B.C. businesses buy in to metaverse market

Business realities meet virtual realities

Dimitri Otis/Photodisc/Getty Images

“Over time, I hope that we are seen as a metaverse company, and I want to anchor our work and our identity on what we’re building towards,” Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg declared late last month at a virtual conference in which a digital avatar of the tech exec was showcased in a skeleton costume.

Amid severe blowback from whistleblower leaks and heightened pressure for regulation, the social media giant has slid into a new skin of its own to rebrand itself as Meta Platforms Inc. (Nasdaq:FB).

The rebrand brought mainstream attention to a concept already being deployed within the tech sector for years. And while giants like Meta Platforms are all in on the metaverse, the path to adoption for the B.C. business community appears more jagged.

The metaverse refers to an evolution of the internet, whereby immersive digital worlds take the place of staring at 2D screens for everyday interactions such as shopping or hanging out with friends. Don a pair of VR goggles or hold up a smartphone to one’s eye-line and users can chat with their real estate agent in real time while touring a digital twin of a home on the market.

“Vancouver, actually, I would say is ahead of the curve when it comes to being part of the industry,” said Matt Burns, founder and chief innovation officer of BentoHR, who last year organized the Global HR Summit that saw all 60 speakers don Oculus Quest headsets to engage with audiences in an artificially rendered environment.

While the VR/AR Association’s Vancouver chapter estimates the city is the world’s second-largest VR hub with about 200 firms based here, Burns said “we’re a little bit slower to adopt technological changes than markets like Toronto or New York or San Francisco. But I think that’s going to shift because we have such a strong presence of the technology here, which is rare in the worldwide landscape.”

Despite adoption being potentially slower on the West Coast, Vancouver’s historical mix of gaming, visual effects and animation studios means the city will be among the global leaders for developing applications.

Burns said there are still notable barriers to entry for businesses getting on board with the metaverse, such as the perceived high cost of the hardware involved.

A top-of-the-line headset such as Meta Platforms’ Oculus Quest 2 goes for US$300. But corporate giants like Walmart Inc. (NYSE:WMT) and Amazon.com Inc. (Nasdaq:AMNZ) are forking up the capital to invest in training workers in artificial worlds rather than in person.

“It’s going to take some time for SMBs to wrap their heads around it, but inside of three years, I would say a significant portion of organizations are going to have some abilities,” Burns said.

Meanwhile, there are low-barrier opportunities for people to dip their toes into the metaverse’s virtual worlds.

Attendees at Burns’ Global HR Summit had the option of putting on their own headgear to watch speakers, who appeared as cartoon-like avatars they created for themselves, or attendees could plug in using the less-immersive environment of a 2D computer monitor. Ultimately, about 25% of the 800-plus attendees opted for the VR environment, while the remainder watched the 2D livestream.

Meanwhile, b2b applications developed in B.C. had been ramping up long before the Meta Platforms rebrand.

TimberOps, a collaboration between VR studio Llamazoo Interactive Inc. and FPInnovations, has developed a platform that can sub in for expensive field trips for silviculture, harvesting and transportation planning through a process known as digital twinning.

Vancouver-based PrecisionOS has been developing VR training simulations for surgeons, while Surrey-based Conquer Experience Inc. sells its VR training products mostly to hospitals.

Last year, Finger Food Advanced Technology Group was acquired by Unity Technologies in the latter’s efforts to expand beyond gaming.

The Port Coquitlam company, best known for developing enterprise-focused applications for augmented reality headsets, was absorbed into Unity Industrial – a division focused on enterprise services in the realm of real-time 3D (RT3D) content.

And Vancouver-based Virtro Entertainment Inc. has been teaming up with Simon Fraser University’s School of Interactive Arts and Technology (SIAT) to develop simulations for health-care workers donning personal protective equipment in long-term care facilities.

The simulations feature “virtual humans” that have been programmed using artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning to hold lifelike conversations with trainees.

Steve DiPaola, a SIAT professor who specializes in VR and AI, said such advances in virtual reality are injecting some humanity into the way people engage with technology, especially as workers become more isolated while working from home.

His research and oversight of SIAT’s iVizLab includes computer modelling of human expressions and emotion-gesture tracking.

“We have an avatar system that’s able to see if you were there,” DiPaola told BIV last year.

“[It] would see the emotions on your face, it would try and use those emotions within what you’re saying and then be emotive itself.”

Meanwhile, Themis Solutions Inc. (Clio) CEO Jack Newton said that while he found Zuckerberg’s presentation to be an “exciting and ambitious vision” for the metaverse, the business applications far outweigh the entertainment value Zuckerberg focused on.

“The concept of the metaverse, and augmented reality and virtual reality potentially [represents] a really important change and [bridges] that gap that I think all of us are feeling between in-person and a Zoom-based interaction model,” said Newtown, whose Burnaby-based legal-tech firm hit a US$1.6 billion valuation earlier this year. •