Master the Metaverse: Why consumers are ready

It is one of the most frequent questions I get asked these days.

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June 14, 2022

What about the Metaverse? Is it just all noise or should we be stepping into the space as brands? What will it mean for the Customer Experience? Are consumers ready or is it just Zuckerberg trying to run away from reality (and did anyone else think that his avatar he presented in his Metaverse presentation actually looked more human than he does himself?)

The short answer is yes, consumers are ready and the Metaverse will explode our Customer Experience (CX) potential to another level. But a bit like the moment Steve Jobs gave the world the iPod (after which the music industry was never the same) and the iPhone (after which society was never the same), consumers just don’t yet know it themselves. They are ready but a little uncertain as to what exactly they are ready for.

To truly understand the metaverse, I think we need to strip away the technology (the AR, VR, crypto and NFTs) and just focus on what matters – connectivity and interaction.

The human-to-technology computer interface has always been evolving. In the beginning, wires would be physically interchanged by humans to command an action (think of an old telephone exchange. It was the same to run a command on a computer).

Then came the punch cards, a hilarious archaic way of running commands to us now, but an absolute lifesaver if you had spent your day plugging wires in-and-out. Now you just fed the command card into the machine and the computer actioned whatever instruction was coded onto that card. Genius.

Next came the programming languages. in 1964, two often forgotten names (Kemeny & Kurtz) invented BASIC, a relatively straight forward general-purpose computer programming language. Throw away the punch cards, now you could type your commands, with the keyboard becoming the primary human-to-technology interface. Tim Paterson’s MS-DOS accelerated this interface and became a dominant force in computing. I am that old (which is a depressing thing in itself) that I remember ‘booting up’ each of my high-school computers in 1988 with a 5.25” floppy disc containing the MS-DOS commands to simply turn them on. But then Bill Gates gave us Windows and the Mouse.

This shift to a Graphical User Interface (GUI) – that is to ‘point and click’ on what you want to happen as opposed to typing it, changed everything. You no longer needed to know or understand commands or a programming language. Anyone could double-click on an icon. Later Steve Jobs decided that too could be improved on, and took the GUI tactile through the iPad and iPhone. Where we once ‘clicked’ we now simply poked and swiped with a finger, making the interface ever more intuitive. More recently Jeff Bezos gave us Alexa and now we just ask for what we need with our voice.

woman talking to a virtual assistant

A Poke is Easier Than a Click

Let me give you a very simple example. My parents, now in their late-70s / early 80s interact with the world everyday via a smartphone and a tablet. Prior to being gifted her iPad 10 years ago, my mother had rarely used their desktop computer to access anything. My father might have used it twice a year, to book an airline ticket or to print out some funny homemade Christmas cards. They were a generation that had grown up around the keyboard (typewriter) and not right-clicking, double-clicking and ‘saving things to folders’. The windows-based desktop interface was too much hard work, it was not intuitive to them, and so it was rarely used. The ease and intuition of a smartphone or tablet addressed all that – the more accessible technology becomes, the more useful. We have always been on an ‘interface exploration journey’. And the Metaverse is our next stop on that journey.

There is so much confusion as to what the Metaverse is and isn’t, so I am going to use a simple 4-point description from an excellent article by Aaron Frank about How to Explain the Metaverse to your Grandparents.

1. Spatial Interactivity (3D)

Let’s look at things in very simple interactivity terms again. I have two-teenagers who have grown up around Minecraft, Call of Duty, and game play on PS4 and X-Box consoles. I myself grew up gaming with a Commodore 64 (joystick) and Nintendo (simple paddle controls). A modern PS4 game controller has at least 20 different directional and button controls. My C64 joystick had five (up/down/left/right/fire). What does this mean? It means that the motor skills my teenagers possess when playing these games are far superior to mine and they kick my ass (which is also why I thought buying the old Nintendo retro console would rebalance things, but it turns out my daughter can kick my ass on that too).

