What is the metaverse? Put into simple terms, the metaverse describes an immersive 3D environment that utilizes advanced virtual and augmented reality. Essentially, the metaverse is designed to further bridge the gap between the physical and virtual world. While it is still commonly believed that the metaverse exists purely for pleasure, such as in advanced gamification, it is actually being used as a tool for trade. For just one example, Decentraland is a virtual space that allows businesses and individuals to trade in virtual real estate for cryptocurrency. In other words, the metaverse represents a new currency where digital products like NFTs can be bought and sold.
An NFT is basically a non-refundable token or digital asset that represents a real-world object such as art, music, and game-related items. They are bought and sold online, usually using cryptocurrency. Since November 2017, a whopping $174 million has been spent on NFTs. As you might imagine, many cutting-edge brands have been encouraged to invest in digital properties.
What are they using these digital properties for, and how does all of this relate to the event industry? Well, some brands are utilizing specific digital properties in order to expand their reach and create new, immersive virtual environments. The metaverse quite literally represents a whole new world in which brands can design fun, creative ways to connect with their customers. It’s also worth noting that this new, advanced digital world breaks down the divide between people attending events in-person and those attending remotely.
Current Impact on the Event Industry
So now let’s talk about the impact of the metaverse on both virtual and in-person events. For one thing, the metaverse takes gamification to unprecedented heights, which stands to exponentially boost engagement. In the metaverse, participants can essentially create their own identities by customizing their own avatars; these avatars can then be used to traverse multiple immersive 3D environments. Within these 3D environments, users can actually walk up to, interact with, or even pick up digital items. (Just imagine the potential for product engagement, especially for brands looking to introduce or leverage sales for a new product). Now customers don’t necessarily have to go to a store and physically touch a product in order to test it out or get a feel for how it works.
In a nutshell, the metaverse goes beyond chat boxes and breakout rooms. More sophisticated technologies like virtual reality, augmented reality, and 3D holographic avatars, users can be more fully immersed in the digital world. What’s more, they can engage with each other in more life-like, authentic ways than they could from a 2D box on a screen. Even if it’s just two avatars standing around a coffee kiosk, this type of 3D environment can sensorily pluck users from their own space into a world they are sharing with others.
Sure, looking at an avatar that represents a human being from across a virtual table can seem a bit, well, surreal. But video games like Epic Games’ Fortnite, Minecraft, and many more have been taking place in these 3D virtual worlds for years. In fact, the metaverse is so common to video games that many kids and dedicated gamers take it for granted!
How Accessible is the Metaverse?
You may be wondering just how accessible the metaverse is for the average attendee. That’s a great question. The kind of technology needed to access the metaverse- which frequently involves wearing 3D goggles- is fairly new and expensive. However, many tech brands have already begun to use their own, more low-key versions of the metaverse experience. Just look at the popular game Fortnite, which in recent years has started holding live virtual events. In April 2020, about 12 million fans created avatars and attended a Travis Scott concert in the virtual world. (In case you were wondering, the rapper himself was also an avatar).
The main objective of the metaverse is to make remote attendees feel like they’re not just watching the event unfold- they’re right there in the middle of it. So they may not be attending the event in-person, but they’re as immersed in it as if they were. While the majority of attendees are still participating in virtual events via less sophisticated software, Lee Gimpel, founder of Better Meetings, predicts that this will change. According to Gimpel, it would be a mistake to say that the industry will return to an era when most events are in-person. Online events are not only here to stay, but they are continuing to thrive and evolve at a rapid speed. The metaverse is perhaps the most glaring proof we have of that.
Notably, Bill Gates recently predicted that most virtual meetings “would move from 2D camera image grids…to the metaverse, a 3D space with digital avatars”. And Lachlan Phillips, CEO of Orbits, couldn’t agree more. He would know- Orbits refers to itself as “a metaverse company that specializes in virtual events and venues”.
Who Needs to Be Paying Attention?
Phllips says that the metaverse should be on every event creator’s radar. But it may have the most immediate implications for hybrid events. This is mainly because immersive, 3D words have the power to connect in-person and remote attendees in more meaningful, authentic ways. Since hybrid events first began trending, event creators have been working to more seamlessly merge the in-person and remote experience, thus connecting the audience. After all, bridging the divide between the remote and physical space is one of the main reasons the metaverse was created.
According to Phillips, when Orbits hosts a hybrid event, the MC speaks to the in-person audience and the virtual audience as if the entire event were one large auditorium. And “no matter where you are on the planet, you’re able to interact with speakers, attend Q&A’s and workshops, participate in specialized experiences, or simply bump shoulders with people in the bar.”
In March 2021, South by Southwest teamed up with VRChat and VRrOOM to create a digital version of downtown Austin. This virtual rendering of the famous city was explorable using desktop PCs or VR headsets. Classic SXSW venues like The Paramount were recreated virtually, and attendees could explore the streets freely, stopping at various panels or events at their leisure. That’s another major advantage of the metaverse- it gives attendees a whole lot more control over their experience than they have at regular virtual events.
Ever since Mark Zuckerberg decided to rebrand Facebook as Meta, many have been wondering what that means for brands on social media. Right now, Zuckerberg says that Meta is focusing on creating virtual office spaces where people working from home can gather the way they would in person. He also wants users to have the opportunity to design and host games and contests in the metaverse.
