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What is the Metaverse, but More Importantly, What is it NOT

Depending on what you read or who you’re listening to, the metaverse will be the successor of the internet, the hub for all digital experiences, and the most prominent technology revolution since the emergence of smartphones 15 years ago.

No one wants to be the one that got it wrong though, like the 1992 CEO of Intel saying, “the idea of a personal communicator in every pocket is a pipe dream driven by greed.”

To its proponents, it’s the end-state of the Internet-of-Things, a big pool with a Pokémon Go-style AR shallow end and complete immersion of VR and haptic bodysuits deep end. All seem to agree that the metaverse is, or can be, a single shared experience that anyone can access. I am, however, one of the few skeptics – at least as currently described (and defined) by the media and most technology entrepreneurs.

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Here’s why.

There is not (yet) one singular metaverse

A true metaverse, by definition, is a single shared network focused on social connection – a single, universal space. The way virtual worlds operate now is entirely different: You can’t create an avatar in Fortnite, transport yourself over to your Roblox world, and then hang out with your Facebook friends in whatever it is that Meta is building. The enthusiastic links some make between NFTs and the metaverse complicates this further, but can’t even necessarily transfer those between games from the same publisher…

All these companies are doing is carving out their own space, creating their own version of a virtual world, which is essentially just building (or rebuilding) walled gardens. To put it another way, their own universes.

And that’s a good thing. Imagine a situation where one company controlled the entire metaverse that everyone connected to, all the time, putting its own interests and profits above all else, including user experience and competition. If you thought it was getting harder to launch a breakout app or service these days, it would be impossible if a single company controlled the entire distribution and platform.

Fortunately, the pie in the sky dream of connectivity, attachment, and user-driven experiences still exists.

That reality already exists… in the palm of your hand.

The metaverse already exists, thanks to mobile devices

A consistent, connected, singular experience or service that everyone uses? That already exists; it’s called the internet.

However, it was something that until recently had specific beginning and end, windows of activity – hence why we called it “surfing the web.” You would turn on your computer, connect, interact with websites, and log off. You were no longer part of the internet when you left your computer. Even when we could go online on our phones, it was still the mobile web.

The launch of the App Store in 2008 was a watershed moment, though, that created and enabled this “Constantly Connected Consumer” persona that we all are today. Instead of the pervasive IAB banner ads on desktop that only reached people who were actively online, we got mobile banners… but those quickly evolved into user-inclusive ad experiences like rewarded video, where the user opts to see the ad.

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In-app advertising grew because the industry-recognized it as a way to engage consumers consistently – and not just while they are gaming or on social media, but in news, weather, and other utility apps. And now, in the next iteration of mobile advertising, we have the opportunity to deliver ads across the mobile experience, thanks to carrier-level installs and value-add services.

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We’re forgetting about the other 50% (hardware)

The metaverse is not, then, a single shared environment. It’s vastly more flexible, a connecting medium for whatever broad or niche virtual worlds we want to create. Our phones now are the CPU of that universe, with the ability to access these virtual worlds via apps and operate daily in our real lives.

Think about it: How do you book your meetings?

How do you control your smart in-home devices, like lights, thermostats, refrigerators, and Roombas?

It’s all done through that central system: the smartphone.

Software like calendar booking and the backend of the Internet of Things are now tried-and-true technologies. But when tech companies show these fictionalized videos of the metaverse, they somehow forget to show the “how” or the hardware you need to step into your avatar. Sort of like Elizabeth Holmes promising “a single drop of blood” without working hardware.

We’ve been circling the black hole for decades when it comes to VR headsets. Despite the massive investments that have been made in Meta’s Oculus,, and now Apple’s mixed-reality device, they are still clunky, and some experience motion sickness or pain if worn too long.

The role of brands, marketers, and advertisers

If you’re a brand, you might start feeling like you need to hop on the metaverse bandwagon and start “experimenting” with setting up a presence there.

Wait, where? Which one?

And, what exactly should you be doing there?

One example given is a car manufacturer who doesn’t run ads but instead puts their car into the virtual world for users to drive around, supplemented by content creators. How is this any better than watching a pre-roll ad. At least then it’s clear it’s an advertisement and not a not-very-well-veiled attempt at authenticity. There’s definitely a Steve Buschemi “How do you do, fellow kids?” feel to most attempts at it so far. The metaverse, in some way, is a commercial dream, not a creative one.

Experiments aside, it all comes back to looking at what is in front of you today vs. the promise of some alternative reality tomorrow. Marketers already have the opportunity to reach the Constantly Connected Consumer through other channels like mobile, CTV, digital OOH, etc. If you really want to, you can reach people all day, every day, all over the world – and so it’s really about targeting and prioritization. If your end goal is customer lifecycle engagement, you can achieve reach, acquisition, conversion, retention, and loyalty without ever stepping foot into any metaverse. (Or spending any money there.) When you’re talking about your metaverse strategy, then it’s really “What is my digital strategy?”

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