METAVERSE AND THE RISE OF DIGITAL MARKETS
Developments in extended reality (XR) technologies have been rapidly advancing and tech giants. Meta, Microsoft, Sony, and HP have begun to roll out their respective XR products. Mark Zuckerberg has been promoting the metaverse platform since October of 2021, and appears committed to the integration of XR technology into our professional and personal lives.
Understanding the metaverse is both perplexing and fascinating. As we navigate the fourth industrial revolution, artificial intelligence and virtual reality (VR) are on their way to dominating our economic markets, social lives, and even creating new constructions of reality.
Imagine if your video game was no longer simply a fantasy world, but instead reflected and integrated the trivial routine of your day-to-day life. Zuckerberg envisions a world where people globally can meet, play, and shop. Commercial goods no longer have to be physically present, but instead, they can be exchanged digitally.
Zuckerberg anticipates new avenues to promote and expand the market for commercial goods through the metaverse. There’s no doubt his confidence in VR has spilled into the rest of the retail market. Most recently, the multinational retailer, Walmart has plunged into the Roblox metaverse to reach younger demographics.
VR opens the world to faster connections and communications and Zuckerberg is hoping to tap into a new economy with the rise of VR. But what will the metaverse look like, and who will be the new-age consumers of this technology?
Consumerism in a digital age
University of Ottawa professor Myriam Brouard specializes in digital consumption and spoke with the Fulcrum about where the technology currently stands. “The metaverse platforms as they are right now, in my opinion […], don’t really add that much to the online shopping experience. I think that they will once they get more immersive and once they include more sensory information.”
Brouard explains how the technologies currently in development will eventually improve upon the virtual shopping experience, making platforms like the metaverse a new avenue for consumerism.
Speaking to the current abilities of the platform, Brouard said, “If I just ‘click, click’ [and] look at something, it’s not the same as if I’m in a 3D space with a VR headset, and I can sort of look at all aspects you know, of the shirt, and then I can maybe even sort of haptic-ly touch it, but that technology is in development.”
“As they will be developed in the future, when you look at including more sensory information like haptics or olfactory or any extra sensory information that you’re going to be adding is going to improve upon an online experience,” shared Brouard.
“There’s a lot of work that’s been done on digital materiality and people’s extended sense of self,” said Brouard. “And the more people move to living online or to having online self-concepts, the more we’re gonna have people who are going to invest in better and bigger […] We’re definitely seeing it now. There’s a lot of money and wearables in decentral and/or these kinds of metaverse platforms.”
Ownership and intellectual property rights, for instance, are commodities that are being traded, bought, and exchanged in the metaverse. Your conference room in the metaverse can be decorated with NFT artwork, and you can buy designer clothes for your avatar from the comfort of your own bed.
However, Brouard acknowledged some of the skepticism behind VR e-commerce, saying “People will be like, ‘oh, why would somebody pay like $200 for a Gucci pair of shoes in a virtual world?’ Well, why would somebody pay for a $200 Gucci pair of shoes in the real world, right? It’s definitely not for functionality. You could buy a $10 pair of shoes and it will get you to the same place. It’s really for that sort of conspicuous outer display.”
Having a digital identity and the value we continue to place on our virtual selves will be a driving force in popularizing digital goods and immersive virtual life.
But, will the metaverse go beyond e-commerce and become a functional tool for daily functions such as business meetings, everyday social interaction, and medical appointments?
The opinion of academics and researchers on this remains split. Some digital experts surveyed by the Pew Research Center argue that the metaverse will not bring as many benefits as we expect. Instead, they predict that XR technologies will be unable to sufficiently replace real human interaction and by 2040, the metaverse will be used mainly in niche areas and the entertainment industry, rather than in everyday interaction and business matters.
Others are more optimistic about the metaverse and argue that it can become a versatile tool for providing services and public functions. They predict it will evolve quickly and become integrated rapidly, as investors see large earning potential through the digital markets it creates.
However, Jacquelyn Ford Morie, a scientist and educator specializing in immersive world technology, expresses that for the metaverse to be successful, it must “offer value to its participants, and not simply treat them as money sources. If it has to make tons of money for companies and the top 10%, it is doomed to be niche-driven and not a true evolution of humanity.”
In short, if the metaverse is simply developed with the profit incentive in mind and constructs users as mere consumers, it can thwart the possibility of widespread and versatile use across the globe.
As we venture into VR, we cannot forget its impact on the digital divide. How will Meta be relevant to countries who struggle to even have access to wifi at all? If the metaverse does in fact help advance metropolises across the globe, will these advancements only occur in OECD countries? Although Zuckerberg and others working on the metaverse are undoubtedly leading a radical shift in our day-to-day life, who will truly benefit from the creation of virtual worlds?
As large corporations like Meta gain monopoly over global technology markets, they steer the world into the direction they see fit. Profit incentives drive global innovation, allowing private actors to make decisions for the world’s technological advancement. As large corporations continue to invest in this virtual reality, consumers will be faced with choices — whether to live in it, or to not.