The metaverse is about pushing boundaries, not recreating reality
As bandwidth limitations crumble, the metaverse is becoming accessible to huge numbers of people. But utility remains a major question mark. It will be largely up to brands to determine what the metaverse is going to look like – and how people will interact with it. Here’s why brands should start viewing the metaverse as an opportunity for limitless innovation.
Back in 2012, festival-goers at Coachella lifted their collective jaw off the floor as Tupac Shakur seemingly returned from the dead to join Dr Dre and Snoop Dogg on stage blasting out a fully ‘live’ rendition of Hail Mary. A revolutionary hologram technology recreated Tupac’s movements and presence in such a visceral way that it seemed like a new future of reality and creative possibility was dawning. Fast forward 10 years and now we’ve got digital Lego blocks, half-body avatars and ‘low poly’ fantasy worlds. Why all the fuss about the metaverse and the billions of dollars invested in it if this is what it delivers?
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When it comes to building the metaverse, Ewen Cameron says that we should be thinking much bigger / Adobe Stock
The truth is, the technology to simulate or create highly immersive reality has existed for some time. In the mid-2000s, Second Life, a game that allows users to create an avatar for themselves, was tried by millions of people. Those who mastered access and had the right computing power to prevail actually built a thriving creative community that persists to this day. The barrier to mass adoption of Second Life was the complexity of the platform and the limited bandwidth available to much of the population. As a result, consumer disappointment and disinterest followed.
Today, bandwidth is much greater for most people than it was in 2007. However, the excuse now is driven more by money than by progress. As new metaverse platforms have emerged with connected economies that extract revenue from players from skins, upgrades and so forth within their platforms, the prerogative is to fence their worlds from each other and to fence the player in. It is this very strategy that is arguably hampering the metaverse from delivering on the promise and excitement imagined in movies such as Ready Player One, where seamless movement between layers of reality and distinct gaming or creative environments is the promise.
In fact, this ability to traverse between realities is the very definition of the metaverse. Without that, there is no real metaverse – rather, just a series of ‘walled gardens’ more analogous to the early era of the internet where platforms including CompuServe, Prodigy and AOL attempted to keep users inside their discreet environments by avoiding interoperability between them.
Yet with marketers clamoring to find ways into the metaverse, how do we deliver on the dreamlike promise of this technology? Studios including JADU have created augmented reality (AR) jetpacks and hoverboards where a Cyber Kong avatar can fly through the streets of a neighborhood on the holder’s phone. My agency recently partnered with Under Armour and Steph Curry to create a metaverse sneaker that can be worn by a player across platforms including Sandbox, Decentraland, Gala Games and Rumble Kong League. Projects like these enable us to start exploring what’s possible. As an industry, we must deliver on the promise of interoperability to free up players to own their assets beyond the shackles of one platform. This is only the beginning.
The industry must work to produce standards, break down the walls that separate platforms and then build experiences that stretch what is truly possible. Utility may be the greatest fuel for innovation. The currency of the metaverse has, until now, been essentially profile non-fungible tokens (NFTs) – simple, unsophisticated and arguably vain displays of status. Figuring out interesting use applications for these assets may well be the next round of progress. Many brands are more focused on gimmicks, rather than real utility. For example, Zoom just announced that you can choose an animal avatar for your next company meeting. After a few funny moments, users will quickly become annoyed with this feature, rather than receive value from it. And that’s my point: we need to focus on utility that enhances our life through the potential of limitless creativity to fulfill the promise of the metaverse.
I conclude with an example, one that is not from the current ‘metaverse.’ I am an avid cyclist, and each summer I fly to Europe to torture my body on the steep endless inclines of the French Alps. In the winter, I do the same in my basement. I climb the exact contours of those mountains on a bike hooked up to a smart trainer and a screen with a game called Zwift. Although it isn’t usually considered to be a ‘metaverse game,’ it is exactly that. The metaverse is about extending the possibilities we have for experience beyond the limits of temporal physics and beyond the walls imposed by short-sighted corporate interest. Or, as Tupac blasted out from beyond the grave, “reality is a lie, dreams are real.”
Ewen Cameron is the founder of Berlin Cameron.