Metaversum 2022. Today’s reality of virtual reality.
Virtual worlds have been with us for a long time in the form of computer games or communities like Second Life. So has been hardware that was supposed to bring us into a virtual reality with headsets from Facebook’s Oculus or Microsoft’s HoloLens. All this got gradually better over time. But something never happened: a breakthrough of this technology from niche markets or small concept tests into broad mainstream success. While certain games are widely adopted within certain target groups, XR/VR/AR and all other forms of alternative realities never gained real traction. The priority of the phenomenon for companies and brands stayed very low.
This changed one day at the end of October last year when Mark Zuckerberg turned Facebook Inc. into Meta Platforms, Inc. — from one moment to the other, one word suddenly became mainstream: Metaverse.
Now, a couple of months later, the word itself is all around. But many still have no clear concept of what the Metaverse is, while everybody seems to have an opinion about it: for some, it is one of the most stupid ideas in business history. For others, it is the next big thing. Most are unsure and think it is something in between. But what everyone can agree on is that Zuckerberg created a global hype for virtual worlds that we haven’t seen since Sweden opened its embassy in Second Life.
Now everybody starts to write about it, but most of the thinking is done in the distant future: what can, might, will the Metaverse be one day — in 5 or 10 years, perhaps even later than that. But this overlooks the potential the ideas & concepts of the Metaverse already have today. It is even dangerous because all the current hype can turn the Metaverse into a second Second Life.
The first Second Life never was that abysmal failure many think it was. Instead, it was and, as a matter of fact, still is a healthy community of hundreds of thousands of happy users with a GDP of over US$600 mil.
It was built by the first visionaries of the Metaverse, who started to realize their dream of a real virtual world in 1999. Around 2005 everybody began to talk about the service. Second Life suddenly was seen as the next big thing and was supposed to scale accordingly. Become really big. Facebook-big. It never did — for several reasons. But it still is around. And it still is a healthy community that can teach us some lessons for building the Metaverse of today.
And today is what we want to focus on in this POV. We will cut through the current hype in order to ensure that the Metaverse doesn’t die an early death of unrealistic expectations. Therefore, we will:
- find a reason why the Metaverse should exist,
- define the core of a Metaverse of today in easy to understand terms,
- and describe how it can be used to drive real business value — not in 5 or 10 years. But now.
What is the Metaverse? And why?
Come to think of it, the Internet is a pretty lonely place. From time to time, we might watch a Netflix show together with family or friends. But usually, when we are online, we are alone: watching a video on YouTube, reading the news, even flipping through the supposed-to-be social media like Instagram or Facebook. Also, any commercial activity is done by oneself. You can send a friend a link, and ask for his or her opinion via chat. But it will never become a real social experience.
Contrast this with buying something in real life, browsing stores with your friends while talking about everything you see — a totally common and obvious „use-case“ that we all have experienced and like, but that hasn’t been replicated online until now.
Experiencing something in the presence of others, especially friends, is one of the best ways to form memories and strong bonds. That is why in-real-life events, stores, and showrooms are very valuable tools for brand communications. And the question is, how can we use the same techniques in the digital space?
That is the problem Metaverse would be perfect to solve.
A real Metaverse gives you a synchronous social experience with real people represented by avatars in a virtual reality while usually not being in the same place in real life, either with high-immersion (using a VR headset) or low-immersion (on the screen of a phone or computer ). Synchronous means everyone is in-world at the same time and social means that the interaction is more than shooting at each other.
Everybody sitting at home, watching a video together on Disney+, is a cool feature but not a Metaverse. Sitting together in front of a virtual cinema-like Big Screen is. Playing a computer game in a virtual world against AI-driven characters or a multiplayer session on Battlefield is no Metaverse. Fortnite on the other hand turned from a battle royale game into a place where you can also meet friends and attend an Ariana Grande concert — hence a Metaverse.
Is there one Metaverse? Or are there many? In the future, there might be one consolidated Metaverse or some kind of Metaverse infrastructure that connects all virtual worlds. But for the time being, we will be using various Micro- or Proto-Metaverses like Roblox, Fortnite, or Microsoft’s Altspace. Although they function separately from each other, they already enable most of the social features mentioned above. And those can be used right now. Not at some distant point in the future.
