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April 11, 2022

Immersive virtual, augmented realities offer the next frontier for businesses, consumers

PHOTO | CONTRIBUTED A Cigna employee uses an Oculus virtual reality headset during a staff meeting.

While no NBA records were broken nor player milestones reached during the Brooklyn Net vs. New Orleans Pelicans matchup on Jan. 15, the game may prove to be historically significant.

The Nets became the first American sports franchise to feature a live game in the metaverse. The immersive virtual experience was powered by 100 high-resolution cameras surrounding the team’s home court that were fed into a viewpoint system that created and streamed 3D renderings of the live on-court action within seconds.

“Sports and athletics are going to see a lot of growth in the metaverse,” said Melanie Subin, director of consulting for Future Today Institute, a strategic foresight firm that helps organizations prepare for uncertainty and complex futures. “Virtual reality [VR] and augmented reality [AR] enable fans to experience a live event up close and they can get [player] information overlaid onto that experience like game stats. Sports are a natural area of application [of these technologies].”

The metaverse may well be the next frontier for professional sports — and beyond, transforming industries from retail and manufacturing to health care.

In fact, according to projections from market research firm Reports and Data, the global metaverse market is expected to grow annually by more than 44 percent and reach $872 billion in 2028.

And major national brands are preparing for life in the metaverse, including Nike, Walmart and McDonald’s, which in February filed multiple trademark applications, including one to operate a virtual online restaurant that would feature real-world home delivery.

These technologies are playing a bigger role here in Connecticut, said Michelle Cote, director of Launc[H]artford, one of the state’s core innovation hubs.

“Alongside the buzz about the metaverse and how it will change life as we know it, we are seeing more augmented and virtual reality in the innovation strategies of our [state’s] anchor industries today,” Cote said.

In November, Launc[H]artford hosted an online chat with Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Meta, Facebook’s parent company.

“It was enlightening and we’re looking forward to expanding the depth of [technology] expertise in the region and state,” Cote said.

Virtual connections

These interactive virtual worlds, long a part of online gaming communities like Fortnite, have become mainstream.

“There is no one metaverse,” said Diana Doukas, U.S. policy programs manager of economic impact for Meta. “It’s a lot of interconnected interactive spaces [like the internet] and it’s really taking our current experience of using the internet and making it more immersive.”

Tech giants like Meta are fueling the growth of this transition; Meta alone is investing more than $10 billion as it seeks to shift from a social media to a metaverse company.

Meta’s first foray into the metaverse is Horizon Workrooms, a virtual conference room experience that includes mixed reality desk and keyboard tracking, remote desktop streaming and Oculus avatars for users to collaborate on a shared whiteboard, documents or social media, regardless of physical distance.

That technology, said Doukas, will help ever-increasing remote workforces to connect. Bloomfield health insurer Cigna Corp., for example, is using Oculus headsets to conduct meetings in the metaverse, making it easier for employees to collaborate whether they are in the office or working remotely.

Small businesses are starting to use virtual and augmented reality to connect with customers anywhere, Doukas noted.

“As a small business [owner], you can meet with customers across the country or the globe, and use avatars to [offer an] experience of what your business has to offer.”

For instance, using augmented reality, a customer can see what a new piece of furniture would look like in an actual room.

In January, Get Joy, a Norwalk-based online dog food retailer announced it was building the first dog park — the Get Joy Dog Zone — in the metaverse.

The park, where VR headset users can interact with virtual dogs, is not only a marketing opportunity, but a chance to draw attention to the limited recreational space dogs have in many real-world communities, according to the company.

The site will also host virtual and nonprofit activities to support dog wellness.

Business needs

Over the past two years, the global pandemic has accelerated the shift to the metaverse and increased consumer adoption of virtual reality tools, as workers became remote and consumers increased online activities, including record-setting e-commerce.

According to Statista, more than 70 percent of survey respondents said they increased their VR use in 2020 and only 5 percent used it less.

A 2020 PwC report predicted that nearly 23.5 million jobs worldwide would be using AR and VR by 2030 for training, work meetings and customer service.

“We’re [in the process] of taking all the stuff we do on a personal computer today in two dimensions and through mixed reality making that a three-dimensional experience that [people] can interact with better,” said Ted Dinsmore, president of New Haven-based software development and consulting company SphereGen.

SphereGen helps clients maximize virtual, augmented and mixed reality to address business needs across the healthcare, manufacturing, education, construction and financial sectors.

Dinsmore said the metaverse goes beyond immersive headsets and virtual worlds.

“We’re talking about extended reality that is augmented or mixed reality, which overlays onto the real world,” he said.

He points as an example to virtual headsets that one of his healthcare clients is using to view and guide surgeries in Uganda in real time.

“It’s helped train surgeons in Uganda who might see a particular [surgery] case once in a lifetime that [our client] sees in New York three times a week,” he said.

And metaverse technology is becoming a bigger component of educational systems as well, Dinsmore said.

In 2020, Cleveland-based Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine trained all its first-year students using the Microsoft Hololens and its mixed reality app, HoloAnatomy, which features a suite of 3D organs, vessels and systems that comprise human anatomy. Initial studies showed similar exam performance compared to medical students who learned using traditional anatomy methods.

Big metaverse communities like Fortnight and Roblox are also driving advertising focus and dollars particularly targeting Gen Z and Millennial consumers, who each spend around 7 hours a week, on average, in virtual gaming, according to NewZoo survey data.

Vans, the skateboarding brand, launched a virtual skate park in Roblox that lets players earn points to redeem in their virtual store to customize their avatar; the online park has seen more than 48 million visitors to date.

The value of virtual viewers has also placed a premium on virtual real estate, which has seen its value spike. Virtual real estate sales topped $500 million in 2021 in the top four metaverse platforms, according to MetaMetric Solutions. Sales surged in October when Facebook rebranded as Meta to focus on the metaverse.

“Theoretically, there’s an infinite amount of real estate [in the metaverse],” said Future Today Institute’s Subin. “But somebody has to write the code and stand up the site and develop that virtual environment. I don’t think many businesses will be developing their own virtual environments but will depend on virtual worlds already built.”

Privacy issues

But it’s not virtual real estate prices that concern Yale Anthropologist Lisa Messeri, who studies the production of technology and how it’s used to build new worlds through research and innovation.

“I think about the metaverse as a broad imaginary [environment] that includes any number of futures in which our physical and digital worlds are increasingly woven together…to create convenience,” she said. “But it requires an extraordinary amount of data to deliver this convenience and [I think] that the metaverse might further entrench us into a surveillance society, where we are obligated to give up personal and identifying information for something as benign as getting directions.”

Privacy controls have major implications to both metaverse platforms and businesses advertising on them.

In February, Meta suffered the largest one-day drop in its stock price – losing $230 billion in market cap – driven in part by privacy changes by Apple, which limited Facebook’s ad targeting and measurement, a move expected to cost Meta nearly $10 billion in revenue this year.

But as Meta develops its own metaverse ecosystem accessed by Meta-owned hardware like Oculus, which Facebook acquired in 2014, those same restrictions may not apply.

Doukas said the company is committed to transparency in protecting data security.

But that may vary across platforms — like Sandbox and Decentraland — and will likely increasingly include much more detailed information that can be tracked, including biometric data measured via wearable devices.

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