What are the comms opportunities in the ‘metaverse’?

The term has jumped into the mainstream as Mark Zuckerberg has suggested the technology will be a huge part of his company’s future, rebranding Facebook as ‘Meta.’

After Facebook announced it would change its name to “Meta” to align with its future investments in the “metaverse,” the term has become a hot topic for business futurists.

But what is it?

The term comes from writer Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel “Snow Crash,” and has been further explored in science fiction works such as Ernest Cline’s “Ready Player One.” The New York Times described it as “a fully realized digital world that exists beyond the analog one in which we live.”

Many elements of the hypothesized digital future are already emerging.

The New York Times continued:

Video games like Roblox and Fortnite and Animal Crossing: New Horizons, in which players can build their own worlds, have metaverse tendencies, as does most social media. If you own a non-fungible token or even just some crypto, you’re part of the metaversal experience. Virtual and augmented reality are, at a minimum, metaverse adjacent. If you’ve attended a work meeting or a party using a digital avatar, you’re treading into the neighborhood of metaversality.

Yet, the metaverse as described in works of science fiction is still far from the reality of today’s technology. Even Facebook’s attempt to create a virtual reality experience for company activities like signing up for benefits during open enrollment are earning eye rolls.

And the tech can feel dystopian. Simple things like avatars lacking legs can break the illusion that a digital character can compare with (or replace) our real-world daily activities.

Still, the metaverse is coming. The technology will continue to improve. Developments with virtual reality and augmented reality will eliminate more and more of the barriers between real life and digital experiences. For communicators, the digital future could even offer a wealth of new opportunities.

An integrated experience

For Anne Olderog, partner at Vivaldi Group and a consultant who helps organizations innovate and drive growth, the promise of the metaverse solves an important problem: How do we make important real-world interactions as captivating as digital creations?

“The funny thing is that for a lot of us (and also our kids), we end up actually being more present to the virtual non-existent life than to the real life that is around us,” she says. A metaverse, where augmented reality and digital connectivity are interwoven into everyday activity, flips the paradigm.

“We can actually be present, be almost physically present at the same time in virtual reality, that becomes interlinked with the actual reality in such a way that there is no more gap.”

For Olderog, an apt metaphor in demonstrating the metaverse’s potential is how hypertext currently is used in online content. Users can click on a hyperlinked word to find more information and background behind the linked phrase, going deeper and deeper.

In the metaverse, she says, everything has a hyperlink, “creating deeper layers of realities.”

“The fascinating thing about the metaverse is this opportunity to create a rich hypertext reality, if you will, where you can double click on any real event experience, concept, and get drawn in deeper and deeper,” she says. Consumers and visitors will be able to “click” on a product in the store to learn more about it, download educational content on things in nature, landmarks in a city, etc.—the opportunities for learning are endless.

Less friction, more communication

The metaverse is likely to put more control into the hands of end users as they decide what they want to learn more about and where they want to spend time. In an optimistic view, this offers marketers the ability to more seamlessly interact with consumers.

“You don’t need to pull people away from their real life in order to engage them,” says Olderog, “which friends very much need to do today, right? That’s why we talk about marketing as interruption.”

This view of the metaverse is very different from the view that some might have about the future of the technology, where virtual life competes with real life. Rather than a separate reality “beyond the analog” as the New York Times describes, Olderog’s vision of the digital future is intertwined with the real world.

“I think that’s the exciting thing about it is that you stop having those artificial distinctions between the life of the mind and real life,” she explains. “The two can actually be very much interlinked and become part of one.”

And this offers communicators the opportunity to grab audiences that have been slipping away, as digital content has become more engaging and stimulating than other channels. Olderog’s example is for higher education, “where it has been for a while the Holy Grail to create a learning environment that is as engaging as social media.”

When reality becomes “a huge playground,” as Olderog describes, communicators can create experiences that draw users into a self-driven adventure, while still crafting messages that deliver important concepts—and hopefully drive action.

Not there yet

There are many organizations that are already trying to stake their claim to the metaverse. Cryptocurrency and non-fungible token (NFT) creators see their work as an integral part of the metaverse. Video game companies have created online simulators for real life interaction—and PR pros have even jumped on the action, from throwing concerts on Nintendo’s Animal Crossing game platform to designing limited edition NFT creations.

For Olderog, none of these innovations are where the real opportunity of the metaverse will be discovered. “The ‘real music,’” as Olderog puts it, “is really the transformative experiences that you can create for your users and for your audiences.”

And that transformation still awaits important technological advances. But it’s when communicators can transform the point of contact for knowledge transfer that big things will happen. Olderog offers the example of health care, where practitioners have struggled to make information available at the point of care. How can a surgeon immediately access patient history, past case examples and more while operating?

Olderog’s metaphor here is “leaning forward” rather than “leaning backward”—right now learning happens when you lean back into a chair to consume a book or sit at your computer screen. But in the metaverse, information will be available as you take on an activity, processing all kinds of learning in real time.

Where it could go wrong

The metaverse is by no means a guaranteed positive for consumers, businesses and the world at large.

While the pandemic has sped up the conversation about the possibilities of virtual life, there are important conversations that haven’t gotten enough attention.

“One of the areas that people are working on beyond the technology is the governance model,” explains Olderog. “It’s a little bit like how do you govern society, right? Do you leave it for all the individual actors? And do you believe that they have everyone’s best interests at heart?”

It’s a question with disturbing precedents, as governments have struggled to regulate technology like social media, which has already been operating for years.

And there are also questions about how the technology might transform us—including people who use it to learn about our world and make decisions about our lives. New research from the University of Texas questions whether the ubiquitous access to on-demand information via Google and smartphones actually distorts a person’s self-image and intelligence.

An article on the research shares:

The research offers a cautionary tale. It suggests that in a world in which searching online is often faster than accessing our memory, we may ironically know less but think we know more.

The imperative for communicators: Future-proof your organization and consider the opportunities that new tech offers your audiences and business initiatives—but don’t stop questioning the consequences.

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