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The metaverse exploded into the public consciousness in October 2021 as Facebook, Inc. changed its name to "Meta" and announced multibillion-dollar investments in metaverse technologies.
Despite the fanfare, Meta says metaverse technology is a decade or more away from maturity. In the meantime, small-business owners might want to take metaverse-related claims and investment opportunities with more than just a grain of salt.
"The best thing you can do is keep one eye on it and hold a bucket of salt," says Tom Ffiske, editor of the Immersive Wire newsletter on virtual reality, augmented reality and the metaverse. "I think anyone … saying 'it's going to be this' might be proven wrong," he adds. "It is genuinely going to be decided by market factors."
Here are a few things small-business owners should know about the metaverse.
1. It's not here yet
"When we talk about the metaverse," Ffiske says, "we are talking about an interoperable realm where the multiple virtual worlds can connect together and communicate with each other and transfer items and assets between each other … Now, we currently do not have that."
The idea of a metaverse has its roots in science fiction. Neal Stephenson was the first person to use the term in his 1992 novel "Snow Crash," which featured a metaverse as a sort of global virtual reality system. Since then, immersive, interconnected virtual worlds have become a mainstay of science fiction.
In the real world, Meta acknowledged that the metaverse "won't be built overnight," and it may take 10 to 15 years for metaverse products to be "fully realized."
"While that's frustrating for those of us eager to dive right in," Meta said in a statement, "it gives us time to ask the difficult questions about how they should be built."
2. Meta doesn't expect to profit from the metaverse any time soon
Meta is putting a lot of money into the metaverse. CEO Mark Zuckerberg indicated that Meta would invest $10 billion in its metaverse projects in 2021 during a Q3 earnings call. He acknowledged "the magnitude of this bet on the future" while cautioning that "this is not an investment that is going to be profitable for us anytime in the near future."
Meta recommended that businesses "don't stop focusing on today" and calls the investment in existing social media platforms "foundational to help grow your business in the metaverse in the future."
3. Online retailers are trying out metaverse technology
Augmented reality, or AR, adds virtual elements like images or sound effects to a real-world scene in real time. While many people first experience AR by playing with silly hats, masks and other video effects on apps like Snapchat, Instagram and FaceTime, AR is expected to be a key technology for the metaverse.
While the metaverse isn't here yet, some online retailers have already added AR to their e-commerce platforms. Here are a few prominent examples:
Furniture: You can visualize what furniture and decor products would look like in your space using AR apps from large sellers like Amazon, Home Depot, Ikea, Target and Wayfair.
Glasses: You can virtually "try on" frames before ordering them online using tools from glasses vendors like LensCrafters, Warby Parker and Zenni Optical.
Makeup: You can get a virtual makeover to see what products and shades would look best on your face using apps from cosmetics brands like Mac, Maybelline and Sephora.
Clothing and shoes: Apparel is more technically complicated than other items to represent realistically in AR, but you can virtually "try on" a selection of items from brands like Gucci and Kohls. Nike also uses AR to help shoppers measure their feet to match the right size for each pair of shoes.
The metaverse might connect what are now separate apps from each company in the future. So, for example, you might be able to mix and match virtual glasses, makeup and apparel from any seller and bring them to games, concerts, meetings or other metaverse events.
4. Video games offer peeks at 'virtual worlds'
While a full-on metaverse does not yet exist, Ffiske says, several companies are investing in what he calls the "immersive tech space" and "making great strides." Many of those companies make video games.
Here are some video game platforms that offer virtual world experiences where your avatar can explore spaces and activities built by other users and businesses:
Second Life is a "3D virtual world" launched in 2003 that's somewhere between a video game and videoconferencing software with highly customizable avatars and spaces.
Roblox is an online platform that lets users create, buy, sell and interact with items and experiences ranging from virtual hats to full video games.
Fortnite launched as a competitive video game but has evolved to host virtual events tied to real-world concerts, movies and sports arenas.
5. You can start experimenting today
Whether it's e-commerce or e-sports, the barriers to trying out some of the newest technologies are low. You can visit the virtual worlds of Roblox, Fortnite or Second Life for free, for example.
AR isn't limited to big brands online, either. Digital platforms have also started to roll out tools to help small businesses offer virtual experiences in addition to product photos without starting from scratch. For example, Shopify supports 3D models on its product pages to let customers see products in AR and has experts available for hire to help create those 3D models.
Social media can also help businesses connect and interact with consumers in new and more advanced ways, eventually making up part of the metaverse. For example, you can try out a live stream or release your filters and effects on Instagram or TikTok.
"There's a lot of speculation and pundits exploring [the metaverse] and a lot of companies will experiment. And by all means, if your company experiments, keep experimenting," Ffiske says.
"If the user has any value from the product, that product will soar, simple as that."