By Maddalena Maltese
In celebration of its 100th anniversary in 2021, the iconic fashion brand Gucci launched a virtual experience based on the real “Gucci Garden” in Florence, Italy, which includes boutiques, a museum and a restaurant. The digital version allows each visitor to transform into a digital avatar, taking the shape of a genderless and ageless mannequin. (An avatar is your persona in the virtual world, where your appearance may look like you in cartoon-style, or not.)
In the Gucci digital exhibition, guests’ avatars start their virtual journey through a range of themed rooms, a visually sensational series of scenes with dynamic textures and patterns. Meanwhile, each visitor’s mannequin can explore and purchase a boutique of limited-edition of avatar items from Gucci.
Last August, tens of millions of Ariana Grande’s followers watched and interacted with the singer’s avatar during a concert hosted in the video game Fortnite. It was not simply an animated concert film, but an interactive experience, rolled out by time zone, during which users could decide how to interact with the singer’s performance by moving around in the world of the videogame (usually a setting for blazing battles).
What is the metaverse?
If you think that these virtual experiences are only for geeks, youth or fancy people, you are mistaken, since this extensive online world is now within everyone’s reach. A few devices like a computer or a smartphone, special glasses like Oculus from Facebook or Microsoft’s HoloLens, virtual reality headsets, apps to create an avatar are the gateways to the metaverse.
The metaverse is a space where people and their avatars can work, shop, attend classes and events, participate in work meetings, even walk on the moon. Of course, most of these delights are not free, and it turns out that people are willing to pay with real money for events or items in the virtual world. Nike has sold virtual sneakers for $186,000 to avatar clients.
If the contemporary internet experience is two-dimensional—meaning you browse and scroll through it on a screen—the metaverse is 3D. You’ll be “walking” in it through connected devices, side by side with other peoples’ avatars from all over the world.
The term “metaverse” was coined by Neal Stephenson, a science fiction writer, in his popular 1994 novel “Snow Crash.” In the novel, the metaverse is a persistent virtual world navigated by the aptly-named hero and protagonist Hiro Protagonist.
For now, most metaverse virtual spaces look more like the setting of a video game than real life. Platforms like Roblox, Minecraft or Epic games include some characteristics of the metaverse: avatars that play games and attend events or use digital currency to buy products, as well as players able to interact with others in different parts of the globe.
What will the metaverse be?
Even though the metaverse is not so developed at this stage, that hasn’t stopped businesses of all shapes and sizes from trying to get involved. Global players like JP Morgan, HSBC, Gucci, Nike and Coca Cola are among the firms that have dabbled with the metaverse so far.
No company has been more active and more vocal about the metaverse than Facebook, which changed its name to Meta at the end of 2021, promising that the new entity would focus exclusively on the metaverse in the coming years.
Some big tech executives envision the metaverse as an interoperable open platform. This means no company or organization will own it, and avatars will be able to move freely between the metaverse and other virtual spaces.
To showcase their brands to consumers in these worlds, marketers are buying or renting digital space from the virtual platforms or third parties, including a growing crop of metaverse development companies that have acquired desirable locations.
Two popular metaverse platforms are Sandbox and Decentraland, where digital real estate has sold for millions of dollars for people’s avatars.
The Sandbox has a higher concentration of celebrities and well-known brands, which might attract further marketers, while Decentraland provides more opportunities to experiment and build worlds.
Digital real estate for sale
Last November, Metaverse Group bought about 313,000 square feet in Decentraland’s fashion district for about $2.5 million. The fashion district has been the primary venue for Decentraland’s metaverse Fashion Week in March, with brands such as Tommy Hilfiger participating.
JP Morgan Chase & Co., Sotheby’s, Samsung Electronics America and even accounting firm Prager Metis International LLC set up promotional locations in Decentraland, while Spotify became the first music streaming platform to build its own island in the metaverse with Roblox. Sales of real estate in the metaverse topped $500 million last year and could double this year, according to investors and analytics firms.
Marketers also see potential for new revenue streams in the metaverse, such as renting digital land that they own to other brands or selling digital collectibles known as nonfungible tokens, or NFTs, to consumers.
The Vatican museums, with their around 800 art pieces of Michelangelo, Raphael, Marc Chagall, Salvador Dalí, Vincent van Gogh and many others, are planning to launch an NFT gallery to democratize art, bringing the headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church closer to the metaverse.
Economists and financial experts estimate that the metaverse economy could be worth $8–$13 trillion by 2030 and expect companies to invest many billions of dollars for years to come.
The metaverse is going to impact every industry in some way, and it’s going to impact the way we socialize, the way we work, the way we worship and pray. And it is without borders—the ultimate globalization.
Spirituality goes meta, too
During the pandemic, the avatar of the pastor D.J. Soto hosted religious immersive services through computer-generated illustrations of Biblical passages that seemed to come to life as he prayed with his parishioners.
Soto, a former high school teacher and pastor at a nonvirtual evangelical church, believes that “the future of the church is the metaverse.” He doesn’t think that the physical gatherings will go away, “but in the church of 2030, the main focus is going to be your metaverse campus.”
In 2016, he founded the VR Church, “a spiritual community existing entirely in the metaverse to celebrate God’s love for the world.” Attendance was scant for the first year as Soto often found himself preaching to just a handful of people at a time, most of them atheists and agnostics who were more interested in debating about faith.
His congregation has since grown to about 200 people, and he has ordained other ministers remotely from his Virginia home and baptized believers who are unable to leave their houses because of illnesses.
Soto is not alone in this spiritual virtual journey. The Rev. Jeremy Nickel, an ordained Unitarian Universalist who calls himself a VR evangelist, began his experience in the metaverse with secular meditations, with the goal of being inclusive for all comers.
During the pandemic, inspired by the time spent in Nepal with Tibetan Buddhists and his alternative practices studies at seminary, Nickel has invited his virtual community to dharma talks and meditation sessions via their chosen avatars, at times meeting at a virtual incarnation of a Tibetan Buddhist temple high in the mountains, or floating weightlessly, looking down at the Earth.
Spiritual organizations and tech companies are looking at how to make the metaverse more accessible and better for humanity, but also how to make those virtual interactions safer as well.
Alongside the hype have been a whole host of concerns, ranging from child safety to scams to violence, which is why regulators will no doubt be keeping an eye on how the technology progresses—and probably put some limits on the unlimited metaverse.