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Beyond: What the Metaverse is and How Hotels Can Take Advantage of it


IT’S ALL SCIENCE FICTION UNTIL IT’S NOT

If you’re into science fiction, you may know that most of the technology we use today has been predicted, in one form or another, by novelists. There are hundreds of examples in literature. H.G. Wells theorized the nuclear bomb 30 years before it was created. Flat-screen TVs and Bluetooth tech ante-litteram already surfaced in Bradbury’s masterpiece, Fahrenheit 451. The iPad? Straight out of an Arthur Clarke’s classic (2001, A space odyssey). If you’ve read Douglas Adam’s hilarious The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, then, you know that the Google Translate core idea is already there. Not to mention William Gibson’s cyberpunk manifesto (Neuromancer) and its prophecy of hackers’ attacks. Both Orwell and Huxley keep being quoted (often out of context) every time we talk and write about dystopian futures. Philip K. Dick, then, is on a class of his own. He prophesied, among other things, facial recognition, 3D printing, VR, the Internet, and self-driving cars. The Metaverse, unsurprisingly, is no exception: the term comes from Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, and the fundamental features of the technology are already there, printed in a book published some 30 years ago. Here’s an extract:

“The Metaverse is a fictional structure made out of code. And code is just a form of speech -the form that computers understand. (…) The people who go into the Metaverse, basically – who understand that information is power, and who (…) have this semi-mystical ability to speak magic computer languages.”

And these are the words of Mark Zuckerberg during Meta’s recent Connect 2021 virtual event:

“You can think about the metaverse as an embodied internet, where instead of just viewing content – you are in it.”

The similarities are undeniable.

I SING THE BODY ELECTRIC!

However, if you’re not particularly interested in sci-fi or technology, chances are you were introduced to the concept of Metaverse just last week, when Facebook announced the company name change to Meta, during the above-mentioned event (that can be seen, in its entirety, here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uvufun6xer8 ). But, what is, exactly, the Metaverse? It may be defined as a new digital reality combining elements of AR, VR, mixed reality, social interaction, online gaming, shopping, and work. Some may label it as extended reality (XR), but it’s hard to put a commonly accepted label to the concept, because -let’s make it clear as soon as possible- the Metaverse does not exist.

Yet.

Easier is to explain the Metaverse’s primary goal: for users to interact virtually, overcome the limitation of devices (such as smartphones or tablets) and immerse themselves in a (brave) new world where the line between what is physical and what is digital are increasingly blurred.

“We,” Zuckerberg stated in his keynote, “believe the Metaverse will be the successor to the mobile Internet. We’ll be able to feel present, like we’re right there with people, no matter how far apart we actually are. We’ll be able to express ourselves in new, joyful, completely immersive ways. And that’s going to unlock a lot of amazing new experiences. When I send my parents a video of my kids, they’ll feel like they’re in the moment with us, not peering in through a little window. When you play a game with friends, you’ll feel like you’re right there together in a different world, not just on your computer by yourself. And when you’re in a meeting in the Metaverse, it’ll feel like you’re right in the room together, making eye contact, having a shared sense of space, and not looking at a grid of faces on a screen. That’s what we mean by an embodied internet. Instead of looking at a screen, you’re going to be in these experiences.”

At this point of the presentation, Zuckerberg (or, more precisely, his avatar) proceeds by joining a poker game at a table with a giant robot, a floating girl, and a couple of holograms in what seems to be a glimpse of how a Metaverse “home” could look like.

“The best way to understand the Metaverse,” Zuckerberg added, “is to experience it yourself. (…) But it’s tough, because it doesn’t fully exist yet.”

BUILDING THE METAVERSE

And this is where things become complicated. Sure, some of the “blocks” of the Metaverse are already here, such as AR Glasses. A few years ago, Facebook signed a partnership with ElisirLuxottica and it recently launched its Ray-Ban Stories, a pair of Wayfarers that let you take pictures and videos, listen to music, and make phone calls. It’s the first step toward an authentic AR experience, that will likely be reached with the new generation of Facebook glasses (codenamed “Project Nazare”). Other essential blocks are the Oculus Quest headsets (and their high-end successors, codenamed “Project Cambria”), and online microtransactions infrastructures.

Some blocks, on the other hand, are still embryonal, such as avatars (“how we’re going to represent ourselves in the Metaverse”), considered as the logical evolutionary step from static profile pictures into “living 3D representations” of us. And, finally, some of these blocks do not exist yet, such as the “home” spaces, that we’ll inhabit and where we’ll be able to interact with friends, family, and coworkers, or use it as the base to teleport ourselves wherever (and/or WHENever) we want, with just a click.

