Tech'ed Up

Making Sense of the Metaverse • Denise Zheng (Accenture)

February 23, 2023 bWitched Media
Making Sense of the Metaverse • Denise Zheng (Accenture)
Tech'ed Up
More Info
Tech'ed Up
Making Sense of the Metaverse • Denise Zheng (Accenture)
Feb 23, 2023
bWitched Media

Denise Zheng, Managing Director for Strategic Initiatives in the Office of the CEO at Accenture, joins Niki in the studio to highlight ways the metaverse is already being put to work in business.  She goes beyond the jargon of XR, AI, and web3 and explains what the metaverse is and why she thinks right now is a pivotal moment in the development of a tech that is sure to shape our future.  

"We need to design the metaverse so that it's human-centric, right? But from a privacy, security, and safety standpoint, we found that consumers care about that the most. And that means, I think, companies need to lean forward, they need to lean further forward than they have in the past…" -Denise Zheng

Show Notes Transcript

Denise Zheng, Managing Director for Strategic Initiatives in the Office of the CEO at Accenture, joins Niki in the studio to highlight ways the metaverse is already being put to work in business.  She goes beyond the jargon of XR, AI, and web3 and explains what the metaverse is and why she thinks right now is a pivotal moment in the development of a tech that is sure to shape our future.  

"We need to design the metaverse so that it's human-centric, right? But from a privacy, security, and safety standpoint, we found that consumers care about that the most. And that means, I think, companies need to lean forward, they need to lean further forward than they have in the past…" -Denise Zheng

[music plays]

Niki: I’m Niki Christoff and welcome to Tech’ed Up. Today in the studio, I’m joined by Denise Zheng from Accenture.  She explains why we have no legs in the metaverse yet and also talks through some pretty cool real-life business use cases for the new technology, and she shares the questions we should be asking as we shape this new tech that will undoubtedly shape our future. 


Niki: Today in the studio, I have Denise Zheng. Welcome. 

Denise: Thank you, Niki.  It's great to be here. 

Niki: We have you today. We've captured you to tell us what the metaverse is. What is it? What's it gonna do? You're working on this and I'm really grateful cause I think people have no idea.

Denise: It's a really great question, and you know, there's a ton of hype around the term metaverse and people kind of define it however they want.

And I think, y’know, the, the clearest, most crisp way to think about the metaverse is it's really a combination of technologies. It's new interfaces and new economies. So, if you think about the new interfaces, we're really talking about more immersive, virtual experiences, more, y’know, what you would typically call virtual reality or augmented reality. Some people refer to it as mixed reality, as well. Those are the new interfaces. 

Niki: Wait, hang on one sec! I think I'm in a mixed reality right now cause I wanted to start with who you are. 

[both laugh]

Denise: I thought we were gonna start that way too, but it's fine. 

Niki: No, we're gonna go back. [Denise: Go back?]  We're gonna go back because we can time hop in the metaverse [chuckling].

Denise, tell me about your background. You have a really kind of extraordinary bio, but there are a few pieces of it that are kind of extra sexy. Tell me a little bit about your background. How you got into tech, what you've done in tech, and then what your current job is. 

Denise: Yeah, sure. So, I started my career really working on US-China policy and looking at the Asian financial crisis. Then I make kind of a hard pivot actually, into technology, and it was just, you know, circumstances of the job, to be honest. I had an amazing opportunity, to me, and it was to help manage a cybersecurity commission. It was focused on creating an agenda for the Obama administration, essentially. 

So, I made a pivot. I started working on cybersecurity issues, managed the CSIS Cybersecurity Commission. Came out with 40-some recommendations, and it became kind of a roadmap for how the Obama administration- even parts of it, were taken by the Trump administration and enacted.

So that's kind of how I got my start in tech policy, focusing on cybersecurity. I then, y’know, went to work for, on Capitol Hill. I drafted cyber legislation. Eventually left the Hill and did a couple of other things, but it eventually went to the defense department where I worked at DARPA.

Have you ever heard of DARPA? 

Niki: I know DARPA, but people listening may not know DARPA. Can you explain what it is? 

Denise: So, it stands for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and it's probably best known for inventing the internet. 

