Every year around this time, the Oxford English Dictionary announces its word of the year. For 2021, the word is Vax, a reflection of the heated debate around Covid-19 vaccinations. Previous winners have included toxic, selfie, emoji, vape and climate emergency.
Looking ahead, an early contender for 2022 might be ‘Metaverse’ – a word that has suddenly gained prominence thanks to Facebook’s decision to rebrand itself as Meta. Should Metaverse be selected, however, it’s going to be much harder to define than its predecessors.
Condensed down to its core essence, advocates of the metaverse envisage a scenario in which people can move seamlessly back and forth between physical and digital worlds. By harnessing tech such as VR and AR, companies including Facebook, Microsoft, Google, Nvidia Roblox and Epic Games (the creators of Fortnite) will attempt to create always-on immersive internet experiences that can be enjoyed in their own right, or in tandem with IRL experiences. In a recent report, cryptocurrency experts Grayscale defined the metaverse as “interconnected, experiential, 3D virtual worlds where people located anywhere can socialise in real-time to form a persistent, user-owned, internet economy spanning the digital and physical worlds.”
In October, Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg gave a simple example of himself fencing with a hologram in his back garden. But a more expansive view of the metaverse imagines people developing a parallel lifestyle – along the lines of Ready Player One (but hopefully without its dystopian connotations). Music fans, for example, would be able to attend a rock concert either physically or virtually (perhaps following a favourite band if they are touring on the other wide of the world). Or instead of going home to a shoebox apartment in the middle of an over-priced city, people could occupy a luxury seafront condo. Or they could create an avatar and check in at a swanky virtual hotel, where they might socialise with other people’s avatars.
In elaborate versions of the metaverse, futurists foresee the emergence of a robust digital economy were people buy and sell digital items (virtual Gucci shoes, for example). Ideally, they will be able to pass seamlessly between different zones (an Avatar-led work meeting via a trip to virtual IKEA and then on to a Marvel-themed party). If allowed to develop to its full potential, Grayscale believes the metaverse can grow to become a trillion dollar a year economy.
Of course a lot of this is currently pure sci-fi speculation. While there are examples of proto-metaverse activities already (eg concerts on Fortnite), the cultural, creative, technical and financial obstacles to a fully-functioning metaverse are significant. For a really thorough drilled down analysis of what’s involved start with this Wired story.
Even if a genuine metaverse is a decade or two away, however, it’s the kind of big tech-backed project that content creators need to be thinking about now, in preparation. Here are a few reasons why:
The need for compelling IP: whatever the metaverse ends up looking like, it’s going to built around great IP. The places people visit, the friends they make, the events they attend are all likely to have their roots in film, TV and music franchises. How might Got Talent or Bake Off look in the metaverse? Can BBC NHU footage form the basis of an immersive experience that people can go back to time and again? Could your kids attend a tea party hosted by Peppa Pig?
Inevitably, there will be challenges around how IP moves seamlessly around the metaverse (what happens if you want to wear your Spiderman suit to a Gotham City-themed event). But now is a good time to explore how screen-based IP might translate to this new ecosystem. Alternatively, it might be worth developing new IP that can bridge the two worlds, Tech-powered singing contest Alter Ego from Propagate Content International, which sees unknown singers creating their dream alter ego performer, using motion capture technology, is a step in the right direction. So is Avastars, from Talpa Distribution, which turns singers and dancers into virtual characters.
Kids & Youth are already attuned: The metaverse concept owes a lot to developments in gaming. And as TV execs are endlessly being told, younger audiences are increasingly turning to Fortnite, Minecraft, esports etc in their free time. Netflix has taken the hint, investing serious sums in gaming and interactivity (eg Black Mirror: Bandersnatch). From here, it’s highly likely that the global streaming platforms will keep pushing in the direction of meta-friendly content. So content creators will need to make sure they are battle ready. This MIP Trends blog gives some good insights into how to go about that.
A 24/7 engagement opportunity: There’s always a slight sense of frustration among content creators that their concepts are limited to a few hours on television. But in the metaverse it becomes possible to maintain an ongoing relationship with fans – because the content is always there and always evolving. In the metaverse, TV’s world builders really will be able to build worlds. At the epic end of the scale, fans of Games Of Thrones, Lord Of The Rings or The Witcher will be able to enjoy immersive experiences – but there’s no reason why shows that have proved themselves in the field of formats couldn’t translate into the metaverse. Imagine hundreds of virtual Love Islands that have people endlessly checking in and out. 24/7 true crime experiences, never-ending Jane Austen balls and non-stop quizzing could all eventually be part of the tapestry of the metaverse.
Brands want a way into the metaverse: Brands never like to miss out on new opportunities to engage with audiences – and the metaverse will be no exception. This Ad Age article is a great summary of how and why advertisers might get involved. Just as with the current iteration of the internet, marketers are going to need stories, characters and creatives to enable them to stand out. It will be content marketing taken to a completely new level. In recent weeks, Meta’s newly-appointed global business group VP Nicola Mendelsohn has been doing the rounds talking to the marketing press. In an interview with The Drum, she talked about how the metaverse would be “a collection of different companies coming together – businesses, entrepreneurs, startups, coming together to create the next new computing platform”. She pointed to the work being done by Ray-Ban and Charlotte Tilbury as early examples of how brands are starting to use metaverse-style tools such as Augmented Reality and filters.
The discovery of emerging talent: It used to be the case that content creators learned their skills via relatively well-defined channels. Either they went to film or TV college, or they learned on the job. The democratisation of media tech changed all that and gave us platforms like YouTube, which has always been a hotbed of UGC. The metaverse won’t be any different. For anyone who has grown up knowing how to code/edit/shoot video/graphic design etc, this next iteration of the internet will be an incredible opportunity for them to express themselves. As such, it stands to reason that more traditional content creators will need to immerse themselves in the metaverse to find future-facing generations of talent or potential collaborators.
New revenue streams: Okay, so everyone is always promising content creators new revenue streams. But it does look like the metaverse will offer up more than just production and distribution fees. DTC transactional revenues, lead generation fees and the licensing of data are all likely to be part of the metaverse economic model. Metaverse visitors will be handing over digital currency for virtual clothing, tickets to virtual events – not to mention IRL films, TV and music all viewed through a metaverse lens. There’s no guarantee that content creators will be first in line to collect these revenues, but as with the existing mobile/internet/game ecosystem, the winners will be those with experimentation in their DNA. The key to having a meaningful stake in the trillion dollar a year metaverse will be controlling great IP, developing meta-centric skillsets then iterating like hell.