A business person uses virtual reality to access the metaverse.
Image: DIgilife/Adobe Stock

In a recent TechRepublic podcast, Clarence Reynolds spoke to Jana Arbanas, U.S. telecom, media and entertainment sector leader at Deloitte, to discuss a comprehensive overview of the metaverse. This is the first of a three-part series on the metaverse: Part two and part three have also been published on TechRepublic. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Listen to the podcast version of this interview on SoundCloud

Clarence Reynolds: We hear a lot about the coming of this new frontier called the metaverse. How do you define the metaverse?

Jana Arbanas: I think the metaverse is a challenging theme to describe. It might be better to think of the metaverse as a set of technologies and behaviors that actually bridge the physical and digital world rather than a specific place or a specific thing.

Early on, the metaverse was thought of as a single 3D immersive online world that would host people and experiences and economies. However, as we start to experience the metaverse, it’s probably more accurate to describe it as physical and digital worlds merging and interconnecting in a way that makes our digital lives become richer.

SEE: Metaverse cheat sheet: Everything you need to know (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

An example of the metaverse could be as simple as an augmented reality experience where I use an app on my phone to try on a pair of sunglasses. A more complex example would be a digital twin of a factory floor that enables engineers to troubleshoot problems with machinery and attempt repairs remotely before sending a team on-site to the physical factory.

Another is gaming. Gaming is often referenced as an early form of the metaverse. Today, we have multiplayer games that host millions of players, and at any given point in time, hundreds of players are playing together, chatting with one another, teaming together and battling against one another. Often, they’re creating an avatar or an online persona, building friends and choosing how the game plays out with almost limitless options.

The metaverse isn’t one thing. It’s a set of technologies that enable a variety of different experiences, and the only thing that we know for sure is that we’re at the beginning of this journey and exploring the ways that the metaverse can enhance both our life and our work.

Clarence Reynolds: There’s one question that seems to confound lots of people, including some in the tech world: Does the metaverse exist right now, or is it still being created?

Jana Arbanas: It’s both. The metaverse not only exists, but it’s also still being created. There are already multiple metaverses, but no two look the same. While we see elements of the metaverse in technologies and use cases that are already here, like the gaming example I gave, we really are just at the beginning.

Most of us probably can’t fathom what the metaverse of five years from now could look like, but it’s likely there’ll be numerous metaverses with varying degrees of interconnectedness and interoperability.

In some cases, metaverse experiences could be private — think about taking a course in the metaverse at a virtual university or having a checkup in a virtual doctor’s office. In other cases, the metaverse could be more public, like attending a live sporting event or visiting your favorite art museum from halfway around the world.

SEE: Learn about the metaverse in 2023 with this bundle (TechRepublic Academy)

Similarly, while those experiences are for individuals, we also believe companies will create their own metaverse experiences for both their employees and their customers. Companies may offer job interviews in a virtual conference room rather than asking someone to get on a plane and fly out for a visit, or they may enable their customer to test drive a car virtually from anywhere in the world.

The one thing that we know for sure is that we don’t know yet what’s in store, and there’s a multitude of business cases and applications for individuals and companies that have yet to be explored.

Clarence Reynolds: A lot of the things you mentioned are things we already do online. Will the metaverse compete with the internet or build on it?

Jana Arbanas: The metaverse is emerging from and building on the internet and how we use it. These richer, immersive experiences are being built on what exists today, but additional layers and technologies are being added to create something new.

Think about the mobile phone. The smartphones of today are built on the technology of those early flip phones that we all used, but today, they’re something else entirely and rarely used, frankly, for the purpose of actually placing calls.

Just like the mobile phone, it’s not just the technology of the phone itself that’s changed, but the cellular networks. They had to evolve, app developers had to innovate, and then, consumer behavior all had to change to get us where we are today, where the mobile phone is a dictionary, camera, credit card, shopping mall and TV. The mobile phone is competing with things that we never imagined it would, and it’s changed how we live our lives.

I think the same is true for the metaverse. Initially, metaverse experiences may compete with the internet, but over time the metaverse will likely revolutionize the internet into something entirely different.

But in order for the metaverse to revolutionize the metaverse, it has to be really good. It has to give people and companies something of value that they don’t have today, and something of so much value that it changes the way that we live and work.

Clarence Reynolds: What is or will be the difference between consumer, enterprise and industrial metaverse experiences?

Jana Arbanas: I think there’s still a lot that we don’t know about the metaverse and what exactly innovation will look like in it, but I do think there are three distinct use cases. While they all share similar characteristics of being more immersive and facilitating a different kind of interaction in the digital space, they are going to serve different purposes.

SEE: Best uses of the metaverse for business (TechRepublic)

From a consumer perspective, those experiences will typically lean more toward immersive entertainment and experience. This means digital goods like games, virtual concerts and digital clothing, but retailers may also offer a virtual experience for something that’s occurring live, as I mentioned, like a live sporting event or a concert.

The industrial metaverse, on the other hand, would be centered around digital twins and simulations — being able to interact with a digital model of, say, a building or factory that can be used to run experiments and research efficiency opportunities. That’s the industrial application. It’s much more about being able to enhance a physical thing based upon the research that occurs digitally.

Finally, the enterprise metaverse will expand upon both the experiential and simulation use cases. Those solutions will likely support both the business and how the business operates in terms of its employees and solutions that support the customers and the public.

With employees, it may be centered around the employee experience or the future of work, whereas with its customers, depending upon the industry, customers will have a different experience interacting with that company.

While they’re based on very similar principles, the use cases will be quite different across those three.

Clarence Reynolds: How do you see the metaverse unfolding, and in what timeframe do you think all of that will happen?

Jana Arbanas: The metaverse is here, in my opinion, but we are just at the beginning. While a lot of the technology exists today, it will take time for the full power of these technologies to be imagined. It’s unfolding already, but it will likely emerge and evolve in ways that we can’t yet foresee fully. Today, both consumers and companies are interacting with these early forms of the metaverse and experimenting with what they find value in.

SEE: Meta report: Future of work includes VR headsets, the metaverse and vendor collaboration (TechRepublic)

I don’t think that we could have predicted a year ago that people would be spending literally millions of dollars on digital clothes and accessories for their avatars, but that’s already what’s happening today. I can’t imagine what would be different in another 10 years.

Companies are already leveraging the metaverse to create safer autonomous vehicles and reducing travel through virtual experiences, so the use cases for companies are also in their infancy. I’m sure companies will continue to look to create more value for both their shareholders and their customers by using the metaverse.

Check out more installments from this podcast series: Exploring the metaverse: Why a universal digital identity is essential and Exploring the metaverse: Here’s what companies need to know.

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