Metaverse 101: What the new frontier could mean for your business

By Rodika Tollefson

It’s hard to ignore all the recent buzz around the metaverse when many technology leaders and enthusiasts are calling it “the internet of the future.” Especially as retailers from Samsung to H&M are setting up shop there, giants like Epic Games are investing billions into it, artists like Justin Bieber and Muse are staging metaverse concerts, and even Seoul’s city government is planning to offer events and services in the emerging space .

Photo by Joshua Sortino/Unsplash

A seamless metaverse that’s as ubiquitous as the internet itself sounds more like a dream than reality at the present—and a true, seamless and open metaverse is years and perhaps decades away. But today, at least 90 startups are already working on the various metaverse components, and big tech companies are staking their claims.

This flurry of activity has raised the question for business leaders: What does it all mean for their organizations?

Why it should be on your radar

Some have questioned whether the metaverse is simply a marketing label created by big technology companies. Caleb Applegate is among many of those who disagree and instead view it as a fresh experience that brings new value.

“We know that the metaverse is quickly taking form—we’re just not sure what the fullness of it actually is,” says Applegate, chief operating officer of Enjin, which provides the Ethereum-based cryptocurrency Enjin Coin, as well as an ecosystem for making the integration of blockchain and NFTs into gaming applications simple for developers.

There’s a lot of speculation and guessing and even some confusion about the metaverse, but every product team on the planet should be asking now: ‘How can we responsibly participate?

—Caleb Applegate, COO, Enjin

But, he notes, not knowing the full potential shouldn’t stop companies from doing their due diligence now to learn if their audience and customers are there. “There’s a lot of speculation and guessing and even some confusion about the metaverse,” he says, “but every product team on the planet should be asking now: ‘How can we responsibly participate?

Justin Banon, co-founder of Boson Protocol, which provides decentralized infrastructure for commerce, agrees.

“The metaverse is the next type of interface,” he says. “As a business leader, you need to think of it in terms of the next big thing that could make a huge impact, just like we saw with the web and then mobile platforms.”

Making sense of the speculation

The concept of the metaverse was the brainchild of sci-fi author Neal Stephenson, who coined the phrase to mean a virtual-reality-based evolution of the internet in his 1992 book, “Snow Crash.” Three decades later, the idea has evolved beyond immersive, virtual reality—although a universal definition remains fuzzy, contributing to the confusion and speculation Applegate referenced.

In loose terms, one version of the metaverse is a collection of online spaces (likely 3D) that don’t have a starting or ending point, and our digital avatars could visit without friction, seamlessly bringing our digital identities and across assets these worlds to Meet, socialize, collaborate, transact, shop, recreate and more. In other versions, the metaverse is either a 3D digital overlay on the physical world (like augmented reality) or more of an extended reality, a melding of physical and virtual worlds.

Right now, people are looking at [the metaverse] as a separate place, a destination. But in the future, it will be seamlessly integrated into the physical world and won’t have a single digital portal for entry.

—Emily Safian-Demers, editor, Wunderman Thompson Intelligence

Whichever version you prefer, think of the metaverse, in the words of Emily Safian-Demers, as “the next iteration of digital engagement.” Safian-Demers is the editor of Wunderman Thompson Intelligence, a global trends and innovation think tank for advertising agency Wunderman Thompson. The think tank, which has been tracking metaverse developments for several years, recently published a comprehensive report on the topic.

“There are a lot of different interpretations, but in its simplest form, the metaverse is a digital layer of everyday life,” Safian-Demers says. “Right now, people are looking at it as a separate place, a destination. But in the future, it will be seamlessly integrated into the physical world and won’t have a single digital portal for entry.”

How does it work?

The metaverse is not one single platform that a specific company owns. In fact, what various tech companies are currently building are individual metaverse platforms or worlds. The metaverse, in turn, would be the larger digital universe comprised of a collection of those worlds, some of them closed and some open.

Like the internet, the metaverse requires a combination of environments, communication and other protocols, software, hardware, media, content and digital assets, which collectively create an interactive, immersive experience.

“As an industry, we are at a stage right now where we have some base infrastructure, but we’re building out the full set of infrastructure required, and we’re experimenting with and building applications on top,” says Banon, of Boson Protocol.

Boson Protocol’s platform is a good example of how the metaverse may work for, say, retailers. At the end of March, Decentraland—one of the most popular metaverse worlds—hosted Metaverse Fashion Week, where virtual avatars modeled wearables on a catwalk; Some brands offered Boson-powered NFTs, which unlocked digital assets or, in some cases, both virtual and physical wearables (or “digi-physical” goods).

We see the future of the physical world as having digital twins. And we’re already starting to see a merging of the physical and digital worlds into a digi-physical reality.

—Justin Banon, co-founder, Boson Protocol

“We enable brands to offer NFTs that are redeemable for physical items, which are then either delivered to the consumers’ door or collected in-store,” Banon says. “Our platform plugs into any standard e-commerce fulfillment, but by using blockchain, it’s all done through software, without an intermediary.”

He believes that in the future, consumers will expect to receive a digital likeness when purchasing a physical item and vice versa.

“We see the future of the physical world as having digital twins,” he says. “And we’re already starting to see a merging of the physical and digital worlds into a digi-physical reality.”

Preparing for the future

The Covid-19 pandemic may be one of the reasons industry pros like Enjin’s Applegate believe the metaverse will have staying power. He calls the pandemic the perfect storm because it forced companies to offer virtual alternatives—and consumers embraced it.

Phot by Sara Kurig/Unsplash

“We now have digital worlds that open new touchpoints for audiences,” he says. “The pandemic got us thinking in that direction because when we had stadiums or stores full of people, businesses weren’t thinking, ‘How do we engage them more in a digital world?’ but we’ve been forced now to think about digital world possibilities.”

Safian-Demers, of Wunderman Thompson Intelligence, expresses similar beliefs. She notes that the think tank’s report showed that 93% of surveyed consumers agreed that “technology is the future,” 66% said they preferred to engage with brands digitally, and everyday 76% wished video chat “allowed for more natural, interactions.”

“There’s a consumer interest and appetite for next-generation digital experiences,” she says.

Her company saw this appetite first-hand. Wunderman Thompson launched its own proprietary metaverse at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, then left it open for employees. Since then, teams have been using that space for their weekly meetings and other business gatherings. “It’s become a new ‘third space,’ and it’s especially relevant now that remote working is becoming the norm.”

Safian-Demers is convinced the metaverse will impact businesses because it’s changing how consumers interact with brands. “And consumers are ready for digital interfaces to be more organic and realistic,” she explains. “The brands that can offer that will find the most success moving forward.”

Lead photo by Julien Tromeur/Unsplash

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