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I have put together a metaverse discussion paper. This post is the executive summary of the metaverse discussion paper. The full paper has much more context including context on the history of the metaverse, the current reality and separating out the hype.
This originally started as a discussion paper drafted during quiet moments at work. Client work got in the way developing it further. I didn’t have time to complete writing the metaverse discussion paper beyond an outline and supporting research.
A good deal of my work is to do with brand experience. So, it made sense for me to dig in and find out more about the metaverse from the perspective of what it means to brands. I structured my approach in understanding the metaverse, in terms of:
- What is currently being said
- The past developments leading up to the metaverse
- Possible futures
How to use the metaverse discussion paper
This document contains a large amount of content. I would advise that you read the executive summary and everything else you can dive into as your muse or boredom strikes you.
The link to the full metaverse discussion paper is at the bottom of the post. I am giving it away for free under a Creative Commons Attribution – No Derivatives licence.
The current state of the metaverse and the technology sectors attitude to it can be best understood through the words of a mid-20th century political thinker Ivan Chtcheglov. Chtcheglov reflected on an illusory imagined construction.
And you, forgotten, your memories ravaged by all the consternations of two hemispheres, stranded in the Red Cellars of Pali-Kao, without music and without geography, no longer setting out for the hacienda where the roots think of the child and where the wine is finished off with fables from an old almanac. That’s all over. You’ll never see the hacienda. It doesn’t exist.
The hacienda must be built.
What became apparent as I researched for this document was how companies were trying to solve problems that were a small part of what will be needed for a metaverse. This is because the metaverse as envisaged in science fiction and technology as ‘thought leadership’ will require a wide range of technology problems to be solved. For instance, the current technologists haven’t been able to surpass the vivid experiences created in mid-to-late 20th century cinemas and theme parks.
Broadly the technology challenges would be characterised as:
- Believable and immersive
- Open and portable in nature from a technology perspective
- Traversable – the ability to ‘travel’ around and between worlds
- Able to conduct commerce and exchange
- Secure and trusted
Many companies have deep expertise in some parts of the metaverse problem. Some work builds on decades of work in areas such as virtual reality and haptic technology. But these areas haven’t progressed with the kind of pace one would expect from Moore’s Law. Technologists are trying to work out how existing technologies, like distributed databases, games physics engines and realistic computer rendering could be used to solve some of the problems needed to be addressed to build a future metaverse.
What we saw with the web, but are not seeing with the metaverse at the moment is collaboration. There isn’t open collaborative work towards a maturing standards environment necessary for interoperability as well as a solid direction to help define future metaverse technologies. The lack of collaboration makes it hard to predict, if or when we would be likely to see a metaverse. We can speculate how the future supporting technologies for the metaverse might net out based on heuristics like Moore’s Law or Metcalfe’s Law. It would be impossible to speculate on the realpolitik required to build the ‘metaverse’ and what would drive its universal adoption over time.
But that isn’t stopping companies thinking about how the metaverse work with their brands. Governments are also giving a lot of thought to the coming metaverse including:
- The provision of services in a ‘metaverse’ environment
- How to manage market competition
- Understanding the potential of the metaverse to foment social disturbances and imperil security
Since the metaverse, doesn’t currently exist as envisaged, it makes sense to look for analogues. These analogues include social trends in highly evolved technology markets and precursor technologies such as gaming and VR. The goal of the research would be to try and understand what it might look like when digital immersive experiences become commonplace.
Consultants like Forrester Research and McKinsey are recommending that organisations get involved with precursors to learn, but also temper their expectations. There is a limitation to this approach, technology and culture evolve with use. Scale changes things further. Norms that were established when platforms have 100,000s of users evolve or fade away when the user number goes to 100s of millions or even billions.
One of the ways that this research happens is through a resurgence of technologist and marketer interest in virtual worlds like Roblox and AltspaceVR. These virtual worlds allow experimentation to discover what works (and what doesn’t) far in advance of the future metaverse. Deloitte Consulting considered that one of the three business model scenarios for the metaverse was what they termed a ‘Low Orbit’ where the metaverse like VR, continues to be used for niche rather than general purpose uses. The current virtual worlds lean more towards the ‘Low Orbit’ model. The current belief that games are the metaverse falls firmly into the ‘Low Orbit’ model.
