Digital Essays 2022: Gear up for the metaverse – by Havas’s David Do Rosario

While the metaverse makes its way into the mainstream, David Do Rosario of Havas Media Middle East offers his thoughts on whether businesses of the future should invest in the metaverse

By David Do Rosario, head of digital specialties, Havas Media Middle East

The metaverse is taking over the world with a new wave of usability improvements. The move from web 2.0 to web 3.0 will change the way we experience the internet. We recently witnessed significant changes in the industry, such as Facebook’s corporate name change to Meta in honour of the metaverse trend, and Microsoft’s acquisition of Activision Blizzard. 

Closer to home, the metaverse has become a priority as the UAE placed itself among the first movers. Dubai has created a committee to position itself as ‘a key city in the metaverse’ and seeks to increase the contribution of the metaverse sector to Dubai’s economy. The industry size is expected to reach $4bn by 2030 and create more than 40,000 virtual jobs.

The metaverse demystified

Going back to basics, the most common definition of metaverse is ‘a virtual digital world where interconnected platforms replicate and enhance real-life experiences or create new digital and hybrid services’. The journey of digital transformation involves:

Web 1.0 with the Tron version: It included users and builders with web browsers that had images, colours, audio, and eventually video.

Web 2.0 and the social network era: Tech companies such as YouTube and Facebook started utilising user-generated content as a service.

Web 3.0 in the form of Ready Player One: The metaverse fits in this era as it will be a contemporary version of web 3.0. It focuses on user experience rather than technology.

The era of the metaverse is identified by creativity and entrepreneurship. You, or technically your ‘avatar’, can move around stores, offices, theatres and other places in the metaverse. Your avatar can meet other avatars, have conversations, attend concerts, make purchases, organise meetings – and it does not require your physical presence. Besides, AI and blockchain can cut out the middleman to make information and services more readily available, more private and potentially more secure. 

However, the question about how to navigate the metaverse remains unanswered. While devices like VR glasses and headsets are being explored widely, various possibilities lie in the enhancement of phone cameras for voice commands rather than URLs, which will overlay virtual objects in a supermarket, street or your living room. The next big thing may even reside on technology-based holograms. It may seem like a sci-fi movie currently, but who would have imagined the potential of mobile phones in the early 2000s?

Applying lessons from the past

Looking back at Microsoft’s and Facebook’s histories, the two organisations were slow to adapt to new technologies. During the initial mobile internet boom, Facebook did not pick up its pace as expected. It resorted to acquiring emerging competitors such as WhatsApp and Instagram, which otherwise threatened to eclipse Facebook through their mobile apps. After losing about half a million global users in the fourth quarter of 2021, Facebook is currently looking for a new growth story with Meta while its core business hits maturity. Similarly, Microsoft underestimated mobile internet usage and missed out on dominating the smartphone market. As a result, the tech giant had to manage a costly turnaround. In the era of the metaverse, both Facebook and Microsoft have taken the lead by implementing the next major technological shift. Both organisations seem to have learned a lesson and do not want to miss their boat.

Meanwhile, the list of companies offering a flavour of the metaverse continues to grow. Google is working on an updated metaverse version of its interactive glasses, and Apple intends to announce its own. Epic Games, a video games and software developer, has raised $1bn to support its internal development of a metaverse. Online marketing is in for a big overhaul, and so are our daily lives. 

Are consumers ready for the metaverse?

Businesses are gearing up, but are consumers primed for life in the metaverse? Based on the 2022 Havas Metaverse Prosumer study, the answer is yes – but with a heavy dose of caution. Today, over 96 per cent of Prosumers in the UAE have heard of the metaverse and are aware of, or have engaged with metaverses/gaming platforms such as Fortnite, Roblox, Minecraft or Decentraland. Most UAE Prosumers believe that metaverses are the future of the internet, and over 54 per cent of them are willing to spend their money on a virtual experience. However, the desire to participate in this new wave of technology coexists with the anxiety that the metaverse will negatively affect our lives. For instance, 63 per cent of prosumers are afraid that being immersed in the metaverse will kill their desire to go out and explore the physical world, while 55 per cent of respondents believe that metaverses will worsen the digital divide between those with access and skills and those without.

Do we already have a metaverse? Many elements that the metaverse promises – such as web conferencing, video channels and e-commerce sites – are already accessible as virtual services, but without the new 3D interface. Second Life, Minecraft and Roblox are examples of virtual games turned into virtual worlds. However, the biggest differenciator is that navigating the metaverse today is a traditional experience. Consider Gucci’s metaverse experience in Roblox; a user downloads the Roblox app, searches for Gucci by typing it, and clicks on a 2D image of the Gucci Garden displayed in the results. This is followed by an immersive multimedia experience that explores and celebrates Alessandro Michele’s creative vision. However, new models and interface modes are required to bring a truly new experience.

Addressing today’s digital challenges before web 3.0

As we unlock the next level of the digital evolution, there is a need to reflect on the security aspects of how we transact online. Consider financial transactions done online; conventional payments were not designed for the web. Credit cards are now commonly used for digital transactions, but it is an afterthought with several shortcomings. The concept of web 3.0 ideally includes cryptocurrency or digital currencies. Most metaverse platforms have built their own blockchain currency into the system. However, a lot needs to be done to clarify legal compliance and security. Local and global regulations have crushed Facebook’s multiple attempts to create a global digital currency, Libra and Diem. It takes more than a blockchain solution to create a digital currency, and the legal framework for an actual digital currency does not exist yet.

The web is a great tool, but it suffers from major flaws. Customers and businesses have no real identity on the internet. To address fraud and digital crime, society must stop addressing identity as an afterthought and start considering trolls, hate-speech and online bullying as a critical issue. There is a need to focus on the positive impact of the web on the lives and safety of vulnerable users, including minors.

Should I invest in the metaverse?

As we continue to create and explore the new digital world, more questions will arise. The future of the metaverse is yet to be defined. Many businesses are beginning to identify their potential and are happy to join the metaverse. Several brands have already made the leap by naming their ‘head of metaverse’, purchasing land on it, or adding to their NFT collection. 

However, it would be ideal to take a pragmatic approach and take a moment to reflect on whether it is the right choice for your organisation. Creating a new internet experience is an important step. This will allow us to look back and identify aspects that need to be adjusted or improved. There is a lot of room for improvement in today’s customer experience before we all enter the world of holograms.

Organisations are on different stages of their journeys of digital transformation. Some businesses are barely starting their digital transformation into web 2.0 and this requires the involvement of various internal departments, specialised companies and creative and media partners so that they do not blindly perform a marketing stunt. 

What makes the the metaverse extremely interesting is that the concept in its entirety is yet to be defined. A new wave of usability improvements will change the tide, and this is going to transform the way we experience the internet, especially from the consumers’ perspective. 

Enterprise companies must first figure out their digital transformation. This will give them sufficient insights and time to prepare themselves for the metaverse. With companies focusing on performance marketing today, everything needs to be linked to ROI – it is a matter of finding the right spot in the innovation cycle. You can either choose to be a first mover in the generation and mobilisation of metaverse – but overinvest – or you can be a part of the experimentation phase as a follower. Ensure more certainty for your business.