The metaverse can be hard to pin down. Is it virtual conferencing? Digital sneakers? An Ariana Grande gig in Fortnite? Or is it just empty hype?
Mark Zuckerberg is clearly a fan. In October 2021 he renamed Facebook’s parent company Meta and presented a slightly awkward video featuring holographic watches, poker-playing robots and 3D street art. Other tech giants are moving in: a digital currency giant Grayscale describes the metaverse as a “$1 trillion opportunity,” while investment bank Jefferies says it could disrupt “almost everything in human life.”
For regular folk, these sums can seem as unimaginably epic as the metaverse itself. But behind the headlines there are trends that may already be affecting your business. Here we’ll explore what the metaverse is with real-world examples and a guide to how it will impact you and me.
What is the metaverse?
The metaverse is an amalgamation of the real and the virtual. It consists of a series of digital spaces that overlap with the real world and with each other. The term was introduced in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel Snow Crash, which describes a real world ruled by brutal corporations and a linked “metaverse”, a virtual reality (VR) successor to the internet.
But while Stephenson’s novel saw the metaverse as a network managed by a single company, the real metaverse is harder to tie down. That’s because rather than being a single technology or company (sorry Meta), it’s a change in the way we interact with technology. The last 150 years have seen computers leap from screenless machines operated by punch cards to the networked touch- and voice-activated devices of today. The metaverse, like the related term web3, is really just a placeholder to describe the leap that comes next.
How the metaverse works»
The metaverse will be immersive and packed with users’ avatars. Its many worlds will overlap (it’s this web of virtual connections that arguably makes the metaverse), but they won’t all look the same, or be accessed in the same way:
- they may be VR, such as the gaming spaces of Fortnite or World of Warcraft
- they might be augmented reality (AR), with data or visuals laid over the real world, rather as maps identify planets in the night sky, or ridesharing apps mix vehicle data with real locations
- they may be accessed mostly as we do today via phone or laptop screens
- 3D headsets and holograms might offer a more in-depth experience
These digital worlds are underpinned by real people and transactions, and even now, at the dawn of the metaverse, there’s serious business to be done. In 2020, gamers spent around $54 billion on additional in-game content—a figure that’s estimated to grow to $74 billion by 2025.
Why new tech is a gamechanger
For the major players in tech, the metaverse is a huge opportunity. Existing spaces such as massively multiplayer online games look likely to be joined by worlds of virtual retail, banking, education and social interaction.
The next steps are already being taken. For example, Meta’s Horizons Workrooms are headset-powered VR meeting places, while newer iPhones come equipped with Lidar tech that can scan a user’s surroundings and could be an AR game-changer. The increasing accessibility of cryptocurrency and the rise of non-fungible assets (NTFs)—unique, trackable image or sound files—has amped things up another notch. Examples of metaverse assets include Burberry-themed NFT characters and sleek virtual kimonos to be worn by avatars. The Sandbox allows users to create worlds and monetize them for visitors, while in SuperWorld you can purchase the virtual Taj Mahal or Easter Island.
In the future? Zuckerberg thinks that we’ll “be able to do almost anything you can imagine.” But before the metaverse can really soar, two further steps are required. One an immersive interface—probably revolving around headsets and motion sensors—fit for mass adoption. The other is interoperability—the ability to move seamlessly with a single avatar between different parts of the metaverse, from a shoe shop in Doha to a cocktail bar in Austin, while blasting aliens and chatting to your friends, the kimono you just bought going with you wherever you go. While we’re waiting for this new world, let’s consider how the metaverse affects regular businesses today.
How businesses can access the metaverse
The world has not yet gone “full metaverse”, and it’s important to note that the ways businesses currently market their products such as Instagram feeds or shopfront displays aren’t going to disappear overnight. The changes that come will be incremental.
Users will increasingly log into virtual spaces. The ability to really hone in on the look and feel of the stitching on a jacket, set an artwork against their wallpaper or walk through incredibly lifelike real estate allows customers to see how a product will fit into their world, and gives brands the opportunity to sell their story. And, as these portals become more immersive and interconnected, the experience of browsing products and services via VR may become an end in itself (think of when malls became places to hang out in the ‘80s and ‘90s).
