Big business is paying a lot of attention to the metaverse. But what are they looking for?
Edwina Fitzmaurice, Global Chief Customer Success Officer for the consulting firm Ernst & Young, thinks about this perhaps more than anyone on the planet, save Mark Zuckerberg. Fitzmaurice leads EY’s “wavespace” and “metaverse lab,” virtual sandboxes meant to help guide “clients through the multitude of immersive digital experiences that are emerging” and help them navigate a “decentralized economy” based on Web3 technology.
I had a conversation with Edwina last week — via an old-fashioned, 2D Zoom call — that started with a simple question: When the chief metaverse officers of the world come calling, what is it they actually want to accomplish, or just to understand about the nascent virtual sphere?
There’s big money in the metaverse, but as Fitzmaurice herself has said, the industry is currently “creativity and opportunity, not certainty.” That leaves some people scratching their heads about exactly how, where, and why the metaverse will be used — not to mention how anyone is supposed to actually make money from it.
An edited and condensed version of our conversation follows:
What kind of guidance are the companies you work with generally looking for?
First, just “what is the metaverse,” “why should anyone care,” and “is it real.”
Then you have the people who already understand it, and particularly if they’re coming from the gaming world, they’re concerned about how this technology will integrate with the real world and how it will make an economic impact. That’s where we get asked a lot of questions like, can you actually do business here, what are the business models, what problems can we solve with this? There’s a lot of strategy work, and a lot of experimentation.
Once people are through that cycle they start to see the impact on not only their customers, but employees, and how the technology can change the margins or their cost base, and so you’re getting into business discussions. At that point there’s also a cautionary side, about safety and security, potential fraud, or simply just getting this wrong, which poses a reputational risk.
When someone asks you “is the metaverse a real thing,” what do you tell them?
The simplest way to describe it is that the metaverse is the internet in 3D. So if you think the internet is interesting, the internet is also changing, and maybe you should be interested in that.
Then you try to explain that the metaverse is a concept right now that doesn’t exist. It’s an interoperable world where you can work and play and earn in different spaces seamlessly — so unlike the internet today, I don’t have to log in and out of various websites, we would just move around.
You can’t do that today [in the metaverse]. You can’t move around easily, it isn’t interoperable, and getting in and out is clunky. There’s no clear killer app yet. It’s like the early days of the internet: It’s coming, and you can see all the elements, all the building blocks are there, but they don’t quite work just yet. So do you want to be an early adopter, do you want to find out more, do you want to wait and see? That’s where people are at.
EY does a lot of work with blockchain as well. Do you think that’s the right tool for building an interoperable digital world?
I believe in the blockchain as a disruptive technology to drive transactions and build economies. Whether it persists as the way to build worlds in the metaverse, I’m not sure.
Why do you need a blockchain? You need a blockchain so that you can establish ownership, and create interoperability. Do you have to build the actual Metaverse on a blockchain to achieve that? No, you don’t. You can achieve that without the actual metaverse itself being decentralized on the blockchain. So if we can crack ownership through another means as well, you don’t necessarily need the blockchain either. But I do think it is a very powerful thing here because it provides an infrastructure that’s basically free if you ignore the fees, and it’s available to everybody, nobody owns it, so it’s like the internet — persistent, out there, available.
This year I’ve covered a lot of corporate attempts to break into the metaverse, like Walmart building a world in Roblox. How do these projects fit into a company’s overall business strategy?
This is one of the key things that comes up relatively early: Do you want to be a landlord, or do you want to be a tenant?
If you are going to go to somebody else’s world and be a tenant, then you are subject to their governance, and you’re attaching yourself to their rules, their reputation, their community. If you want to set your own rules you might want to do a different thing, and build the kind of community that you want and that you want your customers to experience. These spaces are built because companies want to control that, and to invite other people into their world, and to be the landlord.
Governance aside, what do you expect companies to focus on in the metaverse in 2023?
A growth agenda. Especially with banks and financial services, they want to know how they can engage with customers in a different way, how to visualize data in a different way. In virtual reality you can take these intangible things and make them real.
Health care and life sciences companies will be looking at how to do training. Manufacturing safety, in particular, will continue to be a big topic. We’re busy with anything that’s experiential, as well — hotels, theme parks, cruise liners, concerts, those kinds of experiences are really popular.
On the internal side, it’s around collaboration, training, onboarding, and improvement. We’re also recruiting — we make people climb trees and do interviews at the top of them in the metaverse. Most people are thinking about: How do we go for growth, but do it in a way in which we don’t bet the farm or damage the existing business? There’s FOMO, fear of missing out, going on, but there’s also fear of being in: FOBI. You’re trying to walk the line.
Mark Zuckerberg shed some light yesterday on his personal vision for how Meta approaches the metaverse.
Testifying as part of the FTC’s lawsuit against the company over its acquisition of a virtual reality fitness app company, Zuckerberg made the case that Meta still plans to build the core elements of its metaverse itself, and not by simply acquiring smaller competitors. But Web2 considerations are a big part of the case, too: As POLITICO’s Josh Sisco wrote, Zuckerberg also “said a key reason for building the so-called Metaverse is to get out from under the control of Apple, and to a lesser extent, Google, which currently controls the primary consumer computing interface through their stranglehold over the mobile phone industry.”
Although it might run against the growing conventional wisdom that gaming is a foundational building block for the metaverse, Zuckerberg argued in his testimony that Meta’s primary focus is on staying true to its social-media roots even as it builds an entirely new internet platform: “We talk about games, but also we talk about social being the most important to us.”
As the dust cleared yesterday from the early-morning/late-night introduction of the federal spending omnibus bill, POLITICO Pro’s Morning Tech newsletter pointed out this morning some additional tech legislation that made the cut.
Both chips and science got some additional attention, with stricter provisions added for U.S. companies doing business in China and the government bumping up the National Science Foundation’s budget by just over $1 billion for the next fiscal year, as POLITICO’s Brendan Bordelon reported.
Additionally, the Children and Media Research Advancement Act — or CAMRA — made it into the bill, which will require federal health agencies to track social media’s development on young people. In his installment of DFD’s The Future in 5 Questions feature, Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), a longtime champion of the bill, argued that “The least we could do is fund research into this harm and ensure that parents, teachers, and doctors understand how platforms and their black-box algorithms might impact youth mental health.”
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