Reality-Checking the Metaverse: Early Days See Major Brands Staking Out Turf
AI will be central to what makes the metaverse tick, with the specifics to come as the tech giants square off to position for the coming new market.
By John P. Desmond, Editor, AI in Business
The AI-enabled metaverse is coming and advertisers are flocking to it, even though it’s not easy to pin down what the metaverse is, and few companies today have a product to sell in it. That’s not holding back the major brands.
The term “metaverse” was coined in a 1992 novel by Neal Stephenson called Snow Crash, which envisioned a virtual reality-based successor to the internet. In the novel, people use digital avatars of themselves to explore the online world, often as a way to escape the real world, which in the novel is bleak.
“Nearly three decades later, that’s essentially the future that [Mark] Zuckerberg says he’s trying to build with Meta,” states author Tom Huddleston Jr., in a recent account at CNBC make it. Microsoft, Roblox and Epic Games are also planning their own metaverses. The headsets that Snow Crash characters use are similar to the virtual reality headsets offered today. Zuckerberg has suggested that Meta’s Oculus brand tech will be needed for users to feel “fully immersed” in his company’s future metaverse.
Users in online communities such as Roblox, Microsoft’s Minecraft or Epic Games Fortnite are accustomed to exploring virtual worlds with avatars. And users spend billions each year on digital clothing and accessories for their avatars.
On an earnings call last July, Zuckerberg stated, “Being able to have your digital goods and your inventory and bring them from place to place, that’s going to be a big investment people make,” according to the CNBC account.
Some characters in Stephenson’s imagined world developed unhealthy addictions to the virtual world, “never disconnecting and avoiding reality at all costs,” Huddleston stated, adding, “Zuckerberg’s own predictions for Meta echo some of those qualities.” This comes in the midst of criticism over the negative effects of social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram, on the mental health of users.
The Facebook rebranding to Meta came in October 2021, soon after former Facebook employee Frances Haugen leaked internal documents that showed now much the company knew about the harmful effects it was having on its users. The revelations led to congressional hearings and legal scrutiny. With the name change, the company was not restructured; Zuckerbeg remains as CEO and chairman.
“No matter what Mark Zuckerberg calls it, it will remain Zuckerberg Inc. until he relinquishes some power and yields to functional corporate governance,” stated Jennifer Grygiel, an associate professor and social media researcher at Syracuse University, in an account in The New York Times.
Since the name change, “brands have been falling over themselves in the rush to stake their claim to the metaverse,” stated writer Alexander Lee in a recent account in Digiday. Part of this is due to marketers experiencing FOMO - the fear of missing out.
“Unlocking the Metaverse with AI and Open Science,” was the name of a session from Jérôme Pesenti, co-managing director at Facebook AI Research, at the recent Meta event called “Inside the lab: Building for the metaverse with AI.” AI tools and techniques are expected to be tapped for all the building blocks of the metaverse including virtual reality, augmented reality, blockchain and 5G. Facebook is building AI systems to drive this future metaverse world.
Planning for the Metaverse is Underway
Research cited in the Digiday account reported that 49 percent of marketers believe the metaverse will have an impact on their strategies in 2022. The same percentage reported that they already had a metaverse strategy in place.
It will take some time for the spending to take shape. “There’s no metaverse to invest in right now,” stated Nada Stirratt, VP of Meta’s Global Business Group in the Americas.
Writer Lee stated, “At the moment, nothing in the metaverse is certain; it’s unclear which metaverse platforms will still be around in a decade, and information about metaversal demographics and user behavior can be difficult to track down.”
Matt Greener, VP of Marketing at TINT, supplier of a user-generated content platform, stated, “The metaverse will be a huge experience for brands. Those who have the R&D budget and resources to start strategizing need to be OK with the possibility of failing. Those who can’t invest right away may want to watch and learn first to see what works.”
Rosh Singh, managing director for Europe, Middle East and Africa for Unit9, a digital production studio, is skeptical that Facebook has the credibility to lead the charge into the metaverse.
“The consumer view of a lot of these things is driven by, I would think, Facebook rebranding to Meta. And if there was ever going to be a flag-waver for a new, virtual kind of existence, Facebook’s probably not the best advocate for driving us into this new future. They’ll probably do pretty well — they’ve got a lot of money, a lot of resources, a lot of brains — but I think, from a perception perspective, that instantly makes people think twice or have a bit of skepticism.”
12 Million Fortnite Players Watched a Live Performance in 2020
Epic Games is experimenting in the metaverse while it stays mostly focused on its core game platform, Fortnite. In what might have been a metaverse proof of concept, 12 million Fortnight players in April 2020 watched and participated in a live, virtual performance of a new song from Travis Scott, a rapper and singer. Fortnite has 125 million users for its game.
Matt Maher, founder of the technology consultancy M7 Innovations, stated, “When 12.3 million people come together to watch a shared experience of a Travis Scott concert in Fortnite, what more of a metaverse do you need?”
As the tech giants – Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple and Microsoft – position to square off in the metaverse, it will be the first time they will be competing over the same turf, suggested a recent account in Bloomberg. The metaverse is likely to be more competitive than social media, and it will have its winners and losers.
And as the metaverse holds out the promise of escape into a virtual world, one observer is concerned that metaverse visitors may get more removed from reality.
“Social media companies have learned that they can be very good at producing partisan zealots,” stated Stephen Berger, the founder of TEM Consulting, which helps to develop solutions for complex public policy issues, writing recently in MindMatters. “Further, they have learned that there is a lot of profit to be had from producing partisan zealots.”
In a virtual game context, “AI can create a perceived reality that will result in victims taking a desired action,” he stated. “Technological advances are quickly introducing the created universe.”
And in this created universe, participants will be guided to act in ways that serve its creators. “We are not the best version of ourselves when we buy into a manufactured universe and are guided to act in ways that serve these influencers,” Berger states.
He suggested, “Perhaps our most effective tool in our fight for independence is time management. We need to spend less time being influenced and more time contemplating our values and their application … As AI-powered realities grow in might, we will have to fight hard to remain grounded and keep hold of true reality.”
(Write to the editor here.)
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