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Virtual reality. Perhaps the first thing that comes into your mind is the Oculus that Facebook invested $2 billion into a few years back — the same Oculus that is, so far, being used primarily by game developers. For the mainstream consumer, it seems that little has changed in recent years in terms of virtual reality, except perhaps, an increase in the number of near-identical roller coaster-style rides in every shopping mall.
So, it might be surprising to know that many companies are currently deploying entire infrastructures in virtual reality — and they already have paying customers. Though VR is not yet a widely available product, therein precisely lies its allure for entrepreneurs — an element of the mysterious and inaccessible brimming with untold promises and opportunities. It may be that now is the time to start occupying such a lucrative market niche so few competitors are vying for.
Doing virtual business is cheaper
The first ideas of turning businesses virtual emerged over 10 years ago. It was then that the boom in virtual worlds for business started, riding the crest of the popularity of Second Life. IBM, Sun, Nortel and many startups have since tried bringing business meetings to virtual classrooms. But the idea flopped.
Now that teleworking has become a necessity, and a certain degree of weariness has started setting in from constant video conferencing, the idea of migrating to virtual environments has resurfaced. Many companies are exploring the possibilities of gamifying remote work processes to stimulate their employees. And the idea has proved viable. Last year, HTC launched the Vive Sync online platform that allowed users to create their own realistic 3D selfie avatars and participate in 3D meetings with up to 30 people. The so-called avatar codecs can emulate the faces of real people and allow all participants to a video meeting to communicate normally, albeit in a virtual 3D world, despite the fact that all of them are wearing VR glasses.
Doing business virtually also significantly optimizes a company’s budget. According to a report by Forterra Systems, virtual worlds not only emulate real meetings better than currently available conference systems, but it’s also cheaper — an important factor for large enterprises.
The latest solutions presented on the market allow for automating staff duties. It suddenly becomes somewhat startling to think that a fictional bartender from The Shining by Stanley Kubrick, or a virtual companion girl from Blade Runner: 2049 are no longer a far-fetched stride of fantasy.
Last week, Hour One announced that it is working on ALICE Receptionist — a technology dedicated for visitor management, which makes use of photoreal avatars and video technologies for automating the duties of reception staff. WeWork is also latching onto the idea, equipping a number of its workspaces with holographic projectors, allowing remote clients to participate in meetings, regardless of their location.
With the appearance of virtual assistants, recruiters can now breathe a sigh of relief, since they have been given the opportunity to fire employees remotely. American company Talespin created Barry — a virtual employee that novice managers can use to hone their leadership skills. For example, they can fire Barry, who is sitting directly in front of them in an office. Barry can recognize speech and maintain a conversation, like Siri. He can also express the full range of human emotions like swearing, crying and screaming, just like a real person would.
The concept of metaverses
Even more interesting things are now afoot, making virtual conferences and toying around with avatars seem like child’s play. The new phenomenon is called the metaverse. Some companies are deploying entire infrastructures in metaverses, where users can not only communicate with each other, but also move between different locations, study, build careers, attend concerts and even make money — albeit virtual money, but still of value in the real world. Imagine Minecraft, but instead of playable characters, the avatars wield a set of characteristics mimicking those of the player, and instead of a fantastic setting are the interiors of a familiar company or city. Confused? Most people are. Futurist Ray Kurzweil predicted that by 2030, virtual reality will erase the distinction between the virtual and the real worlds.
A metaverse is basically the next incarnation of the internet that will do away with static, monotonous web pages and thrust users into an immersive, game-like world. Companies will likely be embodying the content of their websites in real-time in metaverse environments. Customers will be able to shop at the Amazon Mall, drive Tesla, and even go for enjoyable walks in perpetually sunny and evergreen 3D parks. What’s more important is that many companies are already there — in the digital universe.
In early 2021, Bit.Country, backed by gaming giant Animoca Brands, successfully conducted an experiment. The aim was to identify how easy it is for users of varying degrees of digital aptitude with different skills to migrate into a fully digital environment. In the experiment, 152 students of a global tech incubator played the role of volunteers, joining an “MVP tech community”. The tailored community offered various activities for rewards — bit-country-specific tokens — that could be used within the digital “country.” The experiment proved that the virtual currency rewards had a positive effect on user engagement and had a favorable impact on activities performed within the environment, highlighting the viability of the concept of onboarding current internet users into a decentralized environment.
To further accelerate the engagement, Bit.Country also started the development of a 3D voxel world so that users could do more things with and interact more with each other in that dimension. For instance, they could walk and chat, attend events in the 3D world or engage in video meetings.
A stark difference
The availability of an internal economy based on ownership of value is what distinguishes a metaverse from basic virtual worlds. Specifically, the metaverse economy always maintains and retains value in the real world. For instance, a handbag sold in a virtual Gucci boutique will have the same value as the same item sold in a brick-and-mortar store. The only difference will be the price in a virtual currency pegged to its exchange rate.
More importantly, metaverses are versatile enough to allow clients to view, examine and even try on such a handbag or visit a fashion show without leaving the comfort of their homes. For example, Kenneth Cole launched a new collection of items and accessories in Zynga’s popular High Heels! game. The in-game avatars can wear virtual outfits, sunglasses, watches and masks from the Pride collection, some with the “Being Different is What We Have in Common” message.
Another brand — Coach — collaborated with Arlene in creating “Signature City,” launched on TMall — an immersive shopping experience in a gamified environment. The metaverse features retro 3D designs and social interaction, plus gives users the opportunity to purchase products and take advantage of other interactive and exciting elements.
Don’t miss the trend
Metaverses open up entirely new business opportunities for generating revenues and exploring new avenues of promotion, brand imaging and customer retention. As the examples of Fortnite and Decentraland so vividly demonstrate, selling virtual land plots and in-game items is not a fickle, as people are ready to pay for virtual real estate and luxury items. And some of them were worth millions of dollars.
Keen marketers should start exploring the possibilities of metaverses as the next frontier of interaction with clients in an online environment, one that transcends and exceeds even the most advanced capabilities of modern social networks. Much like the latter had once revolutionized promotion channels and marketing, metaverses are likely to open an entirely new dimension in business marketing in the coming years, and the early investors of such dimensions will be the pioneers reaping the rewards.