It is hard to resist the vision spun to us by Meta (formerly Facebook) and other virtual world platforms. A digital utopia that can transform lives in multiple ways — whether how we socialize, work or even stay healthy — is a hard one to refuse.
This is especially true when considering that these platforms are being described as the biggest technological disruption to human life and a multi-trillion dollar opportunity for businesses. However, there is skepticism from some that this is all too good to be true — at least for now.
The technological architecture that would allow this promised immersive experience to spring to life is lacking. Take the example of live performances used in Facebook’s metaverse video back in October. The idea of experiencing those authentic real-world sensations through a headset seems far-fetched. What seems even more implausible is a virtual reality headset becoming a household must-have.
Advanced VR equipment will most likely be needed to allow us to immerse ourselves in these virtual worlds. Yet, customers have previously shown resistance to buying the often expensive and bulky VR headsets and other hardware. The first Oculus headset launched more than five years ago. It has not come anywhere close to the same mainstream adoption as more compact and convenient hardware, like the mobile phone or laptop.
Expensive equipment is not a necessity for the foundations of the Metaverse. It is accessibility that is key to start onboarding users for any technological innovation.
Pokémon GO is the perfect case study. The augmented reality game got users out in the real world collecting the titular fictional creatures. It was successful not only because of the engaging gameplay, but because of its accessibility — anyone with a mobile phone could take part.
Use cases and the Metaverse
We’ve seen accessible metaverse platforms for some time now. Second Life was one of the first, having launched in 2003. But in its 19-year history, it has not come close to onboarding the number of users envisioned by Meta.
Decentraland is a newer platform and has taken off since the Meta announcement. It is captivating the imagination of businesses through the incorporation of economic and blockchain elements like NFTs and its MANA token.
With customers being home-bound by the global COVID-19 pandemic and the decline of the brick-and-mortar shops, Decentraland is giving brands a chance to revitalize audience engagement.
Instead of just filling a virtual basket, businesses have taken to these existing metaverse platforms with creativity in mind. JPMorgan bought virtual real estate and opened its own metaverse lounge. Suddenly, it doesn’t seem too far-fetched to be able to create a real bank account in a virtual world.
There are more subtle tactics to get users talking about a brand. Take pharma giant Pfizer, which gave vaccinated gamers a blue badge for their avatar.
It is not just the marketing team getting their hands dirty in these virtual worlds. There are plenty of opportunities for salespeople to monetize content and reap profits from the Metaverse.
Blockchain technology has been waiting in the wings for this. NFTs are giving real world value to digital goods and lend themselves perfectly to the Metaverse. Artists can trade virtual paintings, architects can sell digital real estate, engineers can auction Metaverse-based vehicles.
Currently, fashion is the industry generating the most interest. If the Metaverse becomes a staple of modern-day life, users will want to look good. High fashion brands like Dolce & Gabbana, Gucci and Louis Vuitton have sold NFTs, and most fetched premium prices.
E-commerce giants are also jumping on this trend and are generating a healthy, competitive space. Nike purchased the virtual shoe company RTFKT as it attempts to build a Metaverse-driven brand.
Acquisitions might be crucial for big corporations to survive in this fast-changing virtual environment. Having a young, capable and trendsetting team could be the difference between sinking or swimming.
Not without problems
Even as the rules of the Metaverse are yet to be proposed, never mind agreed upon, some of the problems that have plagued the internet are already starting to plague our shiny new reality. The newly released Horizon Worlds is the first metaverse project by Meta for the Oculus VR headsets. Already, Currency.com has reported on sexual harrassment taking place in this metaverse, as well as the dangers lurking in the corners of other platforms.
Toxicity on social platforms is nothing new, but solving it in the Metaverse is going to be crucial if it is to be a digital utopia. Companies and, more importantly, users will struggle to buy into a future that’s governed by hostile virtual realities.
Meta has already implemented a solution in the form of a “safe zone” that can act as a protective bubble where no-one is able to touch or talk to a user. It is also making blocking others as easy as possible.
While Meta has laid out these general plans for community moderation, it has yet to detail suggestions for policing a full-scaled metaverse. Regulating hate, harassment and free speech could be its biggest stumbling block.
Horizon Worlds gives the impression that it is an experiment, testing the current capabilities of the Metaverse. There is no public timeframe for the release of Meta’s full metaverse or any other similar platform. So, theoretically, it could take years or even decades before the Metaverse becomes a part of everyday life.
This has not stopped businesses from announcing metaverse plans or setting up on existing platforms, whether it's JPMorgan, Disney, Adidas, Coca-Cola or Gucci. But the hazy delivery timelines conjure up comparisons with the dot-com bubble and its equally long-on-promise sales pitches. Without the delivery, there's every chance that this too will become a bubble with the related risk that it will eventually burst.
With the dust from Facebook’s rebrand yet to settle, it is too early to call it. It's certainly plausible that there is a place for the Metaverse in the world, but it remains far from the immersive, idyllic vision sold to us by those hoping to profit from it.
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