By Oliver Betts, Head of Data Strategy and James Sargeant, Senior Associate Director, Data & Tech at MediaCom
The story so far
When Gary Kasparov said “Chess is life in miniature”, he shone a spotlight on an important element of being human; the urge to create the microcosm. If we can build our own artificial worlds, we can then make living in the macrocosm more relatable. We seek to afford ourselves a creator’s view, and simultaneously to take part in what we have created.
This is not only evident in chess but also in train sets and dolls houses, and equally in video games and digital experiences. It is from these trends that we now see what is beginning to surface as the Metaverse.
De-mystifying the hype – what’s really going to happen?
When Facebook re-branded recently as Meta, the outpouring of Metaverse related news and opinion simply reflected the fact that post Web 1.0 (the page based searchable internet) and then Web 2.0 (the rise of social media and sharing) it was inevitable that we would soon find ourselves looking for the first signs of sustainable virtual worlds.
Even as far back as 2004 players could interact online in the MMORPG World of Warcraft and more recently Fortnite has pushed this shared virtual reality into the realms of true cultural innovation. The next generation of platforms promises even more in the way of close to real life possibility and if you’re a fan of virtual world sci-fi i.e., Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson and Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, you will have seen these developments as a foregone conclusion.
What does this mean for brands?
For brands and advertisers this is surely an attractive proposition. It promises the ability to sell goods online, be that an extension of e-commerce such as selling physical inventory, or a leg-up into the nascent NFT market and wider d-comm space. The groundwork has already been done as advertisers embrace in-game media and now seemingly we have a new frontier to explore – one where storefronts, promotions and points of sale are made available as lived virtual experiences. A world where brands can step away from the traditional web page and even the social media account and begin to explore fully immersive digital environments where the only limitation will be the coding that sits behind it.
How do we access the Metaverse?
Not surprisingly, given Meta’s imagining of the future as being one where virtual reality would play a major role, the company (then Facebook) acquired Oculus back in 2014. Original founder, and Oculus Rift creator, Palmer Luckey had sought to produce the one virtual reality headset (or HMD) that would rule them all. Commentators of the time claimed he had in fact succeeded, if only temporarily. Since then, other brands entered the market offering their own USPs. Samsung opted for penetration into the mobile space with Galaxy Gear VR and Sony introduced PSVR to augment console gaming experiences.
It may be that we can now envisage mass adoption of this hardware and speculate about the global impact. As The Verge wrote of the most recent development in the Oculus series, the Quest 2 in November 2021 “the headset hit a magic milestone that Meta’s VR team has been aiming for since its launch: 10 million units sold”.
The mirror image of VR is AR, which can be satisfactorily experienced via a smartphone. Rather than generate fully immersive experiences, AR adds digital overlays to your physical reality. Many brands have already experimented successfully with this technology and the results can be impressive. There is a happy medium of course which HMD developers are now seeking to crack and that is mixed reality, the ability to toggle between immersive VR and the overlays offered in AR. This will be an essential feature if life in the Metaverse is to take hold completely and become viable as home entertainment or as a medium for better working environments.
Currency – and which platforms should be prioritised?
Of course, with commerce comes currency. Anyone turned on to the crypto currency market will be aware of the level of volatility that comes with having a decentralised framework that encourages tech innovation and start-up style entrepreneurship. However, businesses and vendors are going to need to find their feet with this because crypto currency will no doubt underpin the infrastructure of the Metaverse.
Ethereum currently fills this role most prominently and forms the blockchain – as it were, the DNA – of digital experiences, not least the NFT market. There will be many others – the challenge for brands and advertisers will be deciding on the extent to which they embrace crypto commerce given that cross-national regulation and scrutiny are currently hotly debated topics.
Onto the range of platforms and worlds within the Metaverse, there are many big names in the running. Meta will naturally bring its own weight to the market. Decentraland and others will have their own unique selling points. Advertisers will go where the eyes on screen are; or in this case, where the avatars populate but only time will tell where the real commercial opportunities are.
Is this just another channel, or something entirely different?
We can look back to the mid-nineties when the internet first took hold of the mainstream and draw a retrospective roadmap to date that includes milestones such the first commercial transactions made via the web or the first online multiplayer games. These early developments would eventually lead to the cultural and geo-political shifts we witness regularly across social media.
We should expect new Metaverse related technologies that emerge over the next few years to open up ground-breaking opportunities for advertisers. These will be fully integrated with audience building and routes to activation, and they will offer the chance for marketers to access future-facing analytics. This could incorporate attention measurement, albeit in a far more advanced form than currently possible, real-time emotional responses and avatar-focused metrics that seem futuristic to us now but will soon be commonplace.
In media, channels play the role of tools in a set, to be used as appropriate. The Metaverse feels like something entirely different, a full step-change in how we live our lives as the line between online and offline continues to blur. These are exciting times, and this is just the beginning.