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What is the metaverse and why should brands take it seriously?

27 August 2021

This article first appeared in shots written by Senior Digital Producer, Alaster Armitage-Brain.

For many, the term ‘metaverse’ probably conjures up images of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, Tron, or Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner–but there is much more to dissect here.

The future of experience - 'The Metaverse'

As we reach peak Zoom fatigue it may feel somewhat incongruous to start talking about another digital platform that will shake up the future of experience – but it’s coming, and it’s called ‘The Metaverse’. Although when I say platform, that may be underselling its value, as it’s more of an entire ‘experience ecosystem’.

Defining the metaverse is far from simple. Google the term ‘metaverse’ and you’ll find several explanations. Wikipedia defines it as: “a collective virtual shared space, created by the convergence of virtually enhanced physical reality and physically persistent virtual space, including the sum of all virtual worlds, augmented reality, and the Internet. The word ‘metaverse’ is a portmanteau of the prefix "meta" (meaning beyond) and "universe"; the term is typically used to describe the concept of a future iteration of the internet, made up of persistent, shared, 3D virtual spaces linked into a perceived virtual universe.”

That’s quite a definition and perhaps poses more questions than it answers. Is the metaverse one place, and if so, who owns it? Can stakes be laid claim or is it an open access, collective space? Will it be a harmonious Utopia open to all, or the latest cyber iteration of the Wild West? In many ways, all this has still to be defined, but (some might say ‘hopeful’) purists would infer that the metaverse will be a connected hub, allowing anyone to build their own separate experiences on it (a bit like the internet as we know it now - but more spatial).

Real-Time Virtual Production - Unreal Engine

Blended reality

And this opens up a whole new blended-reality world for future-thinking brands willing to boldly go into this new experience ecosystem. We have become accustomed to hybrid experiences—the blending of the real world and virtual worlds— and in many ways the pandemic has accelerated this as people have become more familiar and accepting of the benefits of the virtual world. The metaverse is the next stage along this journey - joining the physical and the digital worlds in new ways. For example, an experience on the high street might have a digital twin in the metaverse.

Because the metaverse is an environment, I think it makes more sense to consider it as the next incarnation of the internet. So, it’s worth looking at how the internet developed to understand where it is heading and how the metaverse fits on that journey.

How Far Are We From "Ready Player One" Gaming

The Past: Internet 1.0 (1980s through the early 2000s)

Some of us might remember Internet 1.0—it allowed us to dial into the internet (remember that funny sound your phone would make if someone in your house was on the phone line?) and view basic web pages to gain (not so) quick referenceable information in image or text form. Some lucky people may have even downloaded low-resolution video.

The Present: Internet 2.0 (2000s - now)

Internet 2.0 is where faster ‘always on’ internet allows us to access content (video, music, imagery) in most places that a connection can be reached (because of fast broadband and 4G connections) on anything, at any time. We are hyper-connected across platforms such as Facebook or WeChat, we can log in to any website and store our personal information and share relevant data with our connections, friends, and family (or strangers). But it’s still a digital world, separated from our physical world.

The Future: Internet 3.0 (now-future)

Internet 3.0—or as many refer to it, the metaverse—is where several key moments will happen. The internet will decentralise, and the internet giants will no longer own users’ data outright; instead the user will take full responsibility for their digital footprint. We are already seeing this with the uptake of cryptocurrency and NFT auctions—non-fungible tokens (NFTs) allow the ownership of digital assets to be recorded.

The metaverse becomes a constant companion fuelled by low latency 5G networks. Like physical cash payments transitioning to digital contactless payments, social networking will transition from a chat window on a website or in an app to augmented reality (AR) moments over a dinner table at a restaurant with your friends.

We’ll be able to see AR assets in the real-world space or see similar 3D assets in a virtual world through virtual reality (VR) headsets, TVs, and potentially interactive mirrors—our digital voice assistants might be the new interface freeing our fingers and hands up to interact with the real world and virtual assets.