Defining the Metaverse

In association with Alkimi Exchange

The Metaverse has become firmly cemented into public consciousness – it was ranked second in the Oxford English Dictionary’s 2022 Word of The Year. But what actually is it? Does it even exist yet? And is there a genuine demand for it among brands and advertisers?

Opinion is divided on each of these (and more) questions. In this article, we’ll explore some aspects of the metaverse to establish why it’s so difficult to define.

What is the metaverse? What does it look like?

The term metaverse first appeared in the 1992 sci-fi novel Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson. In the story, the metaverse is a virtual world that appears as an urban street, which is entered via terminals and viewed through special goggles.

Technologists and futurists have expanded on this concept over the past few decades. Metaverse expert Matthew Ball defines the metaverse as “a massively scaled and interoperable network of real-time rendered 3D virtual worlds and environments which can be experienced synchronously and persistently by an effectively unlimited number of users with an individual sense of presence, and with continuity of data, such as identity, history, entitlements, objects, communications, and payments”. 

It goes without saying that Stephenson’s vision has been hugely influential. However, this thirty-year-old image doesn’t resonate with everyone, with the necessity of virtual reality hardware being a key point of contention. According to Herman Narula, CEO of Improbable, VR hardware is “tangential to the value proposition of the metaverse” and everyday technology — namely, computers and smartphones — will serve as the gateway to the sphere. Jason Kingsley OBE, CEO of Rebellion, takes a similar view, saying “VR is a part of [the metaverse], but I don’t think it is the only way to access the experience”, although he adds that the immersion offered by VR can be “very powerful” and “changes how you feel about the experience of living inside data systems”. 

Does the metaverse even exist yet?

Given that it is described almost equally as ‘new’, ‘nascent’, and ‘hypothetical’, it is difficult to establish whether the metaverse actually exists. Kingsley takes the view that the metaverse has been off the ground for a long time, having arrived with modern technology: “The metaverse has existed since computers could talk to each other, just not in such graphical magnificence as it might achieve these days. Even back in the era of dial-up modems there was a metaverse.” Phil Rowley, head of futures at Omnicom Media Group UK, meanwhile, argues that the components of the metaverse have been around for some time, but we are only now on the cusp of seeing it become a single entity: “People have been engaging with its constituent parts — trillions of webpages, trillions of hours of video, trillions of gaming interactions — for decades. It’s just now finally fusing together into one media channel.” 

If the promise of the metaverse is to provide a virtual realm where individuals can connect with other people, buy unique digital items, and build their own slice of virtual paradise, then it seems that the space is already upon us in the form of video games. Roblox chief business officer Craig Donato goes as far as to say that the virtual world “has already happened”; Tamara Sword, founder and MD of ThoughtLDR, is of the same view, telling The MadTech Podcast that “people are playing in metaverse environments every single day”.

Not everyone agrees, however, with some arguing that this stance misconstrues the metaverse as just an extension of gaming. Rowley distinguishes between this new sphere and the much-loved pastime in his definition of the metaverse: “Quite simply, the Metaverse is a fusing of the connectivity of the internet with the ‘dimensionality’ of gaming, giving rise to a ‘dimensionalised internet’.” 

Metaverse for business

The practical opportunities to enhance how businesses operate in Web3 — what McKinsey describes as the “enterprise metaverse” — show that this new frontier extends beyond gaming. The metaverse has given rise to new technologies that can make day-to-day operations more efficient, such as digital twins – virtual copies of buildings, large hardware, products, and more. These copies employ real-time data to give users greater insights on their physical counterparts and can be used to run simulations on them, enabling more detailed analysis and ambitious experimentation than is possible in the real world. The business element of the metaverse is central to Meta’s proposition – Workrooms, the virtual offices, are a core part of their Horizon Worlds offering, and have already been tried out by some companies (albeit to mixed reactions).

Such innovations could be instilling brands’ and advertisers’ faith in the future of the metaverse. Aside from Meta, who have spent USD $36bn (~£29.4bn) on metaverse development, Microsoft, Google, Nvidia, and other big tech companies have invested significantly in the space. A desire to enter this new frontier is noticeable among marketers more generally, with the IAB finding that 56% are now experimenting with the metaverse or planning to do so.

Concerns over safety and demand

It’s clear that the idea of the metaverse as a digital utopia that improves on reality is yet to be realised. For it to ever be so requires being embraced by consumers at large, something which is already facing barriers. The cost of VR hardware — at present, Meta’s high-end Quest Pro headsets are going for USD $1,500 (~£1,227) — is likely already shutting people out. While cheaper alternatives are available, the unpleasant physiological reactions VR can trigger are also hampering adoption. 

Personal security is a more concerning point for many when contemplating the metaverse. In their endeavour to make avatars appear more human, some VR headsets use technology to track their users’ eye movements and facial expressions. This is highly sensitive data, and many will baulk at metaverse builders collecting (and potentially mishandling) it. Others are fearful that the metaverse will serve as a new domain for bad actors to inflict terror – already, there have been reports of users encountering racial abuse, sexual harassment, and other harms during visits. A survey by Tidio found that 77% of people believe that the metaverse will be seriously harmful to society.

While these are grave concerns that need to be addressed, there are signs that the public are warming to the metaverse. A study published by TELUS International found that 79% of US consumers feel comfortable gaming and 68% enjoy engaging with brands in the space. Moreover, 50% of US consumers would pick a brand offering a metaverse service over a competing one that doesn’t, and 53% anticipate more engaging brand experiences in the space.

While some remain sceptical about the metaverse, it’s clear that the space is generating interest among the public and can offer a wealth of new formats and avenues for the ad tech industry – and that companies would rather explore it than risk missing out.