What are the current tech trends in the emerging metaverse, what do they mean for brands, and why the metaverse offers a revolutionary opportunity to create unique experiences that put the viewer in the driving seat?

What is the metaverse? This is a bit like asking someone in 1995; “What is the internet?”

You might have recently noticed a frantic scrabble on behalf of a variety of brands to create a presence in the emerging ‘metaverse’; investing in virtual activations through a variety of platforms and NFT and product ‘drops’ and appointing chief ‘metaverse’ staff.

What does it all mean? Why should I care? More importantly – where do I start?

The word ‘metaverse’ might conjure up images of a dystopian movie Ready Player One world or flailing about as an awkward psychedelic mushroom in a boardroom. Hijacked from Neal Stephenson’s 1992 Snow Crash novel, the metaverse is far more than this. It’s part of a wider shift of the internet as we know it to Web 3. This third iteration of the internet is feted to be as revolutionary for brands as the birth of Web 1 (digital sharing of information) and Web 2 (the shift to mobile devices, social media, and eCommerce).

Web 3 is already starting to take shape, influencing how we work, play, shop, and connect. Fuelled by faster and more effective online infrastructure (5G, cloud, real-time engines), new currencies, and means of commerce (Crypto, NFTs), this more spatially aware, intelligent internet holds countless possibilities for future brand identification, co-creation, community, and interaction.

We are currently witnessing a wave of metaverse-style platforms, from tween mobile game platform Roblox to a recent Fashion Week in Decentraland. With a combined market of 440m users competing for brand attention, there certainly is a lot of noise.

The first question for any brand as to why to start exploring these is how much you want to attract younger audiences. Although everyone will be affected by Web 3 at some point, it is Gen Z that will be most involved in influencing what succeeds and what doesn’t.

If Gen Z is important to your brand, then you need to start thinking about how your brand engages in a very different way with this audience. Although devices are iterating fast, with promises of AR glasses from Apple, some of the biggest audiences are still accessing virtual worlds from traditional phones and tablets. Yes, you do need to understand what AR and VR can do but what deserves more attention as a brand leader is something that will not change: A growing trend within this audience for co-created interactive, story-led, and character-led worlds. This isn’t about a one-off PR stunt – it’s about your brand gaining trust and providing a creative sandbox for this valuable future market to play in.

If your brand has a legacy in manufacturing, retail, or ‘the real world’, you will already have experienced the challenges of shifting to online-focused engagement during the global pandemic. For some industries, such as performance, visitor attractions, tourism, or property, you might have already dipped your toe in some early metaverse-enabling technologies to greater or less success – things like 360-degree tours or online consultations. Now that the real world is ‘back’, how can we fuse the benefits of the real world with the new appetite that this virtual world boom has ignited? Unlike the dystopian view of the metaverse, it’s likely to be a blend of the best of both real and imagined worlds. The brands that understand this and understand their audience will be the ones who succeed in the long term.

The metaverse at its best will be a blend of physical and virtual worlds. The web will become more like the real world and vice versa. Physical brand environments of the future will be personalized, reading your mood using AI-enabled facial recognition and better data, offering you things you really want in ways you didn’t know you wanted. The real world will connect you to imagined story-worlds, inviting you to play with new identities without struggling in cramped changing rooms, sampling food with a sprinkle of magic, and sharing the fullness of the real world with your friends in the virtual world.

In turn, it won’t be long before the virtual world connects to the outside world through sensors and trackers that invite real places in. Volumetric scanning technologies are now available to all. Current smartphones can already create a pretty accurate 3D scan of real people and Nvidia’s NeRF allows you to turn a 2D photo into 3D. These capturing technologies allowing artists and live sports to perform to audiences of millions in virtual worlds is just the tip of the iceberg. This dual world will allow us to have multiple versions of 3D products and identities that complement the real world, rather than compete with it.

This sea change can feel like uncharted territory but it isn’t as far away from brand comfort zones as you might think. So how can you get started?

It is the story and the worlds that brands create that will engage audiences and build trust and loyalty with your brand. How brands tell stories may need to borrow from experts who have been creating interactive stories for decades and centuries: theatre folk,  performers, game experts, and artists. They are as important as the technology experts.

Listen to your audience; where are they playing? What are they doing there? How can your brand allow them to be co-creators of your strategy? Talk to people who understand how to bridge these worlds, who might have backgrounds in games and immersive experiences. Think about how your brand would exist in a movie or a fantasy world. Use your audience to help you imagine what this could be. Join Discord groups or start one of your own. Download Roblox and a few other platforms and try out some events or games relevant to you. Check out what brands are doing well and badly. Make a list of what works well and how you could bring this into the real world (treasure hunts, knowing people’s likes). Most of all – enjoy the journey – it’s going to be fun! This bit is all about play…

Cover image source: julien Tromeur