Metaverse Trailblazers: Real Impact for a Virtual World
The metaverse is an emerging virtual playground where project teams are marrying VR and AR with blockchain technology and digital currencies to create immersive experiences. And while it’s nascent territory, there are serious—and skyrocketing—investments: According to McKinsey & Co., investors pumped US$120 billion into the metaverse in the first five months of 2022 alone—more than twice the amount spent in all of 2021. By the end of the decade, the value of the metaverse could reach US$5 trillion.
Companies are exploring the metaverse with a slew of initiatives—some bold, some building blocks—that tease radical possibilities for the future. In many cases, teams are building minimum viable products designed to help organizations plant their flag—a small first step into a world of unknowns. In April, Adidas tested the waters by unveiling a tool that generates custom Adidas-clad avatars capable of moving among different metaverse spaces. In June, U.S. home improvement retailer Lowe’s rolled out Open Builder, a library of virtual products that can be used to furnish spaces on metaverse platforms.
Financial services companies are turning to the metaverse to transform the customer experience. In February, JPMorgan Chase declared itself the first global bank to join the metaverse when project leaders created a virtual lounge called Onyx, complete with a spiral staircase and “live” roaming tiger. More recently, South Korea’s Kookmin Bank opened a virtual branch where customers can engage in one-on-one consultations. The company aims to use the space to train its employees and provide financial education to younger customers.
Project leaders are also reimagining the e-commerce experience, from virtual hands-on showrooms to VR-driven competitions. With a goal of turning virtual spaces into brick-and-mortar payoffs, Italy’s Benetton developed its first virtual store this year—and designed it to look like its all-pink flagship in Milan. Rather than buying clothes at the virtual space, visitors play games to accumulate QR codes. Those QR codes can be used to buy items in physical stores—part of the company’s goal to create “a circular relationship between the physical world and the metaverse.”
And in what could be a game-changer for construction projects, engineering, architecture and design firms are applying metaverse tools to build 3D models and prototypes that enable project partners to meet in a virtual environment, explore designs and make changes in real time.
Amid the flurry of early activity, organizations are aware that they need to get in the game or risk becoming metaverse laggards. For project leaders, this dynamic creates an opportunity to help organizations wrangle ideas and expectations for this emerging landscape. By identifying risks, resetting sponsor expectations, improving collaboration and elevating innovative thinking among teams, project professionals can turn metaverse aspiration into reality.
“A lot of companies want to be in the metaverse, but they are not quite sure about where or how to do it,” says Duygu Yatgin, head of production at augmented reality studio QReal in İzmir, Turkey. While many organizations have set aside funds to explore metaverse projects, most of the companies she speaks with are seeking direction and guidance.
For metaverse project leaders, the goal is to set realistic expectations among sponsors and seed a first-mover mindset among team members. Yatgin—who has collaborated with fashion brands like Balenciaga and Louis Vuitton—works hard from the start to get clients to define a scope that’s achievable. As a result, the project kickoff process can take up to a month as she walks stakeholders through tech limitations and requirements in an effort to level-set client ambitions.
During execution, she often runs into a separate challenge: negotiating with tech and design specialists on the team to put a project to bed instead of continuing to refine it.
“My teammates are also my stakeholders, and, needless to say, they are absolute perfectionists. Most of the time, they are like, ‘We can keep refining it.’ I need to remind them that, yes, I want them to deliver the most amazing outcome possible—but at the same time, we have a deadline. Sometimes we should remind ourselves what’s necessary and what’s urgent,” Yatgin says.
Metaverse initiatives also require project leaders to forge a collaborative mindset across teams working on disparate tasks and push them to master new ways of working. London’s Zaha Hadid Architects encourages frequent back and forth between teams to accelerate delivery, says Shajay Bhooshan, an associate director at the firm and head of the company’s computation and design.
For instance, coding teams craft specialized tools that other teams use to create shapes and building blocks—then other teams assemble those building blocks into playable, metaverse-ready experiences. The sprint-based development process “is deeply collaborative,” Bhooshan says.
“The people who write code have to write it fast enough so that it matches the speed of somebody creating shapes in an artistic way,” he adds. “It's a bit like jazz music. It keeps everybody on their toes.”
But project managers need to summon more than power skills on metaverse projects. They also need to have a firm understanding of the tech that drives metaverse initiatives. That means reading up on those technologies and carving out time for conversations with tech specialists so that they better understand the needs of those team members.
“You want to build something that people continue to come back for,” says Andrew Kiguel, co-founder and CEO of Tokens.com, a Toronto fintech company that helps companies establish metaverse spaces. “For project leaders, it really is similar to the onset of the internet—having a bit of the technical know-how, along with a bunch of creativity to see what can be done.”
In the exploration phase of the metaverse, project leaders also need to rethink how they define ROI. Such projects won’t directly or immediately boost a company’s bottom line—rather, the experiences they deliver are designed to create brand awareness or introduce existing customers to new experiences, Kiguel says. When he plans projects with clients, he emphasizes how the metaverse can help tease new products or “advertise and educate consumers about who they are, what they represent and why people should care who they are,” he says.
During metaverse platform Decentraland’s first Metaverse Fashion Week in March 2022, Tokens.com and its subsidiary Metaverse Group helped U.S. fashion retailer Forever 21 create a virtual storefront with avatars of the store’s sales associates and NFT wearables inspired by real-life merchandise. Yet measuring success had nothing to do with revenues—just visits. The metaverse store attracted 6,500 visitors over three days (including 800 visitors at once one of the days)—and each visitor spent an average of 27 minutes in the experience, Kiguel says.
“Metaverse is event-driven, and a lot of people show up when there’s something going on,” he says. “It’s a good way to engage people and it’s more immersive than just going to the website where they can see various things.”
When managing up on metaverse projects, it’s important for project leaders to show stakeholders a future-focused vision—one that reveals the value of developing a metaverse presence now in order to reap larger benefits down the road.
For organizations that are just getting started in the metaverse, Kiguel spells out a long-term plan for ROI: “Forget about the revenue you might make,” he says. “If you don’t do this, no one is going to know who you are in five years because this new generation that’s playing and socializing in the metaverse is going to get used to the brands that are there already.”
A New Project Dimension
The metaverse is delivering real-world project benefits, too. Project teams, particularly in architecture and engineering, are building metaverse replicas of construction project interiors and exteriors, then giving stakeholders VR/AR tours so they can get a real feel for designs and provide feedback before construction begins.
“They can just virtually walk into the space and say, ‘Make this living room bigger,’” says Hanine Salman, a metaverse architect at Dewan Architects and Engineers, Dubai.
Some programs even provide stakeholders behind-the-walls access so they can assess the location of plumbing and electricity. Documenting change requests through metaverse reviews helps to accelerate the design process, mitigate risks and maximize value long before shovels hit the ground.
Salman says such applications can “bridge the gap between the physical and the virtual world by creating spaces that people can test out for a month and see if they can really live in this space so we can build it in real life.”
In the years ahead the metaverse will stretch project teams across all industries to reimagine what’s possible. Just as organizations planted their flag on the World Wide Web decades ago, then continued to evolve their websites over time, they will look to do the same with their virtual spaces. In other words, project leaders will need to stay ahead of the metaverse curve to ensure teams continue to deliver new and unique experiences.
“This is not even the tip of the iceberg,” Bhooshan says. “We’re just at the start of a tremendous change—and, we believe, a tremendous opportunity.”
Image credit: Emre Cetin