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Arts & Culture Tech & Society

How the Pandemic Birthed the Metaverse

Zara Larsson's avatar dances in the pop star's Roblox launch party

Suddenly hundreds of brands are making more real money in the virtual world than they did in the real world…and spending a lot less on the cost of goods.  Popstar Zara Larsson offers the same kind of merch at her concerts that many entertainers do — sunglasses, baseball caps and such with her name emblazoned on them. But Lasson’s merch is all sold virtually on Robolox, to the tune of $1 million dollars worth since May.

Here are some companies that didn’t exist only several years ago but all sell NFT creatures and artwork on the blockchain:  Axie, Larva Labs/Crypto Punks, NBA Top Shot, Rariable and OpenSea. Most of them are valued in the billions of dollars. Digital replicas of everything from Hello Kitty to Taco Bell can now be bought and sold in the virtual world. Superworld.app lets you buy and sell virtual real-estate.  ChainGuardians lets you earn real money while you play virtual games.

WTF! And why now are the two questions we need to wrap our heads around. There are a couple of different answers.

The Pandemic Made Me Do It

Living in social isolation for nearly two years definitely moved many of us from physically roaming the world to virtually roaming the world.  It was, in many instances, our only escape. Locked in our households, the internet became the place for exploring, playing, creating, and socializing. “I love the fact that I get to use avatars in my conference calls, because I don’t have to worry about my makeup and hair” said Cathy Hackl, who calls herself the Chief Metaverse Officer, in an interview I did with her the other day as part of the Virtual Events Group series my company organizes.

Hackl believes we’re going to experiment with our avatars to open a new level of freedom for people to express themselves. “I might show up in my suited-up avatar for a meeting, but when I hang out with friends I may want to be more fantastical, like a unicorn with ponytails on fire.” 

We’re Sick of Looking at Ads

You’ve probably wondered how Google knew you were looking for something to do in Rome, before you’d even bought the plane ticket, right?  Well, we’re all fatigued by ads that pop up in our faces. Even the advertisers are fatigued. So while they continue to sink their ad dollars into digital, they’re thinking more about building communities and engagements. That spending will be on creating their digital identities. Instead of viewing a static ad, the brands will move towards a more seamless portrayal of themselves in the metaverse. Hackl says the “metaverse will become the brand calling card.” Warner Brothers, Gucci and HBO have already built their own metaverses.  Nike, Mac Cosmetics  and other apparel companies let you dress your avatar in their products. An added plus? You the consumer will help them iterate their products to your liking. For example, Nascar lets you design racing uniforms, which does the double duty of satisfying you while informing them about their audience’s preferences.

Persistent Identity

The pundit Matthew Ball, a VC who wrote the oft-cited Metaverse Primer, defines it like this: “The Metaverse is an expansive network of persistent, real-time rendered 3D worlds and simulations that support continuity of identity, objects, history, payments, and entitlements, and can be experienced synchronously by an effectively unlimited number of users, each with an individual sense of presence.”

When there’s a record of what you own in cyberspace and when your identity goes with you wherever your virtual worlds may take you, optimists say there will be more accountability and transparency. 

Ready, Player, Metaverse

If you were a fan of Maxis’ Sim City (released in 1989)  or The Sims (released in 2000) you were in the metaverse. If you played Second Life, you were there in 2002. It’s just that the technology lagged the vision. E-commerce was in its infancy, so there was no scalable business model.  There was certainly no blockchain showing the provenance of your purchases. There was no cloud storage of data.  There were no immersive VR or AR headsets, no mobile phones to take your virtual world with you and no fast chips optimized for graphical rendering. 

Today, many metaverses, like Facebook Horizon,  represent you as a disembodied torso, simply because the camera cannot detect leg motion. This week we heard about the haptic glove that Facebook is creating so that you can feel objects in the metaverse. Tomorrow we’ll probably have sensor-tracking clothing so that our entire bodies can be conveyed into the metaverse experience much as movie-makers use a green screen and body scanning today to help guide animations. Tomorrow, as Zoom’s Eric Yuan likes to say, you’ll smell the virtual coffee brewing or shake hands at your virtual meeting.

Forced isolation, ad fatigue, the desire to be recognized as a full-fledged citizen with rights in cyberspace, and some fantastic technology advancements are bringing us to the birth of the metaverse.  And trust me, it’s still just gestating.

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