South African businesses take tentative steps into metaverse

The next evolution of the Internet is emerging and, while expected to develop slowly in South Africa, the so-called metaverse could provide business with a new avenue of growth.

The metaverse is commonly described as shared, virtual three-dimensional (3D) worlds, representing the convergence of the physical and digital realms, and combining commerce and blockchain and cryptotechnology with virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR), along with artificial intelligence and other emerging advanced technologies.

It is the next technological leap in cyberspace, in how advanced technology is engaged and experienced by companies and individuals, increasingly through VR and AR, explains BCX Converged Communications managing executive Prashil Gareeb, adding that the term ‘metaverse’ was first used in author Neal Stephenson’s 1992 book, Snow Crash, to explain a next-generation virtual-reality-based Internet.

Gareeb believes this evolution holds untold potential for businesses, from virtual experiences, such as digital face-to-face learning and corporate training, to retail, which will be revolutionised, and the companies that get this right will be the next disruptors.

From the introduction of new technologies, such as AR and VR, into a business and its operations, and integrating them into current systems, companies need to start figuring out how to service clients as part of the metaverse.

As businesses become more reliant on the metaverse, they will need to partner with technology solutions companies which can bring together digital innovation, private fifth-generation (5G) networks, high-speed broadband, customer centricity and many other requirements under a single offering, Gareeb adds.

“Using the capabilities we have always had, but with more advanced technologies, BCX has enabled itself to become part of that integration,” he says.

BCX’s EXA division is undertaking various forms of digital product development, including linking enterprise use of AR and VR to the Digital Twin concept, while telecommunications services provider Telkom’s fibre and pre-5G network footprint already enables enterprises in sectors such as mines and healthcare to consider integrating VR and AR into daily operations. This will enable time savings in the supply chain and the monitoring of assets for security and health, besides others.

Gareeb highlights that hospitals and clinics can use their collaboration tools for virtual contact centres, to track patients and doctors and run virtual training, while mines and industrial clients, including those in the petroleum, logistics and manufacturing sectors, can connect their campuses, where information processed on the edge is shared to the cloud for storage, and real-time instructions can be autonomously shared for vehicle management or security alerts.

The applications are endless, from fitness sessions, educational platforms and virtual doctors – and even immersive one-on-one private psychology therapy sessions – to entertainment, exclusive content provision and workplace meeting places, or rooms, for employees, says Africarare cofounder and CEO Mic Mann.

“The convergence with blockchain technology and nonfungible tokens has allowed for true digital ownership and we are now at this inflection point where you can own something in digital format, where you can build and create economies and use it to thrive, delivering services or creating digital products,” he says.

“A lot of the opportunity [for the metaverse] lies in the challenges currently facing businesses and society at large. The possibilities for meaningful metaverse experiences are almost endless for the creation and monetisation of whatever digital goods and services translate into the world of the metaverse,” says Mann.

Gareeb agrees that there is a need to leverage the various platforms to solve real-world problems.

“We want to futureproof Africa,” continues Mann, noting that Africarare is an extension of that mission, where it can scale and create new types of jobs to uplift and empower and educate people.

Africarare is South Africa’s – and Africa’s – first virtual reality metaverse, launched in October 2021, with plans to commercialise the 3D VR experience set in Ubuntuland, a virtual world that “marries creativity, cryptocurrency and commerce”.

“Africarare will connect Africa to this booming arena of the global economy, stimulate growth and create multiple new jobs such as digital designers, creators and architects,” says Mann, adding that, with Africarare being built on collaborative partnerships, the possibilities for commercialisation are endless.

In February, South African companies, telecommunications giant MTN and advertising agency M&C Saatchi Abel, became among the first to acquire virtual land in Ubuntuland, which allows users to create, experience and monetise content and applications and provides a platform to showcase some of the best African art, fashion, entertainment, sport, technology and creativity, besides others.

Landholders in Ubuntuland will be able to customise their 3D land spaces, including hosting shops, producing resources, renting virtual services and developing games or other applications.

According to Ornico operations/analysis head Francois van Dyk, citing data from Report Linker, the global market for the metaverse was already estimated at $107.1- billion in 2020 and is projected to reach $758.6-billion by 2026.

Youknow marketing insights lead Ryan Brunyee says, in the Social Media Landscape study by Ornico and World Wide Worx, that there is general consensus that the metaverse will mostly benefit gaming, with almost 30% of South African Internet-connected consumers saying they use the Internet for gaming, as of the first quarter of this year.

Citing data from the study, which shows that 16.1% of adult South Africans say they have participated in a “virtual world” in the last year, World Wide Worx CEO Arthur Goldstuck says that most users do not think of it as the “metaverse” and that some respondents equate various in-game environments, such as Fortnite and Mimecast, with virtual worlds.

“There are a number of opportunities. Gaming already has tongues wagging. But clear topics like shopping, socialising and live events are clear opportunities in whatever the metaverse will look like,” Brunyee continues.

“We do virtually everything through our mobile screens now – shop, learn, socialise and more – and today we are taking it a step further with the metaverse. There will be a slow evolution. With the increase of user adoption, the metaverse will evolve into a complicated and possibly infinite world where our physical lives converge fully with the digital,” adds Ornico CEO Oresti Patricios, commenting in the latest South African Social Media Landscape 2022 study.

However, there is still no definitive understanding of what the metaverse is and what it should look like, he says, questioning whether South Africans are ready to hop on “the metaverse train”.

“Are we technologically developed to build a viable commercial landscape in the metaverse, or should we take it one step back? The answer is still not clear.”

Further, with the metaverse expected to play a fundamental role in the evolution of business, security and human interaction, there is a need for organisations and individuals to shape their approaches to security to ensure they are ready for what the metaverse will bring, says Nclose cofounder and business development director Stephen Osler in an opinion piece.

“Even though the metaverse is still in its infancy and more an idea than a usable reality, as it grows, there will be vulnerabilities and gaps in its structure that could potentially pose a threat to users and companies. If it gains traction, it is going to drive the use of technologies such as VR headsets, digital avatars, cyberproperty, NFTs, cryptocurrencies and smart devices. These are all vulnerable to attack and scam.

“Cybersecurity is going to have to adapt on demand, pivoting to meet unexpected risks that are only set to increase in veracity and velocity over the next few years. While there is no clear roadmap that points to precisely where the problems will be or where the barriers should go up, it is essential that everyone eyeing the metaverse keeps security at the forefront of their planning and engagements,” he concludes.

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