A group of science-fiction writers, venture capitalists, software engineers, Fortune 100 CEOs, and video gamers walk into a bar. If you were writing this joke, what would happen next? In the not-so-distant past, you’d be hard-pressed to come up with a punchline that made sense. Now? You need only one word for inspiration: “metaverse.”
So what is the metaverse? At the highest level, it's a digital construct that mimics reality, supported by a variety of hardware, software, and technology. Just one possible way to narrow that definition: a 2D or 3D partially or fully virtual world or experience, inside which people can build, customize, buy, and explore physical and digital spaces, assets, products, or projects, as well as create and collaborate with others. Mixed- or extended-reality technology enhance a metaverse experience, but aren't required.
In the last few months, the topic of the metaverse has guest-starred in a flurry of news articles and podcast episodes—not to mention dozens of quarterly earnings calls. Big companies—including Meta (née Facebook), Microsoft, Nvidia, Disney, and VMWare—are making big bets, hoping to either build their own metaverse or provide the supporting technology that companies and users will need. And the majority (86%) of executives West Monroe recently surveyed say the metaverse offers potential business value for their own company in the next one to five years. Even Pantone referenced it when announcing 2022’s Color of the Year—marking the first time a bleeding-edge tech trend has influenced this annual design tradition.
It’s worth acknowledging the metaverse is not the first technology to receive this level of early optimism and media buzz—including plenty that went on to overpromise and underdeliver. Plus, the road from idea to adoption is a long and bumpy one. Think of how the Gartner Hype Cycle includes the “Peak of Inflated Expectations” and the “Trough of Disillusionment” to illustrate an innovation’s typical journey.
And the metaverse hasn’t even reached those waypoints yet. It’s still in the “Innovation Trigger” phase: “commercial viability is unproven.” And many potential challenges have yet to be fully addressed or solved. They include interoperability of data and assets between platforms, regulation, content moderation, data privacy, cybersecurity—just to name a few.
So, despite all the early hype, industry leaders and technology experts remain divided: Is the metaverse really the next big thing? And—if it is—just how big will it be?
We wish we had the answer. But it’s just too soon to tell. Successful adoption hinges on the answer to the biggest unknown of them all: Will the metaverse make experiences measurably better for its users—or just different?
But maybe your organization isn’t looking to build a second virtual world for your customers or employees—now, soon, or ever. Should you still care about this trend? We think so.
Why? Well, think about the concepts—not the hardware or software—that would comprise a metaverse:
Immersive environments that meld physical and virtual lives and further blur the borders between the “real” and digital worlds
Augmented, integrated user experiences that add value or boost engagement by putting users in charge
More seamless, more effective hybrid workplace collaboration
Digital representations of people, places, activities, and products that exist—or could exist, but don’t—in the physical world
Environments and experiences that exist and evolve in real time, according to constantly updated end-user data, and that never really “end”
If these sound familiar, they should. They represent a continuation, or progression, of the technologies, cultural shifts, past and current trends, and new end-user needs and desires that make up life in the digital age. The metaverse simply packages them into a single technology offering. As popular science author Steven Johnson writes in his book, “How We Got to Now”: “… ideas are fundamentally networks of other ideas. We take the tools and metaphors and concepts and scientific understanding of our time, and we remix them into something new. But if you don’t have the right building blocks, you can’t make the breakthrough.”
The metaverse is the remix. These ideas, and the technologies that support them, are the building blocks. And any organization, no matter its size or tech-savviness, can use these building blocks to make their own breakthrough. You don’t have to think as expansively as the companies looking to create a whole new world. And you don’t have to wait for the metaverse itself to move from hype to adoption.
To translate this network of ideas for your own business, start by asking one big question: What can you do to make your products, services, and experiences markedly better and more valuable—not just different—for customers and employees?
In our recent survey on the metaverse, we asked executives to think about the metaverse’s potential value for their industry overall—and a supermajority (88%) see some or significant business value in the next one to five years. For inspiration, consider how metaverse-related technologies and concepts are already being used to help industries become digital—and where these applications might go next.
A metaverse that looks like the science-fiction versions is probably still a few years off—if we ever get there, and if that is what people even want. But there’s something real behind all the hype. It shows the concept has now moved into what complexity theorist Stuart Kaufman termed the “adjacent possible,” which comprises both the limits and the potential of the future. That is, a metaverse can theoretically now be built, because the foundation now exists.
This foundation—the building blocks and networks of ideas and technologies and new digital realities—made the metaverse exist as a future possibility. You can use the same foundation to create new future possibilities for your own business: new or better products and services, more valuable user experiences, more seamless integration of your physical and digital offerings. Why wait for the next world to become a reality? You can use what already exists in this one to add value to your business and achieve your goals—right now.