Last week, I was invited to get my hair done in the metaverse.
In what was the strangest PR email I’d received for some time, a leading haircare manufacturer offered up a seat in a virtual salon, where my avatar would get a luxury treatment the real me could only dream of.
Blurring the lines between the physical and the digital, the idea is that this will become a way for people to “test run” new looks on themselves before perhaps choosing to go ahead with it. While I don’t foresee myself ever asking a hairdresser for anything more extravagant than a two round the back and sides and a bit off the top, thanks, the metaverse offers a risk-free opportunity to experiment.
And in this instance, all without ever strapping on a bulky headset.
Like me, there’s a good chance that when you think metaverse, the first thing you associate with it is virtual or augmented reality. But in a week when Mark Zuckerberg’s relentless bid to put his stamp on the concept was brought into stark relief by thousands of job cuts at Meta, this bizarre invitation was a timely reminder that it’s much more than that.
Meta’s place in the metaverse
When Zuckerberg talks about the metaverse, he’s predominately talking about Horizon, which is the virtual world his company has created to host various experiences – from chatting with friends, to collaborating with work colleagues – while you wear a Meta Quest headset. Since the release last month of its $1,500 “Pro” headset, you’ll likely have seen Meta adverts and billboards pitching the metaverse as the perfect home for those exact kinds of experiences.
And there are certainly believers.
Nicky Danino, principal lecturer in computer science at the University of Central Lancashire, counts herself as one of those already on board, saying the metaverse offers “amazing opportunities and possibilities” in educational and training settings in particular. The university already uses virtual spaces to place students inside situations and environments they would never normally be able to, while institutions like the RAF have showcased how augmented reality can enhance the work of their fighter jet maintenance crews.
But just like rebranding Facebook as Internet Inc wouldn’t indicate ownership of the web at large, don’t let Zuckerberg renaming it Meta make you think his vision is all there is when it comes to the metaverse. What Meta is building should really be seen as a platform within the metaverse, although admittedly one with an astonishingly large amount of money (tens of billions of dollars already) being thrown at it.
But there are plenty of others making moves into the space – and you’ve probably heard of quite a few of them.
For example, there’s Fortnite from Epic Games. No longer is it purely a space for 100 players to parachute on to an island and kill one another, it also allows them to create their own games and even attend concerts – among those who’ve performed are real megastars like Ariana Grande and Travis Scott, taking to the stage in a fever dream of brand synergy which sees millions of fans able to appear as anyone from Princess Leia to Neymar.
Speaking of brands, that’s where you’ll find some of the metaverse’s greatest advocates. Last December, sportswear giant Nike bought a company called RTFKT, which was launched to create digital goods like virtual clothes, collectibles, and NFTs. Its first post-acquisition product were the Nike Cryptokicks, a pair of digital trainers designed to be customised and shown off online.
And then there are virtual spaces like Decentraland, one of the biggest slices of the metaverse pie thus far, which is probably the closest you get right now to living an entirely separate life to your real one. As Sky News found out earlier this year, people in Decentraland are spending thousands of pounds on plots of land to call their own.
It is in some ways the ultimate utopian vision of a decentralised metaverse, where people own what’s theirs and can monetise it all themselves, taking it with them wherever they go – no strings or corporate overlords attached. It’s a vision that wouldn’t allow any one company – not even one named after the metaverse itself – to hold sway over the entire court.
Indeed, for Tom Ffiske of Immersive Wire, the idea of “interoperability” between metaverse platforms is absolutely key to its viability – there can be no one metaverse to rule them all.
‘The race for the future of the internet’
Now, all of this probably sounds absolutely bonkers to a lot of people born before the turn of the millennium. What makes Horizon different to Second Life (an online virtual chatroom inhabited by avatars) from 20 years ago? Why would Ariana Grande want to perform inside a video game? You may be perplexed as to why people are excited enough to queue for trainers in real life, let alone buy pairs they can’t even put on their actual feet.
You might be right to think it’s utterly mad – the truth is we just do not know yet. The only thing that’s certain is that these possibly brilliant, possibly baffling ideas are here to stay.
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“The race for the metaverse is about the race for the future of the internet,” says Professor Yu Xiong, the director of Surrey Academy for Blockchain and Metaverse Applications at the University of Surrey.
“The areas of virtual/augmented reality, artificial intelligence and blockchain all require a skill-maturing process which takes significant time. Currently, the metaverse is facing problems with battery constraints, slow internet connections and the demise of the unstable blockchain.
“However, In 10 years’ time, once we have made battery breakthroughs, are using 6G for data transmission, and blockchain has matured, I have absolutely no doubt that the metaverse will be the future. As a result, these companies need to understand that their billion-dollar investments will have little-to-no returns until such time.”
That last comment is a pointed barb towards Meta, which has seen its metaverse strategy eviscerated by financial analysts as it tries to brute force its way to the front of what stands to be a long-term sea change in how we engage with the internet.
Gen Z are key to all this
Even advocates of the metaverse agree that when it comes to Zuckerberg’s go big or go home approach, it’s an extremely risky case of trying to run before it can walk. He appeared to think of the pandemic as an accelerator – a time-skip that would see us embrace a decade’s worth of technological change in the blink of an eye, and expanded Meta’s ambitions accordingly. Our willingness to return to pre-COVID comforts caught him by surprise.
“They’ve piled in more quickly and spent more than any other metaverse and probably not got more traction,” is the blunt assessment of Cudo founder Matt Hawkins, and yet he believes the metaverse is “the natural next stage” of a transition that’s seen younger generations grow into an increasingly digital world.
“The Gen Zs have grown purely into a digital world and quite often value digital assets more than real world assets. The idea is you can take it with you, and you can show it off to the world, so, if you spend £1,000 on a picture and put it on your bedroom wall, nobody will see it. If you buy a digital version, you can show it to the world.”
Again, this is not a particularly new phenomenon. Online games like World Of Warcraft had players showing off their exotic pets and epic armour to one another as long ago as 2004. One of Fortnite’s trump cards is that people love being able to dress up as Star Wars characters, Marvel superheroes and global sports stars, and then hang out with their friends to compare looks.
The promise of the metaverse is to blur the lines between our digital and real lives, to the point where the former may be the one we take more pride in. The same generation which fears never having enough money to get on the housing ladder may decide the money’s better spent on a digital home to call their own.
After all, £5,000 will go a darn bit further on Decentraland’s housing market than it will on Rightmove (although, somewhat ironically, Spitfire Homes just became the first UK homebuilder to create a show home in the metaverse).
John Needham is the president of esports at gaming giant Riot Games, and before that oversaw a Microsoft augmented reality project called Hololens, which blends the meta and physical worlds via a headset which overlays digital effects and items into a real space.
“Millennials and Gen Z are on their phones all day, their presence is defined by their digital presence,” he said.
“Gaming has been scratching at what [the metaverse] will look like for a long time, with MMOs (massively multiplayer online games) with games like The Sims. I think doing that, at a human race scale, is going to require much better technology than we have now.
“But you see all the signs that your digital persona is becoming more and more important, it will evolve into being the primary important thing. I don’t know if it’s this generation or next generation, but I think it’s inevitable.”
Whether it be education, industry, or just dancing with friends at an online gig, it’s clear that increasingly we’re dipping our collective toe into the possibilities that the metaverse might offer.
For Cudo’s Matt Hawkins, all that’s missing is a eureka moment. Like access to information and ecommerce drove people towards the internet, and connections drove us to social media, what takes us en masse to the metaverse?
Zuckerberg seems determined to make it him, and appears ready to make or break Meta to find out.