So the core of the Metaverse concept is about creating the feeling of social presence — being in the presence of others — and turning the lonely Internet into a lively place. If done right, this can bring the advantages of real-life commerce to digital commerce.
Digital Commerce and the Metaverse
Buying and selling things in the Metaverse can happen in many ways. McDonald’s just received a patent for Metaverse users visiting a virtual restaurant, where they order food that gets delivered to them in real life. Sounds kind of strange at first. But having a real dinner with real friends and all the social interaction that comes with it — while everyone is sitting at home, maybe on different continents — might indeed become a compelling proposition.
Combining real products with virtual interaction is just one way to do digital commerce in the virtual space. Even more potential has digital commerce done with digital goods creating a totally virtual economy with different cost structures, incentives, and possibilities — but those come with their own challenges:
1. Digital goods can usually be copied easily, while there is no easy way to prove ownership.
2. Buying lots of smaller digital items in a virtual world means lots of very small transactions. So a system that enables micropayments is needed.
3. If you buy a digital item in one Metaverse today, you usually won’t be able to use it in any other one. As long as there is not one single Metaverse, this would need at least some level of interoperability across different worlds — especially for digital goods where this would obviously make sense, like a piece of clothing for your avatar.
Currently, many Metaverse discussions are about NFTs (non-fungible tokens), blockchains, and cryptocurrencies. Those concepts are supposed to solve all three problems at once: the NFT technology can be used to create unique digital goods that can’t be copied but be bought and sold with clear proof of ownership. The price is paid using a cryptocurrency. And through the blockchain, which contains the NFT, interoperability across worlds could be achieved — at least in theory.
In practice, those technologies cause their own set of problems: NFTs are currently not easy to use, the interoperability hasn’t materialized yet and probably won’t for the time being. And the price of the cryptocurrency is wildly fluctuating — leaving customers guessing what their item will be worth tomorrow or in a week, month or year.
Right now, NFTs are mostly used for selling digital art and images. As cases like Clone X from RTFKT, which eventually got bought by NIKE, show, there is some interesting potential in terms of brand communications here. But most of them have nothing to do with any Metaverse-related applications.
In the Metaverse context, NFTs are mainly used by services like Decentraland to buy and sell plots of virtual land in-world. The main goal for most buyers is good old real-estate speculation: the hope that this virtual piece of land will be worth way more in the future. It is basically a gamble, with a digital good whose real, inherent value is zero.
Of course, there are also other reasons to buy land on Decentraland, like brands that try to develop the land and provide users with exciting experiences. But the current user interface and low immersion of the application make it very hard to produce convincing results.
Also, the focus on speculation in crypto-worlds like Decentraland runs against the goal of building a healthy and sustainable community. As mentioned above, the economic basis for all transactions is a cryptocurrency — usually Ethereum — whose exchange rate is subject to erratic changes. Because of this, the value of everything within this world can swing up or down wildly at any time. That makes it hard to do anything else than speculate with this value. It is probably the reason why currently there is not much commercial activity in virtual worlds built on the crypto paradigm next to real-estate speculation.
Real current Metaverses with fans and users, like Fortnite on the other hand, have solved the first two problems with their own systems which use centralized databases instead of blockchains and a payment system similar to gift cards. Those seem to work fine without any crypto-tech, although this leaves the third problem — interoperability — unsolved. But this shouldn’t be much of an issue as long as crypto worlds haven’t solved it as well.
So for now, NTFs in the context of the Metaverse are more hype than substance. This concept has yet to prove itself. But the good news is: driving real business value with virtual worlds is possible today — even without NFTs or blockchains.
How to drive real Business Value in today’s Metaverse.
There are many ways SocialVR and already existing Metaverses can be used in a business context — as a tool for brand building, but also for selling digital goods and services.
The simplest option for brands is just being present in virtual worlds like it has been common in computer games for years, e.g. by offering digital versions of a brand’s real-world product — either for free as a promotion or for money if it creates real value for the user.
The next step could be to participate actively in events in Metaverses like Fortnite or Altspace. Or organize events in VR for fans, customers, or the press.
Depending on the respective business it might also be possible to digitize parts of the company’s services to offer them in the Metaverse either instead of or complementing real-world offerings.
