The Metaverse: Opportunity or Oblivion?
Science fiction author William Gibson once suggested that the future is already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed. While the majority of us working in travel have only vaguely heard of this notional reality called the Metaverse, a powerful cohort of tech companies are working furiously around the clock in their virtual tool sheds to create platforms and business models to propel the ambitious cyber concept from its abstract infancy to being the next big warehouse of commerce. So, I guess the pertinent question to ask is, what exactly is the Metaverse?
It’s actually a great query because like almost everything in the world of tech, in-house chatter about the answer is encased in seemingly endless jargon-laden, esoteric language that laymen on the outside feel embarrassed to broach.
The truth is there is no one succinct answer unfortunately, other than to say it is a broad business movement to create virtual worlds that harness cutting-edge experiential technology like virtual reality and augmented reality to allow users to engage, theoretically at least, in almost any activity they desire. This description is somewhat inadequate and far from encapsulates the full scope of what the Metaverse purports to offer, but then perhaps no definition at this preliminary stage could do that justice.
The reason all of this is important for people working in travel is because its mainstream adoption could have far-reaching ramifications on a host of consumer behaviour, including our appetites to travel. Allow me to walk (so old school) you down a path in the not-too-distant future, a world where the Metaverse is widely subscribed, and people can enter virtual worlds from their loungerooms to be transported anywhere they wish. Experiences could range from conducting virtual business meetings, admiring the architecture on the streets of Paris, or even blasting off into space on a dubiously-shaped Blue Origin rocket. These are worlds and experiences that only time, and a little more elbow grease from skateboarding tech heads in Silicon Valley, stand in the way of becoming a mainstream reality. So, what would this mean for travel?
There are many schools of thought about whether this technology would be a friend or a foe to the sector. To play devil’s advocate for a moment, the obvious threat is that it could destroy the industry by replacing physical travel altogether. Some tech observers have already speculated that consumers would travel less when the Metaverse is fully plugged in because the virtual worlds would provide them with all of the buzz and excitement of a trip without having to encounter any of the possible burdens. Your virtual trip to New York City is unlikely to feature the scourge of a possible street mugging for example, or the necessity to quarantine to avoid the next rogue virus, or endure the administrative and financial rigmarole that goes along with losing your wallet on the subway. In theory, users could travel anywhere they wanted to virtually, unplug for an hour or so to pick up the kids from school, and continue enjoying the sights and sounds (no doubt in time the smells, tastes and feel) of any destination. And for the same reason Doc Brown would scream incessantly at Marty in Back to the Future for not thinking fourth dimensionally, the like-for-like wholesale replacement of physical travel with virtual travel would only be the tip of the digital iceberg.
For entrepreneurs like Facebook (now Meta) founder Mark Zuckerberg, part of the appeal of this daring new synthetic reality is not only the ability to transport from place to place as easy as it is currently to click on a link, but it’s also the ability to travel away from yourself. That is to say, you need not necessarily depart on a trip as you; travellers could for example select any avatar they like, from an undercover detective to a space alien, you know, for those of us who don’t feel removed enough from reality as it is in the pervasive era of social media. While Zuckerberg’s Meta empire is leading the way with its hefty investment to fine-tune their interpretation of Metaverse capability, they are certainly not alone. Thousands of major corporations are racing to claim their piece of this sprawling and mostly intangible pie. Some of these businesses are pioneering currencies that would work in various Metaverses, while others are selling virtual real estate to major brands like Adidas and Pepsi, who have already slammed down large wads of cash on the table for their place in this mysterious new shop-front window. For those of you across the tabloids, you may already have heard that US rapper Snoop Dogg is at the crest of the Metaverse wave too, charging people up to a half a million dollars to stake a parcel of virtual land near his cyber house in a virtual world called The Sandbox. Yes, users can plug their VR headsets in and revel in the virtual ‘Snoopverse’ to see how the swaggering musician lives, walk the halls of his digital mansion, and take a seat and smoke a silicon doobie in the front row of a Snoop Dogg concert. It’s worth grabbing your head to stop it spinning for a second to contemplate the huge volume of cash that is being channelled toward this unprecedented project.
While many of us may still feel a healthy amount of scepticism about its future impact, there is clearly an exuberant minority of confident businesspeople who think this will be much bigger than the advent of the internet. Casting my own mind back to the mid-2000s, I remember having similar misgivings about all the manic chatter friends of mine were having about these so-called social media platforms sprouting up all over the place. For better or for worse (I would contend worse), these platforms have come to dominate our lives in ways that even the founders of Facebook and Twitter failed to conceive of at the time. With that framing in mind, it might be time for the travel sector to at the very least take stock of what the Metaverse offers and see where its application may benefit, or potentially threaten, their own jobs and businesses. Some glimmer of optimism was recently noted in a report by professional services company Accenture, which argued virtual travel experiences had the potential to incentivise growth in travel if businesses like travel agencies and operators were to jump aboard the technology and embrace its capabilities.
“It is important to recognise that the Metaverse can provide a complementary enhancement to an overall experience that, over time, can become an essential part of the travel ecosystem,” Accenture’s Senior Executive Director and Global Head of Travel Emily Weiss noted in the report.
“Giving the option to sit in a virtual First Class seat, experience the lounge, or walk through a resort or hotel room opens up opportunities to truly engage and inspire people before they travel. Through the ‘try before you go’ concept, recreating landmarks in all their past glory or allowing travellers to investigate parts of nature they can’t explore in a real-life interaction could be a major benefit,” she added.
In other words, there is a way Metaverse architecture could serve as the ultimate travel brochure, providing clients with a truly immersive digital pre-experience, cultivated specifically by brands, to help get bookings or lucrative upselling opportunities over the line.
Imagine a sales team with access to advanced experiential tools which could show clients all of the luxury amenities on offer at a swanky hotel in Singapore in acute detail, harness the awe of a whale breaching off the hull of an expedition cruise ship in the Arctic, or provide unmatched insight into what life is like on tours through the Amazon; the possibilities are, quite literally, endless.
However, the same Accenture report also delivered a stark warning to sectors like travel and tourism who fail to embrace the benefits of engaging in the Metaverse, stating a strong likelihood of being “left behind” and unable to compete with businesses who choose to migrate sooner.
“The era of the Metaverse has begun, and so for consumer-facing companies, it’s not about deciding if they’re going to enter the Metaverse, it’s about deciding how,” the report warned. “The Metaverse can help build loyalty through personalised experiences that go beyond simply purchasing a product.”
The reality (excuse the pun) is that this technology is not going to storm through the shop-front windows of travel companies tomorrow offering better-than-real-life travel experiences, however, given the exponential speed of technological progression it is some seriously augmented food for virtual thought. Some travel businesses may find themselves, for example, hedging their bets in the future by dabbling on both sides of the fence, offering travellers the option of both physical and virtual travel through separate divisions. Either way, it’s worth remembering that tech only marches in one direction, and what appears to be impossible today will almost certainly become a societal norm at some point sooner than you think (except flying cars, they should seriously be ubiquitous by now). But I’ll give the final word on all of this to Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, who once prophetically observed, “The Web as I envisaged it, we have not seen it yet. The future is still so much bigger than the past.”