Enabling the next iteration of the internet: The metaverse
As real and virtual worlds continue to overlap, customers are drawn in by the metaverse and its potential of highly functional and immersive environments. Conceptions of the metaverse may seem fanciful, but the metaverse promises to be the next revolution of the internet, says Denise Zheng, managing director for the Metaverse Continuum Business Group and the lead for Responsible Metaverse at Accenture.
“We typically think of it as an evolving and kind of constantly expanding continuum of technologies, but also use cases that span from the consumer to the worker and across the enterprise that take users from reality to the virtual and then back in a very integrated fashion,” says Zheng.
This episode is part of our “Building the future” podcast series. It’s a multi-episode series focusing on how organizations, researchers, and innovators are meeting our evolving global challenges. We understand the importance of inclusive conversations and have chosen to highlight the work of women on the cutting edge of technological innovation, and business excellence.
The elements of community-building the metaverse looks to invoke will require enterprises to adapt emerging technologies like Web3 and blockchain, meet customers where they are, and improve employee capabilities. But virtual environments are not new. Rather, people have been online networking since the late 1970s, says T.L. Taylor, a professor of comparative media studies at MIT.
“We’ve actually had versions of this—folks coming together online to play, to create, to communicate, and to build community—for decades now. We’re really just seeing the latest iteration of that,” says Taylor.
Although the potential of the metaverse may seem niche to some, online life through the internet has gone mainstream, says Taylor. The ability to participate in the metaverse and its social and creative opportunities without fear of harassment is, however, a core challenge for technology enterprises.
Once the metaverse crosses the critical milestones of safety and accessibility, its expansive possibilities can be unlocked, says Zheng. It’s likely that within the next decade, immersive experiences from entertainment to social work to virtual community-building will be possible. Taylor adds that there is no one size fits all solution to the metaverse but that its future will likely hinge on how technology companies navigate open-sourced and decentralized platforms versus centralized ones.
Zheng notes that companies are interested in exploring the metaverse to anticipate disruption. She explains “They want to deeply understand what are the opportunities, what are the risks and what does it mean for their business and how to strategically engage, to learn, to test and learn, but also to reap some enduring value from engaging with the metaverse.”
This episode of Business Lab is produced in association with Accenture.
Laurel: From MIT Technology Review, I’m Laurel Ruma, and this is Business Lab. The show that helps business leaders make sense of new technologies coming out of the lab and into the marketplace.
This episode is part of our Building the Future series. We are focusing on how organizations, researchers, and innovators are meeting our evolving global challenges. We understand the importance of inclusive conversations and have chosen to highlight the work of women on the cutting edge of technological innovation and business excellence.
Our topic today is the metaverse. As real and virtual worlds start to overlap, communities and customers will start to shift too, and enterprises will need plans to adopt emerging technologies, meet customers wherever they are, and improve employee experience and capabilities. However, with the promise of highly functional virtual environments like the metaverse, lessons from the early days of the internet shouldn’t be far from our thinking.
Two words for you: building community.
My guests are Denise Zheng, who is the managing director for the Metaverse Continuum Business Group and the lead for Responsible Metaverse at Accenture. And TL Taylor is a professor of comparative media studies at MIT. She’s a qualitative sociologist who has focused on internet and game studies for over two decades.
Welcome Denise and TL.
TL Taylor: Thanks.
Denise Zheng: Thanks so much, Laurel. Great to be here.
Laurel: Denise, to start, could you describe the current state of the metaverse? Walmart has recently launched a place in it called Walmart Land. So, what do companies hope to achieve in the metaverse as it is now?
Denise: Yeah, Laurel, thanks for that. It’s really great to be here talking about the metaverse. I’ll just say maybe we should start by defining it a little bit, because you’ve probably seen several headlines with the word metaverse in it just today, maybe in the last 24 hours. Like many new technologies, there are different ways to define it. There’s also just a tremendous amount of hype that’s being generated around this, which I think creates excitement as well as a fair amount of confusion.
