching and don’t forget to subscribe.

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