Through the Metaverse

Through the Metaverse

November 2021 | Digital Transformation

According to Mark Zuckerberg, the metaverse is the next big thing. Just what are the consumer and business needs that metaverse is intended to solve?

Metaverse is the big revolutionary new concept. Yet, its not actually new. It has been under discussion since the early 2000s, when the concept of online virtual worlds first entered mainstream consciousness. Second Life was launched in 2003 as a virtual world, briefly becoming a cultural trend and a target for consumer marketing campaigns during the late 2000s. That initial hype is long forgotten, but the game still exists with a loyal customer base of just under a million users.

Now, virtual worlds are making a comeback as part of a broader industry trend. Technology companies see the metaverse as the future of the Internet. They envisage a persistent virtual environment where people can interact as of they were in the real world. Metaverse takes the existing virtual worlds and adds a layer of virtual reality to the mix, so that the gap between online and offline is bridged.

There are examples of this already, particularly in the gaming industry. Virtual reality has been around for a long time. VR gaming has existed since the 90s, before entering the mainstream in 2016 with the release of PlayStation VR and the HTC Vive. The much hyped Roblox has been around since 2006, before exploding in popularity during the pandemic as a platform for user developed VR games.

Nor is Facebook's interest in virtual reality a new phenomenon. The technology giant purchased Occulus VR in 2014. At the time, Mark Zuckerberg explicitly pitched the company's VR headsets as the future of social media. With the company now under pressure from both customers and regulators, that vision is set to become a reality. They don't have much choice.

The Brand Problem

The rebrand of the Facebook parent company to Meta, was going to happen anyway. The company has been rocked by years of data protection violations and privacy scandals. The core Facebook brand has become toxic among young people. It's seen as the social network for their parents. The cultural zeitgeist is instead focused on Instagram, which has not been damaged by attempts to link its brand to the parent company.

The success of Instagram keeps Meta relevant now, but future growth requires them to be ready for the next big thing too. The success of Tiktok proves that there is a place for new social networks so long as they can offer something different. Metaverse's attempt to bring VR into the mainstream is clearly one possible avenue for disrupting Facebook and Instagram.

However, for metaverse to succeed it needs to offer a clear benefit to the consumer over existing social media platforms. This is something that Zuckerberg failed to articulate when he outlined his vision for the Facebook metaverse. Grand promises were made, but the presentation lacked any detail of actual products or use cases that can be brought to market.

Why Metaverse?

Such examples already exist. However, they're not mainstream. Gaming comes closest, but not in a way that is helpful for Meta. Online gaming is full of metaverses. MMOs such as World of Warcraft are persistent online environments that are hubs for human interaction. Fortnite has gone beyond gaming, hosting concerts and virtual events during the pandemic. There is no reason why such events cannot continue as a form of user engagement in a post-pandemic world.

Meta aren't looking to build a video game. They want to link all these virtual worlds together into a parallel reality that people can interact with just as they would the real world. The problem is that most people are too busy living in the real world to bother with Facebook's virtual imitation. It's the same issue that Second Life faced in 2003. The metaverse will only get widespread adoption if it offers experiences unavailable offline. Zuckerberg didn't articulate what those experiences would be, he just said they existed.

Corporate Metaverse

Microsoft are already working on some use cases for business users. The enterprise software giant is approaching the metaverse from a very different perspective. To Microsoft, the metaverse isn't a replacement for Facebook or Instagram. It's an extension of Teams. At their recent Ignite conference, they announced the forthcoming addition of 3D Avatars and virtual environments to their business collaboration platform.

They want businesses to turn their meetings into VR conference rooms. At Ignite, they presented several case studies that showed the benefits of this approach. This allows companies to overcome many of the limitations of a 2D video call. Physical objects can be replicated in a virtual conference room, allowing a manufacturing firm discussing a particular component to work on that item during the meeting.

The mere use of a virtual conference room replete with avatars of every participant should increase engagement with meetings. This is particularly true for whiteboarding sessions which are notoriously difficult to do over a video call. It could even solve the age old problem of hybrid meetings, where virtual participants inadvertently get side lined by those attending in-person.

User Experience

Whether VR events and meetings will become commonplace depends on the quality of the experience. If virtual avatars are to become the main mechanism for interacting with colleagues, then those avatars need to be life like. People will want to see an accurate representation of their colleagues behind the 3D model. It's not clear that the technology currently exists to do that. The images we've been shown so far do not look promising.

Without that level of realism, the metaverse is just a reality simulator. It's a place that offline activities can be carried out online, both work and play. The unanswered question is why people want such a place. Particularly, at the end of a global pandemic. People have been stuck at home for months. Now they want to get out and experience the real world. The world is opening up, and live is getting back to normal. Any attempt to get people back inside is doomed to fail.

Banner Photo by Jakob Owens / Unsplash

Written by
Marketing Operations Consultant and Solutions Architect at CRMT Digital specialising in marketing technology architecture. Advisor on marketing effectiveness and martech optimisation.