Pro AV’s place in the metaverse

The metaverse is shaping up to be the next big thing, but what exactly is it? As Tim Kridel found, pro AV already provides a lot of the foundational technologies.

In the 1990s, analysts and investors often asked companies, “What’s your internet strategy?” A decade later, they asked, “What’s your mobile strategy?” Today, they’re starting to ask, “What’s your metaverse strategy?” That’s a tough one to answer because the concept is as nebulous as it is nascent.

“Media headlines tout any extended reality (XR) experience as ‘the metaverse,’ but it’s misleading,” Forrester said in a March 2022 report. “The metaverse doesn’t exist today; only a few precursors do. And we’re years away from the actualisation of the internet’s 3D layer of interoperable and interlinked immersive environments.”

Even so, it’s not too early to ponder where pro AV fits into the metaverse. In fact, some say it’s already there to a large extent, enabling use cases that will be enhanced as new technologies arrive.

“At its basic elements, the metaverse is a third place where a virtual representation of who we are meet together and share an experience,” says Brad Sousa, AVI Systems CTO. “From this perspective, the metaverse has been around for decades, and videoconferencing is the most widely adopted metaverse application: a virtual representation of us in the form of video, meeting together in a third place like a cloud service or video MCU. 


“What makes the metaverse different from videoconferencing is the amount of investment and energy big tech companies are placing on developing the metaverse. This has moved the metaverse from a fringe, technical gadget, to a mainstream conversation and part of a social connection. The core concepts are not new, but then what really is?”

Jeff Norton takes a similar view, one coloured by spending the past decade writing a series of novels called Metawars and then enduring the pandemic.

“One thing I've observed over the last couple of years, [and] very much ushered in by the pandemic, has been that we're very much in a sort of 2D metaverse right now — kind of an on ramp to the metaverse in terms of its more immersive and more interactive potential,” he says.

Like most students around the world, Norton’s two sons shifted to virtual classrooms. Some of their classmates moved away to Australia, India and the US, but without changing schools.

“The fact that people can come together virtually in a space that's not real and have a shared experience, to me that is the sort of beginning steps of the metaverse,” Norton says. “I often said at the onset of the pandemic, ‘Thank God it's not 1996 when this was happening,’ because the technology exists to be able to keep people together and kind of have that connective tissue. For me, that's sort of the building blocks of the metaverse.”


Finding the business case

Some AV pros say that for now, the metaverse market is limited to specialist applications and verticals such as science, medical research and oil/gas exploration.

“Our work is largely commercial workplaces, and we are struggling to get these up to scratch to deal with the hybrid workplace,” says one UK consultant and project manager, speaking privately. “Most meeting suites and VC set-ups are not fit for purpose now, and organisations seem to be struggling even to adapt to this.”

Ericsson is an example of why and how the metaverse is being used today for some of those specialist applications. The telecom vendor uses Nvidia’s Omniverse Enterprise solution to create virtual worlds such as a city’s downtown so it can visualise — and thus better understand — how cellular signals propagate around buildings, foliage and moving obstructions such as buses.

Omniverse Enterprise provides Ericsson with a platform for creating and then collaborating in those virtual spaces, also known as “digital twins.” Ericsson then feeds in multiple sources of data, such as its own radio simulation models developed over the years, as well as third-party polygon maps. The company’s engineers currently view the output on 2D displays because they’re still focused on mastering the tools and refining their models. But in the future, they could use 3D VR headsets.

The business case centres on using the metaverse to ferret out coverage holes and other problems. These would be expensive and time-consuming to find and fix if the analysis were done entirely in the real world after the network is built — potentially delaying its launch.

A BMW factory built in Nvidia Omniverse Enterprise allows the automotive manufacturer to continually improve operations with simulations in the virtual environment.

“We have taken leaps here in terms of visualisation power,” says Håkan Olofsson, Ericsson head of new concepts at development area networks. “We can actually show very graphically what's going on in the in the network. It allows us to reduce drive testing and [find] errors that we would otherwise detect very late in the process.”

Ericsson’s use of its homegrown radio simulation models and off-the-shelf polygon maps also highlights the wide variety of data sources that enterprises can use to build their metaverses. So part of the opportunity for AV firms is finding the tools, processes and partners — such as IT integrators — necessary to get that data into the platforms used to create metaverses.

