Exclusive| ‘Consumers hold the power in deciding the metaverse direction’

We hear a lot about the metaverse. There is considerable activity too. Plans are being drawn up by brands. The case is being talked up by tech platforms, including Meta and Microsoft. Users (those rich enough, in some cases) are buying luxury fashion for the metaverse. Splurging crypto coins on expensive virtual land. And more. Yet, one thing remains constant – we still don’t have much in terms of specifics about the exact contours of a metaverse. If the McLaren metaverse experiment ahead of the latest Formula 1 season is anything to go by, you may be right to have doubts about it all.

We are all wondering the same thing – what will the metaverse really look like a few years from now? That’s exactly what we asked Stefano Corazza, head of Augmented Reality, VP & fellow at Adobe, in an exclusive conversation with Hindustan Times. In intricate detail, Corazza talks about the five stack underlier for building a metaverse experience. It all starts with the sort of experience a brand or platform wants to provide (whether it is a sports event, a concert, shopping experiences etc., which define the direction).

Piecing together the foundation

“Metaverse is basically like a digital experience that is persistent so I can go back to it. This is with other people, so I can interact with them. It’s kind of the intersection between the internet, gaming and maps if you want, all in this 3D immersive type,” Corazza tells us. While this is still a fluid definition of a metaverse, what’ll matter are the components which will bring together the experience.

The next steps in that journey will be figuring out the devices on which any specific metaverse experience will be optimised for, or the larger availability. It’ll likely be a mix of smartphones, PCs alongside augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) hardware such as smart glasses — a lot depending on the experience. Perhaps concerts in virtual space will require glasses, but virtual workspaces may be workable with a smartphone or tablet.

That leads to the commerce stage, where a metaverse experience gets into the monetisation aspect. “One layer below you have all the economies and commerce they are flourishing since the days of virtual worlds like Second Life,” he points out.

The importance of the engine

Something that is often ignored in the metaverse conversations is the “engine”, essentially the infrastructure if you may, on which a metaverse experience will be accessible. “Unity, Unreal and Adobe’s Mercury are all engines that allow people to deliver those experiences, because AR and VR don’t have the equivalent of a browser for the internet. So, to deliver the experience, you have to deliver on a piece of technology that goes with it,” points out Corazza.

Unity has just announced they are partnering with South Korea’s top mobile game developer, Netmarble, to use Unity’s engine to create virtual reality and augmented reality experiences that’ll form the metaverse push. Epic Games, the folks behind the Unreal Engine, have pointed to the MetaHuman Creator app which was released in February last year – one year later, the company confirms that more than one million MetaHumans have been created already. This is a cloud-based app that allows for the creation of photorealistic digital humans, right down to intricate details such as the hair type.

Exclusive| ‘Consumers hold the power in deciding the metaverse direction’

How real is virtual?

Once all this is in place, Corazza says things will only work if there is a complete ecosystem in place. In terms of interactivity, he believes there will be four unique maps of the metaverse – the key definer being the need to be abstract or connected with the real world. There will be experiences that will have AR content overlayed on the real world that we see (directions, for instance), AR layers over the real world (such as new virtual objects introduced into the experience while the real world remains as is), a virtual world that’ll attempt to replicate things of the real world and those abstract experiences which will be completely virtual.

How far along are we with the metaverse mission? “That’s a million-dollar question,” says Corazza, with a smile. That said, he believes things won’t be ready completely until a critical piece of the jigsaw is in place. “I think a bigger turning point or what you want to call it, is when we’re going to have AR glasses become as popular as perhaps an Apple Watch,” he points out. “Because at that point, it will prove to the brands that this is going to be there to stay,” he says. It is at that point that more investment will flow in.

Walled or open metaverse: consumers decide

Is there a risk that brands and platforms will create individual metaverse experiences, which will essentially be akin to walled gardens? “I don’t think there will be one metaverse”, Corazza insists. There is the sense that many metaverse experiences will pop up with their own unique aspects. “Some may be open, some closed. What we may see are a lot of communities, perhaps as many as we see social media websites,” he foresees.

There may be large metaverse experiences and some smaller ones that are specific to an interest, for instance. “My hope is that the open ones will win and force everybody to be open because it’s better for every user. If they are open, in the sense that content can travel in and out of metaverses, then I can invest a lot of time and effort on my digital identity,” he points out. But what is it that doesn’t happen? “I know I can take my digital identity with me everywhere I go. Otherwise, it’s like if I bought a pair of shoes that I can wear only on Monday, right?” he quips.

A lot of this will depend on the consumers. If preferences and engagement are better on the open metaverse experiences, that’ll be a vocal stance against closed metaverse ecosystems. “Consumers hold a lot of power in deciding the direction where this is going,” Corazza says.

Expensive proposition, because of FOMO

There is a sense among the masses that metaverse is an expensive proposition, particularly with the virtual objects and things being transacted for with cryptocurrencies. Crypto coins aren’t exactly the most inexpensive to buy and trade. At the same time, everything in the metaverse seems to cost a lot – luxury items, avatars, even pieces of digital land. According to Corazza, FOMO or fear of missing out, plays a big role.

“I think there’s a little bit of like the fear of missing out that is fuelling this. Some people are jumping in and buying land, and the value goes up. And there’s so much scarcity there and all you need is like a couple of articles and then people will flock to demand, and that makes it completely unbalanced,” he says.

There is a secondary reason why everything in the metaverse seems so expensive – clothing, accessories etc. It has a lot to do with the brands that are currently setting up metaverse experiences. That links to aspirational value. “It will be very hard for a company that makes $1 on a product to invest and make a virtual version, or making a live event. But when the margins are big, then you can afford it. So, I think that’s why we are naturally seeing more of the high end, he says, adding, “the Gucci stores and the McLaren metaverse I think makes more sense also. Sometimes they are goods that people cannot own in real life. And they enjoy owning the least individual life.”