The ‘metaverse’ is coming and it can’t be ignored

"Technology frequently produces surprises that nobody predicts. However, the biggest developments are often anticipated decades in advance" — so said venture capitalist Matthew Ball.

The "metaverse" may well be an example of the latter. This term is increasingly appearing in my reading list. I blame the pandemic for that — it’s undoubtedly forced a reset in the way we live our lives.

And with that reset, I would be the first to line up and ditch Zoom fatigue and replace it with a digital avatar and meet around the virtual water cooler before heading into our meeting space that brings me close to IRL. So what is the metaverse?

Let’s start with what it’s not; it’s not just Fortnite or Horizon. It’s well, a dream of the future of the internet. A full replication of our world, from land and houses, to cities and businesses.

It’s a parallel reality that will span the digital and physical world and anyone connected to the internet, on any type of device that will be able to access it. It’s how we will live our lives, from the way we work to how we socialise.

Its creator-centric and decentralised. No-one owns it, certainly not Facebook (despite just announcing employing 10,000 workers to help build it) or Epic Games — they are but mere contributors.

Rather, a vast range of individuals and corporations not contained in any specific jurisdiction will interact in real time with a worldwide network of users, who moderate each other and transact on the blockchain.

The portmanteau term — meta, meaning beyond, and universe — was coined some decades ago by a sci-fi author. An essay published at the beginning of 2020 by Matthew Ball, coupled with corporate ambitions and the momentous change Covid has delivered, leads many to think we have reached an inflection point in the discussion.

It’s not just Covid and big tech names that bring that momentum. Other things undoubtedly contribute, from improved device developments to mobile connectivity, crypto as a store of financial value and NFTs as proof of digital ownership.

Overlay that with increased user capability, the pandemic having advanced our confidence in using technology.

We also have a generation that has grown up and are not only comfortable with but trust technology as a means to trade and build social and financial capital. In addition to answering any question they have, whenever and wherever they ask it. They have never known anything different from that smartphone internet enabler in their pocket.

Thus, the metaverse strikes me as the start of something that can’t be ignored. Especially if your business is wanting to remain relevant and connected to the next generation of consumers or perhaps even some of your current ones!

So what are you going to do in this metaverse? A lot of what you do now, just in smarter, more immersive and socially connected ways.

Rather than looking at the internet, think of yourself as inside it, living in a fully functioning economy that spans both the digital and physical world. Wake up, grab your VR headset and it will provide feedback about how you slept, what your heart rate and blood pressure stats are along with gaps that your dietary choices made today could fulfil.

Your calendar will overlay any disruptions on your work travel route and tell you how long you have before you need to get going. A quick breakfast, listening to your new favourite tune from Adele, it’s almost as if you are sitting in the house with her as she records it. Brush your teeth and guidance around areas missed will help alleviate those future dental bills.

Work will see your avatar connect with colleagues remotely and sit down as you thrash out the day’s problems in a shared work space. Paper drawings gone, real-time, dimensional imagery will drive innovative solutions to problems presented.

Take a walkabout of your latest construction site and chat with the foreman. Visit the overseas factory which is the biggest impediment to your supply chain.

Time for a break? Maybe eliminate those painful real-world returns by trying clothes and shoes out online on your avatar or perhaps virtually test the new lounge suite in your house before placing the physical order with fiat currency.

Perhaps for a bit of a scenery change, you could take your new desired electric vehicle out for a test drive on your favourite piece of road anywhere in the world.

Working day done, you will stop by a vending machine, tap a few buttons and arrange groceries to be delivered to your door just in time to catch up with the extended family over dinner to celebrate a birthday.

Children struggling with their classics homework? No problem — pop over to Greece and Rome after dinner. Need some down time to relax? Maybe a quick ride at your favourite theme park or attend a ballet performance.

More a sports fan? Don’t worry, you can head over to watch your favourite team and if you like the odds of them winning, place a sports bet with your crypto wallet. Win big? Then finish the night by settling on a new virtual house, collect the keys and start envisaging how you might express your digital personality through the decor and art you collect.

Sounds like the stuff of sci-fi books or a blip that won’t really take off? Haven’t we been here before, I hear you say. Second Life sounds familiar.

Before being too quick to write this off as the stuff of fantasyland, pull out that phone in your pocket. The first iPhone was released in 2007 — 14 years on, could you have ever imagined back then what you do on your device today? Now fast forward another 14 years — what do you think it will look like?

History is littered with organisations that failed to read trends and innovate and adapt accordingly. As such, it is up to each of us to decide how and if this will impact the businesses we govern.

Will the C-suite have a new role soon, the chief metaverse officer? Someone tasked not only with the creative strategies needed to survive online but equally to develop the technology infrastructure and security that creates your part of the metaverse ecosystem.

Whether it is your current universe or the metaverse, Web 3.0 is coming to a reality near you. Perhaps it is time to consider what it could look like on your next strategy day.

  • Trish Oakley is chairwoman of the Otago-Southland branch of the Institute of Directors (IOD). This article is opinion only and not intended as governance advice. The IOD is the professional body for directors and is at the heart of New Zealand's governance community.


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