Katherine Templar-Lewis, Creative Scientist and Co-Founder of Kinda Studios, offers a guide to a new era of digital connection and how brands can make the most of the limitless possibilities presented by a mixed reality future.
In November last year, a plot of digital land in Decentraland, a virtual world, was sold for $2.43 million (£1.95 million), a hefty price tag that trumped the cost of most homes in New York City and San Francisco. A day after, another plot of digital land sold for $2.3 million (£1.84 million) in Axie Infinity, another virtual world. As the planet panics about physical threats, is a retreat to the digital metaverse an escapist hype bubble about to burst or is a mixed reality future a future to invest in?
What is the metaverse?
The metaverse is a term used to describe a virtual space within digital environments such as online games, social media and virtual reality. It is a combination of the prefix ‘meta’, meaning beyond, and stem ‘universe’. And yes, it did have a role to play in Facebook’s new branding. The concept of a future iteration of the internet, or web 3.0 is made up of persistent, shared, 3D virtual spaces linked into a perceived virtual universe. First noted in the 1992 sci-fi novel Snow Crash, the metaverse is no longer the domain of computer nerds. It can be either exclusive or democratic and provide wilder experiences than anything the real world can offer.
Think exclusive digital clubs that involve finding ‘easter eggs’ hidden in digital worlds that unlock luxury brand experiences. The Coldplay secret gig hidden in BMW’s own world Joytopia. Or the epic Marshmello ggs attended by 10.7 million people in a wild fantasy world (Fortnite) in which giant characters and never-ending backdrops created one of the most memorable online events to date.
In short, this is more than gaming. It is digital worlds where people often go simply to hang out or interact with others. It is a place of genuine connection between people (and brands) from across the globe, who may not ever meet in real life. Some of these worlds use augmented reality, via smart glasses, though current platforms often look more like a video game than real life. But serious money is in there. Such plots as I have mentioned (and other virtual objects) typically transact in blockchain-based assets called non-fungible tokens (NFTs), sales of which topped $10 billion (£8 billion) in the third quarter of 2021, according to market tracker DappRadar.
A new type of luxury?
Traditional luxury has traded in status. Now, however, luxury is being re-defined by a new generation of consumers. Affluent millennial and Gen Z consumers have a spending power that is greater than any previous group and are shaping the world economy.
This group is abandoning traditional symbols of ownership and focusing on expressing its individuality. When items can only be digital and taken neither from world to world nor into physical reality, brands must be creative to create digital paper trails that lead back to physical products. The brands that meet this new set of cultural expectations and embrace the new value codes that are emerging are the ones that will survive by winning a share of both heart and wallet.
A democratised experience?
The metaverse is not just of interest for businesses that want to create deeper customer relations and increase revenue. It can offer users a completely democratised experience. Users can take full control of their identities in their own crafted journeys, while at the same time collaborating with other users and interacting with brands.
Brands previously assumed to be ultra-exclusive can attract new customers, especially from younger generations. Last year saw the Gucci Garden open its doors to everyone (with a parallel physical installation), allowing anyone’s avatar a chance to ‘skin up’ in Gucci fabrics. But the Metaverse can be exclusive, too, as PoolSuite so admirably demonstrates, unlocking virtual doors into secret digital spaces.
A real connection?
As someone who works within neuroscience, the most interesting aspect to all of this to me is the real connection that can be formed on a digital platform. The brain has a pretty shaky hold on what is real. It will get vertigo looking off the edge of online buildings and genuinely sick from a virtual rollercoaster. The body will adjust within minutes to its online ‘skin’ – the often outlandish outfit an avatar wears – so that someone walking out as a dragon will automatically begin to step over their own ‘tail’ so as not to tread on it. Identity is a huge issue in the metaverse, not only for the freedoms it provides but also the security questions that it raises. But for now, you really can be anything you want to be.
The metaverse is a place of interaction where people have friendships and relationships not only with players and holograms but brands, too. Customers can now interact with brands in 3D form. Take for example Balenciaga’s multi-platform digital avatar, Shady Doggo. The brand has assumed the form of an individual indistinguishable from avatars belonging to real-life humans. Beyond driving loyalty and new experiences, the metaverse allows brands to form real relationships and connections.
A new era of creativity?
So far, we’ve only scratched the surface of what’s possible with digital connections. As technology advances and more people become aware of the metaverse, we will see even more innovative ways to connect with each other and with brands.
Luxury brands that are early adopters of this technology will have a distinct future advantage in the metaverse. In a world that craves connection, they will be able to create experiences that are truly one-of-a-kind. Now is the time to start exploring the potential for digital connection and limitless possibility.
Top tips: starting in the metaverse
- Objectives: Be clear on what you really want to do – reach new audiences, bypass physical constraints, diversify revenue streams by adding digital products, make a dent in digital culture, enter new frontiers of entertainment, make your physical locations accessible in the online world, create value for your brand and for your community in the new digital economy. The possibilities are endless
- Audience match: Investigate and know if your real-world target audience is also present in the digital world, and accept you may have to educate those you wish to engage with in these virtual ecosystems
- Technology partners: Work with a trusted technical partner – there are metaverses popping up left, right and centre, so finding the right platform is critical
- Long game: it’s early on, don’t rush out the door. Think all use-case scenarios through and study your target audience. Be creative, not cautious but remember everyone is learning the rules to a game we are all in the process of creating.