The past year has seen countless headlines about how tech and retail behemoths are making enormous investments in the metaverse. But is the hype around the metaverse overblown? And what should federal agency leaders know now about it?
Yes, there is a lot of hype. But there is also real transformation afoot and federal leaders will be better prepared to position their agencies for the future if they understand the likely impacts of the many advances being made today. In fact, the impacts of this technological shift are already being felt, not only among commercial companies, but among many federal agencies as well.
First, let’s address the word metaverse. As most people use it today, the metaverse refers to what people think of as the next iteration of the Internet: a persistent, shared, three-dimensional virtual reality space where virtualized people, or avatars, can interact. But the truth is, right now a lot of early metaverses are being built with many different initial focuses and ideas for how to get it right. Some are for enterprises, some for consumers — each has different platforms, partners and technologies at its core.
We believe the metaverse experience isn’t confined only to digital domains. That’s why, in a new report we have just released, Federal Technology Vision 2022, we use the term “Metaverse Continuum” to underscore the idea that the metaverse is an evolving, expanding continuum covering multiple dimensions. For example, the Metaverse Continuum is comprised of multiple technologies, including extended reality, blockchain, artificial intelligence, digital twins, smart objects, 5G networks and edge computing. And it encompasses a broad range of experiences, from purely virtual to a blend of virtual and physical.
In short, this Metaverse Continuum is where the real meets the unreal, the physical meets the virtual, and the authentic meets the synthetic. It is a world that holds enormous possibilities because it is where so many of today’s emerging technologies are converging.
Early outposts and examples of this Metaverse Continuum are already in place, and more are proliferating with every passing day. Every federal agency will soon feel its sizable impact, more likely sooner than later. As these instances take root, we are seeing the foundations of our day-to-day work and personal lives — the Internet, virtual meetings, offices and factories, transactions, social and business interactions, and more — being re-imagined and created anew.
Let’s stop for a second and remind ourselves of what was happening three decades ago: The big advance was the World Wide Web. People then had trouble imagining it and how it could dramatically change the world and their lives. But that didn’t stop those changes from happening. Today, we accept things like the Internet, wireless smart phones, cloud computing, virtual reality and driverless cars as normal, and these technologies have dramatically changed the world as we know it and the way things get done. We should expect the same from the Metaverse Continuum.
As we mentioned, many federal agencies are already moving into this brave new world. Consider, for example, Air Force student pilots going through virtual aerial refueling or flying formation drills as they fly real planes. Or military engineers planning, designing and previewing new squadron support facilities with the use of a digital twin of their base. Or the U.S. Forest Service relying on AI and digital twin simulation technology operating in the metaverse to better understand wildfires and stop their spread. Or remote NASA engineers working collaboratively, side-by-side in a metaverse laboratory to generate complex computer-aided design drawings for future mission hardware.
These are just a few of many examples of federal agencies proactively thinking about today’s emerging capabilities in the Metaverse Continuum and getting an early start in leveraging those capabilities to advance their mission-critical objectives.
In our report, we adopt a broad view of the capabilities that fall within the Metaverse Continuum to include not only virtual reality and extended reality, but also programmable environments, synthetic data, and the novel array of highly advanced computing technologies coming over the horizon, such as quantum and bio compute.
The National Institutes of Health, for example, is using synthetic data technologies to help healthcare professionals and the drug research community better understand COVID-19 and develop treatments to stop or slow it. National security agencies are studying quantum computing to develop stronger methods of encrypting sensitive information. And researchers at the VA have developed a smart bandage that applies electrical stimulation to treat chronic wounds, known as pressure injuries, that are challenging to heal otherwise.
As these examples show, there are countless use cases for the Metaverse Continuum. But which ones do we expect will become the top federal agency use cases for these capabilities? Of course, it’s always dangerous to predict the future, but here’s where we see real transformation happening in the short term:
Training. Using the power of synthetic environments to conduct a wide array of training, coaching and education is sure to be a heavy use case for many federal agencies.
Data privacy and security. Synthetic data is already viewed by many federal health-related agencies as a critical capability to protect individual patient’s data, even as their health information is mined and leveraged by researchers and health policy analysts.
Collaboration. Expect to see the two-dimensional virtual meetings of today evolve into three-dimensional experiences that blend the real with the virtual, and then sprinkle in smart tools, to produce many new possibilities for getting work done that advances federal missions and business.
Design and engineering. The possibilities of using interactive digital twins to create everything from facilities and weapons systems to industrial technology architectures and healthcare devices are endless.
Maintenance and healthcare. Whether the task at hand is repairing equipment in a remote region or tending to veterans’ or warfighters’ medical issues, the Metaverse Continuum enables professionals to deliver complex care and services with the assistance of a smart, responsive and supportive environment.
This list could easily go on and on. But our key point is this: The seismic shift of the Metaverse Continuum is already happening and will become increasingly hard to ignore with time. Federal agency leaders must start thinking now about where these trends will take us, how they will impact their agencies, and how they might better understand and prepare for them now.
Chris Copeland is the chief technology officer and Kyle Michl is the chief innovation officer at Accenture Federal Services.