While many talk about the metaverse and build businesses around it, there has yet to be a standard agreement on what constitutes it. The popular view of the metaverse is a virtual reality and augmented reality in which users 'jack in' and interact via goggles or other glasses.
Many online gaming platforms argue that massive multiplayer online (MMO) gaming platforms are metaverses, including League of Legends, Fortnite and World of Warcraft; Roblox, Minecraft and other similar platforms are also considered metaverses by many.
Within the advertising community, we embrace all these views and are trying to figure out how to work within these environments to promote the products and services of clients. We look at in-game advertising, product placement opportunities, and even NFTs but do not have a functional definition of a metaverse. The word still lives in our imagination and derives from seminal sci-fi tech dystopia novels.
How did the term 'metaverse' come about?
The term 'cyberspace' was coined by William Gibson in the 1984 novel Neuromancer, which forecasted the connected digital world of the Internet and how we interacted with it visually (and aurally) via decks and consoles. In 1992, Neal Stephenson introduced the term "metaverse" in his book Snow Crash. Written at the beginning of the Internet, Snow Crash's metaverse involves a virtual reality world that is an unbounded reflection of the natural world without the limitations of physics and governments.
In 2003, Second Life by Linden Labs gave us a virtual world on a flat screen, but that never really took off. In 2011, with Web 2.0 well adopted by the world, Ernest Cline's Ready Player One gave us a metaverse called OASIS, similar to Snow Crash's virtual world and solidified the concept of jacking in with goggles and interacting with others. However, the reality is that many distinct unconnected environments are called metaverses, from MMO games to mobile games to virtual platforms like Decentraland.
The metaverse is a growing segment within this space that offers brands longer engagement time and audience attention, so we must have a working definition of 'metaverse'. This definition is not just about clearly defining the concept; we also need to clearly define the specifications and platforms we can operate—to create brand experiences and engage with the audience.
What are the characteristics of a metaverse today?
It is online and connected to the Internet infrastructure. The platform and environment are 'always on', and users must be online to participate in that universe. Users do not have to be on goggles and virtual reality headsets. They can also be on their mobiles, tablets, or PCs. They do not have to be on a wired LAN network but can interact via 3G, 4G, 5G or wifi. Being online and connected is an integral characteristic of a metaverse. As far as advertising is concerned, that's what 'digital' is all about.
Another characteristic is that the metaverse must have multiple users interacting within that environmentwithin that community. This could be playing games with or against each other, chatting about whatever (voice or text), watching something together, or having a virtual meeting with your avatars.
This is a communal space where people can randomly come and go as they please. It could be argued that a virtual meeting on Google Meets, Microsoft Teams or Zoom is also a metaverse; this is what Meta is saying Horizon should be—with avatars and all. From an advertising perspective, those are private environments and may not be accessible by advertising, so we would prefer a 'public' metaverse.
Another defining characteristic is that it is 'real-time'. Facebook is an online community, but we don't call it a metaverse. People come in and out on their own time and interact in a non-temporal fashion. We leave comments, post, share, and react – but whenever we want to get on - at our leisure.
We do not interact on social networks in real-time with other people; other users do not expect it. In a metaverse, people expect to play games and interact with each other 'in the now' and not the later. Regarding the digital advertising industry, real-time is precisely how we have evolved our ad technology stacks to be good at getting clients' messages to the right people at the right time.
A 'metaverse' is…
Putting these characteristics together, we can define the metaverse as online, real-time communities. There are private and public metaverses. Some metaverses allow their users via programmatic advertising, product placement sponsorships or other more creative activations.
We already advertise in in-game ad inventory with Digital Turbine, Ironsource, Bidstack and others; some brands are already working on esports sponsorship engagements. Others help clients build a presence in Roblox, Minecraft and Fortnite. Some of this advertising may or may not fit this definition for one reason or another, but are they under the umbrella of a metaverse?
Will this definition hold as we further evolve into Web 3.0 and beyond? Perhaps it will be refined to include the visual 3D web rather than the flat 2D web. Maybe the metaverse concept will become irrelevant as it would just be part of 'digital advertising',—which should be 'advertising'. At the moment, this definition can help define what can be called 'metaverse' and what is not—as far as the advertising industry is concerned.
Joe Nguyen is a senior strategic advisor of H+, part of the Hakuhodo/DAC group digital service network. He is also the former senior vice president of Asia Pacific at Comscore.