The Gateway To The Metaverse Isn’t Gaming, It’s AR

As brands scramble to stake their claim in the metaverse, many have been left wondering: what is the quickest and most effective route into this virtual space – gaming or virtual reality (VR)? Here’s why the latter might be the best choice.

Excitement around the metaverse continues to spread at a rapid rate, accompanied by the idea that gaming and its associated platforms, such as Roblox and Decentraland, are the keys to unlocking this truly future-forward, innovation-driven new digital frontier. There’s no doubt that gaming has hit the mainstream, and of course these platforms will play a huge part in our tumble down the metaverse rabbit hole. However, solely focusing on these shiny new platforms puts brands at risk of overlooking another technology – one that’s already embedded within our culture and evolving at an equally breakneck pace: augmented reality (AR).

AR already has an edge over gaming: in addition to its rising popularity, its familiarity is already well-established, with many users having already adopted this technology into their everyday lives. What’s more, with a low barrier-to-entry thanks to a wide breadth of access options spanning social platforms and native app and browser-based experiences, using AR as a building block to prepare for and enter the metaverse can be a straightforward and user -friendly process. Tommy Hilfiger’s recent Snapchat filter, a clever combination of a virtual try-on teamed with a surreal World Lens optimized for LiDAR, is a great example of a brand doing exactly that-using social as an entry point to experiment with AR world-building.

The recent acquisition of WebAR platform 8th Wall by real-world mappers Niantic is the surest sign yet that AR is set to become a metaverse mainstay. With Niantic-renowned for being the company behind GPS-based sensation Pokémon Go-developing the world’s most precise 3D map of the planet, rich graphics can now be overlaid on to our physical world, allowing us to view the metaverse as it’s built around us rather than relying on access via native gaming platforms. With 5G, cloud processing and WebAR accessibility, these graphics can be overlaid instantaneously and activated effortlessly for ultimate immersion.

Things get really interesting when we start to combine the potential of AR with other core metaverse pillars, such as avatars, non-fungible tokens (NFTs) and gaming itself. Personalized interactive avatars, such as those from Ready Player Me, can now be seamlessly integrated into AR experiences – as Charli Cohen and Selfridges have recently shown with their Electric/City ‘brandiverse’ activation launching the designer’s new collection. Used as a device for individual expression in a digital space, avatar integration is key in switching perception of AR from a simple smartphone experience to the gateway leading to a customizable virtual world that users can be a part of.

This gateway status becomes solidified when we consider the potential for AR as a tool to view and experience NFTs. AR expressions of NFTs-from artwork and digital products to one-of-a-kind volumetrically-captured performances and takeaways from virtual concerts-will further help to bridge the gap between web3 and users’ physical environments. Here, AR provides added value and an extra level of engagement, elevating blockchain activations to something more tangible by using a more familiar technology.

Gamified AR, particularly multiplayer, can also be used as a powerful metaverse primer. Snapchat and Lego’s innovative Connected Lens is a great example, allowing users to link up and play the same game in a shared virtual space, even if they are not physically together. This connected gaming approach also works when making the most of a shared physical space. EE’s multiplayer AR foosball activation at Wembley Stadium allowed fans in the stands to battle it out one-on-one on the stadium’s iconic pitch, with both players experiencing the same gameplay from their own perspectives through their phone screens.

This integration with the physical world brings us back to Niantic and 8th Wall’s milestone partnership. The new emphasis on geolocation within the WebAR toolkit means users will be able to connect with each other and discover new places, with the augmented layer enhancing and altering their real-world locations. Assets can be perfectly mapped to their surroundings and new experiences can be unlocked the more they explore, encouraging regular use by rewarding curiosity. The richness and depth this will bring to AR gaming experiences is huge. Just think Pokémon Go but on a browser-based scale, with seamless access and maximum freedom.

It goes without saying that all of this becomes even more compelling with the hugely anticipated release of consumer wearables – such as the hallowed Apple Glasses – on to the market. Until that time, our smartphones and existing routes into AR remain an incredibly powerful tool if applied with the right creativity. Gaming platforms have their value, but AR really is emerging as the one to watch for brands that are planning and executing campaigns in the metaverse. And future-facing brands should be building their AR arsenal to ensure they’ll be able to bring their entire audiences along with them for the ride.

Adam Mingay is business director at Unit9.

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