Into the Metaverse Gold Rush

These days, the first question almost any journalist asks Emma Chiu is: What is the “metaverse”?

Editorial Team25 Feb 2022

Chiu, who serves as Global Director of Wunderman Thompson Intelligence, is somewhat of an expert these days. She recently took the lead on her agency’s 93 page “Into the Metaverse” report. It’s a kind of futurism brief that aims to both answer that big, pesky question and help brands and companies understand the opportunities emerging through the new technology.


So, what is the metaverse?


“I feel like I have my go-to saying for it,” says Chiu, before warning that any definition she gives may change. “We’re constantly trying to define the metaverse and I think it’s going to be something that continues to evolve. In a sort of broad sweeping way, I think the metaverse is an extension of the way we are living on a daily basis that will be powered by technology. Another way to think about it from more of a tech perspective is that it is the evolution of the Internet as we know it.”


No need to worry if that’s not entirely clear. Companies like Facebook — which famously changed its corporate name to “Meta” — are rushing to be the first to define the metaverse for consumers, so that we accept the avatars and virtual worlds of their own making (and marketing) as the only true ways to understand this new concept. But as one of the experts cited in Chiu’s report wrote, “We are all at the Big Bang moment where creation, consciousness, and awareness of the metaverse is being born.” In other words, trying to pin down exactly what the metaverse is now is a bit of a fool’s errand, because the bigger question at this moment of birth is: What might it become? To that, Chiu says, “I would say these three dimensional virtual worlds where people can access, be part of, make, create, buy, and sell are like the first iterations of the metaverse as we know it. Eventually, I imagine where we’re headed with the metaverse is that it will be a seamless blend between the digital and the physical world.”


Unsurprisingly, brands are already finding ways to profit off this blending. While gamers have been spending money on digital upgrades to their online avatars for years now, in one Into the Metaverse case study, Aglet CEO Ryan Mullins says his company is bringing a physical shoe to market based almost entirely off data they accrued from sales of a digital version online. “The amount of engagement and demand visibility that you get can help you decide: should we release this, or not? How many should we release? Where should we release these, because of the spatial data?”


Therein lies one of the most profound challenges — and opportunities — confronting the design community today. It may be thrilling and liberating to be able to design digital clothing or architecture totally unbound by the realities of fabric structure or engineering, but that has been happening for a long time in gaming and entertainment. Designers in the metaverse will want at least some of their work to translate from unreality to reality and back again — and vice versa —without consumers flinching at the jump.


On the purely virtual side of things, the market has already taken off. Per the report, “Global consumers say that, on average, a digital house is worth over $76,000, an original digital piece of art is worth $9,000, and a digital designer handbag is worth over $2,900.” But for brands looking to turn digital attention into durable, real world purchases, we have only begun to scratch the surface of possible activations. “Ferrari dropped its latest model, the 296 GTB, into [the popular online game Fortnite] in July 2021,” according to the report, and online gaming platform Roblox has inked deals to host promotions as diverse as a Vans World Skatepark and a Hyundai Mobility Adventure. Meanwhile, “Minigames on WeChat have been gaining brands’ attention in China, with Burberry, Dior and Valentino all having a presence.”


Still, it’s not necessarily going to be easy for brands and designers to capitalize on that presence in these new spaces. For Chiu, one of the most exciting things about technology today is that the general public are active participants in the metaverse, and are keeping designers and brands on their toes all the time. Even in complex 3D gaming spaces, digital natives born after the dawn of the Internet don’t have to sit back and wait for experts to give them content to consume anymore. “The reason I’m so excited about the younger generation is I think they’re going to be adapting to a whole new level of digital habits that is very natural and normal for them, and what they will then have are very high expectations for brands and tech companies. If these brands are faking it or falling behind, they’ll just go ahead and set something up on their own.”


But what will they set up? And what does falling behind even look like? And again: What is the metaverse? If you’re still skeptical or unsure about this whole thing, Chiu would advise not to focus too much on labels. While she and Wunderman Thompson also recently put “the metaverse” first on their list of the “Future 100” trends and big ideas that are changing (or about to change) the world, she cautions against getting hung up on that one word. “I really see the metaverse as an extension of the way we’re engaging with the internet and our digital behaviors. So, whether we call it the ‘metaverse’ or ‘the next iteration of the internet’ — which is not as sexy — it doesn’t really matter. It’s just where things are heading from a digital perspective.” And things are always headed somewhere.