1. Technology & Innovation

#RICE22: 5 Things Everyone in Retail Should Know About the Metaverse

Cathy Hackl, godmother of the metaverse, at the Retail Innovation Conference & Expo in Chicago.

The first thing Cathy Hackl, Chief Metaverse Officer at Future Intelligence Group, wants people to know about the metaverse is that you haven’t missed the boat. Merriam-Webster doesn’t even have a definition for the term “metaverse” yet — Hackl checks every day. Bottom line, there’s still plenty of time to wrap your head around the concept and figure out a strategy that makes sense for your brand.

The metaverse currently has no agreed-upon definition.

“[This whole space] is still very nascent and very new, so don’t feel like you’re missing out,” she reassured attendees at the Retail Innovation Conference & Expo. “This is a great time to get educated on what this is and what it means for your brand.”

Hackl — popularly known as the “godmother of the metaverse” — kicked off the two-day event with a broad-ranging talk about what the metaverse and Web3 are (spoiler: while they are connected they are not the same), and what the implications are for the world of retail in her keynote session in Chicago.

Among the top takeaways for brands were:

  • In the absence of a formal definition, it can be helpful to zero in on the concept of the metaverse by first looking at what it isn’t;
  • The metaverse is not about making everything virtual, but rather connecting the digital with the physical (a goal that should be familiar to omnichannel retailers);
  • While smart glasses may have gotten a bad rap when they were first introduced they are the way of the future;
  • No matter what kind of business you operate you should be paying attention to the gaming sector — it’s the entry point to the metaverse; and
  • For younger consumers these virtual experiences are just as relevant and real as those that happen IRL.

1. First, Understand What the Metaverse Isn’t

If you don’t fully understand what the metaverse is, you’re not alone —(hence the gap in the dictionary). What it is not is any one technology nor any one company (despite what a certain entity’s recent rebrand might imply).

Most people do agree on a few broad descriptions of the what the metaverse is: one, it is a successor state to today’s global internet, and two, it’s about shared virtual experiences that happen both in virtual spaces but also in the physical world.

Indeed, the metaverse is often confused with another new technological concept — Web3. According to Hackl, the two are “intrinsically linked” but they are not the same. Web 1.0 was about connecting information via the internet (described by Hackl as the “brand.com era”) and Web 2.0 is about connecting people, driven by social media, the sharing economy and ecommerce (the “@brand era”). We are now in the moment of transition from Web 2.0 to Web 3.0 (simply called Web3 by those in the know).

“What Web3 is doing is connecting people, places and things or people, spaces and assets,” she explained. “These people, places and things can sometimes be in virtual environments, but they’re also going to be in the physical world.

Web3 is the vehicle through which this new level of connection will be created; the metaverse is how we will experience it,” Hackl added.

2. The Metaverse Isn’t Just Virtual

Hackl is very clear that the metaverse is not purely a virtual entity: “The holy grail is seamlessly connecting the physical and virtual worlds.”

This is good news for physical retail, which, as Hackl points out, is not dead, it’s just evolving and changing. As an example, she pointed to the L.O.L Surprise! doll brand’s recent foray into NFTs that were tied to the purchase of physical dolls. “The future is less Ready Player One and more about merging the physical and the digital,” she said.

3. Forget Phones, Get Ready for Glasses

To enable this convergence, Hackl foresees a very near future in which we will all trade in our smartphones for virtually enabled glasses. Some of us may have chuckled at Google’s first attempts at “smart glasses” back in 2012, but it appears the company was just ahead of its time.

Fast-forward 10 years and tech companies are investing heavily in headsets that will enable entry into the metaverse. Meta announced plans for four new VR headsets and is opening a brick-and-mortar store to showcase them; Apple is planning a headset of its own set to debut this year, as well as a pair of smart glasses; gamers are breathlessly awaiting the release of Sony’s PSVR 2; and social media platform Snap expects everyone to be wearing its Spectacles by 2032.

As Hackl points out, retail, and essentially everything we do, will change dramatically when we are no longer forced to look down at the awkward interface of a box in our hands, but rather can keep looking forward into the world because the interface is overlaid on the landscape in front of us via smart glasses.

Once this become ubiquitous, we will see the world in three layers: a physical world (the place we are in the moment), a digital, and a third virtual layer. Glasses will put those digital and virtual layers in front of you on top of the physical.

And when this happens, voice assistance will move from the sidelines into the spotlight: “When we move to glasses are you really going to want to type on a virtual keyboard every time you want directions or are going to talk to your glasses? Voice will become the new UI, the way you navigate.”

4. Gaming is the On-Ramp to the Metaverse

Gaming might feel distinctly separate from the world of retail, but according to Hackl it is the “parent of the metaverse,” so retailers should be paying attention to what happens in these spaces. Case in point: companies like Netflix and Peloton moving into gaming.

“It’s important to understand the correlation between gaming and where we’re heading, especially once you start recruiting talent,” said Hackl. “You’re going to need game developers.”

It’s all about new customer journeys created in new touch points: “Your customers are going to explore new identities,” said Hackl. “Their avatars are emotional surrogates of who they are, how they are and how they want to be seen. Customers, especially the younger ones now in the gaming spaces, are interested in new environments and they’re willing to try new brands and products, which is an exciting time and also potentially a risk for brands that don’t start to look further into the future. This is a time to experiment and innovate.”

5. The Metaverse is not Escapism — it’s the Real World Delivered Virtually

For younger consumers, many of the formative experiences of their youth are already happening in the metaverse. For example, Hackl’s 10-year-old son’s first concert was Little Nas X in Roblox.

“[My son] speaks about this concert in first person,” Hackl said, as if it was an event he physically attended. “His first concert was inside a gaming platform or an ‘experience platform’ as they like to call themselves. Start to change your chip a little bit to think like your kids do. Just because it happens in a virtual space does not make it less real to them. I hear a lot of people talk about the real world versus the virtual world, but is that really true? For these kids these experiences are real, these are friendships that they are building, these are things happening to them that they live through.

These gamers don’t view this as escapism, they view it as moments of life that they’re spending,” she added. “Ask any kid — what happens in these gaming worlds is equally important to them [as what happens in the real world]. They’re not spending their ‘fun money’ buying physical goods, they’re buying virtual goods, and that in itself is a challenge — but also an opportunity.”

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