Everyone seems to be agonising over the metaverse right now. People are trying to figure out how to use it, how to monetise it, how to create it (Facebook/Meta), and trying to figure out where this is going. But the same way that AOL and Netscape and others could not envision what the world-wide-web or the internet ended up being, the metaverse will be what people (the users of it) will end up defining it.
The first thing to recognise is that the metaverse really doesn’t exist yet, and while there are a ton of companies and people today talking about the metaverse as a thing (is it virtual reality or augmented reality? Is it the content or the hardware that matters?), the reality is that it still doesn’t exist.
The easiest way to conceptualise the metaverse today is to contrast it to the way we experience the internet now. Compared to the metaverse, the internet of today is a two-dimensional world. We look at a screen, there is content displayed on that screen we are viewing, and we then interact with that content by pressing buttons, moving a mouse, or touching the screen. This process doesn’t give us a feel for the object in the screen, how much it weighs, or the size or feel of it. This disconnect is similar to anyone who had a new coworker start during the pandemic and the only ‘feel’ for the new coworker was seeing their face on the screen – meeting them in person is a whole new experience than just seeing them during the team Zoom call! The internet today is more like that Zoom call, versus what the metaverse promises to be.
The metaverse is supposed to be closer to a three-dimensional experience of the internet. Instead of signing up to a social media platform using my name and email (and any other identifying bits about me), I would be able to virtually walk into a ‘room’ and choose my avatar (a figure of self-expression) that I can design or dress however I want. The three-dimensional avatar can represent who I feel I am that day (or moment). This is similar to the way that people pick a picture of their beloved pet to represent them on social media. This avatar can follow you around the metaverse, which is a series of rooms where you can interact with other avatars, socialise, play games, work, and more. As of early November, a few companies already announced their plans to create metaverses of very specific businesses, like dating, fashion, and entertainment.
Of course, the company that made the biggest splash was the company formerly known as Facebook, who rebranded to Meta in October 2021 as a sign of their deep commitment to creating an amazing metaverse for all of us. Meta seems to be betting in the metaverse space because they faltered with its focus on social media (content creation) and failed to create the ecosystem that other companies (primarily Apple) focused on building. Meta missed the boat by giving up its hardware aspirations, assuming the content was more important than the vehicle.
Since Meta abandoned its hardware failures, it has made a huge investment in Oculus and other virtual reality companies (to the tune of USD $3 billion plus!). Its investments are focused not just in creating and owning the ecosystem of the metaverse, but also to fix its social media platforms Facebook and Instagram that are no longer attracting younger users and have been embroiled for years now in scandals that the company can’t seem to shake off.
But this isn’t only about hardware or the fact that the name ‘Facebook’ is synonymous with scandals and data privacy violations. Meta, like other companies recently, has realised that the gaming world has become mainstream. More than mainstream, the gaming world has been quietly shaping how we interact with each other and where we spend our time. The biggest indicator of where the eyeballs have gone is looking at young kids playing Minecraft (online world game), Roblox (online world game), and others, while their older siblings are also immersing themselves in online worlds like Animal Crossing, Fortnite, Final Fantasy, and more. Meta’s bet is that these younger generations are not interested in the two-dimensional world of their parents, but rather want worlds where they can build their own environment, design their own look, ‘tip or be tipped’ for their creative work, and socialise with their friends just like they are doing in Minecraft, Roblox, and Animal Crossing.
Fernando Machado, former CMO for Unilever, Burger King, and later RBI, moving to Activision Blizzard was the sign that gaming was where our advertising future is headed. Meta seems to understand this too and wants to bet that the two-dimensional space we have today on the internet will not be enough for the young kids growing up already accustomed to flat screens or buttons. Meta’s bet is that these younger generations will want a more immersive experience, and since today’s gamers already buy expensive gaming chairs, large high-quality screens, ergonomically customised accessories, and other accouterment, hooking them onto Meta’s hardware ecosystem will mean owning the metaverse. Meta’s focus on creating a metaverse is really a focus on attracting younger generations to its products and hoping to avoid the ecosystem issues they faced with Apple and Google.
Meta, of course, is selling a warm and fuzzy view of what its metaverse will look and feel like, even if critics claim that this metaverse is already dead on arrival amidst the scandals and regulatory uncertainty at the company. But it is not the only company with these ambitions – there are many more who are trying to latch on to the trend or who really believe that we want to spend our online hours inside a virtual world. If anything, living through this pandemic has reinforced the value of true connection with other human beings and I would rather sit at a table with my coworkers, than dress my avatar and head to a virtual room.
Veronica Millan is global chief information officer at MullenLowe Group