Some believe it will offer a cornucopia of heightened consumer experiences; others fear it will become a dystopia. But they’re unlikely to find out for at least another five years
Fancy meeting some interesting-looking new people at a virtual coffee shop? You’ll sit at home sipping your own brew, but wear a virtual reality (VR) headset to experience the café and mingle with your new acquaintances as a cartoon avatar. Or how about wearing a waterproof headset and entering a swimming pool to simulate the sensations of space travel? Or letting your avatar walk round a clothes store and try items on for size? Virtual fitting will be an exact process, because your avatar will be measured up for all your vital statistics, from inside leg to collar size.
These are just a few of the experiences that will be made possible by the metaverse, the giant VR network that the tech industry is constructing.
“The metaverse proposes to transform the internet, which is largely a transfer of information from a server to a user, into a more immersive and real-feeling experience that can be shared by an unlimited number of users,” explains Doug Stephens, founder of consultancy Retail Prophet.
A space where you can exist as an avatar, character or player, the metaverse offers either an immersive virtual world or enables virtual experiences to be superimposed on to the real world. You’ll probably need to wear a headset, which could be a deal-breaker for some people – 3D cinema has never really taken off because of those irritating glasses. But, for those willing to put up with this, the metaverse promises a profusion of experiences that could vastly improve consumers’ lives. Inevitably, though, there could be some serious downsides.
“We have rampant problems on the internet, including bullying and fraud, that we haven’t even begun to tackle,” Stephens says. “To simply hurtle forward into a more immersive and persistent version of that would be reckless, to say the least.”
Who’s averse to the metaverse?
Could the metaverse really turn out to be an unwelcoming world of virtual vendettas and 3D thievery? How will its inhabitants be protected from harm?
Stephens believes that we need to appeal to our “better angels” to create a positive vision of the metaverse. Jonathan Manzi, co-founder and CEO of blockchain provider Beyond Protocol, has just such a vision. He foresees a virtual realm that is autonomous, yet democratic, decentralised and enabling.
Manzi enthuses about the possibilities for building a better experience than that currently offered by Web 2.0, which has been overshadowed by the dysfunctionality associated with some social media platforms. The metaverse will be part of the next stage of internet development known as Web 3.0, he says. This will use blockchain technology to create the truly egalitarian, participatory internet that was originally envisaged by its inventors.
The latest wave of Web 3.0 hype was triggered by the renaming of the parent company of Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and Oculus from Facebook Inc to Meta Platforms in October 2021. Meta’s co-founder and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, gave a presentation showing the possibilities offered by the metaverse, revealing that his company had invested $10bn (£7.45bn) in developing the technology that year alone.
This sparked an ideological battle between technologists and human rights activists about the nature of the metaverse. Would it be dominated by corporate interests? How would its users be shielded from invasions of privacy and the misuse of data? How could real consumer choice be enhanced?
Manzi says that new blockchain-based unions known as decentralised autonomous organisations (DAUs) will give consumers the power to control their private data and the experiences they have in the metaverse. A DAU would serve as a trusted intermediary, run democratically in the interests of its members, who join it via an immutable blockchain ledger and vote on their relationships with brands and retailers by means of so-called smart contracts.
Imagine that a group of employees are working in a virtual office space and lunchtime rolls around, Manzi says: “You could have those users’ information flow through the DAU, which decides whether it’s appropriate to serve them an advert about the food from trusted restaurants in the area. The ad is served, the food is delivered and money is exchanged to pay for it, all on a smart contract. That’s something that adds value. It’s good marketing – something that’s helpful to my life.”
This contrasts with the invasive advertising practices that have become a characteristic of Web 2.0. Some advertisers use psychological profiling to find people’s weak points and target them with ads for inappropriate or even harmful products and services.
“The DAU framework has checks and balances inherent in it all the way through –something that has not been possible in Web 2.0,” he says.
When can customers shop in the metaverse?
But such developments are still thought to be at least five years away. The metaverse will be a native world for generations Z and alpha. It will require users to have technological knowledge and an understanding of DAUs, blockchains, cryptocurrencies and non-fungible tokens, which will act as exchange systems. So it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, sipped virtually or not.
The early indicators of how it will work are already available, though, in meeting apps such as Gather Town and gaming platforms such as Animal Crossing and Roblox.
Kathryn Bishop is foresight editor of LSNGlobal.com, which highlights trends predicted by The Future Laboratory, a brand consultancy. She points to South Korea as a society that’s already making strong advances in metaverse tech. It offers apps such as social network Zepeto, which uses facial recognition systems to create 3D avatars of users that can already interact virtually.
Meanwhile, Ralph Lauren has released a collection on Roblox and even runs a virtual coffee shop. The fashion giant and other brands that are getting involved in early metaverse spaces all see this as a way to connect with the next generation of customers.
As a consumer entering such spaces, “you can meet other people and have a completely alternative brand experience to one that you’ve been used to,” Bishop says. “It’s a great way to discover new products or perhaps unlock some kind of loyalty bonus.”
Stephens acknowledges that the shopping experience could be vastly improved by Web 3.0. In essence, ecommerce is “digital catalogue shopping” in its current form, he says. “It’s not social, it’s not engaging and it’s certainly not fun. The metaverse could change that.”