Minnesota companies enter the metaverse

When COVID-19 forced workers to return home, companies quickly shifted their communication strategies to video conferencing platforms like Zoom and Microsoft.

But as the pandemic dragged on, companies realized they needed to do more than virtual daily planning. Even factories that stayed open had to update training procedures for people who would normally travel to learn about new equipment.

Enter the metaverse. Minnesota businesses and organizations have taken the immersive technology used in games to create new onboarding and training materials with computer-generated environments made to look and sound real while changing the way people communicate.

Now they say the technology is here to stay and they are working on more ways to use it, both with employees and customers.

Twin Cities experts see the metaverse as the next iteration of how humans harness and interact with Internet-based technology. This follows the introduction of the personal computer, dial-up Internet access, mobile phones, and browser- and application-based video conferencing platforms, said Amir Berenjian, chief executive officer of Rem5, a virtual reality studio and development company based in St.Louis Park.

For Uponor North America in Apple Valley, the US headquarters of the global pipe maker, Rem5 Studios created a virtual reality training system where new employees working remotely and out-of-region customers can walk through the unique manufacturing process. of the company, as well as quality controls and tests. .

A few years ago, the company would have brought those workers to the Twin Cities.

“This is more scalable and cost effective,” Berenjian said.

Companies like Ford partner with virtual reality companies to give your remote designers a place to collaborate in real time.

Rem5, also for Uponor, created an augmented reality experience that displays 3D holograms of Uponor products to show how they individually fit into a final part and work, allowing a person to experience the product, inspect the parts and interact with the. without having to transport the physical part itself. Anyone with a mobile device connected to the Internet can access the experience from anywhere in the world.

This technology can also alter the way businesses and organizations interact with customers. Instead of transporting equipment to trade shows or to another business for demonstrations, VR can be added as a means of illustrating how equipment and machines work in the real world.

Using VR headset

Virtual reality headsets add a deeper component to 3D communication, as it’s a more natural form of engagement, Berenjian said. In the virtual world, you can achieve body language, walk in various directions while having a conversation, or even turn your head to see where a sound is coming from.

That doesn’t happen in two-dimensional engagements like Zoom, he said.

“The reason I like to go down that path is to demystify how people think we’re moving away from human connection when we introduce virtual technology,” Berenjian said. “We’re actually taking a step back when we do .”

By using a virtual reality headset, all of one’s visual input becomes controlled by the app. Everything you see is computer defined, which almost eliminates the ability for a person to multitask like you would on a phone call, or even a video conference call where a person can cook or wash dishes while talking, said Victoria Interrante, a professor in the University of Minnesota’s Department of Computer Science and Engineering.

“It evokes a different mode of interpretation and interaction with what you’re doing,” Interrante said.

However, it depends on how common VR headsets are. Not only the price is a factor, but also the comfort. Some users may experience nausea or dizziness while using the headphones for extended periods.

“Once the technology gets to the point where it’s just as physically comfortable to be in VR as it is in the real world, I think we’ll see more people adopt it,” Interrante said.

A company of avatars

Not all experiences in the metaverse require virtual reality headsets. Many can be accessed over the Internet on a personal computer or mobile device.

While first-person virtual reality allows the user to see a world through their own eyes, third-person virtual reality is a method of manipulating a digital character that represents them.

Rem5 developed a desktop virtual reality program called 1 city, 2 realities as a diversity and inclusion training tool for employers. When they log into the online program, people can control their avatars to walk through a virtual gallery of information and images that “highlight systemic racial inequities in our nation and Minneapolis.”

rem5 has worked with General Mills and Target make the virtual experience part of employee training.

The company also created a similar program that focuses on privilege, Berenjian said.

An experiential learning opportunity like this builds empathy, Berenjian said. The emotional response of watching the scenes unfold in VR bridges the gap between seeing a recap of those events on the news channels and actually being there.

“Your brain is more immersed,” he said.

Meetings in the metaverse acquire different levels of commitment in the form of an avatar. A video conference meeting with dozens of attendees can get messy if there are too many faces packed into small squares on a computer screen.

In the metaverse, dozens of people can still gather, but they can have one-on-one or group conversations in a room if their avatars get together, just like in the real world.

“The knee-jerk reaction is to say, ‘I don’t want to replace the real world,'” Berenjian said. “We’re not talking about replacing anything. We’re talking about extending it, improving it, or making it more accessible.”

Because immersive technology can make interactions more enjoyable, it’s becoming more common in therapy sessions and diversity education. However, meeting in the metaverse just for the sake of it will not increase engagement with that technology, Berenjian said.

“We need compelling reasons to be in these spaces,” he said. “It’s novel and it’s going to go away.”

Where companies can start

If companies think that a permanent virtual training option should be available, then they need to think about how much they have to spend. For example, a show that uses a VR headset could be expensive, Berenjian said.

But as the innovators and advocates of Web 3.0, the next iteration of the Internet, push for a more democratized and decentralized system for emerging technologies, the use of augmented and virtual technology will become less expensive and possibly free.

“We’re talking about making this more accessible,” Berenjian said.

Meanwhile, companies will have to do their due diligence to find potential partners who specialize in immersive technology and negotiate costs. Companies like Rem5 are rare in the Twin Cities, but they do exist here, and there are players nationwide.

Red Wing Shoes, for example, recently partnered with California-based Roblox Corp., the makers of the Roblox online gaming platform, to create a virtual experience called Red Wing BuilderTown through its new Builder Exchange Program. .

Eventually, some of those designs will be built in the real world for people in need through Red Wing’s partnership with Settled, an organization that houses homeless people with tiny houses. Roblox members can also purchase Red Wing merchandise in an online store.

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