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My metaverse experiment

Facebook’s metaverse will be a “resounding failure”. This is according to Johannes Klingebiel from the innovation team at the Süddeutsche Zeitung, in a fascinating piece here on “next”. However, Klingebiel formulates the failure as speculation – as an antithesis to the assertion that the metaverse is bigger than the printing press and internet together. Both could happen: the quantum leap or a second “second life”. Virtual parallel worlds such as Decentralland and Sandbox are first and foremost big phantasies. There is still a lack of real substance. But I am still convinced about a future of 3D worlds. This is down to the added value that unnetworked metaverses are already providing today.

ERGO CDO Mark Klein (left) tests the 3D worlds of Decentralland or Sandbox with colleagues.

By Mark Klein, CDO ERGO Group

A year or so ago, we at ERGO Digital Ventures switched from two-dimensional remote meetings to three-dimensional. We use the “Arthur” software for conference calls, and do not start until everyone has put on their Oculus Quest 2 glasses and every avatar is connected. For all divisional unit heads, 3D conference calls are now part of everyday work. In fairness, I also need to say that we more or less forced ourselves to keep virtual meetings for at least one year – even if it sometimes jitters and slows us in terms of performance.

But we wanted to go beyond the “just test it” stage. We started out before the concept of a metaverse. We are all the more glad now that we have been able to gather experience over almost 14 months. In this article, I use a kind of glossary to give an account of this – from “I” for Immersion to “M” for Motion Sickness.

Why the metaverse is much more than a second life

But first to the metaverse and its potential. Colleagues at our VR Competence Center in Berlin have the licence to surf. With their avatars, they are regularly navigating through the 3D worlds of Decentralland and Sandbox. Recently they took me with them to a sales event held by a well-known electronics brand. However, almost the only ones, we found ourselves in front of the locked doors of the megastore. Just a single avatar next to us. We asked him why the store was closed. He replied that the next event will be held in two day’s time.

This is without doubt a new dimension. When surfing, meeting other visitors and hearing their original, human voices. Interacting with others about a virtual experience – or in our case a non-event. Movements were very fluid, without major delays. At the event two days later, a DJ was there and the place was full of avatars from every corner of the globe. A sports fashion manufacturer was offering T-shirts and sports leggings for us real people - and at the same time for our avatars.


Analogue or digital is passé. Both worlds are fusing together

This brings us to the decisive differentiation between metaverse and second life. The 3D universe of 2003 was a digital playground, one that analogue people visited every now and again. The metaverse 20 years on however could become a fixed part of our everyday lives. The delineation lines between digital and analogue are becoming increasingly interwoven. Our navigation will be hybrid more often as we switch between the worlds.

This intermeshing has been tangible for some time now. We at ERGO have for years been aligning ourselves towards hybrid customers. At every point of contact, experiences should be identical and networked with each other. Or take a look at how Generation Z is shopping. Physical stores continue to be important for this generation. But the extent to which the purchasing process itself is hybrid is extremely high. Once you have crossed the threshold into the store, the smartphone becomes a fixed part of the analogue-digital shopping experience.

You can also see how hybrid is becoming increasingly normal by watching how kids play games. Setting up their avatars almost takes longer than the game itself. The digital I’s that the kids create have long been unique. How is this generation going to be navigating through a metaverse? With big smiles on their faces, because they can bring to life digital I’s. When the metaverses interconnect at some point in time, we journey with this avatar right across the internet.

Metaverse for insurance? More than just virtual presence

Today, VR is still only for early adapters. Even though hardware prices are falling, an Oculus Quest 2 still costs between €400 and €500. Only a few have such models at home. But the numbers of users are rising and the hype surrounding the metaverse will accelerate the trend.

Since 2020, our VR Competence Center has been working on the industrial deployment of the technologies. My goal is for ERGO to be one of the first 3D insurance agents. In my judgement however, those thinking only in virtual spaces underestimate the added value. When we arrange to meet up with friends for virtual DJ sets, and when we shop in stores with cryptocurrency, trade NFTs and do business, values arise that could require more than a virtual store.