Niki: I know!  It was not Al Gore! It was DARPA! 

Denise: It was DARPA, exactly! I. And the way DARPA works is, y’know, they bring together really brilliant people that have big ideas, usually academics, and they give them a chunk of money, and they say, “Go and try to create breakthrough technology in the span of, like, two to five years.”

And you only go for that short period of time, and usually, you're trying to solve a really particular problem for the Defense Department using technology. And the whole goal is, y’know, to create strategic surprise is what, y’know, the, the mantra is. 

Niki: [interrupts excitedly] Ooh, I like it! So, for our defense capabilities, we wanna create strategic surprise.

Denise: Exactly. And that was because when the Russians launched Sputnik many, many years ago, it was a huge surprise to the, to the US government that the Russians had this capability. And so, DARPA was eventually founded to create a focused R&D effort within the US military. That, y’know, their task was to create strategic surprise and to prevent it in the future, the surprise to the US, that is. 

Niki: Okay! So, I did not know any of this!  And I felt like I knew a lot about DARPA and now I'm gonna start trying to create a strategic surprise in my life. 

Denise: You should! 

[both laugh]  

Niki: Okay. So, you're working on that. And what specific project were you focused on? 

Denise: So, I was focused on a number of different projects. I worked in the Information Innovation Office, which is basically the part of DARPA that's most focused on AI, Cyber, and at the time, we called it “Big Data.” Y’know, this was like 2013.

So, I worked on a program called Plan X, which was focused on trying to create new capabilities, new platforms for the military to conduct computer network operations, or in other words, cyber warfare.

We were really focused on creating new interfaces, so it's really hard to visualize what, like, a cyber battle space looks like. It's, like, you know, boxes and lines of machines connected to each other, zeros and ones, command lines, things like that. And the idea was could we, y’know, sort of, create a, a visualization of the cyber battle space, allow for cyber warriors to traverse it as if they were playing a video game? [Niki: Mm-hmm]  

And that was actually my first time coming into contact with Oculus, with working with virtual reality headsets. That was one small part of the program, but it kind of ties back to what I'm doing today actually at Accenture. 

Niki: So, this is a great segue into the metaverse, I think.  And I, I'm gonna ask you to help explain what the metaverse is, but essentially what you're talking about is helping the Department of Defense take binary code and turn it into a three-dimensional simulation so that there's a better way for people to attach and understand how it would play out.

Denise: That's one way to think about it.

Niki: Okay. That's not exactly right. It's close?]

Denise: It's taking the, the, the workflow, how a computer network operator engages with their work and gamifying it, essentially. 

Niki: Gamifying it. Okay. So, you're now another hard pivot. You've done other things in addition to this, including working at the Business Roundtable, helping CEOs and companies navigate issues, especially.  We know each other actually through that work. [Denise: Exactly, yeah]  And helping tech CEOs sort of engage in Washington. What are you doing now? You're at Accenture, but you're in charge of the responsible metaverse? 

Denise: [chuckles] I’m in- so, let me start with how I got to Accenture. [Niki: Great] So, when I went to Accenture, I took on a role to lead strategic initiatives for our CEO, Julie Sweet, and, incredible role, and y’know, about a year into it, we launched what we call the Metaverse Continuum Business Group at Accenture. 

And essentially, I wear two hats. So, I lead Software and Platform Metaverse. So, our business focused on providing metaverse-related services to software and platform companies. And then, I also lead Responsible Innovation in the Metaverse. And I think, y’know, it's, it's, it's a, it's a huge area of focus for us, responsible innovation, because trust and safety, privacy, security, those types of issues are sort of front of mind for consumers when they decide whether or not they wanna engage.

I think most people when I say the word metaverse, start thinking, “Is this a place where I wanna be? [Niki: Right?!] Is this going to be a place that's safe for my children, for my family?” [Niki: Do we have to go there?] Exactly. And so, I, I wear both of those hats at Accenture today. 

Niki: And I guess I have, I think I've heard you say this before, that one question consumers have that I have is, “Is the metaverse just gonna be social media but worse?” 

