The breathless hype of Facebook’s name-change announcement, Microsoft’s Mesh introduction, and Nvidia’s Omniverse keynote leave us in anticipation of a big metaverse reveal one day in the future. But the metaverse has been out there for some time now.
The experimentation and activations currently underway by technology-forward retailers, fashion brands, and gaming platforms have begun to seep into the commercial landscape. Ecommerce will be complemented by M-commerce as the technology develops. For now, meta-hype has nearly snuffed out the novelty of the concept, but the grind to create a secure, synchronous, persistent, metaverse that can span the physical and digital worlds while supporting a functional meta-economy, with an enterprise equivalent is just getting started.
Apple is raising the stakes with what analysts say are plans for a headset or smart glasses that will offer access to a layer of information, objects and data spread across our view of the real world.
The Hardware Question
The retail, meta-like activations we have experienced to date are quasi-three-dimensional, but engagement with the current games and experiences don’t require a wearable device. While Meta Platforms [née Facebook] hopes the company’s 2014 investment in Oculus Rift (VR hardware) will reap rewards for the firm if it can tilt the vision of a commercial metaverse into VR, Niantic, the company behind Pokémon Go, and Snap are making a case for augmented reality (AR) as an equal, if not a superior delivery tool for metaverse engagement.
Apple’s steady progress in AR development demonstrates where the largest technology company in the world thinks the metaverse is headed. WSJ recently reported, “Apple is raising the stakes with what analysts say are plans for a headset or smart glasses that will offer access to a layer of information, objects and data spread across our view of the real world. While the company hasn’t disclosed its plans, analysts and other industry insiders expect Apple’s first AR device could be announced by the end of 2022.” Google acquired the Canadian smart-glasses maker North in 2020. Recent reporting suggests that the company is expanding their AR hardware and software development projects in their Waterloo Ontario campus, where the North team is based. Microsoft has a horse in both lanes with the HoloLens which offers mixed reality (MR). The headsets are clunky and bear similar characteristics to VR but are not totally immersive; the user maintains spatial awareness with their physical surroundings. Microsoft’s HoloLens is currently designed and priced for applications in the enterprise. The company is working on a less expensive lighter-weight device for the consumer market that may hold promise for retail applications.
Just Do It
Whether a single hardware element serves as the entry point to the metaverse or it is a mix of VR, AR, and MR, fashion and retail brands have been taking it seriously, some of them since well before the term metaverse became a part of the retail lexicon. In 2019, Nike acquired a patent for a blockchain-based virtual sneaker ownership model. Recently, the apparel giant announced plans to acquire RTKFT for a yet undisclosed amount. RTKFT (pronounced artifact), is the venture-backed NFT studio behind the successful NFT sneaker collaboration with the artist Takashi Murakami called CloneX.
At the BOF Voices 2022 conference, Cédric Charbit, President and Chief Executive of Maison Balenciaga spoke of the company’s experimental culture and its early adoption of metaverse-like experiences. Charbit said, “In seven months, we created a video game called the Afterworld that we released for fall 2021. It was totally metaverse, but we didn’t know it. Then came the Fortnite collaboration again, totally in the metaverse.” He continued, ” We need to be ready to anticipate the change rather than process the change when it is too late…The use-ability [of digital fashion] is the point that’s [currently] missing, but that is making gigantic steps every day.” Balenciaga has established a dedicated metaverse team to explore the emerging platform (The author hopes the company continues to explore 2D animation. I thought Marge Simpson looked divine in Balenciaga). Nike and Balenciaga are not alone, other M-commerce pioneers include Tommy Hilfiger, Gucci, Ralph Lauren, and VF’s Vans.
The metaverse now has its own conference where the AR, MR, and VR teams can jockey for dominance in the eventual metaverse. The Augmented World Expo (AWE) conference was held in Santa Clara California in early November. Wired.com reported on the event interviewing Bobby Murphy the CTO of Snap Inc., Snapchat’s parent company, “We see augmented reality as this amazing technology that allows people to engage with digital experiences [and]visualize them in a way that is very aligned to how we as humans naturally see the world, which is we look out, [and] ask questions about the things that we’re looking at.” Murphy continued, “Not only is this a really impactful way to make a more informed decision about products you may want to purchase, but it’s actually way faster, faster certainly than going into a store and trying to browse pairs of sunglasses, but also faster than even browsing a website and clicking through product pages.”
A Net Plus
The gamification of retail is nothing new, but the technology and creativity driving gamification are coalescing to create a new metaverse playground; retail will be playing along. Balenciaga’s Cedric Charbit advised, “We feel when this [the metaverse] is ready, it is going to be something big. “VR activations can play a specific role with immersive experiences blending retail and entertainment. AR can address more practical consumer engagement with advanced devices offering optimized try-on, wayfinding in the real world, and a pathway to hybrid digital/physical retail experiences.”
Regardless of the delivery method, the metaverse landscape is good for retail. It expands the creative potential for content creation and storytelling. While the optimal metaverse is years in the future, hints of that future are revealing themselves today. Let the games begin.