Betsy Stewart

If you ask ten different people to explain the metaverse, you might get ten different answers. An idea. A separate place. A digital mall. A different reality. A video game. A 3-D internet. Whatever it is and might become, we are describing a whole new world. Or a whole new way of interacting with the world. 

In the seminal 90s science fiction novel Snow Crash, author Neal Stephenson, who coined the term, describes, “a virtual reality-based successor to the internet” where humans use programmable avatars to interact in a digital space that is a metaphor for the real world, a metaverse. A current vision might conjure imagery from entertainment or video games. But Ready Player One is not the metaverse. And Fortnite is not the metaverse. And while companies like Meta are producing flashy and futuristic recreations of what it might be, the former Facebook is also not the metaverse. 

Understood generally as a network of 3D virtual worlds focused on social connection (Wikipedia), what it is and what it means is evolving, amorphous, broad. In March 2022, 74% of people had heard the term, up dramatically from 32% in July 2021 (although only 15% felt confident enough to explain it). While clarity may be lacking, receptiveness and readiness are on the rise. “The world is hurrying to prepare for the metaverse as it rapidly evolves from a sci-fi concept into a reality,” states Emma Chiu, Global Director, Wunderman Thompson Intelligence. 

Wunderman Thompson Intelligence’s report, “Into the Metaverse,” defines this nascent space as an extension of our lives enhanced by technology. “It’s valuable to think of the metaverse more like a digital layer of everyday life instead of a virtual escape,” according to the report’s editor, Emily Safian-Demers. “We’re replicating our routines, interests, and obsessions in digital worlds.” The idea of liminal spaces helps make this make sense: a place or experience that integrates both physical and virtual elements. What this looks like now is virtual try-on, in-store smart screens, and augmented shop windows. And in the future? With interest and investment spanning almost every element of society, we can only expect more advanced versions of these “blurred reality activations” to significantly impact art, culture, business, and entertainment. 

Consider these other stats from the Wunderman Thompson Intelligence report: 76% of people say their everyday lives and activities depend on tech and 81% think that a brand’s digital presence is as important as its in-store presence. Now, the question is how to grow a brand that’s metaverse-ready. Safian-Demers offers an important perspective: “In the metaverse, engagement has gone from passive consumption to active creation. Having a presence is a value-add, a place where consumers can be creative.” This active engagement (design sneakers for your avatar, for example) versus endless scrolling does a lot: it shifts creative power to the user, expands retail and UX opportunities, and increases digital touchpoints. A good goal is to create “branded digital worlds where customers can connect, play, and explore.”

Some clothing brands are offering digital-only collections or will co-release a physical and digital item. For this new type of retail, add a couple of acronyms to your list: D2A (direct-to-avatar) and VC (virtual commerce or vcommerce). While the metaverse can be a place for both consumers and merchants to thrive, beyond the latest digi-fashion, there is a bigger picture. Borrowing adjectives from the Wunderman Thompson Intelligence report, this digital layer to our lives will be a lot of things: social, limitless, everyday, creative, user-defined, decentralized, persistent, reactive, interoperable. I had to look up that last one: the capacity for virtual experiences, possessions, and identities to travel unchanged across platforms.

Not surprisingly, technology needs to catch up. “We need to think beyond our phones, we can't be anchored to screens,” says Safian-Demers. VR headsets are still kind of clunky and cost-prohibitive (the whole experience causes motion sickness for me and a lot of others) and any proposed eyewear would not be fashionable for a while. And of course there are a lot of limitations to what we can experience in a virtual environment. Will our holograms be popping over to a friend's house anytime soon? Probably not. But many companies from Microsoft to Roblox are “building the infrastructure to create better virtual worlds that more closely mimic our physical life.” (Medium)

It’s interesting to contemplate that no single platform comprises the metaverse and no entity controls it. It’s actively being defined and issues that affect our everyday lives (sustainability, accessibility, identity, privacy) will inevitably carry over to the metaverse as well. Figuring entry points, virtual possessions/payments, rules, relationships, social networks, and cross-brand interactions require a lot of collaboration. Creativity and cooperation will be key. 

In a companion micro-report, “New Realities: Into the Metaverse and Beyond,” more interesting numbers: 74% of people who know what the metaverse is believe it’s the future and 66% believe it is going to be life-changing. Welcome to the metaverse. A place where our digital and physical lives converge; creativity is limitless; and location-defying worlds bring people together.

Join us for the latest episode of Commerce Confidential: "Metaverse-Ready or Not: Brand Considerations for Web3". As we enter this defining moment for brands, Wunderman Thompson Intelligence’s Emily Safian-Demers discusses what the metaverse is and what it can become.