Charles Kettering said, “Our imagination is the only limit to what we can hope to have in the future.” It is in that vein that I will imagine how the metaverse could help redefine the relationship between businesses and their customers. What follows is my vision and is thus also constrained by my limited understanding. Hopefully, this will spark ideas in readers and move us further along to constructing the metaverse. It also builds on many of my previous writings about marketing. As an entrepreneur, one has to envision the future first, and then go and build it. Even if that construct is flawed and fails, it helps move the world forward. Eventually, only a handful of ideas succeed but the innovations – including the ones that do not succeed in the market – help make the world a better place.
The pre-digital world of goods and services did not lend itself easily to 1:1 relationships between brands and customers. The digital revolution starting with the Internet and spurred along by the smartphone has given every customer a digital identity (either a mobile number or an email address or both). Being able to uniquely and consistently identify each person is the starting point for constructing a 1:1 relationship. The website login or the app download enabled businesses to identify each customer and thus begin offering distinctive views of their offerings to customers. This is the world we inhabit right now. We see some personalisation based on both our individual interactions with the business augmented by that of others (collaborative recommendations). This is also a step forward from showing the same thing to everyone – as is evidenced by our feeling of delight when Amazon and Netflix recommend just the right product or movie to watch. The current interfaces are still largely 2D and haven’t changed much in the past 25 years even as the size of the screen we engage in has become smaller for most of us, shifting from the desktop to the mobile.
Meanwhile, the richness of gaming interfaces has been growing by leaps and bounds. As an intern in the mid-1980s, I remember getting fascinated by “Digger”. Compare that to the richly crafted and deeply immersive worlds that we now see in games – not just on consoles hooked up to large TVs but also on smartphone screens.
Imagine now if the gaming engines could be used to construct business and commerce websites and apps. I can, in my mind’s eye, construct the experience of walking down infinite aisles of books on Amazon – much like I do at New York’s Strand Book Shop, stopping every so often, pickup up a book, and looking inside. Next imagine if, like in the AR games, I could see avatars of others. Maybe I will meet a friend and we could chat about the books we are reading. Or, I could just pick a book and go sit on a virtual sofa – like I actually do in Kitab Khana. Sitting in my room in Mumbai, I could attend an author’s book reading session anywhere in the world, and even perhaps ask some questions and join the discussion. I could also find others who bought the same book recently and chat with them. Would a ‘book metaverse’ not be fascinating? The discrete technologies are all there – they need to be put together.
Amazon knows who is buying books and what they are reading on the Kindle, but it does not know our social network – which is locked up today on Facebook or our phone contacts. WhatsApp can decipher who we engage with more than others – so it knows who we are close to. These connections are what the metaverse can enable, along with creating nice spaces for us to interact without leaving our home. The book buying and reading experience becomes a shared experience that can enhance our learning and friendships.
These are still very simplistic starting points, but they help paint a picture of what is possible. The pandemic has made us all more digital in everything from conversation to commerce. The metaverse is simply the next upgrade to our digital existence.