You may not be ready to jump into the metaverse for fun, but it may come sooner than you think.
Microsoft announced Tuesday that Kawasaki is a new customer for the tech giant’s so-called “industrial metaverse” — a fancy way of saying that factory workers will wear HoloLens helmets to aid in manufacturing, repairs and supply chain management. He will use the helmets to build robots.
HoloLens, first launched in 2016, allows the wearer to experience augmented reality, which superimposes digital images on a real environment. For Microsoft’s industrial metaverse, that means bringing together many of the company’s technologies, such as cloud computing, to help factory workers and managers make products faster and more efficiently.
The idea is to create what Microsoft calls a “digital twin” of a workspace, which can speed up processes such as repairs and starting new production lines. For example, instead of calling a repairman to come to the factory to fix a broken part, a HoloLens can be used to chat with on-site workers and guide them through the repair process with visual augmented reality cues. It also allows managers to leverage the digital twin to ramp up new production if needed — which Microsoft touts as a way to combat supply chain issues.
Kawasaki joins Heinz, which recently announced it will use Microsoft’s industrial metaverse in ketchup plants, and Boeing as manufacturing partners.
While it may sound like a gimmick, it’s something Microsoft customers have been asking for as the buzz around the metaverse concept grows. Jessica Hawk, vice president of mixed reality at Microsoft, told CNBC in an interview last week that the industrial metaverse is a taste of what technology can accomplish today before being fully immersive in the future.
“That’s why I think you see a lot of energy in this space,” Hawk said. “These are real issues that these companies face… so having a technology solution that can help unlock the supply chain challenge, for example, has an incredible impact.”
Microsoft’s booming business speaks volumes about the state of the metaverse. While we’ve heard promises of a sci-fi future where everyone works, plays, and socializes in virtual reality, today’s usage has more to do with business apps than the needs of the average consumer.
For example, Meta’s upcoming mixed reality headset will be more expensive than its $299 virtual reality headset and marketed to people who want to feel “present” while working remotely. One of Meta’s first metaverse products was even an app that allows you to hold virtual reality meetings.
But the difference is that Microsoft is way ahead, selling its mixed reality technology to enterprises today, while giving developers the tools they need to create their own metaverse experiences.
“We’re really seeing a differentiation in the way we execute our strategy here, recognizing that people are going to experience the metaverse across different devices and platforms,” Hawk said.
That means metaverse products also work on 2D screens, like the new features Microsoft added to its Teams chat app last year, where people can appear as digital avatars. These kinds of features could be translated to headsets and other platforms in the future.
“We’re very excited that this is a moment in time that allows for so much innovation,” said Hawk. Some things we understand today. And we recognize many, many more things that we have not yet fully realized. So it is a very exciting time for us.”