Metaverse

Metaverse, what’s in it for companies (not brands)?

It all started somewhere…

The Metaverse is one of those trending buzzwords that sound familiar and yet have no accurate definition. Spearheaded by Meta (formerly Facebook), the Metaverse is for some a concept while for others something that already exists (at least partially) or should never exist.

Originally a Greek word, meta- as a prefix has several meanings such as along with, transcend, beyond, and among. Postmodern philosophy gave it the meaning of about itself where for instance metaphilosophy is the philosophy of philosophy. If you combine both meanings, you should come close to some form of definition of what the Metaverse should or could be. Whatever the definition, it’s objective is to become the future of the internet.

While the Metaverse was coined in 1992 by the author Neal Stephenson in his book snow Crash, It’s not the first word of its kind. William Gibson talked about Cyberspace in his book Neuromancer in 1982 and Jean Baudrillard came with the concept of Hyperreality in his book Simulacra and Simulation in 1981. They may have their own “parameters”, but they all focus on the relation reality / virtuality.

Where are we at?

Today, maybe due to Meta’s communication following the “Ready Player One” movie, the Metaverse seems to be focusing on virtual reality and the use of VR goggles. That being said, this seems to be a very small fraction of what the Metaverse could account for. Whereas Meta uses VR goggles and avatars, companies such as Apple and Microsoft seem to put their efforts in augmented reality (AR), while Neuralink develops brain-machine interfaces. Though Roblox and most Blockchain “metaverses” such as Decentraland and The Sandbox are VR compatible, they mainly focus on worlds creation.

There are many fictional references to a virtual world next to ours and as usual authors (especially in sci-fi) have envisioned such a future a long time ago. Most talk about the Metaverse (or any other name) once human consciousness connects with the net. With the Isekai genre, the Japanese developed a whole culture of manga and anime about the main character going to another world. In some of them, such as Log Horizon and Sword Art Online, the characters have their consciousness stuck in a virtual reality multi players videogame (VRMMO). They die in real if they perish in the game. We could say these games are “hyperreal”. Tad Williams brought us the epical Otherland in 1996 based on the same premise. The movie 2047: Virtual Revolution has a very dark and interesting take on the topic. While being a B-movie, its message could be seen as enlightening if you wish to have a vision of what would happen with the Metaverse in the wrong hands.

If you look at it from a different perspective, the Metaverse and virtual worlds such as Second Life are enhanced video games. This is why some people compare games such as Fortnite to the Metaverse or at least a foundation for it. What differentiates the Metaverse from the internet we know and use today is that the user becomes part of this new reality. Whether we’re in a virtual world or using virtual objects in reality (with AR); these become an extension of our reality. This of course will have a huge impact on the way we perceive our life (are we part of the matrix?) and how we deal with non-physical objects and non-living people. With this, I expect phenomenologists to awaken from their torpor and become a renewed trend in philosophy.

Ok, that’s great and all, but what does it mean for businesses today?

Let’s be clear, first of all it will take years and many more technological upgrades before we can start talking about an actual Metaverse as promoted by the few. Secondly, as a society we’re not ready. As advised by Uncle Ben, “with great power comes great responsibility”, and if these 2 last years have shown us one thing it’s that no company, country or society (or a mix of it) can take on this responsibility. Will it be useful? Possibly. Do we really need it? Probably not. Will it be a game changer? Absolutely!
First of all, there is a big discrepancy between what companies would like the Metaverse to be or think it may be and what its purpose should be. If the Metaverse is to become a world beyond ours, encompassing the real and the virtual, we may hope that its purpose is to improve our wellbeing. And honestly, most books and video games about the subject share a very dystopian view.
Most interested brands perceive the Metaverse as a new sales and marketing channel. They did this with Second Life where it failed and try doing it again by building virtual spots in online worlds such as The Sandbox, Decentraland and Roblox. This is also why I write about the Metaverse for companies and not brands. Spending hours and dollars or euro’s (or even bitcoins) on a virtual scarf or sunglasses for your avatar may be fun, but rather pointless. If the virtual world is to mirror or extend the real world, what does it say about the society we live in and the objectives we try to reach?

The internet has changed a lot since its inception. Broadband brought us many new possibilities, whereas social media and SAAS platforms impacted our lives, the way we socialize and conduct business. With a world average of 147 minutes a day spent on it, social media changed our social structure, the way we share and react to information. SAAS platforms on the other hand, transformed the way we operate at work. Today, with virtual and augmented reality we have new tools that can work as body extensions. Haptic suits for instance can even let us extend our sense of touch within the virtual world. But how should we use it outside gaming or training?

Mark Zuckerberg realized that the Facebook platform has peaked and that the only way to really go further is by transcending it and thus he purchased Oculus and created Horizon Worlds; the foundation for his VR “meta”verse. His expectations are that companies will start using this platform and spend more time in the virtual world. But for what purpose? How does a meeting with avatars improve collaboration, work quality and efficiency? Especially if the main objective is to end up selling adverts and virtual goods?

On the other hand, what if an ERP system such as developed by SAP would have a virtual counterpart that uses a metaphor to recreate the content of the database in a more senseful and understandable manner? What if it could be used as a shared visual and interactive mnemonic palace for employees? Today already, we could consider any SAAS platform with thousands of users, as a “-verse”. What if these users could actually work and live the data; use it for training and build on top of it? What about an HR or CRM platform using a virtual world for their onboarding and training; especially in companies with many employees working remotely? And what if we could link those verses?

In this case, it’s not the users that have to join a “Metaverse platform”, but instead multiple existing verses making a technical upgrade and join together to create this global “Metaverse”. All what’s needed is that you should be able to travel from one verse to another using a bridge for your avatar or other “future digital self” (that’s where the blockchain becomes interesting). Moreover, these virtual worlds do not necessarily have to be in virtual reality using goggles. They can start online with a simple laptop in a 3D environment like existing video games. There’s plenty of tech for that. It’s much easier to implement and use and would be giving purpose to a model such as Second Life.

While some companies want to be ahead of the curve and dive into using VR, which is by the way really useful in immersive learning, most companies are too reluctant to jump into the unknown and require a solution that lies in between. Especially with employees using laptops with limited graphical power.

Wouldn’t that be a more efficient and affordable way to start building the Metaverse – one world at a time? At least, that’s what we believe at Beyönd.

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