Daniel Bobroff, head of retail at technology consultancy HTEC Group, explains what the metaverse is, and what it means for fashion retail in 2022.
The earliest use of the term “metaverse” is accredited to science fiction writer Neal Stephenson in his 1992 novel, Snow Crash. We have edged towards his vision ever since, with perhaps the rise of video-gaming as the driving force. So, as much in life, it’s not entirely a new idea. But with Facebook’s – now Meta – plan to switch from a social media company to a metaverse company, the world’s most populist tech titan has gone “all in” and the metaverse has been thrust to the fore.
What is the metaverse?
The metaverse is a combination of multiple elements of technology, including virtual reality, augmented reality and video, where users "live" within a digital universe.
For the world of fashion, the metaverse offers intrigue, creativity and a digital community for all. But, while we can probably agree on a future state where humans that at some time in the future humans will interact digitally through a three-dimensional virtual space, should we care about it in 2022?
Much of my working life seems to have revolved around the metaverse. In the 1990s, I pioneered the first adverts to appear inside video games – perhaps the earliest form of digital advertising. The intrigue was in how to merge our real world with its digital twin. Avirex leather flying jackets equipped your F1 fighter pilot, Adidas Predator boots helped your footballer score – the list went on …
We called it "interactive advertising" and sought to build immersive brand experiences – even in a 1990s version of the metaverse. About a decade ago, Nick Robertson, founder of Asos, invited me to scout its digital future [as co-founder and investment director at the etailer from 2012 to 2017]. I was instantly hooked.
So, as we enter 2022, should fashion jump on the metaverse bandwagon? Well, it has certainly arrived. Here is a brief selection of some near-term Metaverse opportunities for fashion to delight and serve.
Ecommerce has a way to go in its potential to deliver a truly digital experience for the shopper. Gamification can help us to get there. It is about how we might use the techniques found within video games to deliver repeatable behaviour. Just think for a moment of one such technique – the success of Ebay’s countdown clock (which is activated only during the last 60 minutes of an item you are buying/bidding on) and how it leveraged the idea of scarcity and the potential to miss out to drive up bids. The metaverse will rely heavily upon gamification techniques, and it will force fashion retailers to move away from today’s task-focused catalogues and towards a future of human-focused design.
NFT (non-fungible tokens)
A non-fungible token, or NFT for short, is any type of digital content that is also attached to a digital ledger otherwise known as a blockchain. NFTs act as proof of ownership of a reproducible digital files such as photos, videos, and audio. In essence, NFTs will add to the unique and personalised experience of the metaverse. Uniqueness is already a powerful driver for luxury fashion, but through NFTs even fast fashion (for example, BoohooMan) can explore the "power of one". The metaverse promises to make each of us feel special and NFTs will be one of the ways it goes about this.
A blockchain is essentially a ledger – a way of storing vast amounts of transactional information that cannot be cheated, because it exists simultaneously across a network of computers. Initially, we imagined the use of a blockchain to create forms of digital money – for example, cryptocurrencies – and more recently we used this technology to decentralise the world of finance. But in a metaverse future, its use is even more thrilling. Instantly and securely, we will be able to track unlimited events of both products and shoppers. It is truly game-changing.
Avatars and digital twins
These are virtual representations of people and objects. Social media allowed us to explore our digital personas and it remains a contentious issue as to whether we should use our real names. But the social media we know today might just be our proof of concept. Companies such as digital fashion store DressX (above) are already exploring the potential for fashion here, but the recent announcement by Nike that it has purchased start-up RTFKT Studios – a brand that makes virtual sneakers – moves the conversation to an entirely new level.
The metaverse will become the most social network of all, and we will want our digital selves to look the part, but we will also reveal data around our personal style and fit that enables fashion retail to strike a new deal with its customer, thereby reducing wasteful returns.
Mirroworlds accurately duplicate the physical world in a digital reality – augmented or virtual – where every object will have its twin, filled with information and ready to be manipulated. While the aim is to create a seamless interaction between human and computer, the way brands and retailers will use their creativity to represent their individual mirrorworlds is intriguing. Will it be lifelike or pure fantasy? Will we walk through it or not? There are still many questions to be answered. But in the end, we might see this as a blank canvas for fashion to develop the new skill of interactive storytelling.
A massively multiplayer online role-playing game, better known as MMORPG, is the slightly clunky acronym that preceded the metaverse. This took the form of online games such as World of Warcraft (above). With their huge global communities, they allowed the individual player to explore their game world, while simultaneously interacting with others. The rise of ecommerce developed our understanding that a metaverse future will blend an ability to play but also to shop. In 2003, online game Second Life led the charge by allowing users to purchase its in-game currency with real money. More recently, online game Roblox demonstrated another glimpse of our metaverse future as we create shared digital experiences that bring people together through play.
Retailers such as Adidas, Decathlon and Levi's are already leading the charge in their use of radio frequency identification, or RFID, to solve important operational issues such as stock accuracy and availability. RFID uses electromagnetic fields to automatically identify and track tags attached to objects. But tomorrow’s smart tags will go much further, building a bridge between fashion’s physical and metaverse worlds. Retail’s winners will learn to play at its intersection.