But SocialVR and Metaverses are also perfect to support more traditional aspects of a company’s business. Internal VR events can be great for team building or complementing video conferences with hybrid sessions — e.g. doing presentations on Teams or Zoom where everybody can take notes while having the discussion or break afterward in VR on services like Glue.work or Metas Workrooms. Also, interaction with actual or potential customers can be partly moved to the Metaverse, e.g. product demonstrations or training sessions for complex systems.
In the following, we will describe various use-cases in more detail using concrete examples.
Case 1: The Company Metaverse
One Accenture Park
As part of an extensive new joiner onboarding program for more than 100.000 worldwide new employees, Accenture has built its own company-wide Metaverse, One Accenture Park, on AltspaceVR.
In pre-pandemic times there have been big on-location on-boarding events at Accenture offices to teach them about the Accenture purpose, values, cultures, offerings, and everything else they have to know to have a great time with Accenture. This wasn’t now possible anymore and to have not only Zoom or Team Calls with the new employees, part of the onboarding process is now happening in an impressive virtual world Accenture has built for this purpose.
To give immersive access to this Metaverse, Accenture distributed 60.000 Oculus Quest 2 VR headsets to the new employees. In a well-curated format, the new employees get onboarded in a hybrid format, powered by MS Teams and AltspaceVR sessions with Breakouts, Videos, and Interactive Discussions over several weeks.
As an ongoing format, they have regular One Accenture Park Metaverse events and global parties in their first year in order to grow the community and give the employees a sense of belonging.
For guidance in One Accenture Park, a special role, called “Park Rangers”, was created. The Park Rangers facilitate the events and support the participants to have their best omni-connected experience in the One Accenture Park Metaverse.
The format was extremely well perceived by the participants. It released incredible energy and interaction among the new joiners compared to previous approaches with just video-conferencing. It was much easier for people to open up and overcome anxiety in a new company environment. Due to the social aspect and advantage of this Metaverse approach, it was much easier for the people to network, get to know each other, and build trust. In addition, this also contributes to sustainability as travel has been reduced to a minimum.
Accenture is continuously expanding this Metaverse, using it for conferences, training, and client events.
Case 2: B2B Sales in VR
Maillefer virtual sales exhibition
Metaverse and VR technology can be powerful tools for supporting the sales process of B2B businesses like large machinery or industrial products. It is often challenging to give potential customers a good understanding of these companies’ complex systems. Experiencing this in VR can be an innovative solution to this problem.
The Finnish company Maillefer is the global leader in wire, cable, pipe, and tube production technologies. Maillefer sought an efficient solution for presenting clients with their technology. The large size of the production lines makes it difficult for them to demonstrate the products at exhibitions.
So they decided to build an interactive virtual space to provide a cost-efficient and unique way to visualize high-technology concepts without the need to transport the physical products to exhibitions. The VR space is also being used as a forum for conversations with prospective clients.
Case 3: Combining Virtual Worlds and E-Commerce
Taobao Life Game
Most virtual worlds in Asia use mobile phone apps instead of browser- or pc-based systems. One of those virtual worlds is Taobao Life from Alibaba (not to be confused with the live video platform Taobao Live). It was launched in May 2019 — long before the current Metaverse hype. Today it has more than 10 million active users, most of them between 18 and 29 years old and female. More and more Chinese celebrities are present there, too.
Taobao Life does have a social component: you can interact with friends or join events with celebrities. But at its core it is a game: users have to complete missions in order to earn coins which they then can use to buy digital goods.
Those digital goods can be clothes from well-known brands, which users’ avatars can then wear. An engaging way to make a connection to a brand fan, one that communicates the brand also within the social network of this user.
But there is a twist: with a push of a single button, you can buy a real version of these virtual clothes within the game and you can wear in real life what your avatar does in the Metaverse. This creates a kind of omnichannel product and shows an innovative way to combine the digital world with the real one.
Case 4: Inworld Experiences
Zwift, founded in 2013 by John Mayfield, Eric Min, Scott Barker and Alarik Myrin, in the underserved market niche of indoor cycling with the purpose of making indoor cycling an exciting and community-driven immersive experience that is as close as possible to all the fun you have as a cyclist on the road. It is available for Apple and Android platforms.
