Minnesota companies enter the metaverse

As COVID-19 forced workers home, companies quickly shifted communication strategies to video conferencing platforms such as Zoom and Microsoft.

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

Enter the metaverse. Companies and organizations in Minnesota have leveraged the immersive technology used in gaming to create new onboarding and training materials with computer-generated environments designed to look and sound real while changing the way people interact.

Now, they say the technology is here to stay, and they’re working on even more ways to use it—with employees and customers.

Twin Cities experts see metaversion as another iteration of how human beings use and interact with Internet technology. That follows the introduction of PCs, dial-up Internet, mobile phones and browser-based and app-based video conferencing platforms, said Amir Berenjian, CEO of Rem5, a St. Louis-based virtual reality studio and development company. Louis Park.

For Uponor North America in Apple Valley, the US headquarters of the global pipe manufacturer, Rem5 Studios created a virtual reality training system where new remote employees and customers outside the region can view the company’s unique manufacturing process, as well as quality control and testing. .

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

“It’s more scalable and more cost-effective,” Berenjian said.

Companies like Ford are partnering with VR companies to give their remote designers a space 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 are individually assembled into one final piece and work, allowing a person to learn about the product, inspect the parts and work with it. 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.

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This technology can also change the way companies and organizations communicate with clients. Rather than hauling equipment to trade shows or another business for demonstration, VR can be added as a means of illustrating how equipment and machines work in the real world.

Using VR headsets

Virtual reality headsets add a deeper component to 3D communication because it’s a more natural form of engagement, Berenjian said. In the virtual world, this can be achieved through body language, walking in different directions while having a conversation, or even turning your head to see where the sound is coming from.

That doesn’t happen with two-dimensional encounters like Zoom, he said.

“The reason I like to go down this path is to demystify how people think we’ve taken a step away from human connection when we introduce virtual technology,” Berenjian said. “When we do that, we take a step back .”

When using a virtual reality headset, all visual input is controlled by the application. Everything that can be seen is defined by the computer, which almost eliminates a person’s ability to multitask, as in a phone call or even a video conference, where a person can cook food or wash dishes while talking, said Victoria Interrante, a professor at the University of Minnesota Department of Computer Science and Engineering

“It creates a different way of interpreting and interacting with what you’re doing,” Interrante said.

However, it depends on how common VR headsets are. An important factor is not only price, but also convenience. Some users may experience nausea or dizziness when wearing the headset for extended periods of time.

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

Avatar society

Not every experience in the metaverse requires a virtual reality headset. Many of these can be accessed via the Internet on a personal computer or mobile device.

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

Rem5 developed a desktop VR program called 1 City, 2 Realities as a diversity and inclusion training tool for employers. After logging into the online program, people can control their avatars and browse a virtual gallery of information and images “highlighting systemic racial inequities in our country and Minneapolis.”

Rem5 worked with General Mills and Target to make the virtual experience part of employee training.

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

An experiential learning opportunity like this creates empathy, Berenjian said. The emotional response of watching scenes unfold in VR bridges the gap between watching news recaps of these events and actually being there.

“Your brain is more immersed,” he said.

Encounters in the metaverse have different levels of involvement in avatar form. A video conference meeting with dozens of participants can become confusing if there are too many faces in small squares on the computer screen.

Dozens of people can gather in the metaverse, but if their avatars huddle together, they have individual or group conversations in the room, just like in the real world.

“The woven response 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 augmenting, enhancing or making it more accessible.”

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Because immersive technology can make interactions more enjoyable, it is increasingly common in therapy sessions and diversity education. However, meeting in the metaverse just for the sake of it won’t increase engagement with the technology, Berenjian said.

“We need compelling reasons to be in these spaces,” he said. “It’s new and it’s going to wear off.”

Where companies can start

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

But as innovators and proponents of Web 3.0, the next iteration of the Internet, push for a decentralized and more democratic system for emerging technologies, the use of augmented and virtual technologies will become cheaper and perhaps even free.

“We’re talking about making it more affordable,” Berenjian said.

In the meantime, companies will need to do their due diligence to find potential partners who specialize in immersive technologies and negotiate costs. There aren’t many companies like Rem5 in the Twin Cities, but they do exist here, and there are national players.

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

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

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