So, when we talk about the metaverse at Accenture, we typically think of it as an evolving and kind of constantly expanding continuum of technologies, but also use cases that span from the consumer to the worker and across the enterprise that take users from reality to the virtual and then back in a very integrated fashion. And that also integrates 2D and 3D very seamlessly.
It’s really the coming together of a lot of different technologies from extended reality to artificial intelligence as well as blockchain and much, much more to create what we think of as kind of the next iteration of the internet. So, if you look at the internet as generations or revolutions, that started really in the 1990s where, essentially, these giant databases got connected over a long distance. Then in the 2000s, really, the internet of people emerged as we saw sort of the rapid growth of social media and web two platforms. And then in 2010, the internet of things was all the talk as more sensors embedded into machines became networked as well. Now in the 2020s and beyond, what we’re seeing is the emergence of the metaverse. We like to sort of characterize two major developments that are driving this transformation. It’s the internet of place that brings people and spaces and things together in this virtual but also real world as well as the internet of ownership that is really driven by the popularity of Web3 and blockchain platforms.
It’s this continuum of technologies that’s evolving that will shape the future, in my opinion. When you asked “what are companies doing there now,” I think you mentioned Walmart. What I’m seeing is that a lot of companies that are interested in exploring the metaverse, they want to anticipate disruption. They want to deeply understand what are the opportunities, what are the risks and what does it mean for their business and how to strategically engage, to learn, to test and learn, but also to reap some enduring value from engaging with the metaverse.
So they’re trying to figure out their role rather than just to sit in the sidelines. For a lot of them, it’s really driven by the fact that young users, about 80% of them are saying they’ve grown up with gaming and they consider themselves gamers. I can’t wait for TL To talk more about this, but it’s about in many ways accessing the next generation of consumers, the next generation of users, and building and strengthening that loyalty with them. And so a lot of brands, a lot of companies, are entering into the metaverse for that reason. But also on the enterprise side, experimenting with the metaverse because they want to see how it can drive efficiencies, how it can drive better collaboration. So, that’s kind of what we see unfolding right now.
Laurel: Well, that’s great. On that line of collaboration TL, we’re discussing the metaverse in the frame of business, but there is an element of community that is traced back very deep into the history of the internet. So where are we now on the historical timeline of virtual environments?
TL: Yeah, it’s really terrific hearing Denise’s reflections. I really caught two points there about the internet of place and the internet of ownership because actually those two themes go back to the earliest days of online networking in what were called MUDs, multi-user dimensions, sort of text-based, multi-user play spaces. Those actually originated in the late 70s, if you can believe it. So we’ve actually had versions of this folks coming together online to play, to create, to communicate, and to build community for decades now. We’re really just seeing the latest iteration of that. So I always love looking back, looking forward because some of the experiments we’re doing now have already been done, and it might be worth thinking about what is the next iteration, what are the next challenges to extend that long history and conversation?
Laurel: So yeah, how do you see the metaverse or as it’s being imagined now as an opportunity for a new way of working and life in the virtual world, and what’s so different about this reincarnation of it versus from years past?
TL: Well, I’m actually very curious to see if folks who are working on it now can distinguish what they’re going to do differently. Because right now I’m seeing a lot of the same things we’ve seen before and there’s some really important lessons there. It’s not enough to, for example build a store in a virtual world and expect people are just going to come to it and buy things. That was done, for example, in Second Life. I mean, Second Life is a really interesting moment in the history of virtual worlds. In some ways it was the second wave, it was a 3D world. We had internet infrastructure, we had people with good enough computers to be in that space. And if you even look back at what happened is a lot of hollow empty spaces were built. So, I think there’s a real challenge on folks who are tackling this now to pay attention to some big ticket issues that still have to be wrestled with.