“Virtual worlds and digital twin simulations will require multiple data stream inputs: from the physical world and from artificial intelligence (AI) agents operating in the virtual worlds,” says Jeff Kember, director of the Omniverse Technical Evangelist Team. “These data streams will come from internet of things (IoT) devices, sensor models, human and robot interaction, environmental data, CAD or 3D design tool ecosystems, physics simulators and industrial automation tools. We built Omniverse on open-sourced standards to be modular and easily extensible for this reason.”


Productivity and camaraderie in a parallel universe

Ericsson also is an example of how the metaverse can be used for general enterprise use cases such as meetings and workshops. The company began exploring those applications to foster collaboration and camaraderie after the pandemic disrupted traditional workstyles.

“We decided to equip a couple of different work groups with VR headsets,” says Michael Björn, head of research agenda and quality at consumer and IndustryLab. “You go into a virtual workspace where you can have things like a whiteboard, draw things, have conversations. You can add breakout sessions and so on. We studied these people as they were using these devices for work, and it was quite interesting to see what the benefits and drawbacks were.”

For example, a virtual room proved to be a more socially engaging environment for brainstorming workshops than viewing everyone lined up on a screen. Attendees could write on whiteboards, while their avatars provided valuable body language cues that didn’t come through with traditional talking heads on flat screens.

“People were saying the feeling of presence was there,” Björn says. “They were surprised at how the energy level stayed high throughout the whole thing. If you do it on a flat screen, it's a bit difficult to keep your attention all the time. But when you're doing that in virtual reality, you keep the energy going.

"Imagine the difference of hosting a product demonstration on Zoom and then hosting it in the metaverse where I might be able to walk around the product, feel it and interact with it." - Brad Sousa, AVI Systems

“[With] spatial audio, it becomes a natural discussion environment, as well, and that actually enhances brainstorming. The use of spatial audio really helps to allow a discussion where several people can talk at the same time since it is easier to make out individual voices compared to when using, for example, Teams.”

Ericsson also uses the metaverse for team-building exercises such as paintball and Frisbee games.

“That proved to be very good because we had some people who were new to the company during the pandemic who no one had met physically,” Björn says. “Doing these sorts of physical activities was extremely popular.”


Who wants to work in the metaverse?

Surveys show that metaverse has not only entered the mainstream lexicon, but already has a positive perception. For example, a November 2021 Vitreous World survey conducted on behalf of remote-work specialist Owl Labs found that 54% of UK workers believe that the metaverse will have a positive impact on hybrid work, while 47% want an office metaverse.

One reason is the aforementioned employer struggle to support traditional video collaboration, which has employees wanting better.

“The growing adoption of flexible and hybrid work is driving the need for more immersive technologies,” says Frank Weishaupt, Owl Labs CEO. “Over a third of UK employees believe that the metaverse has the potential to increase collaboration and creativity by facilitating seamless social interactions which are more engaging for those working remotely.

“Employers can start making changes to their tech stack now that will lead us closer to the metaverse and make our hybrid experiences far better, right now. Immersive technology is clearly the future, with over half of the population wanting better videoconferencing technologies.”

The desire for better collaboration experiences isn’t a new phenomenon.

“The opportunity set that has been highlighted for quite some time and amplified during the pandemic, was how few conference rooms had been equipped with effective videoconferencing solutions,” says Sean Wargo, AVIXA senior director of market intelligence. “You could view that as an opportunity to go to a higher level: ‘What if we just bypass that and went right to a more virtual option?’ 

“A factor that might drive companies to that is still this open question of returning to the office. A lot of companies are still trying to figure that out. How do we come back to in-person? Is it desirable? And if not, what? What do we do to help facilitate collaboration? Are Teams and Zoom enough in [their] current iteration? So I think while we're still in a state of flux, there'll be a lot of experimentation, meaning at the end of the day, all of this is opportunity.”

Some of that opportunity will be outside of the workplace, such as enabling consumers to try products that currently require trekking to a store or showroom.

“Today’s virtual meetings are essentially limited to 2D sight and special audio for sound. That’s it,” says AVI’s Sousa. “We are watching tech start-ups attempt to address a richer sensory engagement. We are seeing 3D visualisation with real-time video and the use of emerging technologies to transfer a sense of touch when meeting in the metaverse.

