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026: The Metaverse—VR, AR and being open to change
[During - Session 08] We've been imagining a new world for almost a century
Welcome back. The Minneapolis College of Art and Design had its Spring Break last week, so I took a pause from the newsletter to lead a creative branding pitch. The results will go live this May.
1️⃣ We started class recapping the rapid change occurring while we were away. The speed is the story.
ChatGPT-4 and Midjourney 5 arrived, inspiring better fingers and otters and salads, never mind Hustle AI. The tech has made massive strides in mere months, eliciting all manner of speculation. We should ignore the sillier hyperbole, and focus on potential because…
Oh, and early yesterday Runway announced Gen-2 making “Text to Video” a thing you will be doing soon. 🤯
TAKEAWAY: We have access to career-changing tech, right now. The advantage goes to those who dive in, learn the lingo (and the advantages) and lead the way.
2️⃣ Contrast the whirlwind of AI-generative with the quieter mood around the Metaverse. As McKinsey puts it this January the Metaverse “could generate $4 trillion to $5 trillion in value by 2030,” making it “too big to ignore—yet its future is far from certain.” That parallel is both a boost and a drag.
3️⃣ It seems clear, the Metaverse means an entirely new way of functioning, just as the Internet, then mobile, brought forth. We’re in a sort of Edison vs Tesla period as the root structures, standards and cultures become aligned. As Benedict Evans put it in October 2022 (italics mine),
“We probably don’t know what ‘metaverse’ means. More precisely, we don’t know what someone else means.”
3️⃣ And thank goodness for smarter people. Yesterday I took a pessimistic view of Meta’s $13.7B investment. And I used two WSJ quotes to suggest Horizon Worlds—the social platform accounting for just 10% of the investment total—represented the whole enchilada. The truth is, “More than half of that spending goes to augmented reality.” Which, according to yesterday’s guest speaker, is where the near future lives.
TAKEAWAY: Those of us working in marketing and advertising have a lot of work to do… to understand the idea of the Metaverse, to engage in and embrace its cultures, to innovate and explore new was of defining advertising within…whatever we imagine it could be. Generation Alpha is likely to lead the way, given nearly 75% of our youngest use Roblox (to name check just one platform).
Amir changed my mind.
On Sunday night, preparing for yesterday’s class, I was a skeptic. My momentary lack of enthusiasm for VR experiences specifically clouded my understanding of a diverse industry. Elements of my “Before” post read wrong now. Amir helped me see (sure, a pun) the many ways in which augmented reality is already deeply intertwined in the lives of millions and only gaining speed. And while headset hardware is currently bulky, ugly, inconvenient, expensive, limited and not particularly intuitive…we only have to look at the slow evolution of cars, cell phones, mRNA vaccines, and robotics for healthy perspective. We’ll get there. Maybe things will speed up this year?
Amir helped me understand, “the metaverse is an overarching philosophy.” Within that philosophy are currently fast-moving elements like AI, and slow-moving elements like hardware.
A key point: It boils down to presence. We are 3D physical beings and our current digital life is very 2D. Before the Internet, human interactions were primarily physical. For almost a century we worked out advertising ideas on paper, with pens and typewriters—and 3D human presence, i.e. your shirt, your posture, your body language impacted our creative mood. Since 1991 and the Internet, we’ve constrained ourselves and our process for creating ideas inside 2D screens, even more so since the pandemic. As brilliant as the past 30 years have been—what if they turn out to be the anomaly?
Yesterday I re-learned some patience. The leap we will make with AR, VR and whatever it is the Metaverse turns out to be can’t be judged through short term evaluations. Horizon Worlds might be underpopulated. But it’s merely a tiny piece of decades and trillions in ongoing investment.
The Metaverse means an entirely new way of functioning. Creativity is good at that.