Give my aforementioned older parents a PS4 controller and they wouldn’t know what to do. But, and here is the spatial bit, give my 82-year-old father a Nintendo Wii controller and ask him to wave it about playing digital tennis on the screen – not a problem. Anyone can wave their arms about and understand the implication. The user interface in the 3D spatial world is easily understandable.

So, one of the easiest ways of explaining what the metaverse might be is that it is simply the internet in 3D. Three-dimensions make more sense to us as humans. Navigating around a 3D world is naturally intuitive as we do it every day. The 2D of current interaction (on Apps or laptops) is limited. Back to the game analogy, games like Fortnite and Call of Duty are spatial in their design – the player moves through the game in a 3D environment, naturally more intuitive.

The metaverse brings digital consumer-to-brand interaction into a 3D intuitive world, a world already known and understood by all. Until now, eCommerce and digital brand interactions have been 2D, largely transactional and limited. If Fortnite is the Metaverse, then what we have now in terms of digital CX is Pac Man – fun for the time but rather simplistic looking back on it. Even the recent move from real-world meetings and events to digital platforms like Zoom and MS Teams were non-spatial. Zoom is a 2D experience and we will look back on these initial virtual environments and smile at their simplicity.

Consumers will want to interact with your business in 3D. Ultimately a metaverse is a network of 3D virtual worlds focused on connection. Any technology that brings this connectivity into play is part of a metaverse solution – Augmented Reality or Virtual Reality. Where in the past companies had a website, in the future they will have a 3D virtual space of some kind, and this opens up an amazing world of CX opportunity.

2. Game Engine Interactivity

This one could get a little technical so let’s just put it simply. Ryan Gill (CEO of Crucible Networks) possibly put it best when he said “the internet has been built by web developers, the open metaverse is being built by game developers”. Most of the intuitive environments are built around gaming programming engines.

Any 360-degree 3D model you see, spinning around and being taken apart is being driven by a gaming engine.  These are simple software tools where a 3D object can be uploaded and have rules applied. But this is not about ‘video games’ – this is about any virtual environment – be it a digital commercial store, sports or music event being underpinned by a gaming engine.

A simple example is what is known as the ‘digital twin’. This is a digital 3D replica of a real-world physical object or place, a digital selfie or copy if you like. Think of the facilities manager of a large airport interacting within a 3D digital model of the airport, moving through it. That is underpinned by a gaming engine, as is a virtual store.

The question is how far will the digital selfie go? Will the entire world be eventually mimicked virtually like Google Street view? Will we re-create anything and anywhere of interest, remembering the digital versions are not limited to the laws of physics and the restrictions of scarcity. Also, as graphics via these engines keep improving, we will soon get to the point where it would be very difficult to distinguish between a real-world video feed and a digital world virtual environment. It’s all very ‘Black Mirror’ but probable.

CX is going to be run on gaming engines and so prepare for a lot more depth and ‘realness’ in our digital-to-consumer interactions.

3. Virtual Environments

These are noting new. Twitter and Instagram are 2D virtual environments where we spend time building social connections, project a sense of self and interact with others. Second Life is probably the most known virtual environment for the early Millennial and Gen X readers.

Launched in 2003 and reaching peak users in 2013, players explore a digital environment known as ‘the grid’ using an avatar. Unlike a video game, there is no objective. People meet to socialise, participate in activities, build and create things, and to buy and trade property and services. It has its own currency (the Linden Dollar, named after the company who run the game), which is exchangeable with real world currency via PayPal.

Some people have lived significant parts of their lives within the Second Life grid, some even finding love there. Booperkit Moseley from the US & Shukran Fahid from the UK were the first couple to meet within the grid and to then marry in real life.  What started as digital escapism has morphed into a viable ‘life alternative’ for some, others becoming highly addicted.

