January 24, 2023 By IBM Consulting 4 min read

Building customer experiences for the metaverse isn’t about the headset, it’s about the mindset

As a specialist in spatial computing and extended reality (XR), Jeffrey Castellano helps clients and partners separate hype from the real-world value in this ecosystem of emerging technologies known as the metaverse. For him, the focus should never be on virtual reality (VR) headsets but on improving customer experiences.

Focusing on technology alone can leave the mistaken impression that businesses can’t really start building until a definitive metaverse platform emerges. Castellano see the metaverse evolving, just as the internet evolved. The internet isn’t a technology. It uses a lot of technology, but it’s just a conceptual framework for connecting information. The metaverse is the same—it’s about the connection points. This distinction is important: it doesn’t matter whether a hardware manufacturer releases a headset, or a technology platform goes crashing into flames—the cultural drivers are why companies are here, trying to find opportunity while they can. We’re here to openly facilitate improve customer experiences through the lens of a cultural and paradigm shift.

Castellano says a technology focus can lead people to build for the metaverse backward—like “starting in the end zone.” Instead, Castellano recommends designing for the customer experiences you already have. “Look for opportunities to add to things that already exist—to make existing experiences better by adding metaverse-like features.” That could be anything from creating avatars in meeting software for more lifelike collaborations to building a digital twin of a jet engine so engineers can troubleshoot problems without being there in real life.

In the context of designing these better user experiences, haptics and augmented reality (AR) glasses are just a few tools among many. The metaverse is an evolving collection of technologies that immerse users in a real-time social network of commerce-connected 3D spaces. That can include virtual reality—characterized by persistent virtual worlds that continue to exist even when you’re not there—as well as augmented reality, which combines aspects of digital worlds and physical worlds. But virtual spaces like the ones accessible in online multiplayer video games such as Fortnite can be played on existing PCs, game consoles and phones. These count as part of the metaverse too—which is why organizations don’t have to wait to start building.

Researchers at Gartner expect that by 2026 one-quarter of us will spend at least one hour in a metaverse to work, play or learn every day. With such a vast potential customer pool—J.P. Morgan envisions a metaverse market opportunity of over USD 1 trillion—enterprises can’t wait for some great platform shakeout to start making their metaverse ambitions real. Building toward the metaverse in incremental steps makes the investment much less risky. Each step will generate return on investment—so much so, Castellano says, that “the end goal will start paying for itself.”

Here are five action steps businesses can take to create next-generation customer experiences that evolve alongside the metaverse itself.

1. Define your metaverse

There is no silver bullet solution that will unlock the metaverse. Every organization needs to develop an approach and experiences that are informed by its own needs and goals—be it enabling 3D try-before-you-buy options or virtual lounges where consumers can interact—so that those experiences make sense for its customers and employees. The metaverse implementations will look, sound and feel very different for a retailer versus a bank versus a manufacturer. Working to define your metaverse, sometimes called a microverse (think internet compared to intranet) will keep you focused and ensure a strategically sound approach. Success really depends on “knowing what your people are asking for,” Castellano says. This report from the IBM Institute for Business Value provides examples of how enterprises are approaching this strategy.

2. Map the user experience

From 3D interactions to spatial computing, virtual world-building to identity management, the options for creating immersive experiences are vast. Organizations building for the metaverse must think of themselves as orchestrators of their customers’ experience. Start by mapping potential customer journeys in the metaverse against the use cases that are already working for your customer base to develop digital assets and metaverse experiences that flow organically from existing paths.

3. Architect your infrastructure

For enterprises, the operative term guiding metaverse development should be “horizontal enablement.” Your metaverse can’t be an experience that functions in isolation. You need to architect your infrastructure so your existing technology can extend into your emerging metaverse, buttressing a unified back end to enable ever-more diverse experiences on the front end. As Castellano says, “We’d rather build experiences that you can own, that fit into your ecosystem and existing APIs, enhancing key moments with metaverse moments for the audience you have at hand.”

4. Prepare your people

To extend your digital customer experiences into the third dimension, your teams need to be equipped to work in that environment. As you build your technological capacity, it is also time to ensure your people are developing the capacity to support and operate in these digital worlds and social platforms. From production workflows, blockchain technology and the interoperability of systems to managing virtual storefronts, cryptocurrency and non-fungible tokens (NFTs), data skills training empowers teams to develop specialization tools as a competitive differentiator.

5. Secure the virtual perimeter

New worlds bring new opportunities for malware, identity theft and other data threats. As more customers flock to the metaverse, brands are struggling with security and identity around avatars, portals, access and digital currencies, including crypto. For the 12th year in a row, the United States holds the title for the highest cost of a single data breach at USD 9.44 million—more than USD 5 million greater than the global average. If you aren’t integrating smart identity, advanced cryptography and access management tools into experiences within the metaverse, you risk not just data breaches but the erosion of customer loyalty. And you want those consumers to stick around long enough to experience the promise of the metaverse you’re starting to build.

The prospect of taking bold steps into the metaverse can feel daunting when so much uncertainty remains about how everyday users will connect with it. But the same was true in the early days of the web, social media and mobile technology. The common thread running through all those moments of dramatic technological change? Those who waited to see how things shook out were inevitably left behind. The metaverse is still in its discovery stage— which is just the right time to embark on the voyage. “We’re not talking about some sci-fi future,” Castellano says. “We’re talking about now.”

Learn more about the IBM Consulting services to support your metaverse journey

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