Stop waiting for a fully-realized metaverse – it’s time for action

When we think about the metaverse, we can’t help imagining the seamlessly-connected, fully-realized virtual worlds of fiction. But reality is a different matter, says Matt Dyke, co-founder and global chief strategy officer at The Drum Network member AnalogFolk. For our deep dive on all things metaverse, he argues that waiting for that utopia is a fool’s game; the time to act is now.

The metaverse vision is of a decentralized open internet, with users’ avatars interacting across platforms in a monolithic, connected, interoperable universe.

To an extent, we’re already living in a low-res and fragmented version of that vision.

Billions already access digital experiences that are persistent, immersive, three-dimensional and virtual. The number of user accounts of the top 10 virtual worlds exceeds Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp combined.

These virtual worlds currently have their own access, membership, monetization rights and formats of creative expression, so the business and technical specifications vary widely.

Over the next five years we’ll see a land grab by tech companies such as Epic, Nvidia, Tencent, Microsoft and (yes) Meta as they compete for a dominant role in codifying the protocols for an open metaverse. This will be enabled by web3 technologies including cryptocurrency and NFTs, facilitating less centrality in these virtual worlds and giving users more control over the data they put online.

The connection dream

What’s unclear is how a ‘combined’ metaverse will make anything better. The internet is already so much bigger than the metaverse originally envisioned in the 1990s, because it’s not just one shared environment. It’s vastly more flexible, a connecting medium for whatever broad or niche virtual worlds we want to create.

Brands don’t need to worry about whether this monolithic, fully-connected and interoperable metaverse will ever exist. In fact, watching and waiting will leave you behind the curve. Focus instead on the opportunities offered by the virtual worlds that already exist. Already-existing applications of the metaverse can broadly be split into social, play and task-based experiences.

Social experiences

Social experiences are the most ill-defined – the use cases are endless. We’ve seen organized social experiences such as music festivals, parties, film screenings and parlor games (versus video gaming). Or simply hanging out in virtual museums (displaying NFT art), parks, bars and shops. There’s a novelty attraction to these experiences, though in browser-based virtual worlds such as Decentraland many simply try to replicate the conventional rules of their real-life counterparts.

The most exciting examples break free from these conventions and imagine a different experience altogether. Music festivals in Fortnite have seen the artist morphing into different shapes and otherworldly stages that transform with each track. Rather than stand and watch (or dance and emote), the rules of interaction change with the stages. This shows a distinct experiential and social value to real life.

As virtual reality (VR) technology becomes more commonplace and affordable, expect a significant uplift in the volume of new audiences and their motivation to seek out these experiences with friends.

Play

The roadmap for gaming is perhaps clearer to see. Hardware and graphical capabilities already deliver immersive experiences, and players play in massively multiplayer spaces with virtual goods to use and trade.

VR applications are finally living up to their promise, with Oculus headsets outstripping sales of Xbox consoles. This year we will likely see PlayStation’s second-generation VR headset, which boasts 4k resolution alongside haptic controller feedback and adaptive triggers.

Less clearly defined but most exciting in terms of growth potential is the rise of blockchain-based gaming, from simple horse racing experiences such as Zed to the stunning open-world RPG adventure game Illuvium (built on the Ethereum Blockchain). Expect to see an explosion in casual games where earning, buying and trading is core to the gaming experience.

Tasks: work and shopping

The promise of task-based applications in the metaverse is least headline-grabbing, but perhaps most interesting. In workspaces, try to ignore images of colleagues floating around a table, dressed in spacesuits. Instead, think about congregating around virtual car prototype designs, discussing fashion samples, walking through architectural renders or learning by watching surgery in action.

This is already happening, with companies spending considerably on retina-level graphics (almost indistinguishable from real life) in high-end headsets including Varjo. Apple may launch their much-anticipated Visor VR/AR headset this year, which could cause rapid adoption of this technology among workers.

Shopping also shows tremendous promise, although early concepts again focus on replicating real life (even if the reality of that task is something we all want to avoid). The widely shared (and derided) Walmart metaverse supermarket hype film felt like a step backward from the best e-commerce experiences already available today. Platforms such as MetaVRse are marginally more interesting, but again replicate a faceless shopping mall. There’s a huge creative opportunity here for brands to reinvent task-based virtual experiences to offer real value.

So, it’s time to stop waiting for the utopia (or dystopia) of a fully-realized metaverse and start acting. Brands can use the elements of today’s metaverse to take advantage of more immersive worlds, engage with creators in more rewarding ways, and transition to a world in which digital goods (and real goods) are bought and traded in more interesting ways.