Media Innovation Round-Up: the meaningful metaverse & why the public don’t understand NFTs
Marek Wrobel vigilantly tracks emerging media tech for Havas Media Group. For The Drum, in the Media Innovation Round-Up, Wrobel explores ‘new and shiny’ tech and its role in the ever-evolving marketing mix.
How is digital presence (including both digital avatars and holograms) being used in media and entertainment?
Metaverse – more than just fun and games
‘March Through Time’ is a new interactive experience playable in Fortnite Creative mode, created by Time in partnership with Epic Games. How does it fit into the creation of the metaverse and what role will it play in our lives?
There is no denying that the metaverse train has left the station and there is no slowing it down. Over the last few weeks, we have seen even more brands getting involved, with Vans and Hyundai building experiences in Roblox and Charlie Cohen partnering with Selfridges, Verizon and Pokemon to create a virtual web-based shopping experience. And then there is news coming from Facebook, which has not only announced plans to hire 10,000 people to work on delivering on Mark Zuckerberg’s metaverse vision but is also, as reported by The Verge, planning on changing its name to reflect its focus on building the metaverse.
I am covering the ‘March Through Time’ experience because, while there have been some valid critical opinions about the initiative, I think it shows something important about the metaverse, something I feel is missed in all the hype we are experiencing at the moment – that the metaverse is not just fun and games.
For it to become an integral part of our lives, and a new iteration of the internet, it needs to be about so much more than that – a place where we learn, where we express ourselves and our views (beyond new skins) and stand up for what we believe in. And we have seen the first signs of what’s to come.
While the pandemic naturally accelerated this trend, even before this teachers and scientists had started to explore how Minecraft, Roblox and Fortnite could be used to engage with younger generations. Minecraft has a whole education section and works with the likes of Nasa. Scientists decided to leverage the popularity of Fortnite and created a ClimateFortnite Twitch channel with the audio commentary dealing not just with Fortnite strategies and tips, but also with the consequences of our changing planet.
Virtual worlds are not only about learning though, but also about expressing our views and politics. One of my favorite examples, as it’s close to my heart, was a Global Pride Crossing event organized in Animal Crossing during the time when most Pride events had been canceled during Covid-19. Another brilliant example of how these ‘games’ can play an important role in our lives is the Uncensored Library built in Minecraft by Reporters Without Borders, which is a virtual hub housing a collection of otherwise inaccessible journalism from all over the world. Politicians have started to notice this trend as well, with Joe Biden’s campaign creating a Fortnite island to engage with younger voters.
But as the proverb says, ‘Actions speak louder than words,’ and over the last 18 months we’ve seen players taking virtual action. Activists from Hong Kong launched a protest in Animal Crossing (leading to the game being banned in China). Sims modder and streamer EbonixSims organized an in-game Black Lives Matter rally. And just a few months ago, World of Warcraft players staged a sit-in protest following Blizzard’s allegations of harassment and discrimination against women. And with these virtual worlds becoming more and more important in our lives – especially among the younger generations – I strongly believe we will see more examples like these.
Amazon gets physical
Amazon is opening its first-ever 4-star mini department store outside of the US in Dartford’s Bluewater shopping center, offering items that have user ratings of four stars or above. Will Amazon transform itself from the killer of the high street to its savior?
Amazon opened its first physical location – a bookstore in Seattle – in 2015. Since then, its bricks-and-mortar footprint has been steadily growing over the years. However, it was a high-profile acquisition of Whole Foods in 2017 that signaled Amazon is serious about it. While some may argue not that much has changed in how Whole Foods operates, industry experts believe this acquisition allowed Amazon to improve its delivery network and learn more about physical retail. Amazon has continued its experiments by launching Amazon Fresh, utilizing its cashier-less technology (with the sixth UK store opening in Dalston just a few weeks ago), and the aforementioned Amazon 4-star stores. And now The Wall Street Journal has reported that Amazon is planning to open a number of physical department stores in the US.
Additionally, a growing physical footprint and partnerships have changed how Amazon delivers stuff. A growing network of Amazon Lockers and a recently-announced partnership with the Post Office have allowed Amazon to tap into the click & collect trend. Across the pond, Amazon has been also experimenting with drive-through grocery stores and opening dark stores, which will be closed to the public but instead focus on fulfilling online grocery orders.
Amazon is also rolling out its point-of-sale platform Amazon One. It uses biometrics (in this case the palm of your hand) to authenticate payments. While it’s being installed across some of its Amazon Fresh locations, Amazon has opened it up to third-party retail stores – grocery or otherwise. However, it doesn’t stop there, as Amazon One has made the first move into entertainment venues in the US. Rather than being used for payments, your palm serves as an entry ticket with the technology verifying your identity. It’s a clear sign that Amazon’s ambitions go beyond payments and for Amazon One to be used as an identity technology.