“Imagine the difference of hosting a product demonstration on Zoom and then hosting it in the metaverse where I might be able to walk around the product, feel it and interact with it. Simulation has explored many of these sensory engagements, but the metaverse is working to democratise these technologies and make them available at the desk and living room.”


The future is already here . . . somewhat

Many integrators, consultants and vendors already offer tools for creating and viewing AR and VR environments, such as headsets and CAVEs. That’s one example of how pro AV can capitalise on the emerging metaverse market. Additional opportunities will arise as IT and AV vendors add features to existing products to make them a better fit for metaverse use cases.

“When you have a Teams meeting, this is a place where you have no presence and agency,” says Michel Buchner, founder of EvoCreate, which specialises in experience design for museums, retail, events and other public spaces. “You can interact verbally and non-verbally, but you have no agency, and you don’t feel present. It’s an extension of television.

"As a school, we have not decided on a brand of VR head-mounted display (HMD) since offered enterprise solutions are still diffuse. And nobody has cracked a well-working, transparent solution for managing large numbers of HMDs and accounts." - Michel Buchner, EvoCreate

“But if Microsoft decides to incorporate Alt-Space VR in Teams — a VR platform which they have acquired — then you could speak of a virtual reality. You have presence and agency; you can walk around and interact with someone of your choosing. When these meeting spaces are persistent, so the company has a virtual meeting room where you come together, you could speak of the metaverse.”

Education is another potential near-term opportunity.

“I like the development of bringing a 3D device, like ClassVR, to an actual classroom that you can remotely control as a teacher on the dashboard in 2D to make people watch content in 3D to faster understand subjects,” says Nick Van Breda, a consultant who specialises in AR and VR. “I like the development even more when teaching is done on the spot using AR, with HoloLenses being shipped to ASML [semiconductor] factories.”

LightField Studios/

But as with many emerging marketplaces, there’s the challenge of integrating hardware and software from multiple vendors without industry standards. Buchner is wrestling with this at Edith Stein College in The Hague, where he’s developing an IT and Digital Awareness track, including a new classroom with an NDI network to stream content to its 34 PC screens and four large displays.

“Here is the problem: As a school, we have not decided on a brand of VR head-mounted display (HMD) since offered enterprise solutions are still diffuse,” Buchner says. “If you opt for Oculus’ ‘business’ solution, you can’t have access to the consumer content store where all the educational gems are to be found. When Facebook changed to Meta, they announced that Oculus for Business will be changed. Into what that will be, nobody knows — not even my account manager from Facebook.

“HTC is equally hard to get info on. And nobody has cracked a well-working, transparent solution for managing large numbers of HMDs and accounts.”

For some organisations, another challenge will be meeting demand, especially if their workforce mirrors the 47% in the Owl Labs survey who want an office metaverse.

“It seems like the biggest challenge with that is scalability,” says AVIXA’s Wargo. “If you're trying to do that en masse for an organisation, the average enterprise is probably not financially equipped to be able to do that degree of ‘Let's make every employee an avatar and equip each person with a VR headset so they can log in from home.’ But that's also ignoring what we know to be true of technology: Over time, things become more and more affordable. They become miniaturised. So that opens up possibilities down the road.”


What’s ahead

There are additional use cases and business cases that require new technologies, some of which are still on drawing boards and others that are just hitting the market.

“Recently, we introduced Nvidia OVX, a computing system purpose-built for enterprises to build and operate large-scale digital twins, and announced Nvidia Earth-2, a supercomputing system to build a digital twin of the planet for climate research,” Kember says. “Developing and operating factory-scale, city-scale and planetary-scale digital twin simulations require a new computing architecture: software and hardware that operate multiple autonomous systems at precise time in the same space-time. These initiatives will power this new class of digital twin, ushering in a new era of AI, scientific discovery and innovation.”

Meanwhile, equally buzzworthy concepts such as blockchain, non-fungible tokens (NFT) and Web3 also will shape the metaverse.

“Any one of these elements is a game changer,” says AVI’s Sousa. “Add them together and big changes happen so fast that even so-called experts are left behind. We are at the front end of this thing, so be prepared to learn, learn and learn some more.”

Top image credit: naratrip/

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