Digital transformation

What metaverse experts think your business should know

Metaverse experts Cortney Harding and James Whatley explain what businesses are getting wrong – and right – in these much-hyped, immersive online worlds.

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There’s much noise about the metaverse, and a feeling business must get on board today. Should you dive in? Two metaverse experts say yes, and no.

Kaspersky’s new podcast, Insight Story, unpacks emerging tech trends with global specialists and businesses successfully using the tech. Episode 1 looks at the metaverse, with Cortney Harding, World Economic Forum Metaverse Council member and founder of virtual and augmented reality agency Friends with Holograms. James Whatley, Chief Strategy Officer at gaming industry agency Diva, also joins me.

Cortney Harding, Founder, Friends with Holograms

Cortney Harding, Founder, Friends with Holograms

James Whatley, Chief Strategy Officer, Diva

James’s 2022 talk What Metaverse? garnered much attention from the marketing industry, debating definitions and the effectiveness of brand-sponsored ‘metaversal experiences,’ as he calls them. A more cynical onlooker could say the metaverse is the emperor’s new (virtual) clothes.

In its glitchy 2006 version I attended – or tried to attend – in-world conferences in the early metaverse, Second Life. My clever friend sold virtual shirts to passers-by, but the predicted virtual commerce revolution didn’t ignite then. I was keen to explore with James and Cortney whether the metaverse is really open for business, or if FOMO (fear of missing out) and the hype cycle is encouraging investment before audiences are ready.

From science fiction to (virtual) reality

There’s no single agreed definition of the metaverse. Metaverses are virtual worlds where users see the world and interact through characters called avatars. Using a virtual reality (VR) headset, interacting in a metaverse can feel like real life. It can mirror many real-world experiences, like shopping, going to concerts, even owning property. Some say it’s ‘the next iteration of the internet‘ or ‘Web 3.0.’

Metaverses like Activeworlds and Second Life have been around for over 20 years. Others exist within online multi-player games like Fortnite and Roblox. Facebook changed its name to Meta in 2021, signaling a future focus on virtual experiences.

Should businesses be in the metaverse?

Cortney Harding says brands should approach the metaverse from their own perspective. “It depends on your audience. If you’re a bank, you probably don’t need to build a metaverse world right now – they’ve tried, and failed.” Examples abound of banks establishing an often half-baked presence in the metaverse, then quietly backing away.

Cortney continues, “If you’re a consumer brand focused on a young tech-savvy audience, you should start thinking about it.” But it’s not about audience age. “It’s more, is your audience tech-savvy? And niche communities are often strong in the metaverse.” According to games researcher company Newzoo, more than a quarter of gaming metaverse users are age 36 or older.

James Whatley thinks brands should work to understand not just who is in the metaverse, but why.

Your everyday consumer doesn’t think, ‘I want to do a metaverse activity.’ They just want to go to a decent gig.

James Whatley, Chief Strategy Officer, Diva Agency

Nike’s success in Roblox is often hailed as an example of a brand getting it right. Their Nikeland shop, selling virtual Nike gear, attracted 7 million visitors in its first two months. James notes, “They’re doing great, but copying Nike is not a strategy – it’s looking and learning from it.”

Cortney gleans this from Nike’s success: “You must resource metaverse worlds correctly to keep them going, making sure people have reasons to return. Nike has social events, and guest speakers – they give people a reason to go there.”

In developing metaverse experiences, brands should consider what makes the metaverse different. “In early VR, I saw directors do what’s in 2D except in a VR headset,” says Cortney. “Embodying an avatar with your voice is different than typing or watching a video. How can you harness that? Think beyond replicating and get to the point where it’s creating something wholly new.”

Metaverse for good

Cortney works with clients using metaverses and linked technology like VR for the greater good. “I do VR training around racial bias, child welfare, mental health and more. It lets people be in a space they’ve never been in and experience things like bias or exclusion, in hope they’ll better understand what it feels like.”

PwC research found bias awareness training in VR is highly effective: “75 percent reported a ‘wake-up call moment’ that helped them identify times in their past when they had not been as inclusive as they’d thought. V-learners were up to 275 percent more confident to act on what they learned after training.”

Cortney also sees work needed to prevent bias being ‘baked in’ to the metaverse as it has been with other tech. “Many who built the current internet came from the same background. We want to build a world that’s inclusive and safe – one everyone can be part of.”