What is the future for virtual environments? We already all live inside our screens, occasionally looking up. Netflix, Instagram, Snapchat, WhatsApp, Pinterest, Facebook, Tik Tok, Tinder … what’s your poison? Is there really much of a difference between looking up occasionally from a screen and spending your day inside, underneath the screen? Virtual environments add value and offer huge potential.

The Pokémon GO game changed the worlds relationship with Augmented Reality. As a cyber behaviouralist (the study of digital interaction and how this impacts real-world behaviours), this was fascinating to watch. The physical on-street chaos caused by the appearance of scarce characters in specific locations. Have a look at the 40-second video below from Central Park in New York as a ‘Vapereon’ character shows up.

Are these people in the real-world (as the video shows) or in the digital world (chasing an AR character)? Well, the answer is both, as will be the answer for all of society.

If you want to get an idea of what a truly developed AR world might look like (if the failed early Google Glass project had gained momentum … it’s just hibernating by the way), you must watch the video below. It is a 6-minute video (short movie actually) but trust me, it is well worth watching to appreciate where AR could take society and consumers, both positively and negatively.

And while AR is a natural interface (as we still see and are in the real world), full digital immersion with VR is also set to become the norm. Combining the points above on spatial, 3D and game engine technology and graphics, retail and store interactions will become more and more imaginative and interactive.

Here is someone being given a tour inside a Fnatic (esports organisation) sponsored retail experience virtual world.

This is being run on the Sansar platform (the VR version of Second Life) and you will notice some small things regarding the ‘real-world’ feel. For example, when our tour guide walks away from us in the virtual world, how we need to move after him if we are to hear his audio, just like in the real world. Remembering that this is version 1.0 of what a virtual world might look like in the future, but you can see where this could be going in terms of CX.

4. Non-Fungible Tokens (NFT) & Crypto

I won’t dwell too long here, as any conversation on NFTs generally, I find, hurts people’s heads, mine included.

Firstly, the wording. ‘Fungible’ is a ridiculous word from the legal world, derived from the Latin, fungi, ‘to perform’ meaning something that is ‘exchangeable’. Currency is a simple example. You can EXCHANGE a €5 note for 5 X €1 coins. Non-fungible thus means that it is ‘non-exchangeable’, bespoke, unique. NFTs are somewhat about re-building scarcity back into the digital system. We value what is scarce.

Having been ravaged by digital and streaming, some musicians are beginning to release NFT versions of an album, a downloadable track with concert tickets attached, or unique versions, trying to re-establish scarcity and value back into digital downloads.

Miss Selfridges and Paco Rabanne partnered with artist Victor Vasarely recently, selling NFT art and dresses in a retail experience / Metaverse collision. Would you buy a unique digital dress? You even get a custom virtual fitting. And in our Phygital world, some dresses are real and have digital counterparts, while others are just digital.

Will this be the future? Buying unique NFT digital clothes to wear in your digital virtual environments. When you think about it, most Fortnite players already do this, spending money on ‘skins’ – changing the look of their on-screen character. We already have an entire consumer generation buying digital apparel.

The more we live inside this digital world, of course NFT and crypto currency become more relevant. Who needs real clothes when you are living a mostly digital life, right?

So, whatever you think the Metaverse might turn out to be (and nobody knows yet either), here is a simple way of looking at it. Ultimately if the internet is a network of computers all talking to each other, then the Metaverse is a collection of Virtual Environments doing the same. It is the moment the internet escapes our phones.

The implications for the Customer Experience, brand interaction and the digital-to-consumer relationship are endless.  We are bounded only by our imaginations.

The consumers are certainly going to adapt to this Metaverse future, in whatever form that emerges over the coming years. Our historical trip earlier through the human-to-technology interface shows us that. Your challenge, as a brand, is to make sure you are there for them when they do, and preferably before.

This article first appeared on Ken Hughes website, you can read it and many more here.

Ken Hughes
Ken Hughes
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June 14, 2022