Some of those are technical and infrastructural. People want meaningful engagement in online spaces, and that means we need to attend to embodiment in virtual spaces. How do we actually do the kind of sophisticated communication, including non-verbal communication, that we do so well offline in these online spaces? I think the other thing that’s really critical for folks looking forward is understanding that technology is not the pure driver of innovation. Social innovation is something communities and users are constantly doing. And so watching what communities are doing and the context in which they’re working and living and playing is really important. So, I think those are just two things that come to mind in terms of thinking about the future and what could be different if folks really tackle the next round of challenges.
Laurel: Well, it’s excellent perspective. And Denise, when we think about that kind of tech innovation and social innovation, what opportunities are possible now. Americans and people in general spend enormous amounts of time online, but maybe it’s sort of a read-only experience, you’re not necessarily writing to or creating something in response.
Denise: Yeah, absolutely. I think what we’re seeing really sort of inspire people to engage with the metaverse or some of these use cases that involve learning and training. This has obviously been done before as TL mentioned, but I think that because the technology has advanced in the last decade or so since Second Life. Actually it’s been, how long has it been? Nearly 20 years since Second Life was launched, right? Because the technology has gotten a fair amount more mature, and the content has also become more rich, people are more drawn to use it and to experiment with it and to also see how it can do things like transform learning.
So, I think a really, really exciting use case to think about is in the context of taking… [For example] imagine going to a museum and seeing a grand master, a sculpture or a painting hanging in a museum. Not only just reading the placard or hearing from the docent, but being able to take yourself back in time to the time of when that piece was created and actually learn about the moment in time, the techniques that were being used, the people that were involved, the stories that shape that work of art. I think it just transforms learning and makes it so much more rich, deep, and interesting. It’s those types of use cases that I think really bring to life the transformative potential of the metaverse.
We also are doing a lot of work around how to use the metaverse technologies in sort of social work context, right? To help train social workers to enter a situation in a home, for example, and be able to more quickly spot abuse that may be taking place and also experience interactions with actual people in that scenario and be able to express compassion, but also identify risk that needs to be mitigated. Just a lot of really powerful use cases outside of gaming, outside of entertainment that many people don’t think of when they think of the metaverse. Their mind goes quickly to some of these entertainment or media platforms or use cases, but there’s just a richness of opportunity and training and education and collaboration.
TL: I think one of the things Denise just said really caught my ear, which is all of the amazing use cases and possibilities that exist moving beyond gaming. I think that folks are certainly primed for that and are already interested in using the internet in a lot of different ways. In fact, the pandemic I think brought that to light even more. One of the things I often think about is—my last book was on live streaming and on live streaming and video games in particular. As I was working on that project and put out the book, I had folks would say, “Oh well that’s kind of interesting, or that’s kind of curious.” And then the pandemic hit and suddenly we were all sitting on Zoom or we were watching concerts on live streams. That thing that had been this small nugget in gaming really became apparent to everyone. So I think that idea of there are many use cases and many ways of being and operating and being a community online, I think we’ve become very aware of that now post-pandemic.
I think one thing too to keep in mind is unlike the earlier days of virtual worlds and that kind of engagement, people didn’t have a lot of models for what that looked like. Maybe you were dialing into a bulletin board service or you were dialing into AOL, or you only had service certain times of the day. Now we have ubiquitous internet access. I think one thing is we now have a generation of folks who’ve grown up with living life online and in a multitude of ways.
There are very few truisms I’ve found in my research over the years, but one is that people are really adept at piecing together platforms and technologies and sites to create community and to build their preferred experiences. And I think this is one of the interesting challenges is if you’re thinking about multiple use cases, if you’re thinking about the multiplicity of folks involved, being really open to that creative assemblage people do to create their preferred experience, the idea that there’s a single platform that’s going to dominate and bring them all in and keep them there is I think actually not in line with how people actually behave. So that might be also something to think about in terms of the multiplicity of use.
Laurel: That’s a great point. Denise, do you have something about that as well, like the idea of that we now have this as TL said, ubiquity of the internet. So maybe access to some of these virtual realities won’t seem as difficult as perhaps virtual explorations and experiments in years past.