Finally, some blocks are still work-in-progress or in beta-stage, such as Horizon, the social platform where people will be able to interact in the Metaverse (you can get in the waiting list here: https://www.oculus.com/facebook-horizon/sign-up/), and where your “home,” “workrooms,” and all the different “worlds” will be hosted, together with a marketplace for selling/buying digital (and, probably, physical) items.

VIRTUAL, AUGMENTED, AND MIXED

But the Metaverse is not only VR and AR, but also Mixed Reality. In a few years, we could be able to join our friends at a concert under the appearance of holograms, and enjoy the experience from our couch while our pals are physically at the gig. “The feeling of presence,” as Zuckerberg highlighted, “is the defining quality of the Metaverse.” The same can be applied to the workplace: it’s not far-fetched to think that, even after the pandemic is over, part of us will keep working remotely, while some of us will go back to the office, possibly creating a counterproductive hiatus between staff that is physically present to that important meeting and staff which are not. This hybrid conundrum may be solved by teleporting oneself to the office and interacting with colleagues (even though as a hologram) without completely losing the human value of social interaction. Again, the Metaverse’s goal is for people to feel connected, anytime, anywhere, and get together, with a sense of realistic presence, in both virtual, augmented, and mixed spaces.

WHERE ARE WE?

An early incarnation of the Metaverse can already be seen in gaming, one of the most (if not the most) immersive digital industries in the world, so if you’re into videogames, the whole concept may not be entirely new to you. Fitness is another industry where both VR and AR are being used quite heavily in recent years, it would not be surprising that the foundations of the Metaverse could emerge from these sectors. Moreover, applications of VR/AR have been massively democratized recently, also thanks to apps such as Polar, which allows virtually anyone to design augmented reality objects without possessing any coding or design skills. Basically, anyone with an iPhone can easily blend virtual objects into the physical environment, without knowing a single line of code.

But let’s not kid ourselves: this journey will go on for decades. First of all, the Metaverse needs some infrastructures that not only do not exist today, but the whole Internet landscape has not been originally created for supporting such a revolutionary platform. Moreover, we will need standards and protocols (possibly from day one) exactly as we have for the Internet today, and -because of the complexity of the metaverse- this could take years. Not to mention the privacy and regulation concerns that building the Metaverse can trigger.

At this stage, therefore, any prediction on how the Metaverse will look like won’t be much more than pure speculation, and the risk that the “hype” turns into “a bubble” is quite tangible. Here below is a screenshot from Google Trends, that highlights the increased volume of search for the term “Metaverse” after Meta’s keynote on the topic.

APPLICATIONS IN HOSPITALITY

With all that in mind, we can start engaging with the idea and envision some of the possible applications of the Metaverse in our industry. I predict that branded hotels will be (as defined by Rogers Adoption Curve) the innovators/early adopters of the technology. It does not seem too far-fetched to me that, in 5 years’ time, the Marriotts and Hiltons of the world will start building meta versions of their hotels into Horizon, allowing avatar/guests to meet with their friends in the lobby, or brainstorm on their virtual meeting rooms, of course for a fee.

That being said, it may be way too early for the (probably unjustified, at this stage) attention that the Metaverse is getting, at least in hospitality. If the Metaverse can be (and will surely be) a goldmine for online microtransactions-centric industries (think of gaming: the console microtransaction market alone generated $2.94 Billion in 2017), on the other hand, VR traveling never really got mainstream, and this is something we all learned during last year’s lockdowns. It’s hard to sell a room if your guests can get out of their apartments. In an interesting article on the topic, Tokopedia Campaign Specialist, Shanny Djovani, stated: “VR tourism is a new frontier that is yet to be adopted into the mainstream. Youtube and other major content hosting services are growing their repositories of 360° video content. However, unlike conventional travel which is typically associated with freedom, current video content only allows you to view what has been recorded for you to see.”

But, as we’ve seen, the Metaverse is far from being just VR, at least on its original intents. The Metaverse, conceptually, is not Fornite, nor Minecraft or The Sims. It’s not an Instagram filter that turns you into a unicorn. It’s not a Black Mirror episode either, even though some may believe (and fear) that. It’s a new way to interact with reality(ies), being real-life, AR, VR, or MR. But, more interesting for our industry, the Metaverse can be (and probably will) be a fully functioning economy. “Individuals and businesses,” Managing Partner of EpyllionCo, Matthew Ball, wrote on a series of must-read articles on the topic, “will be able to create, own, invest, sell, and be rewarded for an incredibly wide range of work that produces value that is recognized by others.”

How this is going to affect travel is still largely unknown and, even though I can foresee some of the Metaverse applications in hotel distribution and advertising, the “hows and whys” are still nebulous. But one thing is certain: last week, we made a step beyond the internet as we know it.

Hopefully for the best.



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