What really is the metaverse, and more importantly, why should you care?
- Posted on July 13, 2022
- Estimated reading time 6 minutes
Change is constant and accelerating, and the latest hot, bewildering change is the metaverse. Something which has seemingly appeared overnight, is laden with jargon and has gotten everyone excited without necessarily understanding why. However, the good news is that a) it’s not actually here yet, b) it’s not as complicated as you think and c) you still need to understand why you need it before you do anything.
So, what is the metaverse? There are many metaverse definitions out there, but here’s my version.
Imagine you’re really interested in learning more about tigers.
Once upon a time, back in the dark ages of the 20th century, you might have gone to the library and looked up the entry for tigers in the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Wind the clock forwards, and as technology enabled digitisation, you were able to load up your Encyclopaedia Britannica at home on your CD ROM and look up tigers – quicker and easier to get to the information.
Next came the age of connected information, i.e., the Internet, which meant that you could hop online, search for tigers and get a million articles and pictures.
What comes next? The metaverse. In the future, with the metaverse, you’ll be able to hop online and “virtually” walk through a forest, watching the tigers in their natural habitat and, if you really want to, interact with them as if you were actually there. (Although not sure that would be such a good idea).
If the internet is a connected source of 2D information, the metaverse is a connected source of immersive 3D experiences.
What does the metaverse mean?
However, this “science fiction” world is still some time off – the connected part is crucial and is not really happening yet. When people talk about the metaverse today, we’re still at the equivalent of the CD ROM stage. Individual immersive experiences are being created – where people are represented by avatars that replicate your movements, IoT-enabled objects allow you to replicate your interactions, and digital twins create real-time digital replicas of surroundings and objects. But they’re not connected together in the way that the internet is; you cannot yet wander from one to another.
Metaverse Augmented reality and virtual reality are the portals into this experience – the metaverse equivalent of Internet Explorer or Chrome. Oculus Rift and Hololens headsets are basically next-generation browsers.
And given that this is an immersive, interactive experience, there needs to be a concept of “ownership” of the objects you have and control in the space. Non-fungible tokens (NFT’s) lock in ownership by protecting the rights to that object – essentially an equivalent of copyright, where your ownership and authenticity are proved via blockchain authentication. If you have a concept of ownership, you can also trade – which brings in the idea of “money” (which is basically a way of measuring the relative value of something). Bitcoin is a way of assigning a value to the object you own, so you can purchase or trade digital objects.
When will this be real for us all? It’s quite hard to say. As with the internet, no one could predict the level and speed of growth and adoption, but once it took off the speed was lightning fast. From 2000 onwards, most organizations would regularly declare “we need a website” without really understanding why. Similarly, from 2010 onwards, organisations were saying “we need a mobile app.” Again, business cases were hard to come by.
How to get started with the metaverse universe
So, when should you jump in with both feet? The early options are as follows:
- You want to be an early adopter. If your company “brand” is about being cutting edge or experimental and you can derive marketing value from what you do, you should look at point experiments with immersive experiences that make a good story. For example, luxury car manufacturers are in a race to be the first to demo a car in the metaverse as it shows their target audience that they are “innovators.”
- Your target audience is already buying into the metaverse idea. The earliest adopters (as was the case with the internet) are the gambling, gaming, and porn industries, so if you’re targeting typical demographics for these industries, it’s time to experiment. These are highly experiential markets, hence the early adopters. Others in a similar vein include music artists creating experience spaces such as the ABBA virtual concerts or Snoopverse.
- There’s a piece of your business that will genuinely benefit from interactive rehearsal – an evolution of the IoT and digital twin market. If you have engineers who maintain nuclear reactors then being able to rehearse maintenance in an experiential manner in an “as-real” environment is immensely beneficial.
- You’re prepared to experiment to learn, without necessarily generating business value today – innovation should be continual, and who knows what you could uncover by “playing around” in a metaverse virtual reality replica of your office, or factory, or shop. However, be prepared for the fact that the only business case for this is one of encouraging people to look differently at things.
If you don’t fit any of these categories, then it’s probably OK to watch and learn and keep thinking about when it could work for you. There’s a lot of focus on the future of office work and distributed working, and the idea that the metaverse could be a substitute for the pre-pandemic in-person meetings and watercooler moments. However, this would be a considerable shift in human behaviour as well as a significant technology investment.
New things to think about
The societal implications and shift in human emotions that the metaverse will bring are only just starting to emerge. Are virtual interactions really the same thing as in-person ones? Does a virtual touch mean as much as a human one? Could people really live entirely in the metaverse? Reality is, every human is different and is likely to have a different reaction.
Identity in the metaverse also needs to be explored – how representative of you should that avatar be? Can you have a different personality and values than you have in real life, not to mention visual appearance, physical attributes and different clothing? This questions everything that creates initial trust between people.
In addition, there’s already much discussion about the impact of things like digital sexual assault and what happens regarding death in the metaverse. We still haven’t really gotten to the bottom of these in the world of the internet; establishing a societal convention in a digital interactive world is going to take quite some time.
All of this means it may be a while before the cost benefit of the technology investment and the emotional change journey needed to implement the workplace metaverse become viable (at scale at least). However, that should not stop experimentation.
The upshot is, the metaverse is here and rapidly evolving. There may be some reasons you should consider it. You should definitely experiment if you can justify it. One day you’ll need a presence there, otherwise you will be invisible to people, just as if you don’t have a website today. But true connectivity and immersion are still in the future, so you have time. Don’t be overwhelmed by the hype, don’t fear it, focus on the “why” you should do it, and if you get the opportunity, you might as well pick up a headset and try a little experimentation.