Had enough of reality? Try the metaverse

Sue Unerman
Sue Unerman

The metaverse has arrived, allowing people to live their best lives in the virtual world – but where is the crossover point between reality and fantasy?

When I was six years old I fell in love. In fact, I found the man that I wanted to marry. I found him on TV. 

Captain Scarlet was my first love. He’s good looking, he has piercing blue eyes, he’s indestructible, you can count on him in a crisis, he saves humanity repeatedly and he talks like Cary Grant. 

My big brother was quick to react to this. He basically mocked me for my choice, saying that there was no way I’d end up as Mrs Scarlet because the captain wasn’t a real man. Captain Scarlet is a puppet. 

I remember clearly that I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about. At six, and entranced by the escapism of TV, I had no way of differentiating flesh and blood from strings, wire and wood. I was surprised, and disappointed, that my brother seemed to think that Captain Scarlet’s identity was a problem for my future matrimonial plans.

The relationship between me and the Captain didn’t go anywhere; I’m not even sure he ever noticed me. And I moved on (eventually). However, the blurring of the so-called “real world” with living the fantasy has only got stronger, more pervasive, more widespread.

The metaverse has arrived, and you can live your dreams, your fantasies and your best life in the virtual world. Yes, TV is still brilliant escapism but now, in Fortnite, Roblox, Animal Crossing and the rest, people are literally immersed in another world.  And they are not alone; with friends, with family, there is no need to suspend disbelief if you’re in this virtual life – it is the reality.

More and more people are participating. The pandemic gave the metaverse an unexpected boost, of course. More and more money is changing hands.

Fast Company magazine points out that a recent study from Squarespace and The Harris Poll found that 60% of Gen Z and 62% of millennials believe how you present yourself online is more important than how you do so in real life.

While traditional social media and websites are still used in the majority, metaverse platforms are becoming engrained increasingly in the mainstream, creating a boom in avatar creations and marketplaces to outfit your digital self.

Earlier this year the sale of a virtual sneaker raised $3.1m in seven minutes. 

A report by Wunderman Thompson claims that “on average” respondents from the UK, US and China are willing to pay $76,000 for a virtual house; $9,000 for original art; $2,900 for a virtual designer handbag. 

Some commentators are raising questions about the lines between immersive gaming and the metaverse. I think the answer lies in how real it feels to the participants (is it as real as Captain Scarlet was to a six-year-old?), and how much time and money people are prepared to commit to it. And the tech will continue to expand its pervasiveness. You might be in Decentraland or Cryptovoxels on your PC at the moment, but soon you’ll join in a pair of smart sunglasses.

As my COO Luke Bozeat says: “Ultimately this is simply another platform for brands.” The virtual gig in Fortnite is another distribution channel for music, just like Spotify, Apple music and Amazon created new ways for you to listen to your favourite band beyond the CD which many people grew up with. It allows a new point of entry to a brand – the 17-year-old who can’t yet afford a designer watch can buy one for their avatar. 

And just as one form of advertising designed for TV is not fit for purpose on a Facebook feed, the metaverse will demand that the creative message is designed for the medium. And that a clear strategy is developed both to deliver immediate sales and long-term brand impact.

Meanwhile in the metaverse there’s already a battle for domination. Tim Sweeney, founder of Epic Games and creator of Fortnite, says he is determined to stop today’s Silicon Valley elite from extending their empires into the metaverse. However The Economist’s Schumpeter blog writes that “all the tech giants started out fighting for open competition against incumbents, and then over time, as their leadership positions strengthened, their missionary zeal waned”.

For anyone with an addictive strain to their personality, the metaverse will have a dark side. As Monish Darda, founder of software company Icertis, comments, there’s a danger that “humans can get caught in a virtual world that they never want to come out of”.

However the metaverse plays out, it’s a new commercial and marketing playing field requiring new rules, experimentation and effectiveness in advertising and media. My dream of Captain Scarlet was personal to me as a child. The big difference with the metaverse is it facilitates immersive escapism for real friends, virtual friends and family together. 

Sue Unerman is chief transformation officer at MediaCom

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