Katie Burke: you can still help define the metaverse

If building metaverse concepts and communities during the pandemic has taught Accenture Song’s metaverse lead anything — it’s that this future is still being shaped.

Katie Burke is Accenture Song’s Metaverse expert, working with clients around the globe on their entry into the next wave of the internet. In the sixth episode of the NEXT – SHOW series 3, she explored what we know about the metaverse — and what we don’t.

Watch the complete episode

The metaverse has been the buzzword of the past year, as we try to figure out what’s next for digital. Accenture Song’s metaverse expert Katie Burke is at once excited about the potential — but determined to stay open-minded about the form it will take.

“The metaverse is just a neat little phrase that sits atop these interesting technologies,” she says. “It’s a lot of opinions of what it might be right now. It’s not clear what its final form will be.”

She leads a ground-up innovations team within Accenture Song, and they started focusing on the metaverse as a concept in early 2021. Clearly, she points out, our pandemic virtual lifestyles drove interest, but it’s led to a quest to find the right content, collaborations, and experience to explore this space within Accenture Song.

However, that narrative disguises the fact that the team have been working with the technologies that underlie the metaverse for much longer than that: they have a blockchain group, an extended reality practice, with 100s of people in it. There are agencies within the company that specialise in CGI and other visual technology. And they’ve been delivering for clients for years now.

So, what is the metaverse?

Burke characterises it as an unknown destination, to which many people are carving out routes right now. People’s own expectations of what they want from internet technologies in the future are another factor helping shape this emergent technology.

“There are real behaviour shifts happening among people using these technologies,” she says. “One thing that people are looking for is more choice on the internet, more control. There’s not a lot of movement toward the existing major social platforms. We’re seeing movement towards alternative ones.”

She cites Gen Z’s tendency to gather on niche communities on Discord, for example. “It’s a great platform to connect around shared experiences,” she says.

“I don’t believe that the Metaverse will be defined exclusively by VR. It’s going to be a blend of technologies. It’s all about the use cases of why people are there. The cultural change that’s happening is new places that allow people to satisfy their human drivers for connection.”

The new style of community space

The shift towards new community spaces started with gamers, but the pandemic accelerated the trend of building your own small community groups. People want more control over their data, more control over the people they spend time around, she argues. It’s one of the strongest signals of behaviour shift she’s seen — and she’s fascinated by it.

“Watching creators mint their own art, their own creations on blockchain is a fascinating change. Is the metaverse built on blockchain technology creating new value? Is it 3D worlds for shopping and experiences? It’ll probably be a blend of both.”

She points out that people are unlikely to spend hours after hours in virtual worlds, as those experiences have a natural expiration; people need a variety of experiences in their life, she suggests. People spending the whole working day wearing a headset seems unlikely to her. But specific use cases make sense: being able to all look at a design in a 3D space, for example, but it seems less compelling for meetings.

“Could you actually force that on a workforce?” she says.

The metaverse as a tool

Metaverse technologies are likely to be the best solutions for some use cases — but not all. “Another alternative is meeting in person, now we can do that again,” she says. “I love that people are exploring different ways of using this.”

But if you want to get a sense of where it’s going, look to the creatives.

“The artists are always three to five years ahead of the rest of the society,” she says. “If they’re finding value there, that’s a good indicator.”

This approach also applies to her hiring practices. “Who are the people in your organisation who are playing on the edge? Interview them, spotlight them — we learn so much from what they’re playing with,” she suggests. “That’s how I’m finding ways to bring people into my team.”

The opportunities — and risks

Burke argues that the focus on VR experiences has neglected the huge potential of AR to improve life. Adding layers of information over the real world eases so many friction points in everyday living. Imagine popping on AR glasses that allow you to keep a recipe in front of you while cooking, without having to reach for your phone. A simple use case, but one that makes a palpable difference.

She suggests that the risks right now lie in unintended consequences. You can’t regulate for those in advance.

“There needs to be a ‘do not harm’ style mission statement that sits on top of all this,” she says. “When you leave it to people to put their own content out there, there’s a lot of good—but a lot of bad, too. And that could be a more visceral experience in a 3D world.”

“This could be one of the inhibitors: people won’t go to places that make them nervous or scared. We know enough from the 2.0 web to want different.”

Permission to experiment

“We’re in the imagination phase. The metaverse is not just you putting your retail store into virtual space, it is a new permission to do whatever you want to do. Anchor that with your brand vision, and the value of your brand. Start with that as a brief, and get really creative in how it comes to life. If you do cosmetics, why not find a way to make the metaverse beautiful?“

She thinks there’s merit in a more frictionless experience of the 3D world, where you can move yourself and your digital assets through them easily. “What you buy should go with you, but for every good, there’s a potential bad.”

“I worry that there’s already a digital version of me out there — but it’s one I don’t own or control. Where does that come in? Is that associated with the digital me, too? Is that my shadow? Who owns me? I can dress myself digitally — but do I own it? Do I get ownership of myself in digital worlds?”

For all the attractions of the interoperable vision, there’s more questioning we need to do, she says.

This is a summary of an interview with Katie Burke conducted by Monique van Dusseldorp and broadcast on the NEXT Show on 5th May. You can catch up with Katie and her work on LinkedIn.