Denise: Y’know, consumers are pretty split on this. [Niki: Okay] We actually did a survey of 19 countries, about 18,000 people of all different demographics and age groups, and about 50% of them think it's going to be just as bad as social media. The other 50% are evenly split between those who think it's gonna be better and then those who actually think it's gonna be much worse.

So, I think, y’know, it's safe to say that with the metaverse, we're kind of at this fork in the road that, y’know, 50% kind of just think it's business as usual. It's just an extension of social media. But the other 50%, which is, which is really a significant, y’know, sort of, y’know, cohort, we can still win them over if we do the right thing, and that means ensuring that we're designing the metaverse and using the metaverse responsibly from the start. 

Niki: So help me understand, so I wanna talk a little bit more about the technicalities and kind of the concept of the metaverse, because sometimes I'll just say this like web3 to me, in some ways feels like a marketing term.

I get the concept. It's a more decentralized version of the internet. I know that's a piece of the metaverse. I've actually heard you explain the metaverse as a combination of XR, AI, and web3. Which relatable? 

[both chuckling] You can dive into that ex [Denise: Yeah] explanation if you want. [Denise: Yeah] [chuckling] But I wanna talk a little bit more about conceptually what it is? 

Like, is it one place we're all gonna be in? Is each company going to create different metaverses? And then I, I want to, after we sort of really figure that out, talk about positive use cases because I am, [chuckling] which is ironic because I work in technology quite cynical, often about use cases of technology. I think sometimes it brings out the worst in us and I do have concerns about safety and replicating harms that already exist on the internet into this new space.

But before we get to that, you're helping companies think about the metaverse.  Is it different spaces? Is it, what does it mean exactly? How are we gonna get into the metaverse? 

Denise: There's a lot of baggage attached to the term metaverse, and I think it's probably best to just sort of disaggregate what it is and understand what technology underpins it.

So there is the XR, the AI, the web3, but I, I think an even simpler way to think about it is:  There's new interfaces and sort of new markets and new economies that are created by it. [Niki: Okay] 

There isn't going to be one single metaverse, one single virtual world that we all engage in. It's really, y’know, VR, AR, MR Technologies, extended reality essentially, right?

So, think:  some of the headsets we're starting to see, but it's also, y’know, 2D augmented reality things layered on top of physical spaces, right? And, and a range of different devices that you can use to actually interact with these types of environments, from your phone to a headset. [Niki: Okay!]  So, that's the, the new interfaces piece.

Niki: [interrupts] Would an example of that, and I am truly dating myself, [interrupts self] and also, this was way before its time, but when Google Glass came out, which I actually straight up wore around DC there is a photo of me on the internet- 

Denise: [chuckling] That is a form of augmented reality, for sure!  

Niki:  Right!  And it had, we could, you could see in a little box on the upper right-hand side of your vision field, you could see things like text messages. Like, it would basically be an overlay onto, like, [Denise: exactly] the real world. So, yes. 

Denise: So, that was a really, really, really basic version of augmented reality. Today, y’know, we have much more sophisticated technology, I would say. 

Niki: But it could be like that?  It could be a layer on top of your regular life?  

Denise: That's augmented reality, exactly. [Niki: Okay] It's a layer; it's a digital layer on top of a physical environment.

Niki: Okay. And then there is sort of a more immersive experience?

Denise: There's a more immersive experience, which is called virtual reality, VR, and that's fully immersive, right? So, you're in this entirely virtual space. It, y’know, the physical space around you mapping it and knowing its boundaries is more for your personal safety than it is actually affecting the experience inside the headset.

Then there's something called mixed reality [Niki: Okay] where you have physical spaces and virtual overlays on top of it, kind of mixed together, and a physical object through this interface you could actually pick up and manipulate, right?  [Niki: I see] But you can also introduce entirely virtual or digital objects as well and manipulate them in the same way.

So, y’know, there's, there's the three sort of AR, VR, MR. [Niki: Okay] [chuckling] And together, people often refer to it as extended reality or XR. 

Niki: Okay. I do not think people know that. 

Denise: So, that's a big part of the metaverse. That's a new interface. 

Niki: That’s great! You've literally clarified something.

Okay, so the interface being these different ways you can plug into different amounts of augmented, extended [Denise: immersive] realities to the extent that you would be using it, maybe for your job, maybe for gaming and entertainment.

