Faced with the complexity of web3 technologies and a blizzard of new techno-jargon, there are many in adland scratching their heads trying to come to terms with what the metaverse is, how it works and how (if at all) it will affect their brand. To get some answers, The Drum spent a couple of hours wandering through the metaverse, with Mediahub serving as our guides. Here’s what we observed.
Confused about the metaverse? I am too. I may be a reporter covering web3, but the sheer foreignness of my beat often leaves me feeling like a stranger in a strange land – or like an avatar that’s been dropped into Decentraland for the first time and is awkwardly trying to get a feel for virtual ambulation.
My point is: I’m more of an explorer than an expert. Thankfully, I’ve been able to get a fairly panoramic view of the metaverse from true experts who spend a significant portion of their waking lives living and breathing the metaverse. On a recent virtual field trip, Mediahub’s senior vice-president and creative director Simeon Edmunds and creative technologist Lacey Nein patiently answered my questions, as well as those of US editor Kenneth Hein and reporter Kendra Clark.
Both self-proclaimed gamers – or “keyboard warriors” – they were able to move their avatars with a speed and grace I can only aspire to as they showed us around Decentraland, the largest zone of development in the metaverse. Decentraland isn’t the only platform that’s parceling out real estate in the metaverse, though the fact that it’s accessible via desktop and also to guests without login credentials does make it something of the platform of choice.
While there, we popped over to a virtual space that Samsung had set up for a recent Valentine’s Day-themed campaign. Then we left Decentraland to take a look at The Sandbox, another platform that’s selling virtual real estate in a hurry. You can now own a piece of the Snoopverse, for example, while the Smurfs are also planning on building a Smurfland (no word if Gargamel will be welcome) and Adidas has already set up shop replete with obligatory non-fungible tokens (NFTs) available for purchase. Then there’s Roblox, a video game that’s primarily marketed to (and used by) young kids and is where Chipotle has built some buzz.
Fomo runs rampant in Decentraland
Despite the speed at which individuals and brands have been buying up space in Decentraland, largely using Upland, there didn’t seem to be a whole lot going on. “There is a land grab in Decentraland – it’s a Fomo-type situation where people feel like if they don’t have land, they are missing out,” says Nein.
Still, it felt like being dropped into an unfinished video game before it had been given characters or a storyline. But I soon realized that it only felt that way to me because I didn’t know my way around. Edmunds and Nein, on the other hand, knew exactly where the action was. At one point, Edmunds plugged a pair of coordinates into the platform’s digital GPS system and transported us to the site of Zed Run, a sprawling virtual complex where visitors can buy NFT horses, enter them into races and potentially win some very real money. The horses can also be ’bred’ with one another, in the sense that the underlying code of two NFTs can be mixed to produce a new, original NFT that contains the characteristics of both of its ’parents’. “A decent racer,” Edmunds told us, usually costs around $600, while “top-tier” racers can go for $75,000 or higher. Only those who own a racer can actually win money on a race.
You’re probably asking yourself: why would anyone spend $75,000 – an annual salary that many Americans would consider handsome – on a digital horse? Part of it, of course, is the potential to win even more money in a race. It’s an investment, just like buying an actual horse and entering it into actual competitive races. But Edmunds says there’s also a status, or “clout”, element – a certain degree of social capital that comes with owning something extremely rare and valuable. Any art collector would understand this perfectly well, but digital art appears to be taking things to a whole new level. There’s a Discord server, for example, that’s only open to the small number of individuals (Edmunds thinks it’s probably less than a hundred) who have spent $1m or more on a Bored Ape Yacht Club NFT. “The notion of clout has expanded globally with digital assets,” Edmunds tells us.
But NFTs aren’t only for wealthy status-seekers. There are also, as Edmunds and Nein point out, plenty of NFT campaigns that drive tangibly positive outcomes in the real world (or ’meatspace’ as it has become known). The Dinomonks NFT campaign, for example, describes itself as “a culture of support and meaning” and provides a digital community where members can support one another through various mental health challenges. Another collection, called KRebels, is trying to save koalas, an endangered species. The list of ethically-minded NFT campaigns goes on and on.
The office of the future? Or maybe not?
There’s been a lot of talk lately about the metaverse as the future of the workplace, especially since the Covid-19 pandemic has caused so many companies to start working remotely. Many brands are, in fact, already beginning to open their own virtual offices in the metaverse. Mediahub is one of them. In December of last year, the agency opened a branch in Decentraland, in part to make it clear to clients that the company knew its way around the metaverse – that it was, in a sense, local and could therefore be relied upon as a guide for new brands hoping to plant their own flag in the metaverse. (Or for journalists like myself hoping to get a lay of the land.)
“We’re not going to be able to fully understand the metaverse unless we’re in it,” Edmunds says. “We’re experimenting with it.” And at the end of the day, that’s all any of us can do with the big reservoir of potential that is the metaverse: experiment, learn from what others are doing and figure out – one baby step at a time – how these new technologies can be leveraged to support our brands.
The Mediahub office serves not as a workspace but rather a work-in-progress featuring some work it did for Black Mirror, its Zed Run horses, NFTs from Dinomonks as well as Flower Girls NFTs – another ethically-minded campaign that gives a portion of its proceeds to charities that empower women.
Before departing, we stood at the virtual gates of Wilder World, which Edmunds dubbed the Grand Theft Auto of the blockchain. The graphics appear to be leaps ahead of some of the other territories. But then, of course, you need to have enough computing power to handle it, which appears to be an issue for many. Buffering times and crashing computers are currently par for the course in the metaverse. But given the individualized nature of the experiences brands will soon be able to unfurl, all of the clunky experimentation will likely be worth it.