Being present in this virtual world will become increasingly important. We’re already seeing major brands such as Gucci and Superplastic sell NFTs—in this case, digital artworks as a package with ceramic sculptures. These aspirational digital products will offer a way for customers to buy into the brand and show off online. For businesses, they’re both a marketing and a sales opportunity.
NFTs and richer engagement
Currently, digital products are often sold as an add-on to a real-world purchase. But they’re likely to become the main event. The advantages are obvious: production costs are low, goods are not perishable, they can be unique or limited edition, they can be tracked and a commission can be taken on any resale. And they should—eventually—be portable across the metaverse.
Because of that low cost, the metaverse may initially be a great place to trial products and set up collaborations with users, partners and influencers. As people and their avatars become able to move more freely through increasingly appealing spaces, without being limited by physical geography, virtual groups and events will become more common. Warner Bros hosted a dance party on Roblox to promote the movie In the Heights, with users able to access unique content, dance or just hang out.
We already have online events and communities, but what’s new is the level of immersion and interactivity. Nuanced gestures (via advanced motion capture) and personalization (via “skins” and unique NFTs) mean some users will stay longer and feel more at home. Encounters with other avatars will feel more real, as we decide whether to stand face-to-face, chat from a futon or swap tips while skipping across a fantastic landscape.
Deeper engagement, more connected communities and richer advertising will all result, and remote teams will feel less distant as the quirks and personalities of coworkers are given room to breathe.
How to design for the metaverse
We’ve seen that immersion is a vital part of the metaverse. That means good design is vital for products, services and the portals they’re accessed through. There will be an enormous amount of competition in this new world, and companies will have to stand out, and tell distinctive stories that bring consumers back.
That means working with a designer who’s skilled in using 3D modeling and 360° videos to create virtual artifacts and locations that look good from any angle. Interfaces such as menus, feeds and apps that disrupt a person (or avatar’s) progress through the metaverse will break the spell. Instead, design needs to be intuitive.
Designing for the metaverse doesn’t just mean designing for your part of the metaverse: it means producing content that works across the spectrum. This interoperability means that each product or experience should be portable and works in a range of contexts. As we design, we need to think of what’s around us, whether it’s how a given artifact will look and perform on different platforms, or how users will manipulate it in the real world—by swiping a touch-screen, or while lying in a full-body harness that tracks our every move?
Leaving room for users to personalize products and experiences will be an important part of the mix. Making users feel at home, or native, is central to the metaverse. Being able to shift an object’s color or add personal branding gives users agency and may encourage them to spend longer in your virtual shop window.
The metaverse might be a risky place
The metaverse is already rich with marketing possibilities, but we don’t yet know exactly what form it will take. And there are risks.
- The timeframe and extent to which the metaverse will transform individual sectors is uncertain: while training in 3D modeling or exploring Meta’s Horizon Worlds may be great steps for some organizations, it would be a brave business that banked on the metaverse exploding tomorrow. A big investment may only open up a small number of early adopters.
- The immersive interfaces that connect the real world with the metaverse remain at an early stage—holograms are often shown as a solution, but the technology is currently too limited to be useful. VR headset use remains low and makes some users feel sick.
- The metaverse is almost certain to be heavily reliant on cryptocurrency, which can go up and down dramatically. Businesses relying on it may be vulnerable.
- Because of its very nature, the metaverse is likely to be decentralized. That means regulation will be limited, which may lead to it being dominated by major corporations with the muscle to thrive.
- The internet and social media currently face serious security issues via cybercriminals, deepfake videos and online radicalization. In a larger, more immersive and more monetized metaverse, those problems might grow even more pressing.
Why the metaverse matters
The immersive, interconnected metaverse is seen as the future by many major players in tech, some of whom are investing heavily. To the cynical, the metaverse can also be seen as a jumbled mix of things we already have (basic VR and gaming avatars) and things we might never have (a truly connected virtual world).
Yet, while there are risks, the opportunity for businesses is enormous. If the hype is true, it won’t be long before we spend much of our lives, and doing most of our spending, in the metaverse.
And even if the metaverse doesn’t reach as far or arrive as quickly as evangelists suggest, there are still measures that small- and medium-sized businesses can adopt to take advantage of its dawning technologies, from immersive online events to 3D design and money-spinning NFTs. The metaverse looks likely to get more important every day—and if you’re not on board, you might be left behind.