Assuming for a moment that businesses manage to retain and build on the body of knowledge they get through this experimentation they will hopefully answer questions like:
- Using VR early adopters as a proxy for metaverse users, what works from a marketing effectiveness perspective, in driving brand awareness and brand activation?
- How effective are virtual world experiences in terms of brand awareness and brand activation? How does it benchmark against web-based media, mobile apps, out of home (OOH), cinema and broadcast media like connected and conventional television?
- What are the dos and don’ts acquired through experimentation in virtual worlds from user experience design perspective for brands?
- How would a virtual world assist in digital consumer testing and virtual crowdsourcing before committing to manufacture an item at scale? What are the strengths and limitations in this approach?
- What tactics are drive brand awareness in a virtual world in an effective manner?
- When do experiences get old and have to be refreshed?
- How can the brand be a better citizen in the virtual world? How much interaction is required with ‘real’ brand ambassadors?
Some of the platforms like Meta’s Horizon Worlds and Animoca Brands’ The Sandbox hope to be the metaverse. They desire to incorporate the consumers entire perceived metaverse. An analogue to the business models of Horizon Worlds or The Sandbox would be walled garden ‘super apps’ WeChat and the Taobao that currently represent most of the consumer mobile web in China today. Or the walled garden ‘desktop web’ experience of AOL in pre-broadband America. Deloitte Consulting outlined this approach as one of their likely business model scenarios of the metaverse. They called it a ‘Double Star’.
Platforms face a big challenge; consumer expectations are well over a decade ahead of what the technology can actually deliver.
Even if the technology is successful, the challenge for brands, walled garden and open metaverse platforms are many. Here are two of the biggest challenges to get started:
- How do brands and platforms show that sufficient effort has been done to keep users safe? This isn’t only about filtering content, but filtering behaviour. Will post-censure of bad behaviour be sufficient? Will the environment be sufficiently safe for brands to participate and advertise?
In a world of ESG considerations, would an energy intensive virtual pleasure palace be too much for investors or purpose-driven brand owners like BlackRock, Proctor & Gamble or Unilever?
 Chtcheglov, I.V. (1953) Formulaire pour un urbanisme nouveau. France – http://www.bopsecrets.org/SI/Chtcheglov.htm
 Gregersen, E. (July 21, 2011) Moore’s Law. United States: Encyclopaedia Britannica – https://www.britannica.com/technology/Moores-law
 Metcalfe, R. (August 18, 2006) Guest Blogger Bob Metcalfe: Metcalfe’s Law Recurses Down the Long Tail of Social Networks. United States: VCMike via wordpress.com – https://vcmike.wordpress.com/2006/08/18/metcalfe-social-networks/
 Shapiro, C. and Varian, H.R. (1999). Information Rules. United States: Harvard Business Press
 Proulx, M., Ask, J., Bennett, M., Gownder, J.P., & Truog, D. (March 29, 2022) There Is No Metaverse Today, But Be Prepared. United States: Forrester Research – https://www.forrester.com/blogs/there-is-no-metaverse-today-but-be-prepared/
 Whatley, J. (May 17, 2022) The metaverse doesn’t exist! You’re talking about gaming. United Kingdom: The Drum – https://www.thedrum.com/opinion/2022/05/17/the-metaverse-doesn-t-exist-you-re-talking-about-gaming
 (September 4, 2000) AOL’s ‘Walled Garden’. United States: The Wall Street Journal – https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB968104011203980910?reflink=desktopwebshare_permalink
 America Online
 Environmental, Social and Governance criteria. Standards used by socially conscious investors as a way to filter investment decisions. More here – https://www.investopedia.com/terms/e/environmental-social-and-governance-esg-criteria.asp
I have more on technologies that blur the line between online and offline here.