Marc Jennings, CIO of analytics and AI at travel and transport giant TUI, says the one big technology trend to watch out for next year is immersive technologies.
As the cost of the hardware – such as virtual and augmented reality headsets – begins to drop, he says, more businesses will start to explore how they can make the most of the metaverse.
Like other industry experts, Jennings suggests the fact that major IT vendors – particularly Mark Zuckerberg’s Meta – are betting big on immersive experiences means it’s likely to gain significant traction soon: “That’s quite clearly where the world’s going,” he says.
Consulting firm McKinsey suggests the metaverse could generate up to $5 trillion across consumer and enterprise use cases by 2030. It also expects the average internet user to spend up to six hours a day in metaverse experiences by 2030.
Those figures might sound unlikely right now, especially when key metaverse technologies such as virtual and augmented reality still have a long way to go before they meet with mainstream interest or acceptance.
Yet rather than waiting until the end of the decade, some organisations are thinking about how metaverse technologies might be applied to their own use cases.
“My advice would be to think about how those technologies can potentially support your business,” says Jennings. “Where do you think they can add value in the workplace, which type of capability or service does it lend itself to?”
Jennings says TUI already has a number of initiatives under way where it’s developing an understanding of how it can use the metaverse to develop richer experiences for internal colleagues and external customers.
“It’s very low-key at the moment. You could spend a lot of money in this space. It’s still early days. But it’s the type of innovation that TUI thinks it needs to do,” he says.
Jennings says his data team and colleagues across the IT department and the rest of the business are always on the lookout for key technology trends that are likely to affect TUI and its customers in the short to medium term.
The aim of the exploratory work into immersive experiences is to get a handle on the way that end-user requirements are likely to change during the next decade. These explorations help the business to get a grip on the types of capabilities that are likely to be required in the not-so-distant future.
“If the metaverse becomes the norm, then we need to be building those skills – and it is a new set of skills that is completely different to many of the ones that you have in your business today. So, how do you understand that requirement and become prepared to take advantage of the metaverse before it really blows up?”
Jennings says TUI is working to develop an understanding of potential use cases across both the industrial metaverse, which applies to applications used internally by staff, and for external customer experiences.
When it comes to industrial use cases, initial explorations show that immersive technologies can be very useful in helping to develop muscle memory. He gives the example of training aircraft pilots.
“Virtual technologies mean you don’t have to be physically in an aircraft to do that. Having an aircraft grounded to do some training is very expensive, as is getting your cabin crew and your pilots from all over the world to that single location. If you can do these things on a virtual device, or you’re doing your annual checks, then that’s potential very useful.”
Another potential example of the industrial metaverse is remote assistance for engineers – having someone who can help employees virtually means the company doesn’t need a range of highly trained experts at every physical location.
In terms of customer experiences, Jennings says TUI can use virtual technology to showcase content to customers and to provide a better feel for the hotel or cruise ship they might be staying in during their holidays.
“With a headset, you can walk through the hotel virtually – and that’s much more powerful than looking at pictures on a website. You can look at the layout of your room, and you can see what the pool looks like. If you go on a cruise ship, you get a feel of where your room is located. It’s all about bringing the holiday to life. It’s extremely powerful.”
TUI has invested in hardware to help explore these use cases. Some of the company’s internal developers are working alongside external startups to develop expertise and knowledge. Jennings says his team is also investigating opportunities for the metaverse with some of the big tech firms.
“Those things are in flight – and it’s about providing the right-sized investment. It’s all about developing a phased approach.”
Jennings says TUI has already created a three-year roadmap for immersive experiences. This strategy outlines where the company would like to get to in terms of capabilities, skills, and use cases.
“Things might get rolled out in that three-year period. But the aim it to test the waters. We want to dip our toe and make sure we’re cognizant of what’s happening and staying abreast with changes in the technology,” he says.
“The hardware people wear is evolving all the time. The investment from the big players is immense. The cost of devices, the cost of hardware, and the ability to build applications in this space is becoming more accessible. And we need to be aware of these things that happen over time.”
As well as longer-term aims, Jennings recognises that his firm’s tentative moves into the nascent metaverse provide lessons for other professionals who are thinking about their strategy.
He says the key lessons so far relate to technologies and skills. Professionals should note that testing use cases will mean you probably need a different technology stack from practically everything else you’ve got in your estate right now.
Successfully applying these technologies as part of the metaverse also requires a shift in mindset and skills, says Jennings.
“The kind of person you would want to hire right now is probably somebody who works in the gaming industry. They typically have a lot of the right skills,” he says.
“Building a training programme around that internally, or trying to switch staff, is feasible, but it’s quite challenging as well. These are things we will need to consider as we move forwards.”