The inevitability of the metaverse

Competing in the ‘attention economy’

Earlier this month, HNN Executive Editor Clint Engel warned us against getting sucked into the vortex of hype surrounding what people are calling “the metaverse,” an inclusive term used to refer to virtual reality, augmented reality, sensorial technology, spatial computing, blockchains and many other “things.” 

Engel seemed to be particularly bothered by that part of the metaverse that is purely escape – the virtual, the simulated, the less than real even as it promises to be experienced as more than real. His references conjure for me the ways in which Second Life paraded into our first lives nearly 20 years ago.

I am more than sympathetic to Engel’s view, as my own digs at the false premises of even the terms themselves. “Virtual reality” is an oxymoron, like “jumbo shrimp” or an “open secret.”

However, to think of the metaverse as exclusively or even primarily a synthetic gaming world is to misunderstand how far reaching its real-world implications and opportunities will be. With so many companies and brands looking to the metaverse as essentially a new economy, the metaverse will be an increasingly important space and place in terms of consumer attention. 

Attention is the very real thing in the middle of all that virtual. Human attention has always been a scarce commodity and a limited resource, and research on what we now accept as the “attention economy” has been conducted for more than 50 years. Nothing in the metaverse can alter this finite resource. But, VR can (and will) claim more and more of that limited resource. 

I teach undergraduate college students; I see how immersed in these technologies the kids are, and how uncritically they embrace opportunities to do virtually what their parents would never think of participating in without some measure of analog assurance. Dating, socializing and work group collaboration are just a few examples. Engel mentioned pet ownership, which is a coincidence, because my youngest daughter, too, had a Webkinz dog. She also owned and operated a full-service (virtual) bakery that she set her alarm for in order to know when to start mixing the (virtual) dough and get the goods into the ovens. She was about 9 years old at the time.

The long view

My first page one story for, ahem, let’s just say a competing home furnishings trade publication took me to the VR labs in the department of computer science at UNC Chapel Hill back in 1992. That’s right, VR has been trumpeted as the panacea to all the world’s problems for 30 years. I recall with acuity standing in a cavernous empty space “seeing” a fully furnished, three-dimensional home. As long as I wore this bulky, football helmet-like headset and moved slowly enough to allow the supercomputers time to render anew my environment, I could weightlessly manipulate even huge virtual things like a superhero. For 1992, this was pretty heady stuff. 

I cannot recall the cost of that NASA-like headwear, but as experimental, bespoke technology, it wasn’t $299, the cost of an Oculus headset right now. 

More than 30 years after that demo in the then-new computer science building since named for the one of the architects of that VR technology, Dr. Fred Brooks, the metaverse and most of what the term subsumes are still considered to be in their infancy. Thus, as Engel warns, there is no clear path to profitability for most businesses and little reward for early adopters. 

However, as spaces in which consumers can work, play, shop and socialize, the rush to integrate them into otherwise “real” lives is very much on, and that rush is populated by mainly Millennials and Gen Z. These two generationally defined groups are the acknowledged drivers of more than two-thirds of all home furnishings purchases while only combining to represent 45 percent of the population. Right behind them are the kids I teach, who rarely stop to even think about any distinctions between digital and analog, virtual and real. 

As the idea of the metaverse gains traction, your competitors likely will be looking for ways to connect with these younger consumers, who make home furnishings purchases at rates 1.5 to 1.7 times higher than their presence in the population, according research conducted exclusively for Home News Now and its sister publications. These are consumers who grew up with smartphones, app-driven worlds, and digital-first companies and brands.

Means to an end

As Engel admonished, to view VR as a fast track to sales is misguided and, well, cheap. Like any technology, VR is a means to an end, not the end in and of itself. But, to incorporate VR into strategies for engaging consumers and helping them visualize your very real furnishings in their very real homes? This is but one application that recognizes that people will be “living” at least part of their lives in VR worlds on a daily basis. 

Multi-million dollar purses in videogaming competitions held in packed out arenas tells us that the blending and blurring of the virtual and the real will only continue to become more mainstream. I’m referring here to actual millions doled out to gamers competing in physical, concrete-and-steel arenas filled with ticket-buying human beings. 

The eagerness of professional sports leagues to incorporate the virtual into their otherwise “real” sportscasts juxtaposed with the ever-increasing “realism” of the videogame versions of these same sports further underline the rapid rush to combining the virtual with the real, begging fresh questions about just what either will continue to be as each bleeds into the other. 

In May, Kraft began using the metaverse to experiment with solutions to supply chain questions and challenges. Kraft’s chief technology officer, Lorraine Bardeen, referred to the “industrial metaverse” as at least part of its solution for finding logistical solutions, acknowledging that the term “metaverse” has become a catchall term for all things virtual. 

Among the strategies Kraft is trying is the digital mapping of its facilities to better spot flaws, more quickly achieve efficiencies, and better plan for demand surges to prevent shortages. 

Running a virtual version of production offers the promise of catching errors ahead of time by simulating what will happen in real-world production.

“Normally you wouldn’t know until you actually run the product on the line,” Carlos Abrams-Rivera, president of Kraft Heinz North America, told CNN. “Testing online can help speed up the process of getting a new product to market.”

VR as prosthesis

In short, then, aside from the many ways the metaverse is already prominent in gaming, entertainment and, with NFTs in mind, art, it will likely alter how we work. This is the potential being hyped specifically by Meta and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. I think it’s telling that Zuckerberg chose as his avatar a pixelated version of who he already is. He could have chosen anyone. Me? I would become Brad Pitt, Kal-El or Ronaldo. 

Zuckerberg is implying that the real potential of the metaverse, at least Meta’s metaverse, isn’t fantasy. At least, it isn’t merely that. The promise includes the real-world applications, aids and prostheses that the virtual offers very real people seeking to do very real things.  

Oh, and let’s not forget how we all adapted in the pandemic, which spawned the urgent need to figure out how to remotely work, study and play. Covid was a metaverse catalyst such that the market for its applications is projected to grow to as much as $13 trillion by 2030, according to analysts at Citi. That’s just two graduating classes away. 

No matter whose projections you follow, the growth is predicted to be exponential. 

So, while I get Engel’s admonition that all that VR can be a distraction from what he calls the “real work” and the “real fun,” ignoring VR altogether would be a distraction from at least beginning to think about how to win in the attention economy and remain viable as a brand. 

Author’s note: This column was powered by the unaugmented human brain.  

Brian Carroll

Brian Carroll covered the international home furnishings industry for 15 years as a reporter, editor and photographer. He chairs the Department of Communication at Berry College in Northwest Georgia, where he has been a professor since 2003.

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