Denise: I think that’s absolutely right, but I also feel like there’s a long way to go to improve accessibility of the metaverse, right? Currently, the devices are still quite expensive and from an accessibility standpoint, folks that have visual impairments or even other physical or other mobility challenges are not able to fully enjoy the metaverse. And so there’s a lot of innovation that still needs to take place so that more people can gain access to it. I’m hoping that it’ll become more affordable over time as well. So, while the richness of experience and I think the range of ways in which people can engage with the metaverse has significantly expanded over time, from an accessibility standpoint, I think we still have a fair bit of investment and innovation to go before it gets to where we want it to be.
TL: I so love this point. Denise if I can just “plus one” it because I think it exactly points to why context is so incredibly important. The context that people live in, where their technologies are. The kind of domestic relationships they have to navigate in relationship to the technology. They may not be able to put on a head mount display for any number of reasons. Maybe you have kids you’ve got to attend to or a dog or a sibling, you’ve got a small…There’s any number of contextual things that can shape that future and the accessibility stuff is huge.
Part of my caution here is that people are really good at finding solutions that work for them. So if technology companies are not attuned to that and are thinking technology is going to drive practice, they’re probably going to be left by the wayside because I may not put on a head mount display, but here’s a third-party app that gets me to exactly where I need to want it, where I need to be. So that accessibility question is so powerfully important. Can I add one more beat to it? It’s not even just accessibility, it’s exactly the stuff about safety and what does it mean to be able to fully participate without harassment, without fear, with a sense of autonomy and agency in the spaces. And that’s one that I think we still need to have a lot of concerted attention to.
Laurel: Oh, that’s a great point, Denise. I mean your position specifically is helping lead responsible technology. Is this a precursor to understand that we definitely have to have some sort of eye on how we approach and build this community?
Denise: 100%. In fact, this is one of the biggest challenges in the metaverse is just how do you create digitally safe and welcoming spaces for people because I mean, there’s so much that we can learn from the internet. From the internet as we know it today. There’s just so much toxic behavior, there’s so much harmful content that is spread. I think the metaverse, given its embodied nature and the fact that it’s really hard sometimes to even understand the identity behind an avatar, right, creates an environment where digital safety could be… Some of these challenges could be seriously exacerbated. And so that’s why it’s so important for us to anticipate these challenges and begin to put in best practices and develop codes of conduct to help mitigate these risks before they become a full-scale problem across the metaverse. In fact, we did a survey, a global survey, and found that people’s top concerns with regard to the metaverse is around safety. Safety, but also security and privacy issues, but safety across the board for all demographic groups that we surveyed across all the regions.
I think that in order to create safe spaces in the metaverse, we really need to understand what are the sort of online harms that we’re going to see in the metaverse emerge that will be different from how we’ve seen it in the past. Then we really need to also just partner to build some tools and technology to drive digital safety in this space. Then finally, talent as well. We need a lot more talent people focused on solving these problems at companies. So this is a big area of focus for us. Frankly, I think in order for the metaverse to become mainstream, we have to solve for this problem.
Laurel: Yeah, TL you know that old saying, “Nobody knows you’re a dog on the internet.” It’s the same in the metaverse, isn’t it? So what have you seen in your research of people and communities trying to safeguard what they’ve built?
TL: Yeah, I think in this regard, communities have been incredibly active in innovating practices and technologies. I would say largely companies and platforms have been behind the curve on this. And so what you’ve seen are communities coming up with themselves with codes of conduct, methods of moderation, forms of socializing people into good behavior. But we need more. We need communities and platforms to step up to the challenge. And I love hearing Denise highlight this point because for me, this really goes to the heart of cultural participation. I mean, sometimes things like gaming or even the metaverse being in a virtual environment, they sort of seem offside or niche. But I have always argued that these are things of our mainstream cultural lives now. And so being able to participate in them without harassment, without fear, being able to be creative and productive, it really is a core social challenge.
