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What exactly is the metaverse? Is it a fully immersive, parallel, digital 3D world in which we live, play and work? Or is it a series of interconnected virtual experiences which we seamlessly navigate with our portable digital avatars and accessories? The exact nature of the metaverse is not yet entirely clear, nor is the degree to which it already exists today.
While there still may not be an exact definition of the metaverse, there’s no denying the presence that it will increasingly have in all aspects of life. In fact, Gartner expects that by 2026, “25% of people will spend at least one hour a day in the metaverse for work, shopping, education, social media and/or entertainment.”
I believe that the metaverse isn’t just a destination we reach through technological devices, but rather a digital identity we carry across platforms and experiences. It seems that regardless of how we define this concept, the role of digital identity remains a constant across all visions of the metaverse. This digital identity will include how we present ourselves visually, as well as audibly. It will encompass the digital assets we own and the digital spaces in which we are active.
For the metaverse to ultimately succeed, I believe there are three main technological capabilities that must be present:
- Personalization of the user’s identity or identities.
- The ability to carry identities across platforms.
- Access from the user’s mobile device.
Today, our online personas are typically linked to email addresses, user IDs and profile photos and we often use the same username across various platforms, even when logging in with a different email. Fast-forward to the future: Our digital avatars now act as our online identities, with users spending more time in the metaverse for both business and entertainment. It’s only natural that users will want to own their personal data and the identities that they customize for the metaverse, which will vary depending on their activity. Their persona in their metaverse workplace, for example, will likely differ from their identity in a metaverse nightclub, just as it would difffer in real life.
Users may cherry-pick a visual avatar from one system, a sonic identity from another and animation from a third, using these customized avatars to connect their real and virtual worlds. As venture capitalist Rex Woodberry noted, “In Web3, identity becomes portable and composable … What’s important is that disparate elements of your identity coalesce into one digital location, owned and controlled by you.”
For the metaverse to really take off, there must be a strategy in which individuals can access and build meaningful connections with their digital identities across devices on a day-to-day basis. Developers are working to expand current augmented and virtual reality experiences by improving VR headset design to make it lighter and more connected and affordable.
Companies that wish to attract more users will need to enable them to carry their digital identity across the metaverse, regardless of the entry point or platform — for example, implementing the universal virtual studio technology (VST)-like standard for audio avatars.
What does this mean for the short- and long-term vision for the metaverse? Our digital identities must be readily accessible in all facets of our lives. A digital identity that’s only accessible via a VR headset or a desktop computer is only going to be relevant for the hours we spend with such devices. In other words, the metaverse needs to exist on the go, just like us.
Smartphones: The gateway to the metaverse
The metaverse also needs to be accessible to the broadest possible audience from the most widespread, easily adopted device. Today, that device is the smartphone. The majority of internet activity currently happens through mobile phones. In many countries, including the U.S., if people can afford only one internet connectivity device, they choose a smartphone. With that in mind, it’s no surprise that smartphone users worldwide could reach 4.5 billion by the end of 2024.
Just as laptops didn’t disappear with the advent of the smartphone, browser-based social metaverse experiences will continue even as AR glasses and headsets become commonplace. While it’s going to take some time for hardware to catch up with the software, it’s an essential step in order to reach the majority of potential metaverse citizens, who are in the gaming world.
When Microsoft’s CEO, Satya Nadella, announced the pending acquisition of Activision Blizzard in January, he strengthened the company’s gaming footprint and its ability to deliver mobile experiences, explaining that gaming “will play a key role in the development of metaverse platforms.”
With an estimated three billion players worldwide in 2021, smartphones are key to driving mobile gaming, which in return, will drive the metaverse.
While the technology may not have caught up to the vision of the metaverse just yet, companies are making progress. NewZoo’s Intro to the Metaverse report affirms that, “we are collectively hurtling towards greater participation in interconnected simulated environments that are even more limitless than our real one.”
The successful companies in this space will be the ones that attract the broadest audience through an immersive, inclusive and mobile experience. They will help build a metaverse that’s widely accessible and that allows users to personalize their digital identities, which they can then carry across interconnected virtual worlds — whenever and wherever they may be.
Jaime Bosch is the cofounder and chief executive officer of Voicemod.