And last but not the least, Amazon is also looking beyond a pure retail play. Just a few months ago, the company opened its first hair salon in London. The chances we will have an Amazon hair salon on every corner are slim to non-existent though, as Amazon Salon is seen as a one-off experiment, most likely used as a PR tactic to strengthen Amazon credentials in the beauty and fashion sector. On the other hand, Amazon seems to be much more serious about opening physical pharmacies – as reported in the US – which will be an integral part of its strategy in this sector.
As you can see, the days when Amazon was a pure online retailer are long gone. However, looking at Amazon’s history, can anybody be surprised? First and foremost, moving into physical spaces makes total sense when it comes to one of Amazon’s main goals – to evolve and grow its ecosystem, either by creating new brand touchpoints or entering new sectors. But we’re seeing competition.
A few days ago, Tesco opened its first checkout-less store in Holborn.
When it comes to online reviews impacting the stock of a store, Westfield did a pop-up in 2019 called ‘The Trending Store’ that stocked items hot on social.
And last year Lidl signed a deal with InPost with its digital lockers installed across 24 Lidl stores.
NFTs are not going anywhere
TikTok has announced its own NFT drop, leveraging content from some of its top creators. Twitter is experimenting with NFTs to allow users to display their collections as their profile pictures. Will the social media giants help NFTs break into the mainstream?
While there are some reports about the NFT market cooling off, sales volumes tell a different story, leading to Reuters reporting that “surging sales and hefty prices on NFTs [...] have baffled many but the explosive growth shows no sign of abating.” We see a similar picture looking at a number of brands exploring the potential of NFTs – from toilet paper, FMCG giants and music, to luxury fashion brands. And believe me, this is just the tip of the iceberg.
Are we stuck in our marketing echo chamber? What about people outside of our industry? Do they care about NFTs? Do they know what they are? Based on research conducted in April, the answer is not really. The majority of Brits were not aware of them, 23% thought they are a silly trend and a similar number saw them as another playground for the mega-rich. Having said that, I want to stress that I’m very far from disregarding NFTs.
It wouldn’t be the first time a potentially groundbreaking innovation is seen as a fad – many did not expect the internet to change the world. I genuinely think NFTs can follow a similar path, however they still have some maturing to do across three main areas.
Firstly, how people can buy NFTs within the landscape is rather complex and hard to understand for those who are not in the know. It feels like the early days of QR codes, when each code needed a lengthy explanation of what it was and what to do with it.
Secondly, NFTs still lack scale. Based on the latest data, even the biggest of NFT marketplaces – Open Sea – has just over 200,000 active traders globally, with the majority of traffic coming from the US (although the UK is No. 2). And finally (and most importantly in my opinion) is the question, ‘how can I brag about my NFTs?’ What happens when you pay for the piece of content? How can you show it off? There’s a meme tweeted by Elon Musk showing people dancing at a party and a person standing in the corner thinking to themselves, ‘They don’t know I own this song’s non-fungible token.’ It’s funny ‘cos it’s true, as even though there are applications enabling you to store and display your NFTs, they can feel hermetic – popular only among those already familiar with the concept.
Thankfully, the latest announcements from TikTok and Twitter show that all of this can and most likely will change and improve with time. On many levels, TikTok launching Top Moments feels like a match made in NFT heaven.
Spotlight on digital presence
In Alter Ego, Fox’s new singing competition, singers compete not as themselves but rather as digital avatars. Participants perform backstage wearing motion capture suits, with judges and an audience seeing their avatars. What does this Masked Singer on steroids tell us about the future of digital presence?
Reviews have been rather mixed, with The Guardian going as far as calling it ‘a horrifying oddity’ or even the worst show of 2021. I still find it refreshing to see how avatars are being used in yet another medium and on such a massive scale.
Alter Ego is just one of the many examples of how digital presence (including both digital avatars and holograms) can be used in media and entertainment.
Warner Bros has partnered with Yahoo, Aircards and Ready Player Me to launch Dune-Avatar.com – a website that enables users to create a Dune-inspired avatar by simply uploading a selfie.
8th Wall – a leading webAR platform – has partnered with a company called 8i to livestream holograms in Web AR.
Volograms has launched the public version of its 3D content creation app Volu, which promises users an opportunity to easily create, share and play with immersive, dynamic AR and VR content.
All of these are great examples of how brands and publishers can leverage their digital presence to either elevate their content or enable users to create new types of experiences.