What is the metaverse exactly? An explanation based on insights from UX research

A vision of the Metaverse with people wearing VR headsets interacting within virtual space (Credit to Chris Dodge for the illustration)
A vision of the Metaverse (Credit to Chris Dodge for the illustration)

I’ve been in UX all my career, so I’ve always had those awkward moments explaining what I do to people I meet. Now I work at a global market research company, it’s actually a bit easier. Everyone knows what Market Research is, so I talk about how we use research to guide the design of innovative tech products.

The other day I was challenged to give an example of the innovative tech I work on and I went for the Metaverse and immediately found myself regretting it. I couldn’t explain what the Metaverse was or give coherent examples of where it’s different from gaming or VR. I left that conversation frustrated with myself, so I went away and did some investigation and spoke to some of our experts and this is what I now know. I hope you find it useful.

Although the concept of the Metaverse feels futuristic and modern, it’s actually been around for a long time in fiction. Like most current technology, sci-fi novels help shape and predict future creations. Novels like Snow Crash and Ready Player One brought the idea to life.

There’s a lack of clarity on what the Metaverse is

What was very clear from my initial research was the lack of a clear definition of what the Metaverse actually is. Definitions feel vague and lacking in clarity. For example, Mark Zuckerberg defines it as

“an embodied internet where you’re in the experience, not just looking at it”

What does this really mean?

Microsoft really doesn’t help clarify the issue much either, by describing the Metaverse as:

“a persistent digital world that is inhabited by digital twins of people, places, and things”.

I’m pretty sure my parents would look at me as if I’d grown a second head if I told them this is what I was working on.

In fact, the more I read about it, the more confusing it became to differentiate what we have already in gaming and extended reality with the metaverse.

When I asked my super smart colleagues Pip Mothersill and Katelyn Faulks who are our resident experts on this space, they told me that the reason why there are no clear definitions is because it’s still being built. The Metaverse is an idea, a concept, a vision that many of us can imagine, because most of what exists today such as augmented reality, virtual reality, and games are precursors to the metaverse.

While still being defined, the vision for the metaverse is familiar

To help understand the vision, Katelyn and Pip use an example scenario of what the metaverse could be like for users. But they stress that this really doesn’t exist yet, just components of it do. The metaverse will be when all of these interconnected elements come together in one place.

Let’s imagine that in 10 years, you have extended reality contacts that connect to your smart earbuds. You are travelling in a new city, and want to buy a new sweater, so you ask your virtual assistant where you can find a clothing boutique that has cardigans available in your usual budget — which she already knows.

The busy street in front of you slightly goes out of focus, as your virtual assistant pulls up the nearest store options for you. You select a store that is 30 blocks away, by foot. Your virtual assistant offers you different route options, and, while doing so, you notice your favourite taxi-app is offering a deal today. You say “TAXI” and it sends a driver automatically to you.

Once you get to the store, you find a sweater you like — as you pick it up, your XR contacts sync with a virtual menu and storefront, that offer you different options to choose from. You can, try on the sweater using a virtual mirror, you can access your digitized closet to compare the sweater against what you already own, and you can purchase the sweater right there, using virtual currency — like your crypto wallet or phone pay. Your virtual assistant notifies you of a deal, the store is offering, to add a virtual stylist to help you style the sweater with the clothes you have in the closet or help you find additional options in the store.

I like this vision. It helps visualise something different, but kind of familiar to what exists today. In case you’re not sure what extended reality (XR) means. It’s essentially an umbrella term for augmented reality (which adds a digital layer on top of the real world) and virtual reality (which is an immersive environment accessed via a headset). You’ll also notice in this description we’re also seeing cryptocurrency added into the mix too.

So now I understand more about what the metaverse will be, I can see why our team are so excited about this space, and why we are doing a lot of work in helping companies to shape their own vision of how users might interact with them in a metaverse.

Insights from UX research in VR can help shape our vision of the metaverse

I asked Katelyn and Pip to explain how we’re helping companies to think about how to have a presence in a space that doesn’t exist yet. Their approach is to use what we already know about designing AR, VR and games to help us define a great user experience in the metaverse. The UX team at Ipsos have defined a set of UX design principles that help guide companies to define a vision that users really want, and will enjoy interacting with. Although they are not ready to share these yet, I did gather some insights from the team where they conducted user research in VR. This is a really useful way to visualise what a great UX will look like.

The team conducted diary studies and interviews with VR users from a wide range of backgrounds about their experiences with VR platforms that are likely to shape the future of the metaverse, the shortcomings they’ve encountered, and the innovations they’re most excited about.

People want to socialise, have fun and explore virtual worlds

One of the core themes they found was that VR is a great opportunity for users to socialise. This need accelerated during the pandemic when interacting with others wasn’t possible physically, so people turned to VR and even as restrictions relaxed, they continue to use it to socialise.

People want to play games together, attend a virtual event, or even just explore a virtual environment with others. VR provides a unique sense of presence where it can feel like you’re truly next to someone. One of the participants from their research talked about playing a virtual golf game, not only to play golf but also to meet others and explore the interesting landscape.

A future metaverse will most likely focus on the blend of gaming, socialising, and exploration that allows users to interact in unique ways they can’t in the real world. Because they are physically in different locations, but also in environments that don’t exist in reality.

Real-world and virtual worlds combine to offer the best of both

Another theme from the research showed that people want to customise their personal environment and identity to represent their personality and preferences. They wanted to customise their identity to either look like them in the real world or to express their personality and preferences in fun ways. They also wanted to control their environment by decorating their virtual home and preparing it by scanning their DVD collection ready to host a movie night in VR.

The mix of the real world and reality goes the other way too. People were excited about the idea of projecting friends and family avatars into their real homes. The idea of connecting with others who are physically distant is clearly a key need that the metaverse is well suited to.

Another theme we found in our research was the need for people to explore places, activities, and things they either couldn’t in real life or were not yet ready to commit to. Travelling to destinations before booking a holiday, trying sky diving, playing the guitar, or even trying out new haircuts and clothing styles were all popular ways to use VR. One person mentioned that they wanted to see what it was like to be a paramedic before making a decision to switch careers.

A metaverse that allows people to explore their dreams and make them a reality sounds like a great line for an advertising campaign. But this technology really does have the potential to do just that. The implications for the travel industry, education and even recruitment are easy to see and suddenly all that marketing hype about the trillions of dollars waiting to be spent on the metaverse starts to become clearer.

The hype isn’t real yet, but it’s exciting

I don’t know about you, but as I was exploring this topic and writing this article I became more excited by the idea. Even if it is just a vision at the moment, I’m enthusiastic about the possibilities and can see the important role UX will play in this space in the near future.

So now I have a clearer idea of what the metaverse is, I guess I’d be tempted to define it as:

A vision for the future which doesn’t yet exist, that utilises virtual environments, blends gaming, extended reality, and cryptocurrency to allow people to explore, learn, socialise, and express themselves in new ways that they can’t in the real world.

If you’re interested to learn more about what our team has to say about this topic, you can check out a couple of our recent webinars, our white paper, and an upcoming webinar here:

A Metaverse Users Want (Webinar Recording)

Understanding the landscape — a 360 view of the metaverse & web3 (Webinar Recording)

Welcome to the metaverse (White Paper)

Design Thinking for Immersive Experiences (Upcoming Webinar — Nov 17th 2022)

Read the full article here

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Daniel Segun is a Content Writer, Graphics Designer, and Web Developer with a

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