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Work in the metaverse: A Computer Weekly Downtime Upload podcast

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In this special edition of the Computer Weekly Downtime Upload podcast, we speak to Wipro CTO Subha Tatavarti about the business metaverse

Earlier this month, Meta, the parent company of Facebook, unveiled Meta Quest Pro, a virtual reality (VR) headset for business users. According to Meta, it is the first in a line of high-end devices designed for collaboration and productivity. The firm pitches the headset as being able to let users feel more present even when they are physically apart.

A key part of Meta’s strategy for the device, and its interpretation of the metaverse, is the work it has been doing with Microsoft to integrate the new headset with Teams and the Windows operating system.

According to Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, delivering Teams through Meta Quest Pro will give people new ways to connect with each other. “You can connect, share and collaborate as though you were together in person,” said Nadella. “And in the future, you’ll be able to use other avatars, including Meta ones in immersive experiences and Teams meetings, too. Just think about how powerful whiteboarding or brainstorming – or even Teams meetups – can be in this space.”

Significantly, Meta is working with Microsoft to offer users the ability to stream Windows applications to Meta Quest Pro headsets. The device works with Azure Active Directory for access control and can also be managed with InTune, Microsoft’s device management tool.

Accenture is also planning to help clients decide how best to use the metaverse in their own organisations.

What these announcements from Meta show is that the industry is looking at how to move VR beyond niche application areas. During the pandemic, devices such as Microsoft’s own HoloLens headset were used to provide remote collaboration. But now, as businesses shift towards a hybrid way of working, the industry is looking at how to connect physical and online teams together – and the metaverse is where the tech firms see the greatest opportunities.

Bola Rotibi, chief of enterprise research at CCS Insight, said: “Sometimes in the industry we do tend to think of the shiny brand-new thing that everyone’s going to move over to. For me, that’s not the case at all. I think that as the technology evolves, there will be some things that will actually make perfect sense to use the virtual reality environment.”

In its latest forecast, CCS Insights said that by 2024, enterprise collaboration tools will add immersive spaces to help replicate the in-office experience. According to CCS, as teams struggle with how to stay connected with colleagues and maintain camaraderie, tools such as Slack, Microsoft Teams and Zoom introduce immersive spaces that enable people to feel like they are working alongside colleagues.

It predicted that organisations would adopt tools that enable them to create virtual campuses, allowing employees to move between virtual rooms for different projects or levels of focused work. One such system, from Virbela, offers spaces that use spatial audio to replicate the concept of overhearing conversations in an open office environment.

But among the challenges about the experiences people have in the metaverse is that these experiences are very much unreal. Even the seemingly simple use case of ensuring that the colour of a product is correct differs because of what the user sees in the real world under, say, the lighting conditions in a retail space, and how colours are presented on a mobile phone screen, or how the backlit image of the product appears when projected onto an LED monitor.

Displaying the correct colour is a focus for high-end workstations and monitors calibrated carefully for colour proofs, but can you expect consumer devices and those destined for mass enterprise adoption to offer the same level of capabilities?

Subha Tatavarti, CTO at Wipro, said: “One of the biggest conversations we are having is with cosmetics and fashion companies, who really want to dabble in the metaverse and be a part of it.” But there are plenty of things that are missing to make virtual reality a reality, she said. “How do you democratise it? How do you make it at scale? How do you make sure that you don’t have to buy a $10,000 or $1,000 device for you to experience the metaverse?”

Tatavarti is a strong believer in the concept of using digital twins to simulate manufacturing and reduce costly errors in production. But digital twins do not always have to be 100% accurate to make a difference. She feels that the same is true in the metaverse. Clearly, in areas such as healthcare, accuracy is paramount and poor data can have a profound impact on people’s lives. But, as Tatavarti points out, there will be plenty of opportunities in the metaverse where the risk of failing is not necessarily very high, which means organisations can explore virtual worlds to “delight users”.

However, the early experiences of business in the metaverse look more like Minecraft than a serious enterprise workspace. Developers even add in “features” such as virtual beach volleyball and bar areas. It is questionable whether such things are a top priority for corporate customers when considering how to engage hybrid works in the metaverse.

But according to Ash Jhaveri, vice-president, Reality Labs at Workplace from Meta, there is a learning curve that people building environments in the metaverse will need to go through. “Think about to how PowerPoint presentations used to look like, with videos and big fonts and blinking stuff, or look at how the first websites were built 25 years ago, to where they are today,” he said. “We have a bunch of building blocks and people are experimenting with them.”

Just like the gimmicks that eventually became unfashionable in PowerPoint and on web pages, Jhaveri said he expects features such as virtual beach volleyball will eventually fade away.

The fact that Wipro and Accenture are looking at how their clients could benefit from the metaverse shows that there is now a definite shift toward enterprise VR. Speaking at the launch of the new Meta Quest Pro device, Julie Sweet, CEO of Accenture, said: “The advances in Meta’s hardware and software, coupled with the integration with Microsoft technology and Accenture’s expertise in bringing the best of tech to industry to create practical, real-world uses and unlock tangible value, will be game-changing for scaling the metaverse in the enterprise.”

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