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Helen Todd is co-founder and CEO of Sociality Squared and the human behind Creativity Squared.
Domhnaill is the Global Lead for the EY Metaverse Labs and the Global Lead for the Cognitive Human Enterprise.

Ep41. Domhnaill Hernon: The Metaverse is Dead; Long Live the Metaverse!

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Ep41. The Metaverse is Dead; Long Live the Metaverse! Why You Should Pay Attention to the Metaverse with Domhnaill Hernon, the Global Lead of EY’s Metaverse Lab

You won’t be on the fence about investing in the metaverse after this episode!

From aeronautical engineering to trailblazing the intersection of art and technology, meet Domhnaill Hernon.

Domhnaill is an award-winning technology and innovation executive. He received an undergrad degree in Aeronautical Engineering and a PhD in Aerodynamics from the University of Limerick and an executive MBA from Dublin City University, Ireland. He currently holds two positions as Global Lead of the EY Metaverse Lab and the Cognitive Human Enterprise. These are pioneering new approaches placing Humans@Center between business, technology, and society. Prior to that he held several senior leadership positions across R&D, innovation, and creativity while at Nokia Bell Labs. Domhnaill’s work has been featured in Wired Magazine, Forbes, Times Square, SXSW, Nasdaq, Mobile World Congress, Ars Electronica, and TEDx, and he advises innovation and cultural programs globally.

You’re in for a treat as Domhnaill shares his unique perspective on the evolution of the internet from 2D to 3D, the current state of the metaverse, and the imperative for businesses to invest in it, especially with Gen Z’s adoption of it. He runs an artist-in-residence program at EY to deeply infuse artists’ perspectives and challenge technologists to think beyond technology-only solutions. He also shares the power of collaborating with artists to challenge our assumptions and have our digital worlds reflect the full spectrum of lived human experiences.

In this episode, you’ll hear Domhnaill’s journey from his early days as an aeronautical engineer to becoming a thought leader of the metaverse. He shares his ah-ha moment, when an intellectual anvil hit him on his head and changed the trajectory of his thinking on how innovation should be approached.

He also discusses EY’s exploration of identity and inclusivity in the metaverse and how technology can unintentionally homogenize rather than allow for authentic individual expression. He urges listeners to value different perspectives, experiences, and types of intelligence beyond their own, as that is where the biggest value is created.

Join the conversation as Domhnaill shares why the metaverse isn’t dead despite headlines and his passion for pushing the boundaries of what’s possible at the intersection of art, technology, and business

Defining the Metaverse

The metaverse is not a new phenomenon, but it is one that most can agree is fairly amorphous and difficult to grasp fully. Domnhaill starts by defining the metaverse for our listeners in its simplest form, relating the concept to the evolution of the internet. When you think about the internet today, and you go on a webpage, it’s largely text-based, and it’s 2D and flat. You interact with it through a mouse and keyboard. It works well for what it’s intended to do, and an overall fine experience, but it’s not comparable to how we as humans interact with any other parts of the world.

When we think about the evolution of the internet, the future of it is likely to become more 3D, more spatial, more immersive, and more collaborative. That’s how EY defines the metaverse.

Domhnaill explains that with this evolution of the internet, it will become more like how we as humans interact with each other in the physical world. A large reason it gets difficult for people to understand is that a lot of the hype that you read, or a lot of the articles you read on Google or in the media, is largely about virtual reality, which he emphasizes as part of the metaverse, but is nowhere near the entirety of it. In fact, the metaverse can be experienced in virtual reality, augmented reality, or through today’s 2D web.

It’s important to keep in mind that the metaverse is nebulous because it merges and encompasses so many different aspects. It connects the physical and the digital. It talks about the evolution of the internet beyond what it is today. And there are so many different ways you can experience it that it is no surprise that it is deemed such a complicated topic. Domhnaill encourages us to keep in mind that as the internet becomes more 3D, it will become more like how we as humans interact with each other in the physical world, which he deems the best way to start one’s understanding of what the metaverse actually is, and will become.

Embracing Metaverse Superpowers

Through his job, Domhnaill encounters people from all over the world and all different positions who typically share the same cynical, dismissive attitude towards the metaverse. To open up their perspective, a bulletproof approach is connecting it to their daily lives through the lens of the younger generation. With over 80% of Gen Z spending their time online playing games, everyone can unanimously agree that this younger generation is shaping our future and is spending almost all of their time online. 

Considering their time spent online and the fact that the gaming industry is many times bigger than the movie and music industries combined, it starts to make more sense why businesses must start paying attention to the behaviors and trends of this generation, who are our current and future employees, customers, and leaders.

