What is the metaverse?
If you’re able to clearly and succinctly answer that question, congratulations on being ahead of the curve. Of course, the reason why so many are still asking it is that there isn’t really an answer – or at least not just one answer.
We remain at a point in the metaverse’s evolution where it can be all things to all people. It’s a blank canvas onto which our hopes, dreams, and growth strategies can be painted.
And it’s also a question with fixed consequences. A report from Analysis Group posits that the Metaverse will provide for just under 3% of the entire planet’s GDP by the year 2031.
In that context, figuring out precisely what it is seems like a high priority right now for business leaders and governments alike. Commentators, investors, and designers have spent months, if not years, locked in discussion concerning what shape this monumental innovation is eventually going to take.
However, asking ‘what’ the metaverse is should only serve as the first step towards answering a far larger and more vital question:
Why bother with the metaverse?
That’s the multi-trillion dollar, existential question. And, sadly, ‘making a lot of money’ isn’t going to cut it as a compelling answer. As a concept, the metaverse needs to justify its existence and the capital which has already been invested in it. There’s no doubt in my mind that it can do that, but it won’t be automatic, and it’s not guaranteed.
To date, the conversation surrounding the metaverse has come packaged with an implicit (and sometimes explicit) assumption that it is a home for speculative asset trading. It’s becoming easy to paint a picture of the metaverse as a lightly-regulated digital wild west in which NFTs of dubious artistic quality are exchanged for ever more head-scratchingly high prices until the bottom falls out of the market. Yet for the metaverse to truly take root in our culture it will need to deliver something based on an understanding not of the price of assets, but of the value of human experiences.
Naturally, this will need to extend beyond the technical. When you go to a movie theatre, nobody is interested in how many lumens the projector produces, or in what the film’s budget was – what compels us is the experience right in front of us. For the metaverse to succeed, it must fully surround us in compelling experiences, and those experiences must also create a shared sense of presence. Ultimately, that’s how this incredible and still-developing new medium is going to take meaningful shape and provide long-term value.
Being realistic, we must acknowledge that the metaverse is already butting up against a profound and authentic sense of cynicism. I was struck by an article published around the start of this year in The Guardian, written by the videogame journalist Keza McDonald. In it, she voices her concern that:
“Virtual worlds are not inherently any better than the real one… All that they really do is reflect the people that make them and spend time in them.”
I believe that the metaverse can represent a huge leap forward for design, for entertainment, and for humanity.
But I also broadly agree with Keza’s concerns, and she’s right to highlight how the metaverse will reflect its architects. It’s critical, then, that those of us working with this technology today firstly seek to elevate diverse perspectives as part of that process, and secondly recognize the immense weight of responsibility on our shoulders.
The people who build the metaverse are not elected, ordained, or more qualified to determine what reality looks like than anyone else. And we need to keep that front-of-mind. We can work with ethicists, insist on diverse design teams, and test our work early and often with the public.
If we are successful, the metaverse will be world-changing. It’s up to us to ensure that change is for the better.
A Purpose-Driven Metaverse?
So, why bother with the metaverse? I bother with it because it’s a chance to change the way our species interacts, communicates, and empathizes with one another. As human beings, we want to spend time with friends, express our individuality and identities, and experience memorable emotions. The metaverse is, in simple terms, a way to deliver on those fundamental human wants and desires on an unprecedented scale.
That profound human potential has not been communicated with the same intensity as the technical and financial perspectives that have prevailed in the conversations we’ve heard so far. Depending on where you look, you could be forgiven for thinking that the metaverse is set to become some kind of virtual hyper-casino, a digital space in which assets are bought and sold with human experience thrown in as an afterthought.
Too many see the metaverse as the next evolution in fintech, rather than as a new frontier and platform for storytelling, collaboration, and entertainment. The trouble with this view is not only that it minimizes the metaverse as a transactional platform or a get-rich-quick gimmick. The broader problem is that no-one will get rich if people don’t want to spend time in the metaverse. No-one goes to Disneyland for the churros, but The Walt Disney Company surely makes a lot of money each year selling fried dough.
The metaverse must be human-centric because it’s an opportunity for global and cultural good, but also because if it isn’t, it will fail. It won’t compel people to spend their time there – and if time isn’t being spent, then money won’t be either.
For designers, that’s our overarching challenge. If we can deliver on this great opportunity based on real human needs and desires – to experience new emotions, to inhabit a story, to connect to others, and to feel achievement – the metaverse will be a durable and humanistic addition to the world. Let’s make it happen.
Michael Honeck serves as the global experience design director for Accenture’s Metaverse Continuum Business Group.