The idea of spending hours sitting at your desk, staring at a screen and talking into a camera was difficult to contemplate in 2019, but now it feels like the norm. For many, the end of the working day is a chance to step away from your desk and into the real world — but for others, it’s a time for going deeper into the online world of gaming.
The fact is that we live more of our lives online, and the trend looks set to continue for both work and play. This is likely to be accelerated by the creation of more and more immersive experiences.
Given the trends, every online company is scrambling to become a metaverse company, with Facebook’s parent company Meta garnering the most publicity. However, the reality is that “one metaverse to rule them all” is very unlikely to be the outcome. Just like there isn’t a single online game, there won’t be one “metaverse” — online apps are all likely to run their own metaverses, different games will continue to exist, and a myriad of different businesses are likely to build metaverses to solve the specific problems they are trying to solve. With every user signed up for multiple metaverses, there will be an incentive for these metaverses to be interoperable.
For instance, imagine you bought a pair of earrings, but you can only use them at work, and you need another set for every shop you go into. Similarly, if you’ve built an avatar for your work, you’ll want to use the same one on your LinkedIn profile, and probably the same one when you’re playing a game or going to the cinema with your friends. And for all of them, if you’ve bought a hat, you want that hat in all of the metaverses.
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Buying a digital identity
A lot of things we have now in the physical world will exist in the metaverse — and the market is already really weird. An article by Forbes reported on someone spending $450,000 in the metaverse so that they could have a “virtual property” next door to Snoop Dogg, while many smart people are confused at the emergence of a $40bn market for NFTs. More tangible — though still digital — is the growth in spending on in-app purchases, with many users spending thousands on digital T-shirts for their in-game characters.
If our online avatars become central to our identity, as we spend more time in a virtual world, the amount we are happy to spend on digital clothes and jewellery will only grow, and brands like Adidas with its “into the metaverse” range are likely to encourage this — selling physical clothes and the right to wear them inside the metaverse.
This might sound strange, but why would people spend money on digital clothes? If you ever wore a shirt and shorts while on a Zoom call, you might begin to realise that many of our clothing choices are about what other people can see — and they’ll see your digital version much more than your physical one in the not-too-distant future.
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Who owns my digital identity?
Can you remember the first time you bought something online? How sure were you that you were going to get the thing you paid for? Most online retailers have built trust with their customers over years. If you buy something from Amazon, you can be pretty confident it’s going to arrive — and if not, you usually have some confidence in the process to request a refund or return.
Something similar happens when we buy digital goods. The Apple app store and Google Play store are huge businesses — with a significant share of both coming from “in-app purchases” — covering subscriptions to streaming and health apps, as well as people buying a new hat for their game character. At least part of this is down to the trust individuals have in Apple and Google — if my digital goods aren’t delivered, I know I’ll likely get a refund.
I now want to buy a digital hat that I can wear to my digital office on Microsoft’s metaverse, my online dinner party on the Nando’s metaverse, and gaming on Roblox. Where do I buy that hat, and from who? The best price you’ll get, and the most money for the investment in making the hat, would be to buy it straight from your hat maker. How can I be sure that if I give money to happy_hatmaker431 that I’ll actually get my hat? And why would Microsoft, Roblox and Nando’s care if I bought my hat from happy_hatmaker431 — what’s in it for them?
My hat on a blockchain
If you buy a hat from a hat maker, that hat maker can create an NFT (a way of proving that you own something by storing it on a blockchain) — there can be only one owner of that unique item.
A smart contract can be used as a way of transferring ownership from one person to another without any need for the two people to trust each other, and with no one trusted party acting as an intermediary.
If I buy my hat with a smart contract, I own that hat, and can prove it by pointing to it on the blockchain. In this case we remove trust, as a smart contract is guaranteed to do what it says it’s going to do, and once the blockchain confirms I own the hat, the record of transfer is immutable (it cannot be changed) — I can always point to that bit of the blockchain that proves I bought the hat.
That just leaves one problem left — why would Microsoft, Roblox and Nando’s respect my ownership? One answer is, if I can play a game where I can use my purchase, and one where I can’t, maybe I’m more likely to pick the game that I can wear my hat in — thus creating an incentive for game makers to respect my ownership. Another option is instead of “owning” a digital good, you rent it. A different smart contract can be set up between the good makers and each of those platforms — such that a percentage of digital goods go to the platform that you’re using them in.
A world of trust still to explore
Whilst there are many ways that goods will pass from person to person in an increasingly online world, cryptocurrency, blockchain and smart contracts are serious candidates. That said, there are a number of challenges with trust to explore in the metaverse.
Buying and selling goods is just the start; we also need to consider the privacy considerations in a digital world. This includes new attacks — like physical attacks, delivered virtually on people with wearables — and the disincentive of security in a space where speed and agility are likely to pick the winners.
But whilst it’s easy to get caught up in the “crypto hype” and just as easy to dismiss everything about blockchain, there are huge challenges and opportunities as we build a digital world, to make trust a central part of the way that buying and selling is done in the metaverse.
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