If you’re not investing in the metaverse, you will not attract or retain the top, best young talent. You won’t attract brand loyalty from your new customers and consumers, and you’re going to lose out on all of these opportunities because you’re not meeting them where they are. And where they are, is online. And more so, in immersive, more engaging, and more gamified environments.

“The risk is not investing in the metaverse.” 

Domhnaill Hernon

A popular misconception is that Domhnaill is talking about building or investing in a game, but he isn’t. Instead, take the best elements that drive engagement, interactivity, collaboration, and community-building from online games, bring them into the business setting, and make them enterprise-worthy and purposefully address company needs.

Where are We on the Metaverse Adoption Curve?

The metaverse has been around for quite some time, so where are we currently on the early adoption curve? First, Domhnaill explains that there are different curves for the different metaverse types. The first, the social consumer metaverse, which is mostly the online gaming platforms, has been around for a while and is very mature. So when thinking about the hype cycle there of this massive industry, it’s here and only growing.

There’s also the industry metaverse, which encompasses things like digital twins, prototyping, and simulations that can be used to optimize and increase productivity in facilities and similar industrial and manufacturing spaces. Domhnaill believes this is also a mature space given the adoption and investments. The industry metaverse has been utilizing use cases through virtual reality, especially around enabling prototyping to do health and safety training in these types of environments for many years now, before the metaverse terminology was ever hyped up to what it is today.

For the third type, enterprise metaverse, the question of how the metaverse plays a role in businesses is ripe for more adoption. How does it help professionals on a day-to-day basis excel at their 9-5 jobs? That’s where the enterprise metaverse comes in, which is all about enabling stronger communication, better collaboration, and leveraging the superpowers of the metaverses to bring people together and achieve impactful outcomes. This part of the metaverse, Domhnaill explains, has just come out of its hypecycle and is at its peak currently.

So, looking at the three metaverses and where they are all on their hype cycle curve, some maturity in the social consumer, a lot of maturity in the industrial, and adoption is ripe to take the best practices from both of them and bring them more into the enterprise metaverse. 

“I’m very positive and bullish about where we are in the hype cycle and how we’re coming out of the negativity and starting to go into the mindset of let’s make real investments and let’s create real value.”

Domhnaill Hernon

The Metaverse is Dead; Long Live the Metaverse!

Domhnaill warns us heavily to not believe the headlines around the metaverse — especially those saying the metaverse is dead — and take all that they are saying with “a gigantic pinch of salt.” Despite these misleading articles telling us to ignore all things metaverse, he is witnessing the biggest companies making large investments, a telltale sign that the metaverse is very much alive.

Skip the first few pages of the Google search results, he recommends, to get down to the results where people who are relevant in the space are talking about the metaverse in the ways it should be explored. And keep in mind, that every emerging technology goes through a hype cycle, just like we are currently seeing happening here.

“It’s like a universal law. Every single emerging technology that has created gigantic positive social and business benefits in the world to date, every technology has gone through the hype cycle. And yet it’s here, and they’re ubiquitous.”

Domhnaill Hernon

For any big technology evolution, you can refer back to the media headlines, Domhnaill reminds listeners, and all of them go through the same cycle, out of their hype cycle and right into the notion of “this is dead, it’s going nowhere.” Yet, every single time, those technologies then go on to become ubiquitous in our society.

Merging Art and Technology

Aside from all things metaverse, Domhnaill’s true passion lies at the intersection of art and technology. 

Domhnaill is rooted in a deeply academic, deeply scientific, and technological background. His early years of work were with an organization that played a very prominent role in all of modern society technologically, Nokia Bell Labs. Despite the contributions to humanity he was involved with there, he found himself realizing that everyone around him, himself included, was coming from that deep technology background, and there was only one world model to have. There was only one lens through which to view the world, which is through a technology lens. In other words, every problem is a tech problem, and every solution is a tech solution. Domhnaill was a technologist working with technologists who all loved technology, and had a feeling there was something they were collectively missing.

“Here are humans and people touching each touchpoint of how technology is made, deployed, and consumed. Almost no one ever thinks really about the human at the center of it.”

Domhnaill Hernon

A turning point for him was at an artist and engineer meetup in New York City, where the conversations with the artists that he met opened up his perspective and changed his trajectory on how to approach innovation.

“The analogy I give is that I feel like someone dropped an intellectual anvil on my head. They spoke about technology, they spoke about humanity, they spoke about society in a way that I never heard anyone else.”