Denise: The use cases are endless, really. So, we believe that it's going to be transforming consumer experiences. It'll transform the way enterprises also do work. In fact, a great example is how we're applying the metaverse at Accenture for our own onboarding and learning process for our people. We have 700 and about 60,000 people, at this point globally, and a significant chunk of them actually onboarded to Accenture's New Joiners through what we call “The Nth Floor.” A virtual [Niki: Oh my gosh!] floor of Accenture. 

Niki: Okay. And that's, it's like the John Malkovich floor, [laughter] You crawl in and, and that's… 


Denise: And that's because, y’know, during the pandemic, we hired a lot of new people that never got to set foot into our office. And so we created a photorealistic version of our offices and allowed people to go in there, explore, have water cooler conversations. So, that's an example of an enterprise use. 

Niki: I am very for this, so, we were talking before we started recording about people going into the office or not going into the office, and I, my small company has a hybrid model. So, I like that. I'm for that version of the metaverse. 

Denise: Yeah, exactly. And that doesn't feel so creepy to you, does it? 

Niki: No, it feels constructive. So I think in a business case or a training, you could see like surgery [Denise: exactly] maybe being a useful thing. People training for space- I'm making stuff up. I don't-

Denise: No!  You're exactly right! So, we did some work for a hospital provider in Mexico, actually created a, a VR training experience to train some of their surgeons on procedures, and it's highly effective. We worked with a major retailer, one of the largest, to create learning experiences for their new associates using VR and found that, y’know, 70% more retention of the knowledge and the skills that they develop through the training.

So, we're finding immersive experiences is really good for learning. It's really good for training. 

Niki: And you could see where, I mean, there's so, so many studies on how, I mean, the reason I really like to do in-person conversations for the podcast is you get so much more information on how you're communicating with the other person. You lose some of that when you're on video. 

And maybe this could, I mean, I guess we'll see with studies, replace a little bit of that communication input so that you can actually have a better, more connective experience than, like, Zoom. Which they've done a lot of studies that you actually lose an enormous amount of normal human connection. Not to mention that everyone's looking at the wrong part of their screen! [Denise: Yeah] They're not looking into the camera! We've been doing that for, like, how many years?  We're not looking at each other. 

Denise: Yeah. I think that's right. Absolutely. We're also seeing though, on the sort of enterprise and industrial side, something called digital twins.

Have you ever heard of that? 

Niki: I have not. 

Denise: So, it's essentially using, creating an exact replica of a physical industrial facility or manufacturing process or machinery. And there's real advantage in being able to create that replica and then run tests and simulations on it because it's, for example, a jet engine is very expensive. It's very capital-intensive investment. 

And what the metaverse or digital twin technologies allows you to do is create a digital replica of it, be able to manipulate elements of the machinery, test it, simulate it, optimize it before you go into production. And, y’know, that type of work is really transformative for industrial use cases.

Mars Skittles is actually a great example of a company who is leveraging this technology.

Niki: Okay! [Denise: and it's just] Wait, what's Skittles doing?! [Denise: Oh!] For their, before they start making Skittles…? I guess I don't know what they're doing.  For their factories to make it more efficient ahead of time?  

Denise: Exactly. To make it more efficient, reduce waste, figure out how they're gonna plan their factory even, y’know, for example, figure out how many Skittles should go in a bag.

Niki:  I mean, actually, this is really fascinating cuz it's a concrete use case. Presumably, it would be easier than, like, physically creating this stuff, counting your Skittles, and then, like, changing it. You could do it through a computer program, so you're not actually building everything out and then having to retool it. 

Denise: Exactly, exactly. 

Niki: Okay, so I'm for that. I also have, I have a friend who is an architect for hospitals and specifically works on children's hospitals and has talked about a way of when these kids are really isolated when they're in treatment, “Could they use the metaverse to connect, play, engage when they are in these unusual situations?”  I don't know if you guys are doing any work on that, but I think it's another positive possible use case.

Denise: Absolutely. I mean, I, I think the, the, the ability to allow for people to reconnect with their loved ones and friends through the metaverse is something that a lot of companies are exploring.

