By: Tricia Houston, Founder and COO
We’re in the business of experiences – and in 2023, our business extends beyond the physical world. When people talk about virtual experiences these days, the ever-elusive, ever-changing “metaverse” is bound to come up (not to be confused with Mark Zuckerberg’s Meta, with its host of social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram). It sounds like something you’d hear in a sci-fi movie, but essentially, a metaverse is just an online world. Whether a Minecraft metropolis or a VR medical training course, these alternate realities can take many forms and serve many purposes. From gaming to healthcare to, of course, brand experiences, metaverses continue redefining what it means to engage with the world around us.
Today, gaming is perhaps the most common way metaverses are explored and experienced. But the impact game metaverses can have on the real world goes far beyond a fun pastime. One of our favorite examples of the way metaverses can amplify voices, connect communities, and extend significant impact into the physical world comes from Agnes Larsson, Minecraft’s Game Director. In a recent TED Talk, Agnes tells a story about a group of children in Kosovo who used Minecraft to redesign a downtrodden part of their city – and their dreams of creating a safe and fun place to play came true! The city used their designs to makeover their targeted area, giving the kids confidence in their creativity, a sense of accomplishment, and an exciting, inclusive new place to skateboard and swing.
Even in the medical field, the metaverse is making a splash. AR and VR are redefining the healthcare space in many ways: diagnosis, medical training, meetings, and conferences are all made more accessible through the metaverse. Major healthcare providers like Johns Hopkins and the Mayo Clinic have even started using AR – which allows for more thorough visualization of patients’ anatomy – to make medical procedures and surgeries quicker and smoother.
So, how does the development of the metaverse affect experience design? For experience designers and their clients, the metaverse will not and cannot replace priceless physical experiences; it will simply become another tool in their toolbox for developing the most immersive experiences for as broad an audience as possible. When you stage experiences, you work in theater. The essence of theater – and a huge element of human interest – is drama. Digital worlds allow you to create a stage upon which you can create drama to wow and engage your audience no matter where they are. You can provide experiences they might not be able to partake in physically and can create more access to your products or service than existed before.
The height of the pandemic decimated the physical experience economy, shifting focus towards virtual shopping and experiences. Although the pandemic’s limitations on physical experience have since started to wane, consumers’ heightened expectations around digital experiences have remained. So, while nothing can replace the complete all-five-senses immersion of an in-person experience, virtual experiences can supplement them and make your brand’s experiences accessible for those who might not be able to access them otherwise. Broadening and deepening experience design across mediums allows businesses to create more types of experiences, create different levels of access to different experiences, and offer more people access to their experiences. Although some pathways to the metaverse can be expensive and therefore inaccessible to many consumers (VR headsets such as the Meta Quest 2, for example), the more doors that open to it, the more that it can open.
Joe Pine, co-founder of Strategic Horizons LLP and author of The Experience Economy, suggested in a recent webinar that businesses looking to expand into the metaverse consider the broadcasting model that professional sports has been using for decades. Physical experiences – like cheering in the stands at an NFL game – provide the richest experience for a sports fan. But not everyone has the ability to attend professional football games whenever they’d like. So the NFL broadcasts every game for fans – behind the paywall of a cable or streaming service subscription, of course. Then, highlight clips are used for advertising on social media or YouTube.
This demonstrates a tiered engagement model that rakes in profit from one single event (the football game, in this case) in multiple ways. The metaverse now opens this possibility up to other industries. If your company is hosting a conference, for example, you’ll sell tickets to attend physically.
You can also sell tickets to attend the conference’s virtual livestream, as well as charge a fee for access to videos from the conference to watch asynchronously.
Beyond industry, the metaverse shows us a promising future of human connection despite distance. The metaverse is often defined online as “a single, universal, and immersive virtual world” – but according to Larsson, there can be countless metaverses, and the more that exist, the better. The video game Minecraft, with its countless users, each building their own unique worlds, serves as a great example of how millions of metaverses can exist – and that’s just within one platform! In her TED Talk, Larsson also explains the ways that metaverses can create safe spaces for anyone and everyone – because the more worlds that there are, the more likely it is there’s a space where each and every one of us feels we belong.
Some worry that the deeper we dive into technological progress, the more disconnected from each other we’ll become. But given what metaverses have shown us so far, it might be an exciting way to make the world feel a little bit smaller. The surge of development in metaverse exploration since the start of the pandemic has shown that, as social creatures, humans will do whatever it takes to create a community and to create meaningful experiences within it.