Metaverse: “A first step is to immerse yourself”

by Michele Widmer

Mr. Gremli, in three years we would be conducting this interview as avatars in a metaverse. How would you rate this prediction from Bill Gates?
We learned during the pandemic that we can save a lot of travel time – and fossil fuels – by making appointments via video call. Eventually, however, it became exhausting to communicate only through small video windows – keyword “zoom fatigue”. This is where the technologies now grouped under the term metaverse come in. When we put on VR glasses and meet as avatars in a virtual environment, we feel like we’re in the same room even though we’re physically in a different city. This is already possible today and is increasingly used. As a result, Bill Gates’ predictions are certainly not made out of thin air.

The Metaverse is currently on everyone’s lips. But very few can explain it in their own words. Can you make it short and understandable?
The Metaverse is the next evolution of the Internet. The phrase “from scrolling to browsing” pretty much sums it up: instead of clicking through websites, you dive into virtual worlds. The web becomes a walk-in 3D world where I travel as an avatar and meet other avatars. This experience is particularly immersive when using VR glasses – but I can also immerse myself in the Metaverse via smartphone or laptop.

The only virtual parallel world does not yet exist. What platforms already exist and what can you do?
There are countless platforms that can be included in the metaverse – depending on how you define the term. Two of the best known are The Sandbox and Decentraland. These are two blockchain-based virtual worlds where you can buy land with cryptocurrencies and own virtual goods in the form of NFTs. But gaming platforms like Roblox or Fortnite can also be included in the Metaverse – because in these worlds you can not only play, but also meet friends, participate in events and create your own content. While The Sandbox and Decentraland still have a manageable user base of early adopters, Roblox and Fortnite have long since entered the mainstream with 40 and 30 million daily users respectively. And then, of course, there’s Meta, which invests billions in the Metaverse. The group operates three Metaverse apps under the “Horizon” brand: “Workrooms” for virtual meetings, “Worlds” for user-generated worlds, and “Venues” for virtual events.

“The first concrete use cases often emerge in discussions with companies”

What specific characteristics must a platform meet to be considered a metaverse?
The metaverse is three-dimensional, synchronous, persistent, unlimited and interoperable. Every multiplayer game actually fulfills the first two criteria: you move through a 3D world and meet other users there. Therefore, persistence is a particularly important differentiator: if I build a virtual treehouse in the metaverse, it’s visible to all other users and stays there even if I log out – that’s not the case in most games. This persistence also allows me to own and trade virtual objects, which in turn are the basis of a virtual economy that creates very real jobs.

And the last two features?
No Metaverse platform is yet unlimited and interoperable: there are currently technical restrictions on the number of users that can be together in a virtual environment – in the future the number should be unlimited. And interoperability must allow me to take my avatar and my virtual goods with me from platform to platform, for example. To do this, platforms must agree on common standards and, ideally, ownership must be decentralized – for example via blockchain.

The metaverse was also a topic at the gfm trending conference on Tuesday. To what extent do your clients currently need advice on this?
We are experiencing what we experienced with the subject of virtual reality when Bandara was founded almost seven years ago: there is great interest in the metaverse, and the first thing to do is to explain the subject and to show business opportunities. It often happens that the first concrete use cases then crystallize in discussions with companies.

“When social media first appeared, many companies were hesitant at first and were slow to enter”

To what extent do Swiss companies now have to cope with the metaverse? What can or should they actually do?
We often talk about “Web 3.0” in relation to the metaverse, which is why a comparison with Web 2.0 comes to mind here: When social media emerged, many companies were hesitant at first and were slow to walk in. The Metaverse offers a new chance to get started early with new development and do some initial experimentation – so you’ll be ready when the Metaverse goes mainstream. A first step is to immerse yourself in the metaverse – in my opinion, this is an important prerequisite to be able to evaluate possible approaches for your own business.

What is the budget for this?
You don’t need a lot of budget for the first experiments, but all the more curiosity and a desire for innovation.

Nike sells virtual sneakers and musicians give concerts on Fortnite. What other industries are predestined to use Metaverse platforms?
There are basically two different approaches: The first is to use existing Metaverse platforms because you meet part of your target group there. That’s why Nike has, for example, opened “Nikeland” on Roblox, a brand experience that includes a store of virtual products that you can equip your avatar with. The second approach is to use metaverse technologies for branded events or experiences. An example is a project we implemented for Ingram Micro where customers could immerse themselves in a virtual space as avatars and ask Dell consultants to show them the latest products.

How could the metaverse be exciting for media companies and journalism?
A first possible question is: which stories benefit from a 3D experience? For example, you can digitally rebuild a burned or destroyed building and make it accessible in the metaverse – or a planned new neighborhood. The integration of gamification elements is also possible.

“Metaverse platforms will reach more and more users and play an increasingly important role in their daily lives”

After the mobile Internet, the Metaverse is considered the next level. How could this development continue in the coming years?
Like Web 2.0 social media platforms, Web 3.0 Metaverse platforms will reach more and more users over the next few years and play an increasingly important role in their daily lives. And as with social media, don’t expect there to be one dominant platform. This is why the subject of interoperability is important: it is to be hoped that the most important actors can agree on common standards, then in a few years we will have an open metaverse without “walled gardens”.

For big tech companies, the stakes are high as to who will lead the way in the metaverse. What can we expect in the months or years to come?
It will be exciting to see how Meta converts its Instagram, Facebook and WhatsApp user base to Horizon. Microsoft also has big ambitions and recently bought games studio Activision Blizzard for $70 billion as it brings “building blocks for the Metaverse”. Both Apple and Google know that both are working on VR or AR glasses. But Roblox and Epic Games – along with Fortnite – shouldn’t be underestimated, both of which have years of experience with virtual worlds and already make billions in sales with virtual goods.

Finally, some best practices: can you name three particularly creative metaverse cases?
A good example comes from France: Carrefour launched “The Healthy Map” on Fortnite, where the theme of “healthy eating” could be experienced in a playful way. While you usually need “healing kits” in games to get back in shape after a fight, on “The Healthy Map” you need to find healthy foods instead.

Samsung opened an “Experience Center” on Decentraland where you could earn NFTs and participate in virtual events.

A particularly creative implementation is Reporters Without Borders’ “Uncensored Library” on Minecraft, which can also be described as a metaverse platform: while news platforms and blogs are often censored in authoritarian states, Minecraft is freely accessible practically everywhere – and was therefore developed by Reporters Without Borders to circumvent government censorship.

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