We, y’know, it's not a perfect example, but one that may be related is work that we did to help a social services organization actually create some training to help their social workers understand how to spot domestic violence within a home situation. And you can imagine, y’know, being able to spot things on the kitchen table or things in the home that just signal that something is off here.

And, and then also managing, you know, how you interact with the individuals in the household in a way that's compassionate to them, respectful of them, but also enables you to, to intervene. Right? And that type of training is work that we actually did for a social services organization. And it's proven, proven to be enormously valuable for their people.

Niki: When I was at Uber, we did something, actually a couple of shout-outs to Delta Airlines, UPS, and FedEx do a good job with this, but they see, Uber drivers, they see a lot of things other people don't see when it comes to sex trafficking. So, we would try to give just facts to drivers on if you see certain things, certain characteristics of your riders, you might be seeing a person who's trafficked and then who they could call, to call in. But it would be much easier, I think, for them to retain that if they sort of saw it visually as opposed to, like, we're handing out worksheets [Denise: right!]  that they're reading, y’know? I think it would actually imprint it better on people who learn visually.

Denise: Right! It puts you into the actual situation and it simulates it almost as if it was in real life. Right? And, and I think that type of training, that type of experience, is invaluable. 

Niki: So then, we do have to talk a little bit about the harms and sort of the rabbit hole this could go down and what you're specifically thinking about to prevent that outcome.

So, when I think of the metaverse, I often think of the, sort of, most [interrupts self] Y’know, there's so many parts of the internet that are so ugly and unsafe for people, especially for women, but and for people of color and… And a lot of people aren't even represented on the internet. And I think we're seeing tons of information on social media and phone addiction.

What are, what's sort of a plan around making it a better version of whatever the next technological advances look like? 

Denise: So, I'm actually a little bit more optimistic than you!  

Niki: You could not be less optimistic [both laugh] It would not be possible.

Denise: I think I'm a little more optimistic than you because this time around, we know what the harms are.  

Niki: Great point! 

Denise: Right? When social media, when gaming was first introduced, we didn't really know what to expect.

But now, I think we have the benefit of many lessons learned from those experiences that we know, kind of, what we need to fix early on and what kind of principles, and practices, and norms, and, frankly, technologies we need to build to enable a much more sort of responsible, more positive use of this technology.

I think it's really important that we prioritize privacy, security, and safety issues. Those are the top. You mentioned as well, some of the challenges around diversity, inclusion, sustainability. Those obviously are very, very important. 

We need to design the metaverse so that it's human-centric, right? But from a privacy, security, and safety standpoint, we found that consumers care about that the most. And that means I think companies need to lean forward, they need to lean further forward than they have in the past and think about, y’know, what privacy controls to put in place. Not just, you know, privacy by design, but privacy by default. [Niki: Yes!] Right. 

And from a safety standpoint, y’know, I, I think a lot more innovation needs to take place between companies to build the data sets, the tools, the platforms, to enable much better digital safety in these virtual spaces.

A great example of collaboration is actually the, the Photo DNA effort that Microsoft, along with other companies and government agencies, have really swarmed around to identify child sexual exploitation material. We need more concerted efforts like that focused on, y’know, what are the harms in the metaverse, and how to detect them, and frankly take them down.

There are obviously a lot of issues around civil liberties, and privacy and, y’know, and, and speech issues here as well. So, we constantly need to make sure that we're striking the right balance. It's not gonna be easy. It's definitely not gonna be easy. But what I'm seeing today that I didn't see in the past is that this conversation has started almost before the technology has become widely adopted. And I think, because of that, I'm much more optimistic than [chuckling] than perhaps you, Niki! 

Niki: Yes! No, that, and which makes a lot of sense because I think it is a good point to think about when we, y’know, I was working at Google before we had the iPhone. So, when we first started to have social media, no one could have anticipated some of the externalities that we've seen. We know that they exist now, and we know how people feel about their privacy, how people feel about their kids being in new environments. 

And I think that that's a really important point, which is we're not starting for, it's not like a novel situation. We know that when things go virtual, these are some of the potential outcomes, so building around that and thinking about it ahead of time could avoid some of it. 

And I definitely think thinking about technical solutions that can be layered on top of or built into from the beginning. Some of the harms within virtual spaces, it's important, and we are doing this before it's widely adopted because it's not widely adopted yet.

