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A beginner’s guide to the metaverse

At this point, the metaverse is like a deep ocean – uncharted waters of the internet yet to be mapped, explored and understood. We know it’s vast and refers to a shift in how we interact with technology, encompassing a merging of the digital and physical world through numerous complex elements. As with any new, disruptive innovation, we scrutinise the metaverse because we don’t fully understand it. But who can blame us? The World Wide Web was a murky territory in the ’90s and then grew into an innate component of our everyday lives, and so too could the metaverse propel us into an entirely new era. By understanding the building blocks that make up this phenomenon, we can more easily understand and integrate the metaverse into our worlds. Here, we deep dive into what it’s all about.

What is the Metaverse?

According to Oleg Fonarov, CEO and founder of software engineering company Program-Ace, the metaverse is a 3-D version of the Internet. It’s a virtual world characterised by virtual and augmented reality, in which users can enter and are represented by a personalised avatar. In the metaverse, you can live, work, shop, socialise and do everything you’d usually do physically. It also translates to a digital economy, whereby users create, buy and sell goods. Ideally, the metaverse is interoperable, allowing users to own unique virtual items such as property, clothes, artwork and cars, and move them from one platform to another – just as you’d buy a pair of jeans from a store and wear them to a restaurant. At the moment, you can access the metaverse via PC, gaming console, mobile device, wearable technology, or any other device that renders 3-D graphics and sound. The idea is to become immersed in a virtual world, feeling more present in the metaverse and less present in our physical surroundings. Additionally, the metaverse is characterised by persistence. You can alter and develop your experience to your liking – adding new buildings or objects that will be there the next time you visit. Essentially, “the metaverse is useful because it reduces the need for physical resources and travel,” says Oleg. A 3-D digital world connects everything. You can swipe between activities and locations and complete multiple tasks (such as grocery shopping) with little time or effort .

Where do NFTs fit in?

One reason for the metaverse’s rise to prominence is its intriguing new methods of economic activity, mainly driven by Non-fungible Tokens (NFTs). NFTs are unique, one-of-a-kind tokens and ownership certifi cates for any image, video or digital content. Since you can easily steal and copy digital assets online, they’re a way of making digital products unique, says Pontus Rendahl, Professor of Economics at Copenhagen Business School. In the real world, we can use the analogy of an oil painting, whereby the original is a unique artwork verifi ed by an appraiser. There may be copies and replicas, but the fi rst is still the most valuable and only has one owner. NFT technology can verify a digital asset and a public digital record of ownership recorded on the blockchain. NFTs are enhancing the global digital economy and the metaverse. They provide a way for anybody to make money online and a promising new avenue of exploration for brands. Even celebrities are cashing in on the trend. Paris Hilton famously collaborated with designer Blake Kathryn to create a digital art series that featured three unique NFTs, ‘Hummingbird in My Metaverse’, ‘Legend of Love’, and ‘Iconic Crypto Queen’. In April, she sold the collection for over $1 million (R15.2 million). Then there’s Decentraland, a virtual territory in the metaverse that converts plots of ‘land’ to NFTs users can buy and sell as they please. This digital ‘country’ even has its own cryptocurrency, which you can convert to real-world cash.

What about the gaming world?

Avid gamers are already well-versed in the metaverse in its most rudimentary form. In the popular shooter game Fortnite, players have a personal avatar to engage and interact with other users and can earn virtual currency and unlock outfi ts, weapons and accessories for their avatars. Similarly, Second Life involves a virtual reality simulation in which players shop, eat and socialise through their digital avatars. Thanks to the capitalist nature of online games, brands are also innovating to infi ltrate this virtual world. Sportswear brand Nike announced a partnership with the game Roblox to launch NIKELAND – a selection of product showrooms and play areas within the game. Players can customise their avatars with Nike clothing and keep up to date with its latest products.

Accessibility and democratisation

As Nike’s presence in Roblox – in which users of all ages, weights and abilities can participate in immersive fi tness experiences – aims to democratise sport and eliminate barriers to access, other brands are democratising themselves through the metaverse. In March, high-fashion brands such as Dolce & Gabbana, Hugo Boss, Elie Saab, and Roberto Cavalli, amongst others, collaborated on the fi rst-ever Metaverse Fashion Week (MVFW). The event, held after the AW22 shows, included runway shows, art installations and musical performances, all taking place on the Decentraland platform. Unlike its physical counterparts, which only invite top celebrities and infl uencers, MVFW is accessible to all. Its guests are anyone with internet access anywhere, and entrance is free. Attendees can even purchase items straight from the digital runway and dress their 3-D avatar. Designer Jonathan Simkhai debuted his AW range as a digital wearables collection before selling some of the items as NFTs to the public. “When it comes to the fashion industry, NFTs can be the digital versions of physical pieces of clothing or a one-off digital-only design,” explains founder of the digital fashion house republiqe James Gaubert. “Consumers don’t buy fashion NFTs as a necessity, but instead, as a luxury for someone who likes to know they own something exclusive,” he adds. With such unique and exclusive digital items, many NFT collectors treat their purchase like an investment with the hope its value will increase over time. So, not only is the metaverse democratising notoriously exclusive industries – such as high-end luxury fashion – but providing brands with additional touchpoints to reach an entirely new audience and engage with them in exciting ways.

Prospects for the future

By 2024, people predict the metaverse will become an $800 billion (R12.2 trillion) industry, with tech giants like Google, Apple, Microsoft, and Facebook (now rebranded to Meta) investing big money into making it a reality. But a clear picture of the metaverse of the future – and even what it looks like today – is pending. It may include virtual houses where you can invite your friends to hang out via their personalised avatars, whilst Microsoft seems to think it could involve virtual meeting rooms where employees can chat remotely. Perhaps it’ll allow you to attend IRL concerts virtually via a VR headset. You might appear there as a hologram your friends can see and interact with if Facebook’s 2021 Metaverse presentation is anything to go by. Whilst the specifi cs are obscure, the metaverse’s technological innovations already have high-value projections, and we anticipate it’ll be a prominent player in growing the digital and global economy. Some people already consider it the future of entertainment, fashion, gaming and partying. But the question remains: will people even want to hang out virtually and forgo the human element of everyday tasks and social endeavours? Most of us would love to be in two places at once to escape our busy lifestyles. With technology, anything is possible – and the metaverse might be the solution.

This article was originally published in Glamour’s June 2022 Disruptors Issue. Grab your digital copy here.

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