There are 137 subscribers to this newsletter as of Tuesday, March 21. So I’m curious:
The headset seems to be the icon for many explanations of a Metaverse. And that concept is almost a 100 years old. The idea of donning glasses or a helmet, or entering a portal or room and stepping (escaping?) into a virtual world has been the subject of novels and movies for a long time.
And those images and ideas have had a profound impact on how we judge the crude hardware of our present. Hollywood and the novelist have painted an easy, lightweight, intuitive experience our current engineering can’t yet deliver. The Metaverse is a push/pull of expectations set by artists, then inevitably, maybe delivered by other humans. The dreaming part is a lot easier than the delivering part at this point.
I’m tempted to insert another survey here: How many of us held business meetings inside Second Life? 🙋🏽♀️
“Presence” is physical, which begets hardware
Even with the rapid pace of AI-generative tech, those innovations aren’t asking us to embrace new forms of hardware. We’re using words, images, code, spreadsheets—things we’re quite familiar with—just differently. Both Microsoft’s and Google’s latest presentations assume zero change in the user’s physical environment for AI to provide value.
The Metaverse asks a lot more of us. It presumes we will understand and utilize new AR and/or VR hardware, even if much of it has been around for decades. The Metaverse is asking us to physically change, to embrace a presence we often lack in 2D digital worlds.
Of all the major themes we’re covering in the Future of Advertising, only this one requires what feels like a physical sea change. And that new physicality is a potent symbol, I think, for what we’re struggling to comprehend, to create, and to make critically real.
And it’s this change in presence, in physicality, where I think creative people can provide incredible value.
The book which helped me the most has been Matthew Ball’s The Metaverse. His definition (hardcover, page 29) provides useful clues about the dramatic change we’re embracing and remarkable hurdles we still need to overcome. Ball defines the Metaverse as:
“A massively scaled and interoperable network
of real-time rendered 3D virtual worlds that can be
experienced synchronously and persistently by
an effectively unlimited number of users with
an individual sense of presence, and
with continuity of data, such as identify, history, entitlements, objects, communications, and payments.”
Each of those bolded components encompass vast realms of complication, nuance, investment and practice. “Interoperable” alone feels like a non-starter today; but if we broadly adopt (insist on?) portability of our digital “stuff,” then who’s to say? Gen X hasn’t prized that capability. But I have no doubt Generation Alpha, the overwhelming majority of them gamers, will have different opinions which will affect laws, business, and culture. As our previous guest Greg Swan noted,
“The Metaverse is where Generation A primarily hangs out. They just don’t call it that.”
(They call it Roblox, Minecraft, Fortnite, et al.)
These platforms lack interoperability and continuity of data outside their proprietary worlds. But they are being used persistently, by increasingly larger numbers of people (Roblox, Minecraft, Fortnite active use stats). They are providing an individual sense of presence for growing populations. We’d be wise to understand and empathize with their views. Brands including Nike, Kellogg’s, Burberry and Marvel have made those commitments.
The rising use of Digital Twins provides a pragmatic way in.
You’d likely prefer a surgeon trainee not use your living body as a rehearsal space. Seems better if they could poke around and understand the lay of the land inside a digital twin of the human body. Or let’s talk about redeveloping the Hong Kong International Airport. Imagine being able to test engineering and construction theories virtually in a digital twin before implementing them actually (and expensively if we’re wrong)? IBM has a useful explainer.
The utility of digital twins provides a rational perspective on the hard to grasp nature of the Metaverse. We’re in between worlds. Which has always been a potent arena for creativity and creative people.
It’s about seeing a way of solving problems, but differently.
It’s about resisting the urge to apply either Hollywood’s myth or our 2D familiarity to new forms of media, expression and environment.
It’s going to be about enabling greater presence within the code, the hardware and the networked community.
Let’s end with a quote from Matthew Ball:
“What makes technological transformation difficult to predict is the reality that it is caused not by any one invention, innovation, or individual, but instead requires many changes to come together.”
I’ll have a reflection on all of the above tomorrow.
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