I think this issue of paying attention to what’s the expertise we need to start building out for safety from the bottom up. Because all too often what happens is kind of technological hype and innovation drives things first, and then safety and moderation and community management tools get kind of tried to be glommed on later. I love Denise, the point you made about bringing on the talent for this. I think the industries really need to think about what is? What are this sort of expertise that needs to be at the table from the ground up.
I would argue that means having anthropologists and sociologists at your design table from day one. People who are tuned to context, to structure, to the interplay between offline and online spaces that that’s really going to set us up for enriched environments. And if I think, Laurel, about one of the questions you asked us at the beginning, kind of what’s the promise or what’s the potential for this iteration versus past?
To me, this is at the heart of it. If we do not attend meaningfully and seriously to the social and cultural side of this stuff to the fact that we’re talking about online embodiment, it’s not just identity. You’re walking around with a body and the power of online embodiment. If we don’t attend to that stuff, we’re probably just going to do the same old, same old. If we do attend to it, we actually are creating spaces for really cool creative cultural production and engagement.
Laurel: Denise, kind of when you’re thinking about, it’s a massive responsibility and I’m sure it seems overwhelming at times, but there’s got to be so much excitement as well of those opportunities and what’s possible. So what are some of those real virtualities and how organizations could actually work to blend virtual and physical worlds?
Denise: So, we’re seeing that companies are looking to the metaverse, and this is going to get a little bit sort of practical, but really sort of diversifying their product mix. So seeing how they can sell sort of a digitally native version of a physical product and create frankly new revenue streams or new streams of value. So that’s one way in which a lot of brands are engaging with the metaverse, like Nike’s a great example of that. But we’re also seeing that, especially companies that have more of a manufacturing or an industrial footprint. How do they use digital twin technology, which blends XR [extended reality] as well, right into metaverse technologies into this with digital twins? How do they use it to operate much more efficiently? To identify ways in which they can reposition their production lines or redesign their warehouses or optimize a process to make it safer and faster and more efficient?
And then at Accenture, we’re onboarding, I guess now we’re up to almost 160,000 employees, into the metaverse because we’re finding that a lot of people that we hired during the pandemic never had a chance to really interact in person. They never had the experience on their first day of walking into an Accenture office. And so we’ve been focused on using metaverse technologies to sort of create that experience and the absence of it because of the pandemic and finding that there’s still lessons learned from this, but finding that people are engaging in it in different ways and retaining information and building trusted relationships with other colleagues in new ways in the metaverse.
So in terms of what if, I think there are customer-oriented, customer-facing use cases that are quite different and transformative that create entirely new business models. There are ways in which you can really drive efficiency as well for enterprises. And then there’s ways to improve collaboration of employees or just people that are part of a team in remote or disparate locations that we can’t realize just with normal internet. So that is what really excites me, I think is a lot of these potential for collaboration in the enterprise space with employees, with our own teams.
Laurel: TL, you mentioned the pandemic earlier. Do you think that this is a particularly ripe time to be able to blend online and offline spaces and the way that people are living and working and playing? When you think about the lessons that we can learn and apply from the current gaming world to these possibilities of the metaverse, there just seems to be a perfect timing in alignment of opportunity right here as well.
TL: Yeah, it’s a great point. I mean, when I look back at the history of gaming, there are some moments where you see these kinds of breakthroughs where something that was really normal in gaming culture kind of hit the mainstream and got uptake. I would say Second Life was certainly one example of that. World of Warcraft back in the early 2000s was one of those moments where a lot of people started playing and they realized, “Oh, actually really complex forms of collaboration and community and even kind of work-like behavior can happen in these spaces.” I don’t know if you recall, there was a wave of discussions back then about… “I’ve led a raid guild in World of Warcraft, could I put that on my resume? I’ve basically been a team leader for years.” I think we’re seeing a next wave of that where something some ways of being and engaging with people and building community and having both whimsical and fun, but also serious and instrumental action is breaking through.
