From cryptocurrencies to Non Fungible Tokens, the virtual world is facing extraordinary ebullience. Thanks to Mark Zuckerberg’s initiative, nowadays the spotlight is certainly being held by an unavoidable topic: the metaverse.
As it often happens with phenomena still in their innovation or early adoption phase, the buzz hardly brings real clarity on the directions, timeline and fate of the phenomenon itself.
Without claiming the gift of clairvoyance, it can still be useful to assess the situation as-is, stating in black and white a few ideas and facts on the ongoing evolution.
1. Metaverse or Metaverses?
The collective conversation is struggling to settle the basic misunderstanding between metaverse as a concept and metaverse as a space (albeit virtual). The theoretical definition of metaverse actually corresponds to different and - at least for now - insulated environments. Horizon World is Horizon World, Animal Crossing is Animal Crossing, Fortnite is Fortnite. We do not have (yet?) one huge metaverse where brands can easily come across our avatar.
2. Virtual worlds and real geographies
The attitude and relationship with new technologies are shifting the avant-garde from the western world to Asia. However, if previously traditional marketing and communication could look at the United States and basically wait for the same things to happen elsewhere in a few years’ time, now we should not take for granted that looking at South Korea can help to safely draw automatic conclusions exportable to Europe. This depends on two types of reasons: technological and socio-cultural ones. The technological side is linked to the higher rate of informatic knowledge and the spread of broadband connectivity, which have led Korea, in the near past, to welcome successful multipurpose apps, quite heavy in terms of connectivity demand: a completely different model, compared with the western world, where single-purpose rules. Also socio-cultural reasons are closely knitted with technology: the Asian financial crisis of the Nineties radically hit the work expectations of then young adults, who saw the model based on high competition and guaranteed lifetime employment crumble; one consequence of this events was the escapism found by scores of young unemployed in videogames. More recently, as people were becoming more accustomed to immaterial entertainment (and with the help of broadband performance), virtual influencers have become more successful in Asia than in Europe. Also, it is unlikely by chance that Asian countries have invested more strongly in unmanned stores. Can we say the same for Europe today? We shall see if and how much these peculiar technological and socio-cultural traits prove crucial. Certainly, for the time being, it would be too hasty to foresee a frictionless automatism bringing to Milan what is normal in Seoul.
3. Brand's first assault
From a marketing perspective, it is worth observing which brands are already colonizing the metaverse. Quite predictably, the most relevant investors belong to two macro-categories: on the one hand, world-renowned big brands with huge spending power; on the other hand, brands whose target audience corresponds to young people directly or indirectly gravitating around gaming culture. In the first batch we can count Coca Cola, Nike and fashion big players such as Gucci, Balenciaga, Louis Vuitton and Moncler, along with brands like Verizon, a leader in telecommunications which cannot help positioning itself as up-to-date. In the second batch, we find worldwide - but more targeted - brands like Vans, which launched a virtual skate park on Roblox.
4. How much of our lives are we ready to turn virtual?
Three considerations to tackle this crucial point.
- It is the announcement of Meta which has moved the metaverse from a niche’s interest to the forefront of a more mainstream public discourse. Yet, Menlo Park has immediately faced technical criticism, about the need to use Oculus visors - not exactly a practical household commodity. If we name the most talked-about examples of metaverse in the West, Fortnite, Animal Crossing and Roblox are among the most popular: worlds which until yesterday were “simply” considered as videogames, with more comfortable interfaces such as controllers or touchscreens.
- Eye-catching news keep popping up about metaverse-related events: the sale of a virtual yacht for 650.000$; investors spending millions of dollars to grab land in the metaverse; the artist Krista Kim selling the first NFT digital house ever for 512.000$. In such cases, the question is automatic: at least for now, besides the pleasure of possessing and collecting, what is the real-world effect of such investments? By the way, this is one of the reasons why the metaverse is often associated to the ephemeral Second Life. Yet we should not downplay the fact that, back then, both the graphic appeal and the available technologies were far from today’s.
- Metaverse and gaming are naturally adjacent, if not overlapping. Likewise, metaverse, NFTs and cryptocurrencies are more and more integrated. These premises should take us to the natural conclusion that also gaming, NFTs and cryptocurrencies should be tightly intertwined. However, even though heavy investments are being made in this direction, gamers are massively rejecting (at least for now) the attempts at inserting NFTs in videogames, for two main reasons: they are considered as ways to cash in at the expense of gamers themselves; and they are blamed for the heavy carbon footprint. Also, there is news of lawsuits against unauthorized NFTs, violating real-world trademarks.
To sum up: interfaces, real-world effects and trust. Quite likely, these will be the main areas where the metaverse’s more or less fast success will be decided. For now, it is still hard to tell whether we are facing a revolution mirroring the birth of the Internet (or at least the spreading of social networks) or a bubble. The names involved and the capitals invested lead to think that something unavoidable is taking shape. However, it is the acceptance rate which decides the fate of any innovation.
For sure, the opportunities before us cannot be downgraded to an on/off scenario: considering the metaverse as though its destinies could only be “it will completely reshape our reality” or “it will shamefully fail” would be unwise. The dotcom bubble did not cause the death of the Internet.
Probably, now the most sensible choice for brands which cannot afford planet-wide investments is to keep on monitoring the developments and especially get to know them beginning from the fundamentals, like interoperability, NFTs and cryptocurrencies. To be ready to grab the best opportunities at the right time, in the right place and in the right metaverse.