Examples of creator bias leading to tech that discriminates include, voice recognition not recognizing women’s and people of color’s voices because its training data sets mostly contain white men’s voices. Soap dispensers, fitness trackers and heart-rate monitors have also been found to rely on users having a light skin tone. It’s unsurprising women have higher rates of injury in car accidents when you learn that a truly woman-shaped crash test dummy is a new thing – previous ‘female’ dummies were simply a smaller male dummy.

Cortney appeals to brands to stay aware of how their metaverse presence affects customers.

The metaverse is people, at the end of the day. Brands should come back to that: How do they empower, impact and grow communities?

Cortney Harding, World Economic Forum Metaverse Council member and founder, Friends with Holograms

James agrees. “I believe video games are good for building community, and they have done for decades. Whatever the next iteration of the internet, the community piece comes where humanity goes.”

Alongside many good experiences, research shows more than half of children who play online games experience harms like bullying, hacking and inappropriate contact at some point.

Raising your metaverse understanding

Cortney says companies dipping a toe into the metaverse shouldn’t expect too much at first, but should be in it for the right reasons. “If you look at some websites from the early days of the internet, your eyes will bleed out of your head. We can’t expect everyone’s metaverse execution will be perfect at this point, but you need more of an idea than just having heard a buzzword.”

If you choose to go there, James recommends involving metaverse natives. “Bring in the Roblox audience to help build, because they understand it. Get people with gaming experience – they understand narrative and interaction. Make a small investment, start experimenting, have people work on it as a side project. So when things start to really shift, you haven’t ignored it.”

He thinks brands should avoid thinking metaverse is the answer, instead considering all options. “If you want to build a community around your brand, there are other ways. Do stuff in social media. Look at your customer relationship management (CRM.) Don’t close the door – be aware of it, but act when it’s right for your business.”

Metaverse cyber risks

As new tech arrives, so do new threats. What are the cybersecurity implications of the metaverse?

Fabio Assolini is head of research in Latin America for Kaspersky Global Research and Analysis Team (GReAT,) uncovering and understanding cyber threats in digital environments, including metaverses.

“We’re concerned about the kinds of attacks already common on Meta platforms like Instagram, Facebook and WhatsApp. On new platforms, we expect the same, like fraudsters impersonating brands,” says Assolini. “We also expect more complex attacks like SIM swapping, where cybercriminals hijack users’ phone numbers to receive authentication tokens.”

Assolini is also concerned about unclear roles and responsibilities in the metaverse. “If I’m a business and investing in, say, a launch party in the metaverse, is it my responsibility to put encryption and other security in place? Or is it for the end user to be more savvy when they’re joining these experiences?”

Cryptojacking‘ is another concern in the metaverse. Hacking users’ devices to use their processing power for mining cryptocurrency is seriously on the rise, with Kaspersky research showing a 230 percent increase in 2022.

While Meta’s chief technical officer says moderating user behavior “at any meaningful scale is practically impossible,” business will be glad to know metaverse security concepts are roughly the same as any online, digital environment. “Fundamental security practices carry over because the architecture is the same. It still runs on a server, you have databases on the backend, user and password management, and so on,” said Nick Donarski, co-founder and chief technology officer at blockchain company ORE System.

Best metaverse advice for business

I asked James and Cortney their best metaverse advice for business.

James says, “Go the extra click. If someone sends you a headline saying this is where the future is, find out where that’s come from. Who paid for that data? There’s an often-cited report from McKinsey valuing the metaverse at 5 trillion US dollars. When you look at where that figure came from, it doesn’t mean anything.”

Cortney says, “Just start learning and experimenting. It’s free or very cheap to sign up to many metaverses. Create a world just for fun. Spend time talking to people. Then you’ll understand what you like, what you don’t like, what could be better. You’ll be more informed – or worst case scenario, have some fun.”

Listen to the full Insight Story audio series on Podbean or your usual podcast provider.

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About authors

Susi O’Neill is the Editor-in-Chief of Secure Futures and host of business tech podcast Insight Story. She’s a seasoned creative who’s led business content programs for brands including EY, Mastercard and Unilever. Off the clock, she’s a musician and performer who gives international performances playing theremin, the world’s first electronic instrument.