‘The next evolution of the internet’: Accenture aims for the metaverse

4 Mar 2022

Accenture booth at MWC 2022 in Barcelona. Image: Accenture

Accenture’s Brian Smyth and Jefferson Wang spoke to SiliconRepublic.com at MWC 2022 about the company’s latest developments in metaverse and Open RAN technology.

“There’s going to be a lot more momentum around metaverse in the coming months.”

That’s according to Brian Smyth, Accenture’s innovation lead for the communications and media industry, who I spoke to at this year’s Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona.

MWC is an influential event attended by global mobile operators, device manufacturers, technology providers and vendors. While the latest telecoms developments in areas such as 5G took centre stage, a lot of the discussion at the event of 61,000 attendees also focused on the metaverse – an online world of augmented and virtual reality.

The concept of the metaverse has been growing in popularity since Facebook changed its name to Meta last October and bet its future on developments in AI, AR and VR. Last November, a report by EmergenResearch said the market value for the metaverse was more than $47bn in 2020 and is expected to be worth nearly $829bn by 2028.

Accenture’s own research found that in 2021, businesses were doubling down on virtual and augmented reality, with 88pc of global organisations saying they had invested in technologies to create virtual environments. Nearly all (91pc) of those organisations said they are planning to invest further.

Accenture has taken its own step into the metaverse, creating a digital location called the Nth Floor where employees from around the world can meet for presentations, socialise and participate in immersive training. The company is in the process of deploying 60,000 VR headsets to its staff in multiple countries.

‘Even as things open up more, we have team meetings and events in these virtual worlds’

Smyth said this development was heightened by a desire to have employees connect with each other and the company during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“This is a new space where our new joiners can connect and collaborate and get a sense of place of Accenture and a sense of our culture, in a way that they couldn’t get when they couldn’t come to the office,” he explained. “So historically, people used to meet in offices, in our training centres. When that was not possible, this was a really great way to bring people together.

“And we’re continuing to work in this space. So even as things open up more, we have team meetings and events in these virtual worlds. And it enables people to have this sense of presence and a sense of team that you don’t always get in a 2D screen,” he added.

Smyth said Accenture has seen benefits from using this technology among its staff, such as a greater feeling of connection and a “sense of occasion” when a large group of employees are brought together this way.

“I think it’s incredibly important, particularly as a global organisation, to be able to do that. And by bringing in new technology and new ways of working, it’s really beneficial for us. And more importantly then, how we bring that to our clients in new ways.”

The future of metaverse

Smyth said Accenture is seeing huge demand for metaverse technology among its clients across multiple industries.

“We’re helping travel companies reinvent the travel experience. We’re doing immersive learning and worker safety training for utilities companies. We’re building out online retail experiences for fashion brands, on platforms like Roblox and Decentraland.”

One collaboration Accenture is working on is with Touchcast, a company developing ‘metaverse-as-a-service’. Last January it launched MCity, which it described as the “world’s first enterprise metaverse”, where companies can register their own metaverse domain name and set up a virtual campus.

“It’s really around building these engaging experiences that look like professional conference presentations, but can be done from your home office using your camera,” Smyth explained. “So we’ve used it before for the launch of our Tech Vision, which is our annual report on what’s happening in tech and future trends.

“What it enables you to do is create this experience that looks like an amphitheatre, or looks like a conference hall or an event. And you have giant screens and you have a podium and a speaker, but the speaker is actually just on their webcam at home.

“But it recreates it into a 3D world. And then you pan and zoom cameras across and you can see attendees, so it really gives this sense of occasion on an event,” he said.

This technology could make investor events and conferences “really compelling”, Smyth noted, but there are other applications down the line such as being able to create a virtual retail experience, where users can get a more tangible feel of what a product looks and feels like before they make a purchase online.

For metaverse developments in the future, Smyth pointed to the importance of being able to have both people on VR devices and those using devices like their mobile phone or laptop. One example he shared was Microsoft’s plans to incorporate mixed-reality technology into its Microsoft Teams.

Microsoft first revealed Mesh last year, a virtual platform to help people feel like they are in the same room as each other. Last November, the company shared its plans to integrate this technology into Teams for 2022, where users will be able to represent themselves in a meeting using customised 2D and 3D avatars, or continue to show themselves in a video format.

Smyth said that Accenture sees the metaverse as the “next evolution of the internet”, focusing on immersive experiences. With the company’s own ventures with metaverse technology and its collaborations with industry partners, Smyth seems confident about the future of this concept.

“There’s going to be a lot more momentum around metaverse in the coming months,” Smyth said. “Certainly from Accenture in terms of how we go to market.”

Open RAN

Another topic that is growing in popularity is around open radio access networks, or Open RAN. This differs from traditional radio access networks by allowing different parts of the network’s infrastructure to be built by different vendors, and allows service providers to speed up 5G network development through the use of open architecture.

Accenture has described Open RAN is one of the most “hotly debated topics in the industry” currently. An industry survey by Telecoms.com last November found that almost half of respondents have already deployed Open RAN or plan to do so soon. Last year, Vodafone and Dell Technologies announced a partnership to build the first Open RAN in Europe.

Jefferson Wang, Accenture’s cloud-first networks and 5G lead, said Open RAN is accelerating in certain regions like Europe faster than others, which he believes is for three key reasons.

“One is the ability to try and look for a lower way to actually drive the cost down,” Wang said. “The second is also dependent upon the geopolitical situation, the need to replace other equipment providers is another reason why. And then the third one is to try and create more of that competitive landscape so that you could actually generate more innovation on a quicker level.

“So Open RAN, I think, in the end is one of those things where you’ll start to see it come out in waves, with Europe absolutely taking the lead, but then Latin America is picking up and you’ll see other geographies around Open RAN,” he added.

‘Open RAN is one of those things where you’ll start to see it come out in waves, with Europe absolutely taking the lead’

Wang said Accenture is working to help new operators that have an interest in Open RAN, while also figuring out how to work with legacy networks. “We formed a new group called Accenture Cloud First Networks,” he explained. “The entire goal of that is to help situations like this, where there’s a new technology that comes out for those reasons that we talked about.

The disaggregation of hardware and software can create a lot of choice, which is good in terms of competition. “The downside is there’s more disaggregation,” Wang noted. While competition is positive for lowering prices, he said there are also benefits for a more tightly integrated hardware and software network, such as the ability to better optimise the power network for energy management.

“So I think that while you’ll see new feature development accelerate in certain areas, in terms of the radio or other parts of the network, there has to be somebody also focused on when you glue these disparate pieces together that have been disaggregated, who’s working on those pieces around power management, around efficiency and those things.

“A group of companies needs to work very closely on that to make sure that we’re not increasing our power consumption at a data centre somewhere else because of these disaggregated pieces,” Wang said.

Overall, he believes Open RAN is going to be successful in certain areas “and is needed”. But change is going to come in phases.

“I think in geographies that are basically still slow to adopt, you might see Open RAN show up in things like a private wireless scenario, something that isn’t touching the macro network with millions and millions of consumers, but more so these more targeted, more surgical deployments where they’re actually trying it, testing, iterating it and then actually working it into the broader network.”

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Leigh Mc Gowran is a journalist with Silicon Republic