We need to be thinking in these dimensions. Those developing good ideas here could be part of the leading pack in the $8bn market (as forecasted by Morgen Stanley).

The VR sales training combines two worlds of discovery

We are already seeing today the added value of 3D applications. Together with the ERGO sales academy, our VR experts have drawn up sales training. Agents learn here how to hold discussions with customers. Conversations with different customer types are held. Virtual coaches are always present, who provide hints/tips and advise the agents.

The value-add is that we have packed two analogue worlds of discovery into one virtual one. Agents learn either at the customer directly in actual discussions – then coaches are rarely present. Or they take part in training with colleagues. According to our agents, the most difficult thing is simulating customer discussions authentically.

Both are in the glasses - customer discussions in the realistic living room set and training by / feedback from the virtual coach. They give rise to much improved learning effects.

Glossary for our meetings in the “Arthur” 3D space

The 3D meetings we can use today also generate value-add. Here is my glossary from 14 months of experience with “Arthur”.

“A” for avatar

Applications are becoming more and more realistic. When we started out, every avatar was wearing thick sunglasses. The software was not able to reproduce eyes in a way that approximates real people. The update came in April 2021 - from then on we could take off the glasses and immediately had eyes.

The next update came just two months later. When we spoke, our mouths stayed shut for some time. The update for our lips came in May. From then on, lip movement was synchronous with sentences spoke into the microphone. These are just two examples of major improvements in the immersive experiences in a short time.

“I” for Immersion

Using VR, I can arrange to go for a walk with a friend who lives far away on another continent. We can arrange Tower Bridge in London as the meeting point – or a hiking route in the Austrian Alps. This means immersing into the experience with all senses. This only works however when our brain accepts as cogent the experiences sensed.

A great deal is already possible here today. If I were to speak to you in the VR space for example, the pitch of my voice would change when I turn my back to you or walk through the room. Or imagine you are sitting in an open-plan office, it is a murky day. Now put on your glasses and walk along the beach in the Bahamas. The glare of the sun - you can feel the heat virtually. The physical office is quickly forgotten.

“C” for concentration

Meetings with VR are closer to attendee meetings on site than to remote events via Zoom or Teams. If I have a passive role in a Teams conference, I can do everything - such as answer emails and tap on the smartphone. Whatever I do, it’s as if I am there. Although I’m not. In VR meetings, you are completely immersed. There is no chance of doing something on the side. You are in the meeting with all your senses.

“A” for added value

Our ERGO conference room is massive. We can keep moving our meeting to other backdrops. With a controller in each hand, it is possible to navigate through the space, click your way through the menu or simply use one controller as a wrist watch. Zoning is also possible. If some attendees want to take a back seat during the meeting, they can open a zone in the middle of the space. They are in the zone, and are seen but no longer heard by the others.

“T” like technical stumbling blocks

If on average we attend meetings with VR glasses every two weeks, the starts only run smoothly on rare occasions. Either one of the eight batteries needs to be replaced. Or another update is required. Sometimes the experience is also somewhat pixelated. 3D requires enormous server capacities and rendering technologies.

They too will improve rapidly. The glasses will also be getting much smaller and compact, and perhaps will supersede the smartphone. If we busy ourselves with these in daily use, problems with updates and batteries are rendered redundant.

“M” for Motion Sickness

Our conference calls normally take 90 minutes to two hours. When I then take the glasses off, I am pretty drained. Two hours behind VR glasses are definitively more strenuous that two hours in “real” conditions.

This starts in the VR space – especially when users lack experience. Suddenly you are pinned up on the presentation screen – a few metres above the others. This alone can be enough to make you feel ill.

By the way, we are continuing with glasses. Originally we wanted to end it after a year. But we have long been having too much fun in 3D meetings.