If you’ve played Minecraft, Fortnite, or Pokemon Go, you’ve already experienced the metaverse – but whatever you’ve seen so far is nothing compared to what’s coming, experts promise as developers reinvent gaming, commerce, branding, and even remote intimacy.

Although it may look like a 3D video game, links to web3 conceits like NFTs and cryptocurrency make the evolving metaverse much more than that – and major brands are jumping on the bandwagon.

“These virtual worlds and gaming are driving mainstream culture, so from a brand perspective we really want to be where consumers are consuming culture,” Sarah Sorrenson, media and digital hub director with consumer goods giant Unilever – whose brands include Dove, Lynx, Cornetto, Rexona, and Ben & Jerry’s – told a recent Trans-Tasman Business Circle webinar.

“Thinking of it as 3D and spatial, as designed by game developers on game principles rather than by web developers, helps to understand how it’s different to what we understand as the internet today,” she continued.

“We see the opportunity to create unique experiences within the metaverse – and creating something in the metaverse that you weren’t able to achieve without participating in it – as being a key way of building brand loyalty.”

“It’s becoming bigger business and bigger opportunity for brands, and that’s why the hype is real and important for us to test.”

The fact that the metaverse is persistent – that it continues to function and evolve even when a user is not connected to it – distinguishes it from conventional gaming experiences, noted ANZ Banking Group banking services portfolio lead Nigel Dobson, who called today’s metaverse “a spectrum of experiences” and sees its permanence as an enabler of online community building.

“This notion of a persistent virtual community, including the creation of virtual assets [like NFTs], is an extremely interesting development,” he said, “and one that traditional supporters of the digital economy, like banks, should be planning for.”

Calling out the metaverse’s ability to mirror the real world in new ways, Australian eSafety Commissioner Julie Inman noted the growing sophistication of haptic interfaces that “are about stimulating your sense of touch”.

That not only includes “sex tech” such as teledildonics, Inman said, but “highly immersive, high sensory experiences where you’re not just seeing, but you’re feeling.”

That might be simulating the feel of a bullet she said, or “there could be some tremendous applications for those who are disabled – but there are also a range of dangers.”

One common fear among businesses, she added, is that any one company or brand will become dominant – an outcome that the US government recently moved to avoid by blocking a major Meta acquisition.

Rather, she said, industry must interconnect metaverse paradigms – allowing, for example, users’ identities to seamlessly transfer from one world to the next.

“While we all might talk about what the metaverse might look like, we don’t know what level of interoperability will be achieved,” she explained.

“Companies don’t want any one particular brand or company expressing hegemony over the metaverse – and we may end up with a series of walled gardens that looks more like a multiverse than a metaverse.”

Building real business in the virtual world

Six major themes will drive the development of “emergent metaverses that are in their infancy,” Gartner VP analyst Marty Resnick told the company’s IT Symposium/Xpo this month.

These include:

· Gaming, which is expected to grow by 25 per cent by 2025 thanks to growing metaverse engagement;

· AI-driven digital humans that interpret speech, gestures and images and are expected to be used by a majority of companies by 2027;

· Virtual spaces where groups of people can come together, expected to be used by 10 per cent of workers by 2025;

· Shared experiences such as sports and concerts, with 10 per cent of events expected to be hosted in the metaverse by 2028

· Tokenised assets such as NFTs, which are expected to drive a quarter of retail companies to run metaverse proofs of concept by 2027; and

· Spatial computing, which combines digital and physical objects to digitally enhance physical spaces – and is expected to link the metaverse to the physical world as next-generation AR glasses emerge by 2026.

“Technology trends, with proven use cases and business outcomes, are just the beginning of the value technology innovation brings,” said Resnick. “The longer-term bets are the true differentiators that could disrupt an entire industry – and the metaverse is one of those bets.”

Companies are urged to begin experimenting with metaverse technologies and paradigms now, with companies like Infosys this year launching a metaverse playground for businesses called Metaverse Foundry – including, among other things, a digital twin of the company’s Physical Living Labs.

“The metaverse concept represents a nascent potential for brands and users to connect in completely new ways,” explained Infosys ANZ regional head Andrew Groth.

“We know that the metaverse has captured the experience, innovation, and the imagination of many, and that there is a lot of curiosity about it.”

Ultimately, maturing metaverse concepts will dovetail with existing services to take the user experience to completely new levels.

“We’re seeing these immersive technologies becoming more intuitive, more natural, and moving from being screen based to voice or gesture based as well,” noted Professor Sally Eaves, a senior policy advisor and ethical-technology advocate with thinktank the Global Foundation for Cyber Studies and Research.

“Interactive content really does have the power to transform, whether it’s enterprise education or consumer experience,” she said. “It’s redefining media, gaming, and many other verticals – and that has evolved into the metaverse and exciting new use cases.”