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How Indian startups are powering the metaverse

The scenario may appear strange and chaotic to an outsider. But those inside the room mean business.

Unlike a passive instruction video, or even a 2D simulation that is limited to a single user, this team has immersed itself in a three-dimensional (3D) virtual room filled with equipment and other sub-sea gear that is a digital replica of the real-world scenario. Their eyeglasses are powered by virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) technologies and they are present in the virtual room as 3D avatars.

RIL is running this metaverse pilot wherein it is using VR, AR, mixed reality (MR) and other software and hardware to create a digital twin to replicate the performance of the sub-sea environment on a virtual platform. These technologies help create 3D walk-throughs of real-world locations, including oil and gas assets, and allow employees to learn from each other and also train others. The entire exercise is aimed at helping RIL mitigate risks and reduce costs associated with implementing new processes in oil and gas operations.

While VR is all about a world created solely inside computers or online, AR still deals with the real world and has elements of the virtual world built atop it, akin to layers of information. Mixed reality or MR, as the name suggests, mixes both realities in a bid to capture the best of both worlds. MR is what powers the metaverse to a very great extent.

“It’s a metaverse for enterprises,” insists Hemanth Satyanarayana, founder and CEO of Chennai-headquartered mixed reality company Imaginate, a startup that is providing RIL the software to enable its metaverse. “The employees can go in groups for training. The machines, too, can be upgraded or replaced in this metaverse,” he explains, adding that the metaverse can allow existing and new employees to be trained on new machines quickly, safely, and at lower costs.

In this metaverse, the team members can even connect with an instructor by dialling-in, following which the instructor can appear as a 3D hologram, according to Satyanarayana. “Our technology can be used for town halls and workshops too. We also have a ‘Game’ mode, which allows trainers to click on a button and make the engagement fun,” he adds.

Made in India

Imaginate uses a software combination—Atom and Assist— to make the metaverse a reality for enterprises like RIL. Atom, explains Satyanarayana, can be used to connect geographically-dispersed teams with each other inside virtual classrooms using interactive and gamified 3D content from any device. Companies can use Atom, for instance, to build their own salesroom and sell virtually to customers anywhere in the world; or as a virtual ground workforce training module at airports using VR; or to enable a virtual branch visit to the branch of a bank or insurance company.

Assist helps employees with digital instructions through text, pictures, videos, and 3D models, using smart glasses or smartphones for maintenance, repair and inspection tasks. It provides access to performance panels and real-time analytics. For instance, Imaginate will soon be partnering with HDFC Life to create a 3D meeting platform.

Imaginate is not the lone metaverse in India. Bengaluru-based NextMeet is “an avatar-based immersive metaverse platform that enables remote working, collaboration, meetings, and networking for business, education and events,” according to Pushpak Kypuram, the startup’s founder-director. The idea is to “eliminate isolation and UI (user interface) fatigue associated with remote working. We have incorporated interactive environments, spatial audio and 3D avatars to facilitate greater user-user as well as user-UI engagement,” he explains.

Kypuram of NextMeet puts it thus: “The metaverse is about (enabling) collaborative 3D environments via the internet, (which are) created to increase user engagements through immersive experiences. The pandemic has created a need for remote working across India and with the rising logistics and transportation costs, India is now more open to the concept of meeting and doing business virtually. So, the metaverse will be a perfect enabler to such a growing market.”

NextMeet, according to Kypuram, will initially launch a software-as-a-service (SaaS) with a monthly subscription model for users and companies. “Our future versions will have offerings for enterprises and a marketplace to enable businesses to advertise, generate leads and transact on (the) go,” he adds.

Similarly, Mumbai-based VR startup Tesseract, in which Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Jio has a majority stake, is also promising a mixed reality future with its Jio Glass, Quark camera, Holoboard headset, and Jio Fiber. It is promising applications for both consumers and enterprises. For instance, you could watch a football match on a VR headset that streams the match live and projects interesting stats on the fly with the help of augmented reality (AR).

New Delhi-based XR Central (XRC), co-founded by Anshul Agarwal, which calls itself an extended reality-based products solutions company, even managed to raise a seed round of $135,000 from Netprophets Cyberworks earlier this month. The company’s technology platform called CUBE helps its clients create immersive collaborative virtual spaces such as experience centres, museums, virtual retail stores, and gaming engines. Amitabh Vira, CEO of Netprophets Cyberworks, believes “this investment will accelerate the development of a fantastic India-made global metaverse platform that XRC is building”.

The metaverse is also as much about individuals as it is for companies. Plutoverse, an avatar technology company, for instance, has created a virtual avatar for adults called DeerDost, who made his Instagram debut as @DeerDost and will be seen in India’s first adult animated web series. As of now, though, DeerDost has just about 2,000 followers.

Going forward, Plutoverse aims to create more virtual avatars, virtual versions of icons from Bollywood and sports, virtual worlds and so on. The company says it will soon introduce various touch points for the virtual avatars, such as non-fungible tokens (NFTs), digital goods, animated shows, and virtual concerts.

