He Man and the Masters of the Metaverse

Mark Ralphs

1 February 2022

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To some, pure science fiction; to others, a huge leap in how we engage with the digital world. Either way, the metaverse is generating a huge amount of hype at the moment.

So what exactly is the metaverse? How did the idea emerge? Is it (really) already a thing? And, from a business perspective, what are the implications for how brands and organisations engage with, and create value for, their audiences?

What inspired the ‘metaverse’?

We know that Facebook / Meta did not invent the metaverse, or more precisely the “idea of the metaverse”.

In fact, the idea of the metaverse emerged in the late 70s:

Since the late 1970s and early 1980s, many of those in the technology community have imagined a future state of, if not quasi-successor to, the Internet — called the “Metaverse”. And it would revolutionise not just the infrastructure layer of the digital world, but also much of the physical one, as well as all the services and platforms atop them, how they work, and what they sell.

Mathew Ball, The Metaverse: What It Is, Where to Find it, and Who Will Build It

And, the word ‘metaverse’ was first used in Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson, to describe a VR programme / game / alternate reality that the main character, Hiro Protagonist, spends time in.

It won’t pay the rent, but that’s okay — when you live in a shithole, there’s always the Metaverse, and in the Metaverse, Hiro is a warrior prince.

Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash, Chapter 7

Perpetual revolution

To take Mathew Ball’s concept of major ‘infrastructure layer revolutions’, there have been three in my lifetime.

The first was Apple adopting the mouse for the launch of the Macintosh in 1984. Using a mouse, when combined with Apple’s icon based OS (a first in personal computing), revolutionised how people interacted with the digital space using their personal computers.

The second was Tim Berners-Lee’s invention of HTML in 1992, enabling the subsequent mass adoption of the World Wide Web. And we know that worked out OK.

The third was the smartphone.

It may seem strange today, but working in a digital agency in the 2000s, we believed every year from about 2002 was going to be the ‘Year of Mobile’. In fact, it took the iPhone 1 (2007), then the iPhone 2 alongside the App Store (both 2008), to make the mobile internet take off.

2008 was the true Year of Mobile, there was no looking back. The tech had been available for years (at least in ‘clunkier’ form), but it needed the iPhone and the democracy (to an extent) of the App Store to give the mobile internet mass appeal and give rise to the third infrastructure layer revolution since the 70s.

Will the fourth revolution be the Metaverse?

Today, the situation with the metaverse is similar to the mobile internet of the late 90s and early 2000s. To quote Mathew Ball again:

Although the full vision for the Metaverse remains hard to define, seemingly fantastical, and decades away, the pieces have started to feel very real. And as always with this sort of change, its arc is as long and unpredictable as its end state is lucrative.

As with mobile, pieces of the metaverse have started to feel real (the mobile web was widely available on phones from the late 90s), but the journey to mass adoption is uncertain (it took until 2014 for mobile internet traffic to overtake desktop in the US).

So… what are the pieces of the metaverse?

A difficult question to answer, particularly as what exactly the metaverse is, or will be, is still being defined.

From the basic:

The metaverse has been described as what comes after the internet. In its simplest terms it’s a social hub where users can interact with one another as avatars across a host of digital worlds.

BBC Click, September 2021

To the more nuanced:The metaverse is essentially a marketing concept. We have universes which are self-contained realities. Then we have multiverses, which are realities that you can move between so they’re effectively the same reality. And then we have a metaverse, which is all one reality but it’s got a whole bunch of other ones interconnected.

So, as an example, something like World of Warcraft is a universe and you can’t take anything into or out of World of Warcraft itself. Something like Roblox is a multiverse and your character can move from one interior world to another interior world.

The metaverse means that you can move from one universe to another universe so you can in theory have a character in a metaverse that would move from World of Warcraft to Eve Online to Final Fantasy 14. That’s the theory, whether it’ll work in practice is another matter.

Professor Richard Bartle, early pioneer of multiplayer games.

Many are reaching for easy to understand comparisons to describe the metaverse, in particular VR and gaming, from Ready Player One to Fortnite. These comparisons are an oversimplification, VR and gaming only bring together a small number of the pieces that may make up the metaverse in future.

To some extent, there is already a metaverse in games. But — and it’s an important but — it’s rudimentary.

Some social elements of the metaverse can already be found in video games. Consider Fortnite, an online shooter game played on computers, game consoles and mobile devices. The average Fortnite player spends hundreds of hours in the game with a personal avatar, fighting with and interacting with the avatars of other players. Players also accrue virtual currency that unlocks outfits and other goodies to customize their avatars.

Brian X Chen, What’s All the Hype About the Metaverse

So, for us to reach a point where we have a shared understanding of what the metaverse is, or will be, and then reach mass adoption, requires a range of technologies to work together in a currently undefined way. Some of these technologies have been around for decades (AR, VR), some for a few years (AI, crypto, haptic clothing), some are relatively new (NFTs), and some are still a little way in the future but making fast progress (mind-control tech).

We’re talking about the successor to the internet remember! So this is not going to be straightforward and the metaverse is going to take years to reach maturity.

