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Photo of Robert Brunner, the associate dean for innovation and chief disruption officer at the Gies College of Business at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, where he helped spearhead efforts to create iBlock, the first blockchain created by a business school.

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Robert Brunner is Associate Dean for Innovation and Director of Disruption at the Gies College of Business at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Brunner spoke with Phil Ciciora, News Bureau Business and Law Editor about the transformative potential of the Metaverse, an immersive 3D environment that seeks to blend the physical and online worlds.

What is the Metaverse and why is there so much hype around it?

It all depends on how you define the “metaverse”. There is no single accepted definition of metaverse, and in a way it depends on who you are talking to and what their motivation is.

For Mark Zuckerberg and Meta, the metaverse is this immersive virtual world, which almost replaces the real world. If you actually go back to the original meaning of the word, which was coined by science fiction writer Neal Stephenson in his 1992 book “Snow Crash”, it’s more of a secondary world, a virtual world, which matches what Zuckerberg thinks. . His motivation for pushing the Metaverse is that it represents a great opportunity to grow Meta and its user base – so much so that he has already invested tens of billions of dollars in it. That said, Zuckerberg’s version of the metaverse sounds fantastic to some people and downright scary to others.

Then you have a version of the metaverse that might look like something less invasive – more of an augmented reality approach, as opposed to a virtual reality headset, which would be fundamentally different. And yet, the two could be called a metaverse.

Essentially, the tech industry co-opted this word and created this range of possibilities. If Apple, Google, Microsoft, or some other company were to create a mixed reality headset that would become the next “must-have” device, it would have the potential to create mass-market appeal similar to what the iPhone did for consumers. smartphones. And if that’s the case, you’re going from a niche product to hundreds of millions of devices, which would be a game-changer in terms of building market share and getting people to build apps for it. this.

Is there a real use case for the metaverse for enterprises, or is it a case where Silicon Valley hype outweighs reality?

Just as video calling changed the life of the average office worker in 2020, the Metaverse has similar transformative potential. I think there are legitimate use cases in this space, from AR technology to a full-fledged metaverse, and in some cases we’re already starting to see some of those. We have surgeons training through virtual reality platforms, for example, and Walmart is using similar technology to train its floor workers. This makes sense because if you put 20 people in a conference room or on a video call, at least half the people aren’t paying attention. If you put someone in a virtual environment, they have no choice. They must interact with what they see. So it can be a very cost-effective way to provide consistent training or education on a large scale.

While it’s not as compelling as face-to-face human interaction, it’s cheaper, much more scalable, and more secure. For example, how do you handle a potentially hostile customer? It’s easier to do virtually than in real life. What happens if hazardous chemicals are spilled in a factory? Would the workers know how to react? Well, the immersive aspects of virtual reality offer a great way to train them to react to an otherwise dangerous situation.

One of the post-pandemic trends to watch is the reduction in business travel by companies. Travel is expensive right now, but having something like the Metaverse would allow someone to take virtual tours of factories or trading partners anywhere in the world. Think of it as a 3D Zoom tour. It won’t completely wipe out business travel, but maybe they can do in-person visits once a year and then they can meet people from the factory every week or every two weeks using this technology.

You could keep extrapolating and spinning these hypothetical other areas that the metaverse might change. Ultimately, it just illustrates that we are at a truly ripe time for disruption and transformation.

The metaverse or augmented reality could have distinct benefits, but aren’t they also a regulatory minefield in terms of crime, hate speech, harassment, and other potential landmines?

It will be like the social media learning curve again – and I bet companies don’t really think about it as much as they probably should, which is typical of new technologies.

For now, we have the saving grace that the metaverse is not part of our daily lives. But of course there are many potential pitfalls with this type of technology and you have to be careful. Similar to what we’re seeing unfolding right now on Twitter, I think we need to be sensitive to First Amendment rights in the metaverse. This is going to be a really tricky question – just like it is with our current technologies.

Should the metaverse be on the radar of major brands?

For most large corporations, this should be on their radar – or in the case of Coca-Cola and Nike, it already is. In the long run, though, I’d say the metaverse, augmented reality, virtual reality, advanced imagery – whatever you call it – is going to impact just about everyone. Whether it’s training your employees, meeting and interacting with employees or customers, or creating new experiences, there are so many different opportunities that companies won’t want to miss and will need to catch up. delay.

This is the kind of situation where companies are going to have to regularly stay on top of technology and keep tabs on what their competitors are doing in this space. That’s why we created the Disruption Lab at Gies, to explore these technologies and work with interested partners to ensure we are all better prepared to thrive in an increasingly disruptive world.

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