How to break through the fog of uncertainty and master the metaverse
Josh Rush, co-founder and chief executive of Surreal Events, explores some of the more material ways brands are making baby steps into what some are calling the ‘metaverse.’
In 2003, Linden Lab launched Second Life, a virtual world where individuals could live parallel lives to their own. A thriving economy emerged, centered around real estate and in-game items, creating real-world millionaires in the process. The Maldives even opened an ‘embassy,’ followed by Sweden and Malta.
The metaverse is not a product or a technology, but rather a concept
But then its momentum fizzled out. Player numbers dropped. Brands lost interest and shifted their attention to the burgeoning social media space. Now, almost two decades after Second Life’s launch, the metaverse beckons.
Conceptually, the metaverse has a lot in common with Second Life. With its emphasis on massively open virtual worlds and personal avatars, it re-treads much of the same ground. Except this time, it’s not just one pioneering startup behind the wheel, but rather some of the biggest technology giants in the world.
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Brands are, once again, asked to put their faith in a new vision for the internet, with potential ramifications for how they interact with their customers. But how should they traverse this brave new metaworld?
Known knowns, and known unknowns
The metaverse is shrouded by a dense fog of uncertainty. On a high level, we know what these experiences will look and feel like.
To get clues we can point to Facebook’s flagship offering, Horizon Worlds, and its corporate equivalent, Microsoft’s mesh for Teams. For the architects of both platforms, their confidence in the concept’s future isn’t in doubt. Both outfits have spent heavily on the metaverse, with Microsoft’s $67bn acquisition of Activision Blizzard the most recent example. Others are following suit.
Early marketing experiments (we’ll get to those later) with the metaverse also offer some insight into the future, with startups and established blue-chip titans tentatively dipping a toe in these untested waters. We’ve also seen entertainment and productivity applications for the metaverse, with promising results.
But on a practical, long-term level, the mechanics of the metaverse remain unclear. In the absence of any mass-market adoption, there’s no playbook that brands can look to when building a content strategy. What resonates, and what doesn’t? Nobody knows yet.
We also don’t know whether the metaverse, if it reaches its promised apex, will allow the kind of seamless interoperability that’s the norm on the conventional open internet. Will consumers be able to move from one metaverse to another just as easily as they would click a link in their browser? Who will be the industry leaders? Which company’s metaverse will afford brands the most creative flexibility when crafting experiences?
Content is king and kingdom
Like all fogs, this too will clear. In the coming years (how many remain for meta-maturity is up for debate, with Gartner predicting eight) the metaverse landscape will be easier to discern. We’ll know its leaders and capabilities, and what consumers want.
In the short term, brands have an opportunity to experiment and learn, and to develop their own voice for the metaverse. One of the most intriguing experiments comes from P&G’s cosmetics division, which launched the P&G BeautySPHERE at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES).
BeautySPHERE is built around a simulated skyscraper that’s faintly reminiscent of the Nathani Heights skyscraper in Mumbai, and conveys a tone of modernity and confidence. Throughout the structure, P&G displays content showcasing the ecological credentials of its products, and has spaces set aside for ephemeral live events. It effortlessly blends linear and non-linear content without coming across as disjointed or scattershot.
For a look at the entertainment world, Fortnite offers a compelling case study. The popular title, from Epic Games, has offered several live concerts from big-name performers including Marshmello, Ariana Grande and Travis Scott.
These events take place on a stage where players can move around, and are accompanied by visual and lighting effects similar to what you’d expect from a real-world performance. But, unlike a real-life concert, artists are unconstrained by capacity limits or social distancing rules.
Understand the concept
In each of those examples, the metaverse has been melded to meet a specific need: to inform, to entertain or simply to promote a particular product or company. They differ in implementation, certainly, but they accomplish something that otherwise would be impossible due to physical or financial constraints.
That’s the beauty of the metaverse. It’s not a product or a technology – it’s a concept. It’s the idea that the internet can be a virtual world that transcends physical possibilities. I’m reminded of a scene from The Matrix, where Morpheus teaches Neo that his strength and speed doesn’t derive from any innate quality or attribute but from his ability to break the rules governing his environment.
The first rule – the only rule, really – of the metaverse is that if you can code it, you can do it. For the first time, brands have an opportunity to build fully-immersive, completely unconstrained experiences. The metaverse removes every conceivable barrier to creativity. The winners and losers of this new paradigm will be determined by who realizes this, and who doesn’t.