With so much buzz, the metaverse is expected to make a lot of money for individuals and companies. The global metaverse market size touched $47.69 billion in 2020 and is expected to grow to $828.95 billion by 2028, according to a November report by market research firm Emergen Research.

What is a metaverse?

When Neal Stephenson first wrote about the metaverse concept in his 1992 sci-fi novel Snow Crash, he used the term to describe a new kind of internet with VR. In the 2002 film Minority Report, Tom Cruise encountered interactive billboards and iris-triggered direct marketing. Tony Stark as the Marvel Comics superhero in the movie Iron Man went a step further with his artificial intelligence (AI) partner Jarvis (just a very intelligent system) providing him with all the information he needs on holograms, computers, and within the Iron Man suits.

The metaverse that companies talk about today, including the ones by Meta (formerly Facebook), Microsoft, Nvidia, Tencent, ByteDance, Alibaba and Fortnite, are unfortunately nowhere close to what the movies show.

Even Meta, in a 2 November blog, pointed out: “The metaverse isn’t a single product one company can build alone. Just like the internet, the metaverse exists whether Facebook is there or not.” Meta executives acknowledged in the blog that the metaverse “won’t be built overnight. Many of these products will only be fully realized in the next 10-15 years.”

That said, the metaverse concept is clearly evolving with enhanced software and increasing sophistication of VR and AR gear. Moreover, the hardware segment is sub-segmented into displays—extended reality (XR) hardware (like haptic sensors, smart glasses, and omni treadmills) and AR/VR headsets, notes Emergen Research.

To be sure, the world has had its brush with San Francisco-based Linden Labs’ Second Life, a multi-player world that allows users to create their digital 3D avatars, socialize with others, play games, and explore multiple worlds called Sims. But Second Life can only be accessed on a PC.

Pokémon Go, a free location-based AR mobile game, mixes online reality with the real world. PokeStops can be found at real locations in the world—all this without users even needing a VR headset.

Magic Leap, founded in 2010 by Rony Abovitz, says its next AR headset, Magic Leap 2, will launch in 2022. And a couple of months back, Facebook launched Ray-Ban Stories—smart glasses that can capture photos and videos, help you listen to music or take phone calls.

Going ahead, the metaverse will also be accessible via next-generation TVs and smartphones, for which companies are in the process of designing interfaces, according to Emergen Research. It adds that metaverse platforms powered by blockchain technology will enable users to create, own and trade decentralized digital assets and virtual land assets with cryptocurrencies and non-fungible tokens.

Earlier this month, for instance, actor Kamal Hassan-owned Lotus Media Entertainment announced that he has partnered with Fantico, a licensed digital collectibles platform, to exclusively launch his digital avatars. The actor’s NFTs will debut in the metaverse where Fantico will launch a game based on the film star.

Challenges abound

On 2 November, Andrew Bosworth, VP, Facebook Reality Labs, and Nick Clegg, VP, global affairs at the firm, claimed in a blog that the metaverse will be built responsibly. They also announced “a $50 million investment in global research and program partners to ensure these products are developed responsibly”. Given Facebook’s chequered history with privacy, though, not many are convinced.

The fact is that artificial intelligence (AI) is undoubtedly becoming smarter with rapid advancements in machine learning (ML) and deep learning (DL) algorithms, and needs humongous amounts of data for these algorithms to be trained upon. Policy makers have repeatedly pointed out that AI-powered algorithms need to be transparent and that AI models should be able to address bias in the training data, the model, or simply be able to detect a human-induced bias. They have also argued that AI models should also give humans a right to appeal against the decision of an algorithm.

Given this complexity, products and services that spring out of the metaverses will thrive on data collection and AI-powered data analytics, which can lead to gross misuse if there are no checks and balances.

In a 9 November interview with The Associated Press, Facebook whistle-blower Frances Haugen opined the metaverse “will be addictive and rob people of yet more personal information while giving the embattled company another monopoly online”. During her stint at Facebook, Haugen studied how the social network’s algorithm amplified misinformation and was exploited by foreign adversaries.

Facebook has previously dismissed Haugen’s claims. Among other things, its CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote on 6 October in a blog, “It’s disheartening to see that work (internal research) taken out of context and used to construct a false narrative that we don’t care.”

Meanwhile, the European Union’s Digital Services Act (DSA) that was introduced in December 2020 said that it would regulate the obligations of companies like Facebook and Google which provide digital services and collect data.

India is yet to see the Personal Data Protection Bill 2019 tabled in Parliament. In the absence of sensible policies that address widespread concerns about the continuing misuse of data and privacy norms, coupled with the deepening digital divide, the risks will continue to outweigh the immense benefits that metaverses can offer us. And, as a result, cynics and sceptics will continue to look at the AI-powered metaverse with suspicion

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