One of the tech stories that really caught my eye this month is Facebook’s focus on developing the metaverse. Recently, the company announced that it plans to hire 10,000 employees in the EU to work on this so-called metaverse, and it got me thinking – will the metaverse force us into changing the way we communicate, or will it just be another tech plaything that doesn’t really go anywhere?
When I think of the metaverse, I immediately imagine the OASIS from Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, one of my favourite sci-fi novels. In the book, the OASIS is described as “a massively multiplayer online game that had gradually evolved into the globally network virtual reality most of humanity now use on a daily basis,. The Steven Spielberg film adaptation of the book gives us a more fanciful description of the OASIS as, “a place where the limits of reality are your own imagination… except for eating, sleeping and bathroom breaks, whatever people want to do, they do it in the OASIS. And since everyone is here, this is where we meet each other. This is where we make friends.”
Could this be the Facebook vision? Could Mark Zuckerberg be the new James Halliday, the creator of the OASIS in the novel?
Maybe not exactly (and considering how the plot develops in the book, you kind of hope not either!) In fact, no one quite really knows yet what the real-life metaverse could look like, probably not even Zuckerberg himself. What we do know, in a broader sense, is that it’s going to be some kind of future iteration of the internet, made up of “virtual spaces” linked to a perceived virtual universe – that’s according to the Wikipedia’s description anyway.
This kind of concept is already beginning to enter our world – remember those Travis Scott and Ariana Grande’s concerts in Fortnite last year? Fortnite enthusiasts were thrusted into an immersive concert experience during gameplay, with each individual player able to freely roam around, “watching” the concert in whatever way they wanted. It was an immersive experience and a huge hit for Fortnite, to say the least, and we can expect the metaverse to be the next step up from this.
Levelling up immersive technology
Facebook doesn’t expect the true metaverse to be up and running until at least ten years from now, mainly because the immersive technology is not quite up to scratch yet, and, let’s face it, with Facebook’s history, no doubt they’ll be a few regulatory challenges along with way. That said, VR and AR have already come a long way since inception, with VR gaming particularly taking off in the last decade, and AR making waves in marketing campaigns and other commercial industries. But it’s still not something the average person comes across in their daily routine – this is the metaverse’s challenge at the moment. It’s a huge risk to spend time and money creating a whole new virtual world that’s only accessible via VR headsets or other equipment, only to find out that a limited number of people can access it because of the high price of the equipment and the computing power that is often needed to provide a well-executed VR experience.
It certainly will be a challenge to get the metaverse fully up and running, whether Facebook make the breakthrough or not, but investors are seeing the potential of it too – especially with COVID-19 separating friends and families, and people longing for a connection that isn’t just on a screen, you can totally see it becoming a way to better connect people.
What it means to communicate in the metaverse
Infrastructure and tech aside, though, if we really are seeing the metaverse in the next ten years, a real-life OASIS that could end up being our new normal, what will the affect be on the way we communicate?
For a start, in the corporate world, those long work Zoom calls could become a little more interesting in the metaverse. Imagine being able to see more than just a talking head on a screen and being able to walk around a virtual meeting room, or even a virtual office? Virtual meetings may become more inclusive, and a near-real life atmosphere of in-person meetings. There’s potential for meetings to become more creative if the metaverse allows for employees to create their own avatars or characters in the metaverse, which could completely change the perception and culture of your company, and how you communicate with your stakeholders. You could even have a metaverse CEO or leadership team and mould them into whoever you want them to be, regardless of who they really are on the outside. Quite a scary thought!
From a consumer-perspective, the metaverse could allow for an even better and personalised customer experience. Retailers could offer more immersive “try before you buy” services, like getting your metaverse person to try on the clothes you want in real-life. The ability of the metaverse to create pretty much any virtual environment also further feeds our curiosity about the world – Wikipedia pages in the metaverse could get a lot more chilling, if they’re able to transform them into an immersive experience, that’s for sure! But it could also help put more emphasis and action on certain topics too – like, if we’re able to immerse ourselves into the true effects of climate change in 50 or 100 years’ time in the metaverse, people, companies and governments may be more inclined to drive further action in the real world because they would be able to see and feel the affect it actually has – something which is difficult to communicate currently.
It goes without saying, though, that any new form of connectivity and experience in the virtual world doesn’t come without its issues when it comes to communication – the spread misinformation, cyberbullying and self-image issues are just some of the issues that have been born out of the social media era, and who’s to say that they could also be transcended in the metaverse too? If the metaverse aims to be like the OASIS, where anyone can be who they want to be, it could raise concerns of deceit between individuals if they aren’t who they say they are, scuppering relationships when they find out who they’re actually communicating with in real life. There also remains the ethics behind isolated worlds being owned by different companies and collecting our data, and monetising on every move we do in the metaverse. Beside what’s happening in the metaverse, there are also the concerns of what it could be doing to us as individuals on the outside and our real life communications – having even less distance from reality could spur on a mental health crisis, and while we might interact with more humans in the metaverse, the real human connection will still be lacking. To quote Ready Player One: “I never felt at home in the real world. I didn't know how to connect with the people there. I was afraid, for all of my life, right up until I knew it was ending. That was when I realised, as terrifying and painful as reality can be, it's also the only place where you can find true happiness. Because reality is real.”
Whatever the metaverse might become in the future, whether it be a place we use in our daily lives, in our working lives, or simply as leisure, it will provoke huge shift in the way that we communicate and interact with each other. From even bigger, better and more personalised immersive storytelling to the rise and creation of fictitious influencers that only appear and take part in the metaverse. And as comms professionals, it could really be a gamechanger, whether we like it or not. We must be ready to take into account the opportunities in the metaverse, as well as the real impacts that the metaverse could have on an individual in the outside world.
The metaverse might not be arriving for a few years, but when it does, we must be ready for it.