Denise: Exactly. Yeah. I mean, it's, it's interesting just to think about some of the features as well. Like, y’know, as I mentioned earlier, Accenture, we, we are probably the largest enterprise metaverse, the, the one that we built for our own people. And what we notice is there are some really important sort of privacy features that still haven't been, been developed yet.

So, when you're having a conversation in a room, for example, in a large space, in the real world, you can kind of have confidence that, y’know, private conversation in the corner of the room is in fact private.  [Niki: right?] But if you're in this virtual space and you're talking actually in the virtual space with a group of people in one corner are, can you have the confidence and know that people across the space can't hear you? Right? 

That feature doesn't exist yet. We should be able to, y’know, signal or even provide some sort of like a, like a confidentiality bubble. [Niki: Mm-hmm] around people in this virtual space so that they can, they know, “Okay, the conversation I'm having here is in fact private. Nobody across the room can hear me.”

That's just a design feature. [Niki: Right] Right. And, y’know, those are the types of things that still need to be innovated. 

Niki: And it is at the front of our mind in a way that I never thought about,  I really never thought about a lot of the things that we now deal with on a daily basis on, say, Twitter or other social media apps.

It, it never occurred to me, however many years ago that this is, what, what it would look like and how it would play out. So, thinking about this ahead of time, I had no idea. Maybe we'll end on this. I had no idea that Accenture, that, like, that you, Denise, were hanging out in the metaverse [chuckling] asking for a confidentiality bubble feature.

[both laugh]

Denise: It is kind of funny to think about, isn't it? Y’know, we, I think I mentioned this, we have a 160,000 people that we've onboarded into the metaverse. 

Niki: That is wild! You didn't, [Denise: isn't that wild?] You did not mention it. And I think that that's maybe the point, which is

Denise: [interrupts] We've had board meetings in the metaverse [Niki:  You have?]  with our board. [chuckling] Yeah.

Niki: It's so funny. The last time I did a board meeting, it was just a conference call and I kept introducing myself, although I was the only woman on the call out of, like, y’know, all the lawyers and everybody else. I kept saying, “Oh, it's Niki.” Which, I gotta be honest, was not the best experience. I think the metaverse would've been helpful to be able to kind of read what was happening. 

Denise: Yeah, I mean, to be fair, we did get some, y’know, questions about “Why don't I have legs in the metaverse?” For example, 

Niki: Why don't people have legs in the metaverse? Because Mark Zuckerberg doesn't either! 

Denise: Yeah. Y’know, they're working on it. They're working on it. And I think it's just; it's tricky to sort of sync the movement of the legs [Niki: I see!] with the arms with the body in the metaverse and have it represent how your limbs are actually moving in real life. [Niki: Okay] And it can be really disorienting to a user if they, sort of, see their limbs moving in a way that does not actually reflect how it's moving in the real world. So, it's that, y’know, that, that sort of unsettling feeling. 

Niki: The uncanny valley, or whatever they call it! 

Denise: Whatever they call it. [Niki: chuckles] right?] So there's, there's, you know, research and development that's been going into that. I think we're gonna see some pretty significant improvements.

Niki: I mean, it's cutting-edge. So this is why I'm very grateful you came in to talk about this, because to me, sometimes I'm like, is the metaverse just a marketing term? And I think understanding that there are big companies, thinking really deliberately about how other companies are gonna build these tools for people in ways that are constructive, helpful, educational, great for training, helping factories be more efficient.

I could be convinced. 

You might have convinced me. 

Denise: Good! That was my plan all along [laughing]. 

Niki: Oh, good!  Thank you for coming on. We're gonna drop a few things into the show notes on links to what Accenture is working on, but I'm really grateful for you taking the time, Denise. 

Denise: It's great to be here.


Niki:  In our next episode, Bloomberg reporter Emily Birnbaum and I break down the big Supreme Court case that could change everything about how the internet operates. I was able to watch arguments for Gonzalez v. Google in person, and the main reason to do that is to catch each Justice’s vibes.  And the vibes were [pause] not good. 

Be sure to subscribe, so you don’t miss our conversation.