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The metaverse: is it worth it?

Simon Clayton, chief ideas officer, RefTech, details how the metaverse needs development before it can truly impact the events industry.

The pace that technology changes is staggering. The metaverse is one of the latest things that eventprofs are talking about and some companies are spending millions on it – but will it be worth it?

Well, possibly for some, but not yet and it won’t impact live events in the foreseeable future. Some elements of virtual meetings work well, like video meetings. But this is now considered 'normal', so much so, that I’m seeing requests for a video call, when a phone call would have sufficed. But just because people have got used to using something, doesn’t mean that they like it.

Virtual events were necessary through lockdown, but now that lockdown has lifted, we are seeing a huge resurgence of real-life events, because people want to meet face to face. I’ve still not seen a virtual tradeshow that can compete with a real tradeshow, and the socialising parts of any virtual event were either non-existent or clunky at best.

YouTube has taught us that people like to watch good content, but that they don’t need to see it live. The live element of any virtual conference seemed only to serve in creating a Q&A which doesn’t need to be live at all. On YouTube, content creators are constantly trying to encourage interaction and engagement with their audience by asking people to ‘comment below’ and it really works.

The metaverse

So, let’s bring the metaverse into this. Just as we are starting to experience life again, along comes the metaverse with the promise that you can experience everything the world has to offer from the comfort of your own home.

At the moment, the perceived problem with virtual events is that they simply aren’t the same as gathering everyone round a meeting table. Therefore, the events industry has looked for some more technology to fix this problem and jumped onto the metaverse as the solution.

Our industry talks about the power of immersion. Whilst wearing my VR headset I am immersed; it also means that I can’t even pick up my coffee. My keyboard is pretty state of the art, but it’s not one of the three supported by Oculus, which allows the keyboard to appear in the virtual world so I could type whilst I’m ‘submerged’. Will we see more integration between the metaverse and real-life objects?

Factors to consider

As with most new technology, there are problems. New technology isn’t always better than the existing solutions. Take 3D TV, this was something we didn’t need, or it turns out, want. If a film came out in 3D, people would go to see it, but directors had to create storylines that emphasised the 3D-ness of the film, which detracted from the story. People didn’t like wearing the glasses either. It was fun for a while, but where is it now? It turns out that TV wasn’t actually broken.

Culturally, we are a small island and it's not too hard to see people in real life. Where I live, I can get to a large part of the country in two hours, so virtual meetings aren’t really that crucial to me. The rise in fuel prices and the growing concern for the environment may have an impact too – but I think that will simply drive more video calls.

The cost of joining the metaverse (or one of the competitors) is a factor too; entry level headsets are around £300 but go up to around £1,000. Will companies be rushing out to equip their teams with expensive kit that will effectively just imprison them at their desk?

Another major stumbling block will be interoperability. Jumping between Zoom, Microsoft Teams or any of the other video call platforms on a laptop is easy enough, but what if the big client you want to meet with is using one of the VR platforms you don’t have a headset for?

At the moment, the metaverse is too primitive, too buggy and too flawed in plenty of ways. In its current state I don’t think it’s fit for purpose as an events solution, but we will of course see some organisers try to shoehorn it into their events.

As with all technology, there has to be serious benefits to drive both change and acceptance.