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With the cloud and the edge in place and 5G networking just around the corner, innovative minds are turning to the next question: What, exactly, are we going to do with this infrastructure? Increasingly, the answer is the metaverse.
Almost pulled right from the pages of science fiction, the metaverse is a real-world version of the Matrix: a fully immersive environment in which users leverage virtual reality, cryptocurrency, livestreaming, and a host of other technologies to navigate a digital world that, some say, will become as important to daily life as the real world.
A work in progress
At the moment, this is more of a concept than an actual platform, so the end result will likely differ significantly from what is currently on the drawing board. But with supporters like Facebook, Microsoft, and some of the world’s leading game platforms, the metaverse is starting to draw the interest of both the technological community and, perhaps more importantly, venture capitalists.
According to Bloomberg, the metaverse is best described as a 3D World Wide Web or a digital facsimile of the physical world. In this realm, users can move about, converse with other users, make purchases, hold meetings, and engage in all manner of other activities. In the metaverse, all seats at live performances are front and center, sporting events are right behind home plate or center court, and of course, all avatars remain young and beautiful — if that’s what you desire — forever.
As you might imagine, this is a marketer’s dream. Anheuser-Busch InBev global head of technology and innovation Lindsey McInerney explained to Built In recently that marketing is all about getting to where the people are, and a fully immersive environment is ripe with all manner of possibilities, from targeted marketing and advertising opportunities to fully virtualized brand experiences. Already, companies like ABB are experimenting with metaverse-type marketing opportunities, such as virtual horse racing featuring branded NFTs. Elsewhere, Epic Games recently streamed a virtual concert featuring Ariana Grande on its Fortnite channel, while Hyundai is offering glimpses of what future mobility might look like on Roblox.
At the moment, Facebook seems to be the leading advocate of the metaverse. CNN recently noted that CEO Mark Zuckerberg brought it up no less than a dozen times on a recent conference call with analysts. Zuckerberg, in fact, has gone so far as to say Facebook will transition from a mere social media company to a metaverse company, adding that he has been thinking along these lines since middle school. The company is said to have committed $10 billion to its Reality Labs division in order to turn the metaverse into a viable product, and it plans to hire some 10,000 engineers to pick up the pace of development.
To get there, of course, Facebook and other proponents will have to integrate a diverse set of technologies and do so in a way that supports universal interaction across platforms. David Brebner, CEO of software development environment Umajin, lists a number of building blocks needed to establish a workable metaverse, starting with a comfortable and low-cost virtual headset, preferably one that also supports augmented reality by overlaying data and images on the physical world.
Equally important is for the system to have enough juice to power realistic and even elaborate avatars. Roblox-style block figures and stilted movement won’t cut it; neither will an infinite number of Zoom-like rectangles. And data-sharing will have to happen concurrently among multiple users, something akin to a digital whiteboard room.
But given all the controversy surrounding data usage and security on social media platforms of today, is there any reason to think they won’t be amplified in the metaverse? Former FCC Commissioner Tom Wheeler argues that the heightened interconnectedness of the metaverse will increase threats to personal privacy and market competition while making it easier to spread misinformation.
Undoubtedly, rules and regulations will have to be put in place, but if recent history is any guide, they will only come about after the metaverse is up and running, and companies like Facebook and Microsoft will more than likely play a large role in creating them. And make no mistake about it: The amount of data that can be collected from the metaverse is astronomical, and whoever controls it will be able to exploit not just individual users but entire markets.
No matter how it evolves, however, the metaverse will likely prove to be a vibrant new marketing channel as the number and diversity of providers grows. Forward-leaning enterprises would do well to devise strategies for this new level of human interaction now to avoid having to catch up to the technology later.
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