What Exactly Is the Metaverse? Here’s One Expert’s Take.

Entrepreneur and academic Tommaso Di Bartolo, speaking at Convening Leaders 2023, tackled the metaverse questions many in events are asking.

Author: Barbara Palmer       

Tommaso Di Bartolo

Phygtl founder Tommaso Di Bartolo, who spoke remotely for his Convening Leaders 2023 session, said of the metaverse, “What we are embarking on is to connect the physical and the digital world.”

Convene editors gathered ideas and insights from a variety of sources to examine what the metaverse is and how business events professionals are and will be using it in the future. This is one in a series of stories (see list at bottom) from the March/April issue of Convene.

The metaverse “is a term that, at present, almost defies definition,” wrote tech futurist Cathy Hackl in her recently published book, Into the Metaverse. Speaker Tommaso Di Bartolo, a technology entrepreneur and instructor at the University of California, Berkeley, backed into his discussion of the future of the metaverse at PCMA Convening Leaders 2023, held in Columbus in January, by first listing five things that the metaverse is not:

  • The metaverse is not a video game, said Di Bartolo, who appeared at the conference on a screen, speaking remotely. Gamers were the early adopters of immersive digital worlds and still make up a large percentage of active users, Di Bartolo said, but the metaverse is not synonymous with gaming.
  • The metaverse is not NFT (non-fungible tokens) — a blockchain-based cryptocurrency. NFTs are used for commerce in immersive worlds, but they are not the metaverse, he said.
  • The metaverse is not virtual reality. The metaverse is “platform-agnostic,” said Di Bartolo, who co-authored with Hackl the 2022 book, Navigating the Metaverse. “The metaverse obviously will include virtual reality,” he said, “but will achieve its peak of acceptance as soon as augmented reality is seamlessly integrated in our lives.”
  • The metaverse is not Meta (formerly Facebook), in the same way that Tesla is not the car and Google is not the internet, Di Bartolo said. Meta “is just a player out there that is taking its own angle on how to approach things.”
  • The metaverse is not a place. “It’s an experience — and an extension to our real life. What we are embarking on is to connect the physical and the digital world,” said Di Bartolo, who named his most recent company Phygtl.

Some of the confusion swirling around the term “metaverse” comes from the fact that it often is used interchangeably with Web 3.0, a term that describes where we are in the evolution of the internet. “We are the very beginning of tech’s third innovation cycle,” Di Bartolo said. The first cycle was the creation of the internet. The second — Web 2.0 — refers to evolution from a static platform to one with user-generated content distributed on social-media platforms, including LinkedIn, Facebook, YouTube, etc. A key shift between the first and second innovation cycles came when the internet went from being a place where people went to search for information, Di Bartolo said, to a medium that, by way of social-media platforms, allows users to deploy information from a device they hold in the palm of their hands.

Immersive experiences that blend the physical and digital characterize the current paradigm shift to Web 3.0. Where now a location-based AR experience is usually triggered by a QR code or a specific app, in the future, Hackl wrote, “these experiences will be triggered merely by a device approaching the area.” We “won’t swipe our way through the metaverse,” Di Bartolo wrote in a recent Forbes article. The metaverse “will be something like painting over the analog physical world with an augmented data layer,” he added, encompassing “shopping, socializing, working out, learning, listening to music, traveling, attending a conference or even sleeping.”

One thing we need to understand is that we are just at the beginning of something new, Di Bartolo told the Convening Leaders audience. “The metaverse is a still a baby.” It’s still in an early stage — “the early, early adopters” — comparable to an infant who crawls before it can walk, he said. “There will be rewards for those who experiment now — and risks in ignoring the metaverse, he said during his session. “In addition to technology shifts, there is a is a behavioral shift happening,” he said. “If you neglect that, it might happen that you are not catching up with this new generation and new methods.” Di Bartolo compared the metaverse’s development with where social media was in 2004 and 2005. “Imagine that you could have explored Facebook at its beginning, or Instagram a couple of years later, from the get-go,” he said. “What would it mean for your advantage?”

What to Do Now

A good first step is to begin thinking about what digital environments are best suited to your business case, and “begin experimenting,” he said. And short of that, there are two ways in which every organization can position itself for the metaverse, Di Bartolo wrote in the Forbes article. For starters, the metaverse is “community-centric,” so create community. Even if you’re not a Web 3.0 business, “learn from how Web 3.0 businesses run their communities,” he suggested. Compared with followers, community members are “are far more invested in an organization’s success.”

And secondly, “find a way to incentivize people to create content about your brand, product and/or platform,” he wrote. “The metaverse will thrive on user-generated content, which increases your digital footprint exponentially and expands your brand’s reach. Your community can create more content about your brand than you can. Let their creativity run free.”

Barbara Palmer is deputy editor of Convene.

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