The metaverse is a concept most often conveyed through confusing and seemingly empty buzzwords meant to evoke a sense of futuristic awe rather than elicit clear understanding. Big Tech is clearly enamored with the idea, but what does it mean for us? Put simply, the metaverse is the blurring of the boundaries between the online realm and the real world through devices such as virtual reality headsets.
But what, practically speaking, will this look like? In his recent hour-long presentation, Meta (formerly Facebook) CEO Mark Zuckerberg outlines his company’s vision for the metaverse. He shows us a virtual house full of virtual stuff, and then a virtual avatar of himself visits a friend’s virtual house, where they play cards together. But there’s also a commercial component to this virtual social interaction. Instead of—or in addition to—buying stuff for your real house and clothes for your real body, you’ll buy decorations for your virtual house and clothes, costumes, and hairstyles for your virtual avatar.
Metaverse concepts have been with us in some form for nearly two decades. Second Life, an online virtual world in which people created avatars, designed locations, and interacted with each other, was released in 2003. PlayStation Home offered something similar to Meta’s Horizon Worlds in 2009. The 2016 augmented reality mobile game Pokémon Go, in which players looked into their phone and saw a Pokémon creature as though it stood on the ground before them, gave us a preview of what the metaverse might look like. And today, when you change your background on a Zoom call to a pristine designer home because your real bedroom is a mess, you’re dipping a toe into the metaverse.
But where the tech giants’ vision of the metaverse differs from these metaverse-like applications is in its ubiquity. Zuckerberg and others see the metaverse as an always-on merging of the real world and the virtual world. You won’t just see it through your computer screen or your phone camera; you’ll be surrounded by it. You’ll see a virtual world draped over the real world through a VR headset, which metaverse proponents hope will become less clunky and more like a pair of glasses in the future, taking the place of cell phones.
Yet these ambitious plans have their skeptics, made clear by Meta’s huge dip in stock value in early February 2022. Apple CEO Tim Cook has guided his company slowly and reluctantly into developing metaverse technology. He remains unconvinced by the claims of Meta and Microsoft to protect the privacy of user data. It’s an opinion shared by many, as Meta (when it was called Facebook) in particular has privileged profits over privacy in the past. It remains to be seen if the rhetoric about “autonomy” and “decentralization” will convince the members of the public who want real connections and community, not a virtual stand-in.
Despite some companies’ desire to foist the metaverse upon us as quickly as possible, investors and average people alike don’t seem to want it, at least not right now. While it’s natural to meet some of its revolutionary rhetoric with skepticism, a more modest vision of the metaverse does have some potential to make shopping, especially online shopping, more fun and interesting. Rather than an all-consuming virtual world like The Matrix, Ready Player One, or the cyberpunk novel that coined the term “metaverse,” Snow Crash (all, notably, depictions of dystopias that no one would actually want to live in), its practical application would likely supplement reality and not replace it entirely.
As the metaverse is still an idea, and a rather nebulous one at that, it’s hard to predict exactly when and how an independent business could benefit from it at this point. With no real concrete idea of what the metaverse will be, and how ubiquitous it will be, it’s hard to think about how to market in it or use it to augment your physical business. But based on where the technology might go, we can offer a few concrete predictions.
Virtual Spaces. In addition to a physical location, a website, and a social media presence, you might have a virtual store as well if the metaverse takes off. There are already companies that build 3D virtual spaces for businesses. Someone shopping for clothes, for instance, could put on their VR headset and try on different outfits.
Augmented Reality. Instead of seeing a virtual world through a VR headset, you will see it through your phone camera. This technology already exists in the form of the aforementioned Pokémon Go and the feature on the Google app that allows you to search for an animal and then see through your phone camera what that animal would look like in your house.
But augmented reality has ecommerce applications that are already in use: hover your phone camera over your wrist to see how that watch will look; look at your living room through your phone to see if that couch will fit. For garden centers, augmented reality will allow consumers to imagine how big that plant will get, how it will look on their porch or in their window, or what it will look like in full bloom.
Virtual Ads. It is possible that in the near future, marketers will have to consider advertising in the metaverse as part of a marketing strategy that already includes print, TV, radio, web, and social media ads. But metaverse ads have the potential to be more than a virtual billboard visible through a headset; they can take the form of fully immersive experiences such as a walk through a garden or an interactive planting tutorial.
In the end, it all hinges on whether or not Meta will pull off its ambitious plans. If stock prices and public opinion are any indication, it seems as though they will not. But the metaverse is more than one company, and a scaled-down metaverse may eventually become a part of our lives, so you’ll be helping your business by becoming familiar with its terminology and capabilities.
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