How the virtual world offers real ways to reach consumers

Earlier this month, HNN’s Executive Editor Clint Engel warned us against getting sucked into the vortex of hype surrounding what people are calling “the metaverse,” an inclusive term used to refer to virtual reality, augmented reality, sensorial technology, spatial computing, blockchains and many other “things.” 

The portrait of this woman was created by Paul Winter and Kazoom using AI. She’s not a real person.
(Gerd Altmann/Pixabay)

Engel seemed to be particularly bothered by that part of the metaverse that is purely escape — the virtual, the simulated, the less than real, even as it promises to be experienced as more than real. His references conjure for me the ways in which Second Life paraded into our first lives nearly 20 years ago.

I am more than sympathetic to Engel’s view, as evidenced by my own digs at the false premises of the terms themselves. Virtual reality is an oxymoron, like jumbo shrimp or an open secret.

However, to think of the metaverse as exclusively or even primarily a synthetic gaming world is to misunderstand how far reaching its real-world implications and opportunities will be. With so many companies looking to the metaverse as essentially a new economy, it will be an increasingly important space in terms of consumer attention. 

Attention is the very real thing in the middle of all that virtual. Human attention has always been a limited resource, and research on what we now accept as the “attention economy” has been conducted for more than 50 years. Nothing in the metaverse can alter this finite resource. But VR can (and will) claim more and more of that limited resource. 

I teach undergraduate college students. I see how immersed in these technologies they are and how uncritically they embrace opportunities to do virtually what their parents would never think of participating in without some measure of analog assurance. Dating, socializing and group collaboration are just a few examples. Engel mentioned pet ownership, which is a coincidence, because my youngest daughter, too, had a Webkinz dog. She also owned and operated a virtual full-service bakery and set her alarm in order to know when to start mixing the virtual dough and get the virtual goods into the ovens. She was about 9 years old at the time.

The long view

My first page one story for, let’s just say a competing home furnishings trade publication, took me to the VR labs in the computer science department the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill back in 1992. That’s right, VR has been trumpeted as the panacea to all the world’s problems for 30 years. I recall standing in a cavernous space, “seeing” a fully furnished, three-dimensional home. As long as I wore this bulky, football helmetlike headset and moved slowly enough to allow the computers time to render anew my environment, I could weightlessly manipulate even huge virtual things like a superhero. For 1992, this was pretty heady stuff. 

I cannot recall the cost of that headwear, but as experimental, bespoke technology, it wasn’t $299, the cost of an Oculus headset right now. 

More than three decades after that demo in the building since named for the one of the architects of that VR technology, Frederick P. Brooks Jr., the metaverse and most of what the term subsumes are still considered to be in their infancy. Thus, as Engel warns, there is no clear path to profitability for most businesses and little reward for early adopters. 

However, as spaces in which people can work, play, shop and socialize, the rush to integrate them into otherwise “real” lives is very much on, and that rush is populated by mainly millennials and Gen Zers. Adult Gen Zers and millennials are the drivers of more than two-thirds of all home furnishings purchases, while only combining to represent 45% of the population. Right behind them are the youngest Gen Zers — the students I teach — who rarely stop to even think about any distinctions between digital and analog, virtual and real. 

As the idea of the metaverse gains traction, your competitors will likely be looking for ways to connect with these younger consumers, who make home furnishings purchases at rates 1.5 to 1.7 times higher than their presence in the population, according research conducted exclusively for Home News Now and its sister publications. These are consumers who grew up with smartphones, apps, and digital-first companies and brands.

A means to an end

As Engel admonished, to view VR as a fast track to sales is misguided and, well, cheap. Like any technology, VR is a means to an end, not the end in and of itself. But to incorporate VR into strategies for engaging consumers and helping them visualize your very real furnishings in their very real homes? This is but one application that recognizes that people will be “living” at least part of their lives in VR worlds on a daily basis. 

Multimillion dollar purses in video gaming competitions held in packed arenas tell us that the blending and blurring of the virtual and the real will only become more mainstream. I’m referring here to actual millions doled out to gamers competing in physical, concrete-and-steel arenas filled with ticket-buying human beings. 

In May, Kraft began using the metaverse to experiment with solutions to supply chain challenges. Lorraine Bardeen, Kraft’s vice president and chief technology officer, referred to the “industrial metaverse” as at least part of its solution to finding logistical solutions, acknowledging that the term metaverse has become a catchall term for all things virtual. 

Among the strategies Kraft is trying is the digital mapping of its facilities to better spot flaws, more quickly achieve efficiencies and better plan for demand surges to prevent shortages. 

Running a virtual version of production offers the promise of catching errors ahead of time by simulating what will happen in real-world production.

“Normally you wouldn’t know until you actually run the product on the line,” Carlos Abrams-Rivera, president of Kraft Heinz North America, told CNN. “Testing online can help speed up the process of getting a new product to market.”

VR as prosthesis

Aside from the many ways the metaverse is already prominent in gaming, entertainment and, with nonfungible tokens, or NFTs, in mind, art, it will likely alter how we work. This is the potential being hyped specifically by Mark Zuckerberg, Meta and Facebook founder, chair and chief executive officer. I think it’s telling that Zuckerberg chose as his avatar a pixelated version of himself. He could have chosen anyone. Me? I would become Brad Pitt, Kal-El or Ronaldo. 

Zuckerberg is implying that the real potential of the metaverse, at least Meta’s metaverse, isn’t fantasy. At least, it isn’t merely that. The promise includes real-world applications, aids and prostheses that the virtual offers very real people seeking to do very real things.  

Oh, and let’s not forget how we all adapted in the pandemic, which spawned the urgent need to figure out how to remotely work, study and play. Covid-19 was a metaverse catalyst, such that the market for its applications is projected to grow to as much as $13 trillion by 2030, according to analysts at Citi.

No matter whose projections you follow, the growth is predicted to be exponential. 

So, while I understand Engel’s admonition that VR can be a distraction from what he calls the “real work” and the “real fun,” I wouldn’t advise companies to ignore VR altogether. Instead, think about how to win in the attention economy and remain viable as a brand. 

Author’s note: This column was powered by an unaugmented human brain. 

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