Is the Metaverse the future of PR?
I spent part of this summer in Dalarna, a picturesque and rural part of Sweden. My brother-in-law brought his Oculus Quest 2, the VR gaming platform, and we played around with it. My son, who is six years old, took to the technology as if it was the most natural thing in the world — despite the headset being far too big for him.
A merger of virtual worlds, the Metaverse, is beginning to enter our lives, it seems.
Wikipedia decribes the Metaverse as “a collective virtual shared space, created by the convergence of virtually enhanced physical reality and physically persistent virtual space, including the sum of all virtual worlds, augmented reality, and the Internet.”
Well, that’s … a mouthful.
Still, however challenging the Metaverse is to describe, there’s no shortage of interest.
“Imagine walking down the street. Suddenly, you think of a product you need. Immediately next to you, a vending machine appears, filled with the product and variations you were thinking of. You stop, pick an item from the vending machine, it’s shipped to your house, and then continue on your way.
Next, imagine a husband and wife. The husband offers to go to the store but the wife can’t remember the name and type of product she needs. Her brain-computer interface device recognizes it for her and transmits a link to her husband’s device, along with what stores and aisles it’s located in.”
— The Metaverse Is Coming And It’s A Very Big Deal, Cathy Hackl, Forbes.
Elon Musk, with his now almost archetypical first principle-thinking, pointed out that, not long ago, computer games used to look like Pong. Today, some games can immerse the gamer in an open world that is near photo-realistic. If we can maintain even a fraction of our current development speed, games will soon be indistinguishable from reality.
Of course, Musk goes even further to ask, “How do we now that this hasn’t already happened?” According to him — we don’t.
“The strongest argument for us being in a simulation probably is the following: Forty years ago we had pong. Like two rectangles and a dot. That was what games were.
Now, forty years later, we have photorealistic, 3D simulations with millions of people playing simultaneously and it’s getting better every year. Soon we’ll have virtual reality, augmented reality.”
— Elon Musk: ‘It’s likely we’re living in a simulation and Pong is proof’, Matt Burgess, Wired
A bit closer to our potential base reality, I’ve hypothesised about what happens to PR when the online world ceases to be flat. Almost all of our existing corporate communication this far has been two-dimensional; it was two-dimensional before the Internet and it has remained two-dimensional with the Internet.
The idea is that we’ll see a growing number of applications for virtual realities (VR), augmented realities (AR), and 360 degree environments. These realities will, then, begin to merge into a mixed reality. The Metaverse seems to be the logical continuation of that trend — perhaps even a brave new world to counter the Splinternet?
With Facebook making serious moves into the Metaverse and with persistent rumours about Apple releasing AR glasses, it’s not a stretch to imagine that the online of world of tomorrow will literally have quite a lot more depth to it.
Immersion is powerful, but it also contrasts utility and cost. “Form follows function” — and when is total immersion called for when it comes to, say, a B2B IT company operating locally?
Still, however fun and exciting the Metaverse is already promising to be, especially for those who are kids today, we must also remember that occupying mental bandwidth isn’t everything. Many platforms with rapid adoption rates have been artificially restricted to some extent. YouTube videos used to have a time cap, Twitter a character limit. Podcasts have increased in popularity as an audio-only format, long-form written content persists in various forms on blogs and in books. TikTok is focused on short video formats for rapid consumption, Spotify is still mainly music, and Facebook restrict its users from visually designing their brand properties other than rather crude and fixed photo upload tools. And the list goes on.
Artificial restriction to conserve mental bandwidth can be at odds with asking users to fully immerse themselves.
Against this backdrop, I worry that brands will become too application-centric when it comes to the Metaverse.
Imagine a real-estate brand running apartments and offices. The brand might be enticed to deploy applications for everything from virtual tours for prospects to augmented environments for its communal areas. Such early developments will likely be costly and the results are likely to be rather poor from a user perspective.
But we know from past technological advancements that new applications tend to be commoditised rather quickly. In some instances the applications are freemium, even. WordPress is today powering about a 37% of all websites (62% of all CMS systems) in the world, to give just one example.
As a PR professional today, I generally advise against developing avant-garde applications for novel technologies. There won’t be a shortage of cool PR ideas for such applications, sure, but we should be mindful of playing to our strengths as a profession — and developing VR- and AR applications isn’t one of them.
However technologically determined our societies may be, tech-focused companies and startups will surely volunteer to do most of the heavy lifting, not only of developing these new technologies, but also when it comes to driving adoption rates and pivoting into sustainable use cases. Tech companies will do all of this — while fiercely racing each other against rapid price drops.
Agencies have already begun pitching ideas of developing cool new VR- and AR applications. Somehow, it feels as if we’ve been down this road several times before. I know that I sure have.
In the early 2010s, I advised several brands on how to develop their own user community applications. These applications were cool, especially where i was allowed to implement gamification features, but developing these platforms required substantial financial investments. Today, you can buy a user community as a software service for a dime and a dollar per month. implementation is a 5-minute process of signing up, uploading a logo, and picking out your brand colours.
When should we as PR professional make the transition into the Metaverse? The answer is simple: Only when it makes corporate communication better — and when implementation is cheap.
Obviously, there will be substantial PR opportunities when, say, Apple releases an AppStore for their forthcoming AR glasses. Will investments in developing early applications outweigh the benefits of doubling down on the contents of your communication? I don’t think so.
If nothing else, communication is useless if your brand suddenly sets off into the sunset while leaving the market behind.