Additional Benefits of the Metaverse
Aside from those we already explored, the metaverse has even more benefits for event creators to tap into as time goes on. For example, a metaverse event has no cap on attendance. That’s right- there is no limit to how many people can attend. Think about it: Who would you reach if you could? The metaverse not only removes limits on space and attendance, but also lets marketers create more immersive promotions with the potential to reach much broader audiences.
It’s important to note that the amount of people who can interact with each other in the same virtual space is still somewhat limited. While 12 million people attended the virtual Travis Scott concert via Fortnite, attendees were only able to see each other in groups of 50. Still, this is pretty impressive, and larger events can contain unlimited rooms. Of course, in this case, we’re talking about very expensive, very large-scale events. But even for smaller businesses, holding events in the metaverse likely means better engagement, more authentic interactions, and even improved education. (If attendees can directly interact with technology or materials rather than simply hearing about them during a presentation, they may get a higher quality learning experience overall).
In addition to unlimited audiences, the metaverse also expands opportunities for monetization of events. Just like traditional events offer VIP experiences, metaverse events can pay to upgrade their virtual experience. You might create upgraded ways for attendees to interact with their environment or change the way they appear. Sponsors and exhibitors can set up virtual booths that attendees can “walk” up to and interact with in 3D.
Many virtual events use GIFs, videos, banners, and other animations to engage attendees and immerse them in the experience. With the advent of the metaverse, businesses could use holograms to interact with attendees. That means sponsors and vendors can deliver a more authentic experience to their customer base, potentially generating leads and expanding their network.
Speakers can also be much more interactive in the metaverse. They can also “walk” up to attendees when addressing them personally, such as during a Q&A session. Essentially, 3D models can appear right in front of participants. At this point, most of us have experienced Zoom fatigue in varying degrees; the more virtual events people attend, the more likely they are to become exhausted and disengage during them. Creating a more life-like, interactive experience in the metaverse could help combat this problem and keep attendees engaged.
Drawbacks of the Metaverse
Let’s get the practical concerns out of the way first. Like most new technology, the metaverse is not without its complications and drawbacks. Of course, the metaverse doesn’t function on its own; it relies on other technology, including haptics, VR headsets, blockchain, and more. Many people do not yet have access to these technologies. The metaverse also requires fast, top-notch internet connectivity, which not everyone has access to. And the question remains: How likely are people to opt to be tethered to their desktop computers or walking around wearing VR goggles?
Concerns about privacy and security have also been raised because these systems collect data from users. The obvious worry here is identity theft, but the information could also be used for online ads that pop up too frequently to be manageable. Especially recently, there has been concern about how certain content, misinformation, and advertisement adversely affects the population- especially its younger members. As we know, companies don’t just rely on demographic information to target consumers anymore; they use psychographic data to target audiences based on their emotions, attitudes, values, and hopes for the future.
By now, most of us have heard the name Frances Haugen associated with Facebook. A former product manager turned whistleblower, Haugen thinks Facebook’s recent branding changes could be an attempt to shift the focus from recent controversy surrounding the platform. When Haugen testified before a Senate subcommittee, she testified that Facebook consistently chose to maximize growth rather than implement safeguards on its platforms; she was concerned that Facebook amplified misinformation for profit and was frequently exploited by foreign adversities.
According to Haugen, “the result has been more division, more lies, more threats, and more combat.” She even testified that “in some cases, this dangerous online talk has led to actual violence that harms or even kills people”. One Facebook study found that 13.5 percent of teen girls in the U.K. reported increased suicidal thoughts after starting on Instagram. And about 32 percent of teen girls have said that Instagram exacerbates their negative feelings about their body image. Subcommittee Chair Richard Belmenthal openly accused Facebook of exploiting teens by using powerful algorithms that amplified their insecurities.
What does this have to do with the metaverse? Well, for one thing, it’s a reminder that technology can serve as a distraction from issues that users and guardians of young users need to be aware of. For another, we already know that social media can be addictive, which can have destructive consequences. It represents an entire world of status symbols, social networking, and 3D gamification. A recent survey reported that 59 percent of parents believed their teenagers were addicted to social media. Perhaps even more alarming is the fact that 50 percent of teens involved in the survey believed they are addicted to social media. Kids who already feel unhappy or isolated are particularly vulnerable to being relying on social media for a sense of connection- and an escape from reality. What happens when social media becomes even more immersive?
We’re talking about a complex, multi-faceted issue with many potential advantages and drawbacks. Advanced technology cannot possibly exist without positives and negatives. The brain itself responds to interactions on social media the same way it responds to real-life connections- with a release of dopamine. The metaverse will undoubtedly capitalize on these vulnerabilities in complex ways, a prediction that concerns many.
Of course, the metaverse also has the potential to make online connections more authentic. Many young people idealize the concept of a community that is accessible to all, and the metaverse represents this possibility. In a sense, communities are what people make them, and awareness is key. The metaverse holds massive potential for positive interactions that build young people up rather than tear them down.
It’s important for small businesses and individuals to remember that big corporations like Facebook/Meta don’t hold all the power. Yes, data collection and security are real concerns, especially when the information is used to target people in harmful ways. But these platforms- especially in the metaverse- can be used to create safe, entertaining spaces in which users have more control over their experience than ever before. You may not have control over data collection, but you do have control over the culture of your brand.