They created a couple of virtual worlds, some of them with a reference to real places like London or Paris, some as fictitious places (Watopia), where you can connect your smart indoor trainer, like for example a Wahoo Kickr, for a precise cycling simulation with your avatar in these virtual worlds. Beyond a realistic simulation of the terrain and getting physical feedback, you can cycle together with thousands of cycling enthusiasts around the world together in real-time. You can do races against each other, join community bike rides or meet with friends for cycling. An audio integration for real-time communication extends the immersive experience and community feeling of doing a ride together.
You get precise information about your speed, cadence, heart rate, performed watts, distance, and burned calories. With gamification features, you can compare your performance in various leaderboards and cycling events, earn badges for achievements, collect points (sweatdrops) for driven meters that you can exchange for virtual gear, and much more.
Starting in the niche of cycling enthusiasts, the worldwide community grew meanwhile to more than 2.5 million monthly subscribers in 2020 and up to 40.000 simultaneous cyclists in this Metaverse.
While Peleton and other providers are following a more studio and personality-based fitness approach with a personal instructor, Zwift follows a bottom-up-centered community approach with sub-communities and special user groups. It is a place where amateurs meet pros (one-third of professional Tour de France cyclists are using Zwift), a place that fulfills our desire for community and shared experiences at any time.
Furthermore, it connects with your favorite tracking apps like Strava, collaborates with sports brands and organizations to extend its service to a viable Metaverse ecosystem.
As a regular user of Zwift, I can tell you that this is an addictive second reality I wouldn’t miss anymore.
Case 5: Branded Communities
Nikeland at Roblox
Today’s Metaverses can also be part of already existing online games. One example of this is Roblox, an online game platform and game creation system developed by Roblox Corporation with over 200 million monthly active users. Over half of all children aged under 16 in the United States are already playing Roblox. The game is free-to-play, with in-game purchases available through a virtual currency called “Robux”.
It allows users to program games and play games created by other users. Not only users build worlds, but also brands like Nike with Nikeland — a virtual world on Roblox modeled after the Nike HQ.
Nike’s real-life headquarters inspire buildings and fields inside Nikeland with arenas for the Roblox community to test their skills by competing in various mini-games. Nike products are also present: e.g. users can get digital versions of the latest sneaker models to wear on their avatars.
Nike also uses its Roblox presence to connect the virtual world to the real one — reimaging Nikeland as a Kid’s space at the Nike NYC House of Innovation with immersive augmented reality experiences, branded metaverse activation using Snapchat Lenses and AR-enabled versions of classic games like “Floor is Lava,” tag, and dodgeball. The aim is to add an interactive layer to the traditional brick-and-mortar shopping experience.
Case 6: Education in Virtual Worlds
American High School
The American Online High School, founded in 2004, is a private, for-profit education institution, which provides recognized, college prep, and career-based education to students in grades K-12. The goal is to earn a fully accredited American High School diploma. The students come from all around the world and join the classes from their respective countries through online services.
Last year AHS started to complement its online tutoring with VR classes using headset-based Engage VR.
Students join their VR classes as an avatar in a live, synchronous experience with a live teacher and a group of classmates. All lessons are recorded and saved in full, spatial 3D. So it is possible to revisit the full class, as it happened. After school, students can socialize on the virtual campus — play chess or join study groups in the student lounge.
The learning experience is greatly enhanced by the VR environment. Students don’t just watch videos, but they actually live through what they learn. In astronomy class they ‘beam up’ to a starship, put on a spacesuit, and go on a spacewalk to see celestial bodies up close. In anatomy, a teacher can reach into the chest cavity of a cadaver and pull out a human heart and hand it to students standing around the table. The student from the Caribbean will hold it, examine it and then pass it to the student standing just to the right who happens to be — physically — in Denver, Colorado.
So the VR classes are geographically agnostic, as is any video conferencing. But the students at AHS enjoy a feeling of social presence with their classmates that no Teams or Zoom session can offer.
Current discussions of the Metaverse focus either on things that will be available sometime in the distant future or on speculation-fueled crypto-worlds that get a lot of coverage but don’t drive much real value.
What gets often overlooked is the possibility to use already available technology for providing engaging social experiences in virtual worlds. A company or brand that looks for ways to use today’s Metaverse effectively for digital commerce should focus on one question: How can we enhance the experiences of potential and actual customers or employees by turning the lonely Internet into a lively place?