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The metaverse: What is it and where is it heading?
March 25, 2022
The Mill’s CEO, Josh Mandel, shares his insights on craft in digital spaces, and how brands can separate hype from (virtual) reality.
The metaverse is an understandably hot topic these days, forefront in the mind of many brand marketers. For us sci-fi fans who have been exploring the topic for some years now (calling myself out here), it’s exciting to see the idea of a persistent virtual life become a conversation in popular culture. The potential of a metaverse is as varied as the real world, but where we are today is very different from where we can be a few years from now. And it’s important to understand what we can craft in today’s environments versus what the future might hold.
What is the metaverse?
In the simplest terms, a metaverse is a continuing evolution of the internet. The internet is our current persistent digital space, but it is fragmented and flat, where we have to hunt out destinations and manage our open tabs. Our current virtual world lacks the immersive promise of a persistent metaverse.
In truth, we currently have a number of competing metaverses. The most obvious are immersive gaming platforms, environments we’ve lived and evolved with for some time - places like FIFA, Fortnite and Roblox. To these we can add new virtual “living spaces” like Decentraland and Horizon.
But currently, what we have are the products of capitalism – environments and experiences that are competing for our time, attention and money. Competing, rather than working together to provide a unified experience. And unsurprisingly, we also have the hype of capitalism, with pricey and speculative land grabs for space and virtual materials. We are some way away from “the” metaverse.
Direction of travel
It’s helpful to look at what some big brands are doing as indicators of what we might expect of a metaverse in the (hopefully) not too distant future. Nike, for instance, has been recruiting for metaverse-related roles, taking agency over their future and how the brand will show up. One recent listing was for a “virtual material designer,” which indicates that Nike will place as much importance on designing for virtual experiences as they do for footwear, apparel and equipment. It’s also unsurprising that many fashion brands are experimenting in virtual spaces, ensuring that their products show up “counterfeit free” through NFT authentication, and placing themselves center to the experience of avatar creation.
The idea of how a metaverse interacts with the real world is also a consideration lost on people overly focused on the virtual. Beyond creating the new, many existing platforms are also strategizing how they can “flywheel” their experiences from virtual spaces to new areas. One of our clients, Riot, has an incredibly popular, massive multiuser game called League of Legends. They have three virtual music bands that exist within the ecosystem but whose music also lives outside of it. And they’ve also launched a successful Netflix series based on the characters and gameplay.
As computing power increases and our ability to generate objects of beautiful visual fidelity follows suit, The Mill and Technicolor Creative Studios are obviously quite bullish about the future. But in the short term, brands need to avoid the rush to the new, and properly strategize about why they’d want to participate in a virtual world, and how they want to show up. Where is your audience? What kind of experience will they want to have in a metaverse? Is your brand poised to help deliver on that experience? There’s no point in debating NFT strategy or CG characters if they don’t help answer these questions in a positive way for your brand.
My prediction is that our current “battle of the bands” for eyeballs and attention in metaverse platforms will ultimately be met by bottom-up and top-down pressure. The bottom-up pressure will be consumer driven: after spending hours creating and evolving avatars and characters within virtual environments, people will want to keep those characters with them. Why can’t I take the player I’ve evolved over time in FIFA into other environments and platforms? Currently we have a number of metaverses where there is a capitalistic disincentive to allow for cross-platform interaction.
On the other end, we’ll have top-down pressure. Cloud computing services, like AWS, actually host a number of these metaverse platforms at the same time, and I think sometime soon will see the consumer benefit in building a back-end that can support consumer desire for persistent environments and experiences.
I’m excited to see what this swirl of technological capability, imagination and craft will create. The evolution of hardware, software and consumer adoption will create exciting realities, soon. We’re already building these worlds, characters and experiences every day. The brands that start answering the existential questions around who they should be, where, and how are the companies that will help define the future.