The Nike Dunk Genesis Cryptokicks sneakers look like a million bucks. Fortunately, you do not have to pay so much for a pair; you can get them for about $2,500, though a rare pair can go up to $80,000. However, you will not be able to wear them in this world. The Cryptokicks exist only in the virtual world, and they can be bought only as non-fungible tokens (NFT).
Nike is among the many companies that believe that metaverse is the future. While Big Tech has been investing heavily in building and expanding the virtual reality space, others—from your grocery seller to Wall Street investments banks—are vying for a share of the future pie. And this has opened up a huge business opportunity for the Indian IT sector. For instance, at the peak of the pandemic, a global telecom giant sought the help of Tata Consultancy Services, India’s largest IT company, to revive its dipping sales. TCS proposed a 3D virtual showroom for the telecom company’s products. Anyone could access it on a smartphone, and, with the help of web-based augmented reality, she could even hold mobile phone models in her hands before choosing one. It worked; the telecom company showed significant improvement in sales.
Infosys and Tech Mahindra, the second and fifth largest IT companies in the country, respectively, and a whole lot of startups are also gearing up to cash in on the opportunity. Research firm Gartner predicts that one in four people will be spending at least an hour a day in the metaverse by 2026. The market is predicted to reach $814 billion by 2028. Last year, nine of every ten global organisations invested in technologies to create virtual environments, and most of them are planning to invest further.
Meta, a Greek word, means ‘beyond’ and verse means ‘world’. But defining the metaverse is not as easy. Different platforms define it differently, but in the larger sense it is a convergence of virtually enhanced physical reality and enhanced virtual reality. “The metaverse functions as an equaliser between real and artificial life,” said Girish Linganna, director of ADD Engineering Components India. “One can build a virtual world and see the world in 3D using special glasses. In this artificially built world on the internet, one can work, play, converse, socialise, or do anything. One can place advertisements to promote business, hold business meetings, play virtual games. It is driven by augmented reality (AR), with each user controlling a character on the screen. This concept is not entirely new; it exists in virtual video games where multiple elements or characters from physical life are brought to online worlds. This is the nearest example of the metaverse as of now.”
TCS has been investing in immersive ecosystems since 2018 and it offers a range of products and solutions in extended reality (XR) in industries such as retail, BFSI and manufacturing. “The highlight of our work in metaverse is Avapresence, which is a novel convergence of physical and digital worlds,” said Dr Ashok Maharaj, head of TCS XR Lab in Siruseri, Chennai. “TCS Avapresence is helping organisations transform and disrupt how the physical world interacts with the digital. The platform is built on technology powered by TCS IP and its capabilities in cloud, blockchain, artificial intelligence and internet of things.”
The pandemic was a boost for the the company’s virtual reality business, especially in functions such as remote collaboration, troubleshooting, help and support. “We feel that sectors such as retail, education, media and real estate have been the first-movers in adopting the immersive ecosystem space. We expect that other domains like fashion, food and beverages, life sciences and health care, automobile, manufacturing and construction will start using metaverse technologies to improve delivery. Going forward, as technologies mature, the metaverse is likely to disrupt the BFSI industry,” said Maharaj.
Infosys’s metaverse foundry makes it easier for the customers of its clients to explore the metaverse. “The physical and virtual worlds are already smoothly and ubiquitously interwoven,” said Ravi Kumar S., president, Infosys. “The metaverse will deepen this overlap, and in experiential ways that will create abundant space for business innovation.”
Several businesses have benefited from the Infosys foundry. In 2021, it helped overhaul the shopping experience at the Australian Open by offering fans an ‘extended reality store’. Customers could buy tees, beach towels, caps and racquets in the virtual world, and then get them in the real world. Infosys also helped create the Australian Open 2021 Virtual Hub, a digital platform for business partners.
Similarly in Paris, Infosys did a virtual recreation of the Philippe-Chatrier, the main court of the French Open, at the Infosys fan zone. “During Roland-Garros, fans got a chance to experience the thrill of their digital avatars stepping into a virtual world where they could interact with other fans in their digital forms and engage using virtual objects,” said Stéphane Morel, deputy CEO, marketing business development, French Tennis Federation.
Tech Mahindra’s metaverse practice, TechMVerse, offers a combination of software and hardware that provides a three-dimensional visual experience. It is focused on solving business problems and driving monetisation across businesses. “We see a huge metaverse opportunity in India,” said Kunal Purohit, chief digital services officer, Tech Mahindra. “We already see kids meeting in the metaverse and enjoying birthday parties. Events by well-known artists are already streamed on the metaverse with people joining in droves. We anticipate industries such as gaming to take the lead in introducing the metaverse to the masses.”
There are many smaller Indian players in the metaverse as well. The ShortGun metaverse platform, initiated by Mumbai-based serial entrepreneur Jeet Chandan, targets young adults by offering gaming, shopping and investing opportunities. “We believe that India has the potential to build a platform that can serve as a model globally,” said Vidhit Mehta, co-founder of ShortGun. “We are working on this project in a phased manner. We are also in the development phase of our crypto shopping and banking platform. Over the next few years, as the metaverse becomes more unified, democratised and less fragmented, it will be the businesses that adapted the earliest that come out the strongest.”
The metaverse is still evolving; so are the opportunities it offers. “In the future, the metaverse would be something similar to our real world in many aspects and even replace some real-world activities,” said Abhay Aggarwal, founder and CEO of Colexion, an NFT marketplace. “The future metaverse will also contribute towards the growth of the virtual economy where no single entity or community will regulate the economy and where disruptions are almost nil.”
There are, however, plenty of challenges as well. “The road to build a complete metaverse solution may hit a number of challenges,” said Anushree Verma, director analyst at Gartner. “If it remains fragmented, the idea of a complete metaverse will never be achievable. Furthermore, as each company tries to build its own version of the metaverse, it will only have a chaotic and an indiscernible structure that will lack combinatorial benefits.”
There are many areas that can be tagged as part of the metaverse ecosystem, such as augmented reality, virtual reality, board support package (BSP) engineering, computer vision, unity 3D and blockchain. Data from Quess IT Staffing indicates that there has been an uptick in demand for engineers in skills related to the metaverse. From 2020-2021 to 2021-2022, demand increased exponentially for professionals with skills in blockchain (2,100 per cent), unity 3D (1,600 per cent), and board support package engineering (550 per cent). Other metaverse related skills such as Android, cloud, DevOps, embedded software, AR, VR, and computer vision also witnessed a surge in demand.
“To build the metaverse, we need to build its enablers—network, cloud, AI, computer vision, blockchain, robotics, IoT, user interfaces, extended reality—as well as the hardware requirements. Therefore, job opportunities in any of the mentioned technologies will see a boom,” said Vijay Sivaram, CEO, Quess IT Staffing. “Aspects such as the implementation of 5G, the global shortage of chips, the power of new processors, and other factors will also have an impact on scaling the metaverse.”
In the short term, low-hanging technologies like augmented reality, which have a presence in the market and readily available skilled talent, will now have a wider reach as the metaverse proliferates. “AR games will be plentiful and wearable tech like Google Glass will see higher utilisation across enterprises. As integration of AR with new metaverse platforms rises, the talent hiring pipeline will also witness a surge. More complex technologies that require sophisticated software and hardware will have a longer go-to-market duration,” said Sivaram.