Why Facebook’s rebranding as Meta is important

It’s important to recognise that two things are going on in Facebook’s rebrand as Meta.

First, the Facebook brand is toxic. That’s not to say it can’t be detoxified, but that Zuckerberg doesn’t want the Facebook name to be associated with new developments in the fields of VR and AR, as well as decoupling the brand from Instagram and WhatsApp. The simplest answer is to change the name, whether it works is another question.

Second, Meta genuinely wants to be at the cutting edge of whatever the metaverse will become, for innovation and commercial reasons (these days, the same thing).

worries that teenagers prefer Snap or TikTok, and that Apple’s Tim Cook has his boot on their throat. These questions give Facebook’s investment in VR (over $10bn this year [2021], it disclosed in the accounts) and now ‘the metaverse’ existential urgency. If there is something after smart phones, Facebook wants to be the landlord, not a tenant. It wants to set the agenda and invent new experiences (and — let’s be honest — it hasn’t invented much itself for quite a long time).

Benedict Evans, Metabrand

Evans’ “landlord, not a tenant” point is important. As in the early days of the web, a number of companies would like to ‘own’ the metaverse, or at least significant chunks of it.

Berners-Lee’s refusal to commercialise HTML ensured that no one player could own the internet. And with web interoperability standards, and APIs (albeit often greatly constrained) data is able pass between platforms, supporting tailored user experiences in the process. Whether there will be sufficient interoperability between Fortnite and Facebook, Roblox and Microsoft, to deliver a true metaverse remains to be seen.

As with the App Store in 2008, the rebrand to Meta is most important because of what it signals to the market. The App Store showed developers a way to make money, and brands a way to engage with, and create value for, consumers. By rebranding as Meta, Facebook is saying, this is the future we believe in, where the real money will be made.

As a result, I’m writing this post, you’re reading it, and people everywhere in tech, brands, business, and their agencies and consultancies are thinking about what the metaverse is and could be, and whether they should experiment with it, or at least the pieces of it that currently work. It’s a huge catalyst for innovation. Reinforcing the metaverse’s potential as a ‘frontier tech’ and generating attention and investment.

What does the metaverse mean for your brand? 

You may be wondering whether the metaverse has something to do with your brand and, if so, how can your business become a metaverse pioneer. If you’ve read this far, hopefully you will appreciate the message.

The metaverse does not exist (yet!), many of its component pieces do, all at varying stages of evolution. It is now worth taking (some of) them seriously.

The metaverse does not exist (yet!), many of its component pieces do, all at varying stages of evolution. It is now worth taking (some of) them seriously.

You can see this in the presence of the metaverse at this year’s CES. You couldn’t describe any of the products on show as ‘metaverse’ applications, just applications of component pieces.

We are seeing Gartner’s Hype Cycle in action. The metaverse (prompted by the Facebook / Meta rebrand in October) is at the Peak of Inflated Expectation; and it didn’t even make it into August’s Hype Cycle (below)

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The value of hype

This hype is generating all kinds of noise (and interest), including the news that H&M is considering launching a store in Ceek City. Note that the video below is a proof of concept, not the real deal

There’s nothing wrong with capitalising on the hype. For the right brand, being an early adopter of tech is a highly effective way to raise awareness, build brand equity as an innovator and as a brand for early adopter (often younger) audiences. Plus, you get to learn a lot.

Below is an example of BMW using AR as far back as 2009. BMW almost definitely didn’t sell any more Z4s, but it had a huge PR impact at the time, and is entirely in line with BMW’s brand value as automotive innovators.

BMW Z4 AR campaign (2009)

Capitalising on the hype, as well as reaching certain audience demographics, is why in 2021 Gucci sold digital versions of its Dionysus handbag in Roblox, and we saw Ariana Grande performing in Fortnite.

Maturing tech

We are also seeing tech like VR and AR (back in 2009 at the Peak of Inflated Expectations) reaching the Slope of Enlightenment and even the Plateau of Productivity in Gartner’s Hype Cycle.

This tech has moved beyond the hype and is getting to a point of evolution that makes it relevant for brands and businesses; able to deliver commercial results and operational improvements.

These applications are not always in the consumer space, B2B is equally relevant. Google Glass, a noted consumer failure, has been quietly used in enterprise applications for some time. And in the Digital Workplace segment below you can see AR and VR featuring as tech currently ‘In Pilot’ from an enterprise perspective.

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2021 — 2023 Emerging Technology Roadmap for Large Enterprises

And there are immediate opportunities in sectors like healthcare (providing patient confidentiality can be properly addressed) and education.

So… should I be investing in the metaverse?

When it comes to ‘innovation’ (doing stuff with new tech for the first time), brands should follow the 70 / 20 / 10 rule. Invest 70% of budget in activities you know work. Invest 20% in activities new to you, but working for competitors, or in lateral sectors. Invest 10% in ‘the new thing’, tech and behaviours that are maturing but are some way from having quantifiable business impact.

For most, the metaverse, and much of its associated tech, sits in that 10%; it may raise awareness and contribute to brand equity, it is definitely worth experimenting with (if you don’t test you can’t learn) but it won’t make your fortune.