By Dario Betti, The Mobile Ecosystem Forum

Is the Metaverse a big deal? Facebook and Microsoft certainly believe so. Both companies have history for being slow to adapt to new technologies: Microsoft underplayed the Internet at first and had to manage an expensive (and very successful), turnround, and Facebook was too slow to pick up the mobile internet, and it had to acquire emerging competitors such as WhatsApp and Instagram that were threatening to eclipse the social network via their mobile apps. Neither want to miss the next evolution because it is likely that in a few years the Metaverse will have made our every-day lives quite different.

What is the Metaverse?

The Metaverse is a virtual digital world where interconnected platforms replicate and improve real life experiences or create new digital and hybrid services. But this definition might not help to clarify things by itself.

Let’s take a step back–placing things in context will help with understanding. The first time I tried the Internet I was looking at some green text codes on a black monitor screen via a very noisy dial up modem. That was the ‘Web 1.0’, or the first incarnation of it: it had hyperlinks and was connecting publicly available databases. Many millennials would struggle to understand what I have just described.

We had to wait until the late 1990s for the web-browsers, graphical interface with pictures, colours, audio and eventually video. That is what we refer to nowadays as the Web: a PC-based interface first, nowadays more commonly a smartphone-based two- dimensional screen experience.

For the experts this was followed in the mid-2010s by ‘Web 2.0’ or the social element of the web – social networks, for instance. The web was not just a repository of content but a platform to ‘meet people’ and create content and services. The concept of the Cloud fits here well.

‘Web 3.0’ is emerging now as a new form, where AI and Blockchain can cut out intermediaries and make information and services more readily available, more private, and potentially more secure. This is still very theoretical and debated, but it assumes that society will work out solutions/services to problems (a distributed architecture) and it will reduce the dependence on big technology companies running large services for all.

The Metaverse fits here as it will be a contemporary of the Web 3.0 – it refers to the user experience rather than a grander role in society or technology. Imagine moving from the two-dimensional experience of a web browser screen to a three-dimensional virtual world where people, businesses, services can create a new presence or identity. You—technically, your ‘avatar’—would move across the different shops, offices, theatres, meeting places in the Metaverse. The avatar will be able to talk with others, listen to concerts, buy items, conduct meetings and work, all without the need to be physically anywhere in particular. A lot of this is available today as virtual services without the new 3D interface (web conferences, video channels, e-commerce site).

It should also be noted that many of these three-dimensional worlds already exist in the form of games: Second Life, Minecraft, and Roblox are good examples of virtual games turned into virtual worlds.

How would you navigate in this new world? Possibly by voice assistants (rather than URL addresses) and using Virtual Reality headsets or Augmented Reality interfaces (that will superimpose virtual objects on a smartphone screen pointing at the area next to you.

In the future, rather than VR headsets people might be able to see holograms in front of them, and thanks to Web 3.0 the elements of digital currency (blockchain) and AI assistants will help navigation. Yes, it sounds like an episode of Star Trek, but much of the technology we use nowadays would fit nicely in the original TV series.

Debunking the Metaverse

Many confuse the elements of Web 3.0 with the Metaverse. Expect that in the future the terminology might be adjusted to provide better clarity and separation. But I expect continued confusion for a couple of years. So far, the Metaverse refers to the customer experience elements only. But even these are far from being simple to deliver.

We do not have a ‘Metaverse’ yet. The idea of the Metaverse is still based on a similar concept of the World Wide Web – it should be a global interactive platform where interoperable worlds are connected. Currently there are many meta-islands, or meta walled-gardens, smaller communities where you can build a service. The global standard for interconnections is missing. History has not been very kind to digital walled gardens, the Internet model has displaced the non-connected services. The same will apply to the Metaverse. We will not see real global mass take-up of Metaverse services, until there is an interconnected model of the digital world.

Get ready for a long list of companies that want to build the new web interface: HyperVerse, Sandbox, Decentraland, Naka, Nakamoto, MetaHero, Star Atlas, Bloktopia, Roblox, Stageverse and Spatial are some of the names you will encounter. Few will still be here in three years’ time – many will be bought, merged, or abandoned.

The real innovation will arrive when, either a platform will become dominant, or when a global virtual standard will take place. Neither seems to be close.

Design:  time to design a new world

Many companies seem to love the potential of the Metaverse and are happy to join in. However, before a hasty move we would suggest taking a moment to reflect. The creation of a new Internet experience is a big step: it allows us an opportunity to look back and see what needs to be adjusted or improved. There is much that needs to be improved in today’s customer experience before we all start jumping into holograms.

Today, cyberspace is a great tool but one that suffers from some big flaws. Customers and businesses do not have a ‘real’ identity on the Internet. A libertarian view would welcome that, and the potential to create secondary or anonymous persona should be supported. However, keeping in mind the history of fraud and crime on digital, society needs to address identity, not as a secondary after-thought, but as a key issue. It is time to take decisions that will positively impact the life and security of many, including the vulnerable and minors.

Navigating the Metaverse today is a traditional experience. To enter Nike’s ‘Metaverse’ experience in Roblox you need to download the Roblox app, search for Nike (by typing) and then clicking on a 2D picture of Nike showing in the results. After that you will be able to play a basketball game against other real players. There are still a lot of old-fashioned web/app interactions in the early Metaverse experiences. New models and interface modes are needed to bring a new fresh experience. Otherwise, the Metaverse will die after a short gimmick-laden life.

Payments were not built for the web, and while credit cards are now commonly used this is another after-thought with shortcomings. The concept of web 3.0 would often include a reference to ‘Crypto Currency’, or more simply digital currencies. In fact, most metaverse platforms have built their own blockchain currency in their system. There is more work to be done there to clarify the legal compliance and security for most of these. The multiple attempts by Facebook to create a global digital currency (Libra/Diem) were crashed by local and global regulations. It takes more than a blockchain solution to create a digital currency: the legal framework for real digital money does not yet exist.

Delivery: adopt new technologies now  

So, is the future already here? NO. But that is what makes the entire topic of the Metaverse so interesting. A new wave of usability improvements is coming, which will change the way we experience the Internet. These might not replace the web as we know it, but they will complement and expand it.  We have time to understand, plan, test and deliver a new experience.

We might want to drop the term Metaverse for a while, but the technology behind the concept is worthy of a deep review. If you run a business this is an important moment to plan and prepare for what is coming next. Let other people squabble about definitions and discussion around the hype of Metaverse. However, you should consider the opportunities that a virtual 3D world provides for your business. It might not be the true Metaverse yet, but today virtual reality or augmented reality can help you build an advantage. Understand where there could be value for you. Do not join in just because of the trend.

You should consider the importance of digitalisation of your value creation: how can AI and blockchain support a new customer experience or production efficacy? How can a better digital payment better support your transactions? How can you secure the digital identity (or identities) of your business and your customers?

These are exciting questions worth asking. Protect yourself from the noise around the Metaverse. Instead deploy a laser focus strategy on those advances that could really make a difference to your business.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dario Betti is CEO of MEF (Mobile Ecosystem Forum) a global trade body established in 2000 and headquartered in the UK with members across the world. As the voice of the mobile ecosystem, it focuses on cross-industry best practices, anti-fraud and monetisation. The Forum provides its members with global and cross-sector platforms for networking, collaboration and advancing industry solutions.

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