The metaverse, a perverse technology push

the metaverse

Thou shalt… take a realistic view of virtual reality

My own first time in a metaverse – a virtual collective space offering an immersive experience – was in the summer of 2018. Together with my wife and our two teenage children, we visited ‘The Void’ in Downtown Disney, Los Angeles. After each putting on white Star Wars Stormtrooper body armour covered in sensors and a matching helmet fitted with a virtual reality (VR) visor, we entered the virtual Star Wars metaverse together. As a group, our mission was to extract a small container from an enemy base. We could see and talk to each other during the task, and we could actually feel and operate the crucial levers and buttons necessary to complete the task. And needless to say, we could physically grab laser guns and use them to shoot down enemy Stormtroopers.

By Martijn Lofvers, CEO and Chief Trendwatcher of Supply Chain Media

It was actually an escape room in a hyper-realistic virtual world, where you could even feel the heat of the virtual lava. Thanks to great collaboration and a clear division of labour, we managed to defeat the Stormtroopers and Darth Vader and successfully concluded our mission. My wife, my children and I all thoroughly loved this unique and thrilling experience, although it had a hefty price tag. The company behind The Void had spent millions of dollars developing its own Oculus-based headset, VR backpacks, a virtual environment, accessories and a physical space, hence the high admission price. Since then, the company has taken a hard financial knock due to the coronavirus pandemic and has closed several of its locations in the USA. In March of this year, however, the company announced plans to relaunch with new equipment.

The Sims for business

I’m not really surprised that The Void had a tough time during the lockdowns. Over the past two years, on behalf of Supply Chain Media, I myself have organized multiple interactive online workshops in a 3D world, at low cost. I used the virtual ‘tropical island’ world of Aula; it has various different pavilions, each with its own functionality, and is a bit like the computer game ‘The Sims’. From the comfort of their own homes, the participants – sat behind their computers with normal headphones rather than VR headsets – could each guide their own avatar through the virtual world and stop and talk to others, including to hold one-on-one conversations at a bar, for example.

Most of the workshop participants were extremely enthusiastic about the virtual world, with feedback including: “It feels just like the real thing, like you’re actually standing next to one another.” However, the technical onboarding turned out to be a major, and sometimes insurmountable, obstacle with the strict firewalls preventing some companies from installing the necessary software package. That’s why, when holding online supply chain training sessions based around serious gaming, the consultants from Involvation play the game in Aula themselves while the participants watch in MS Teams. The Swiss developers of Aula claim that they’ve consciously developed a 3D world that doesn’t need VR headsets because VR makes many users nauseous, not to mention the fact that the headsets are expensive.

Remote maintenance

Machine maintenance is one area in which virtual reality and augmented reality (AR) are already being used successfully in business. For example, on-site maintenance technicians can receive the blueprint of the machine to be repaired projected onto their AR headsets, sometimes also accompanied by live verbal support from a remote specialist. In 2019, Airbus succeeded in reducing the time involved in the maintenance process by 75% by utilizing VR in training.

However, these successful applications of VR and AR are restricted to single individuals, whereas in the metaverse it is about people working in partnership. This could be useful for training teams how to deal with crisis situations. VR-based training would have been ideal to prepare for the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, for example. This biggest-ever man-made disaster unfolded in several phases. First of all, the operators in the control room were insufficiently prepared for the crisis situation that arose and did not know what to do. The explosion then caused a fire and the local fire department was mobilized to extinguish it. Three firefighters subsequently had to enter a flooded basement in the dark to pump out the water. And on the roof of the exploded nuclear power plant, soldiers wearing bulky suits had to remove radioactive material before the reactor could be encased in concrete. All of these life-or-death situations lend themselves perfectly to team-based simulation in a realistic VR environment. But why should companies invest money in VR for that? The truly phenomenal American-British miniseries Chernobyl (2019) already provides enough training material to analyse these types of crisis situations, without the need for costly VR.

Unsafe environment

According to IT analyst firm Gartner, the adoption of metaverse technologies is still in the early phase and Gartner advises executives to be cautious about investing in this area for now. According to a recent survey of 834 technical professionals by IT consultancy Globant, only 29% believe the metaverse is a safe place to collaborate with others. In view of a recent report by a British BBC journalist who posed as a 13-year-old girl and quickly encountered racism and sexual harassment, this low confidence in the metaverse is completely understandable.

In fact, the metaverse is not the new future, but rather the meta-perverse dream of Facebook and various technology providers who are jumping on the bandwagon. At the start of the millennium, a somewhat similar platform called Second Life also ended up being a momentous flop. Although the metaverse’s technology is more advanced, I personally still don’t see how it is going to fulfil a broad (business) need.

‘The Sermon’ in Supply Chain Movement is a speech in which the speaker expresses the message he or she has about the field of supply chain management. A sermon aims to teach, to encourage, to correct, so that the recipients may grow in their faith and become strong, mature supply chain professionals.