Domhnaill Hernon

With his eyes opened wide from the conversations and realizations, Domhnaill finally recognized what was missing from his technology-focused world. The perspective that helped reconcile the tensions in his head as a technologist and someone who loves technology but knew that it could be so much better finally saw the missing puzzle piece. 

Josie Williams. Photo: EY.

 Artist-in-Residence Programs

Those eye-opening realizations launched Domhnaill’s creation of Bell Lab’s artist-in-residence program, in which he strived to infuse that way of thinking deeply into the minds of their technologists and also deep into the foundations of business and merge it with an artist’s perception.

“And by business, I mean, not just this fun, altruistic, check-the-box innovation thing, I mean, deep into business, in that you can create value from bringing the worlds of art, creativity, and technology together.”

Domhnaill Hernon

Striving to fill these gaps between art and tech is something that Domhnaill considers a personal journey, but also something that he encourages us all to be more aware of in recognizing these areas of needed improvement across the board.

When he joined EY, he also established an artist-in-residence program. With these artist residency programs, the focus is on emerging new things you can create at the intersection of things that were previously siloed. It’s bringing artists into technology or business, where you have the diversity of lived experiences and diversity of different types of intelligences. The collaboration between Domhnaill and his team with the artists runs deep, spending hours together every week exploring everything from the broader meanings of life and technology to then refining that and identifying what big questions they continuously come back to. From there, they determine if they have a unique point of view or a unique way of bringing this way of thinking to the world and then eventually to a prototype. And then, if successful, they get to present that work to the world.

The strong connection they build with the artists, over the multiple years they work together, is something that is an integral part of the process. The deep intent of getting to know each other is the only way to create this kind of real social value in the world.

“I rely on artists to help us think through those things substantially because their entire existence and the way they interrogate the world is of that human lens of the human condition, and they’re the best ones to help you think through mistakes you might make today that might cause individuals or communities harm in the future.”

Domhnaill Hernon

EY Metaverse Artist Projects

Last year, Josie Williams, an artist from the program was featured at SXSW 2023. Williams’ showcase, “Ancestral Archives” was an interactive multimedia installation that explores infusing Black thought into virtual worlds and metaverse experiences using generative artificial intelligence. The artist showcase aimed to fuse Black history, culture, and A.I. within the metaverse, offering a unique experience to challenge conventional thinking. Inspired by renowned American writers like James Baldwin, Octavia Butler, and Zora Neale Hurston, Josie utilized machine learning to create “virtual poets.” Unlike traditional bots, these virtual poets didn’t provide direct, factual responses mimicking the authors’ works. Instead, they offered abstract, poetic responses, often diverging from the authors’ styles entirely. This approach aimed to prompt audiences to engage deeply, interpreting and contextualizing the responses within their own experiences and perspectives.

“It showed this very typical artist way of acting as a counterpoint to everything else that everyone is doing.”

Domhnaill Hernon

Then, they expanded the concept by creating masks inspired by West African culture, representing the authors whose works were used to train the virtual poets. These masks were integrated into a massive 3D interactive environment, where visitors could engage with the virtual poets, receive their poetic responses, and explore the immersive world. The showcase elicited a positive response from participants, and the response affirmed the project’s success in pushing boundaries and encouraging people to rethink conventional approaches to A.I. and storytelling in immersive environments.

A current project, dubbed “Maximizing the Minimum” with a long-standing artistic collaborator with EY, Ava Davidova, is taking a look at the impact of technology on human identity and communication. Ava, in collaboration with EY, is exploring the homogenization of humanity through technology, particularly evident in metaverse environments where avatar customization is so prevalent and often fails to capture individuals’ actual true essence. The project aims to leverage A.I., such as machine vision and GenAI, to detect and amplify subtle expressions and nuances that define individuality. The things that make us, us.

By focusing on microexpressions and idiosyncrasies, the project is seeking to create more authentic digital representations of individuals, challenging the current homogenizing trends in avatar creation, which Domhnaill deems something we need to be careful about. One focus of this project is to address the potential harm caused by technological solutions and explore ways to mitigate such effects, and promote a deeper understanding of human identity and communication in the digital realms.

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Thank you, Domhnaill, for being our guest on Creativity Squared. 

This show is produced and made possible by the team at PLAY Audio Agency: https://playaudioagency.com.  

Creativity Squared is brought to you by Sociality Squared, a social media agency who understands the magic of bringing people together around what they value and love: http://socialitysquared.com.

Because it’s important to support artists, 10% of all revenue Creativity Squared generates will go to ArtsWave, a nationally recognized non-profit that supports over 150 arts organizations, projects, and independent artists.

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