The pandemic certainly primed a lot of folks to both out of necessity and out of kind of a desire for leisure to explore online spaces, shared communities in a lot of different places from live streaming to picking up Animal Crossing and realizing it was a way to connect with family members. So I think we are primed to explore this. It’s an amazing moment and hopefully some of the lessons can be learned from the past that we can have some really intentional, thoughtful cultural development around what we’re building and that we’re also really leaning on what communities have been doing for decades and kind of taking cues from them as well. I think we are absolutely kind of primed for some hopefully interesting stuff.
Laurel: Yeah. Denise, when you’re thinking about the next 18 months, 24 months compared to the next 10 years. What is really on your roadmap for embracing the metaverse, getting those tough questions and challenges on radars so they can be solved in this collaborative method, but then also the possibilities of the next 10 years and what comes next. And for you TL, kind of in that same vein, the kind of near term hopes and dreams, but also caveats and challenges, and then what’s possible in the long term? Go ahead, Denise.
Denise: So, in the near term, I think frankly there’s just a lot more that still needs to happen for metaverse platforms to mature, for the technologies as well to become more affordable. So what you’re going to see is a lot of players testing and learning, right? Experimenting with this, developing learnings from it and adapting. I think then we’ll start to see metaverse use cases begin to scale more as we sort of cross some of these critical milestones. In the future, one use case that I think could be a potential real sort of killer app is when someday, rather than just watching a movie on a 2D flat screen, we can actually participate in the movie itself or the show itself as a character and interact in an immersive environment, totally transforming the way that we consume movies or documentaries. I think that’s probably even more than 10 years out to be honest. But that type of use case I think could really drive the metaverse to become much more widespread, mainstream transformative and bring users from really all walks of life, all demographics.
TL: For me, this is always the trickiest question because I usually say I’m a sociologist, not a futurologist. So there’s too many, as I think Denise was a little bit signaling too, there’s so much indeterminacy, there’s so many possibilities. I will say that I do think that there are things that we are going to have to keep on our radar, and depending on how strongly we keep those on our radar, more or less interesting futures are possible. We talked about context and safety. I would also say that I think there is another, in some ways, truth to our lives online, which is that we approach them as a very malleable set of technologies that we cycle through based on what our and our communities needs are. The idea that there’s a one size fits all, or that there’s a single device, a single app, I think is a little bit risky as a future vision. And that perhaps ties into a third thing I would just mention in terms of futures.
I think we’re right now in the thick of a really important conversation about both the benefits and the downsides, the risks of centralized platforms, and this is one in which I think what the future looks like is going to depend a lot on how we navigate that. The earliest days of the internet were fairly decentralized. They were open source, even though we didn’t usually use that language back then. But I think we’re at a moment where we’re kind of weighing what does it look like to have these kind of rich experiences, rich nodes that are maybe even connected sometimes in different ways, but the power may not sit with any single owner, single platform, single company. So rather than saying what the future is, as a sociologist, as the kind of researcher I am, I can mostly just flag up where I think important question or critical nodes are for what that future could become.
Laurel: Excellent. What a great conversation. Thank you so much, Denise and TL for joining us on the Business Lab today.
Denise: Thank you so much, Laurel.
TL: Thank you so much.
Laurel: That’s it for this episode of Business Lab. I’m your host, Laurel Ruma. I’m the global director of Insights, the custom publishing division of MIT Technology Review. We were founded in 1899 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and you can find us in print on the web and at events each year around the world. For more information about us and the show, please check out our website at technologyreview.com.
This show is available wherever you get your podcasts. If you enjoyed this episode, we hope you’ll take a moment to rate and review us. Business Lab is a production of MIT Technology Review. This episode was produced by Giro Studios. Thanks for listening.
This content was produced by Insights, the custom content arm of MIT Technology Review. It was not written by MIT Technology Review’s editorial staff.