It seems like only yesterday that the metaverse was the hottest topic in town. Mark Zuckerberg rebranded Facebook to Meta, Balenciaga and DKNY staged fashion shows in the virtual world Decentraland, and Disney assembled a 50-strong metaverse team.
Much about the metaverse was shrouded in mystery – even those already involved in it struggled to define what it currently was or what it could be.
But the buzz about it was palpable and as a brand that likes to push boundaries, we knew we had to be involved.
Internally it ignited spirited discussions about the limitless possibilities of virtual worlds and what we could achieve in them.
Digital Pickl restaurants where you could order your food for delivery alongside friends in different locations and all enjoy it simultaneously? Amazing!
After all, the likes of Nike and Adidas were jumping on board the hype train, and McKinsey was saying that the metaverse had a potential value of $5 trillion.
So we took it very seriously. We had experts come to our Dubai HQ and advise us on potential strategies, helping us to decide which of the multiple metaverse worlds would work for us.
But warning signs started to appear. Active daily user figures in Decentraland were rumoured to be less than 100.
When we visited virtual restaurants from global fast food brands, we found empty shells with nothing interactive to engage with.
We couldn’t see the boundary-pushing technology we were promised, and if we couldn’t do it right, we didn’t want to do it at all.
Then we had a stroke of luck. Like us, local UAE bank CBI had its own metaverse ambitions. Having built the world’s first virtual retail branch in Decentraland, CBI’s pioneering digital team wanted to create a metaverse experience for visitors to their stand at GITEX.
They had seen Pickl’s metaverse intent and were keen to have us on board as a fellow homegrown success story.
Discussions between us moved quickly and we worked together to create a replica Pickl restaurant that wasn’t just a static shell.
It allowed GITEX visitors to enter the metaverse at the CBI booth, actually interact with the restaurant counter and place an order that would then be delivered to them in-person.
It was a great success, with hundreds of burgers served across the four days it was running.
In a bubble
But what was clear to us was this was the best we could do – it could only ever work in a bubble, the technology to make it a living, breathing, significant part of your life the way the internet is, is still a long way from existing.
The metaverse has potential, but it is nowhere near ready for actual practical use. Having achieved what we set out to do, we put a pin in it, hoping to return once the technology caught up with our ambitions.
A year on and Meta has $14 billion of metaverse losses (so far), the sparsely attended luxury catwalks are a thing of the past, and Disney’s metaverse team has been completely disbanded with all staff laid off.
The buzz around the metaverse has faded away.
With the metaverse relegated to the scrap heap, artificial intelligence is now the talk of the town.
Instead, ChatGPT does its work quietly in the background, helping marketing departments run social media or your finance team automate reports and analyse data.
While we’ll return to serving Pickl’s virtual burgers at some point, for now we’re beefing up our focus on other emerging tech.
By Simon Ritchie, comms director at Yolk Brands, which operates Pickl and Bonbird restaurants