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Become a master of the metaverse

Metaverse Dubai Future Foundation
Top tech organisations including Meta and Mastercard took part in the Dubai Metaverse Assembly at the Museum of the Future last year
  • How to understand the virtual world
  • What business opportunities it presents
  • Who the region’s pioneers are

For a time last year, all anybody seemed to be talking about was the metaverse. Some Gulf businesses said they were already planning for it, while others were trying to work out what the fuss was about.

The frequently asked questions included: when will it really arrive? How much does it cost? Who’s on the case already? Will it boost our profits? And, of course, what is it exactly?

Let’s start with the basics. The metaverse has been described as the inevitable evolution of the internet. The screens we use today to connect to the web will progress to a universe of 3D virtual realms where we can work, shop, learn and interact with one another.

Many predict that the immersive metaverse will enable life experiences – and commercial opportunities – that could not be found in the physical world.

The prospect of our digital facsimiles, or avatars, moving seamlessly from one interactive experience to the next – taking our digital bank accounts with us – has captured the imaginations of entrepreneurs as well as social media players.

When will it go mainstream? 

Opinion is divided. Business consultancy Markets and Markets has forecast that the metaverse market is set to grow from $61.8 billion in 2022 to $426.9 billion in 2027. 

A June 2022 study from the Pew Research Center found that 54 percent of expert respondents predicted the metaverse would be a fully immersive aspect of daily life for at least half a billion people by 2040 – while 46 percent said it would not.  

One reason for this divide is the software challenges. While the buzz around the metaverse has hastened development and take-up of enabling hardware such as virtual reality (VR) headsets, there also needs to be adequate bandwidth for optimal interoperability, achieved when the exchange of data is completely automated.

The metaverse is for now shaping up as a “multiverse”: rather than a single shared virtual space, there’s limited interoperability between environments and platforms.

But many believe the tech giants and startups will find solutions. Meta (formerly Facebook), Google and Microsoft are investing billions of dollars in everything from 3D, real-time collaboration software to blockchain-based decentralised finance tools.

What will be its primary uses?

E-commerce is expected to be the driving force, with marketing, entertainment, education and gaming becoming significant sectors. 

The last item on that list has led to some surprising partnerships. Gucci, one of the luxury brands that is actively investing in the metaverse, has opened a meeting place in the Sandbox virtual world and created a gallery in collaboration with digital art marketplace SuperRare. But it has also established a presence on Roblox, a gaming platform popular with children – complete with avatar of Jack Grealish, the Manchester City footballer who is also one of its brand ambassadors.

Remote business meetings look set to be where many companies will test the attributes of the metaverse.

Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates has predicted that in the next two to three years most virtual meetings will move from two-dimensional square boxes to the metaverse.

The Mesh for Microsoft Teams service, which costs $10 per month per person, lets users share holographic experiences during virtual meetings. 

The platform includes a suite of artificial intelligence-powered tools for avatars, session management and spatial rendering.

But with the metaverse still largely unbuilt, we’re yet to see how companies will harness the technologies to their individual commercial needs. 

Lauren Lubetsky, a senior manager at consultancy Bain & Company in New York, outlined two possible scenarios: the metaverse will be used for gaming and entertainment but will fall short of an all-encompassing virtual reality, or it will truly be an open and interoperable space – the internet in 3D.

Jason Warnke, senior managing director of global digital experiences at Accenture, is convinced that it will be the latter. 

“The metaverse will impact every aspect of every business, including how work is performed, what products are offered, how products are distributed and how businesses operate,” he said.

Who are the Middle East’s metaverse pioneers?

Various companies in the Gulf are ahead of the metaverse curve.

Food delivery At Gitex Global in Dubai last October, UAE burger chain Pickl teamed up with Commercial Bank International (CBI) to trial a metaverse dining experience for guests at the tech event.

Visitors to CBI’s stand had avatars activated before collecting tokens in a simulated Web3 wallet and entering Pickl’s virtual restaurant. After placing their order, they received a real-world burger within minutes, delivered from a food truck outside. 

The verdict? “It was a novelty,” said Pickl comms director Simon Ritchie. “But it’s too early for consumers to switch the way they order food. They’re used to the convenience of food delivery apps. We continue to look for ways to engage in the metaverse.”

Real estate Dubai developer Damac Properties is enthusiastic about how the metaverse will boost sales.

General manager Ali Sajwani said last September: “We started focusing on online sales when Covid started in 2020. People around the world started purchasing property without ever visiting Dubai.” 

He believes remote sales will be even more plentiful with the metaverse enabling customers to explore digital twins mirroring real world assets, and to “compare selected finishes, see the views and look around the community”. 

AYA is a digital immersive experience at Wafi Mall in Dubai. Picture: HyperSpace

Entertainment HyperSpace, a Dubai startup, is aiming to challenge ride-based theme parks with AYA, a 40,000-sq-ft digital immersive experience with interactive gardens and other fantasy spaces, which has opened at Wafi Mall. 

The company plans to open more “physical parks for the digital world” this year at Dubai Mall and in Saudi Arabia, said CEO Alexander Heller, who added that the sites are designed to appeal to Gen Z, millennials, gamers and Instagrammers.

Public services One striking example of government immersion in the metaverse is the UAE Ministry of Economy, which is providing its portfolio of services in a virtual office where visitors can organise meetings and interact using avatars. 

The platform, which is available 24/7, can be used for signing agreements and legally binding documents by users who are not physically present in the Emirates.

How much does it cost to get your brand in the metaverse?

It all depends what you’re buying – a virtual or augmented reality presence, complete with headsets and other hardware, AI tools, 3D modelling, blockchain or all of the above.

The costs of a metaverse solution can range from $10,000 to $400,000, according to Indian tech development company Oyelabs.

David Robinson, CEO of Al Maryah Retail Company, which operates the Galleria shopping mall in Abu Dhabi, will only say the firm is investing “substantial” sums in “game-changing retail initiatives that blur the boundaries between the metaverse and how it is implemented in physical space”.

Ramit Harisinghani is an early adopter in the metaverse realm of non-fungible tokens (NFTs), a collectible or digital asset that demonstrates ownership of a physical or digital item, such as a work of art or a luxury penthouse. 

Harisinghani, who is general manager of Devialet at Chalhoub Group, which distributes luxury brands in the region, bought a virtual Paris penthouse for 0.6 ether before the cryptocurrency crash (Ethereum’s all-time high against the dollar is $4,891.70; it is currently trading around $1,500).

In a column for AGBI, he wrote: “Buying real estate in the metaverse is a great way to understand the concept of digital ownership and platforms for interoperable experience. 

“From designing the virtual rooms to showcasing other NFTs such as art, inviting guests for meetings or streaming live presentations in a sophisticated virtual environment, you can pretty much establish your very own personal HQ in the metaverse.”

Metaverse real estate
The Row is a ‘metaverse real estate community featuring architecture designed by artists’. Picture: The Row/The Alexander Team/Everyrealm/Cover Images

Magnifying human traits – for good and ill

Many of the experts questioned for the Pew study argued that extended reality in people’s daily lives would centre on augmented and mixed-reality tools, rather than the more fully immersive VR worlds that many define as the metaverse. 

They also warned that these new worlds could magnify both good and bad human traits. The concerns they raise are the ones already associated with the internet: cyber-crime, antisocial behaviour, depression, addiction and obesity if overuse replaces exercise.

Amin Al Zarouni, CEO of Web3 company Bedu, is aiming to overhaul the Gulf’s education system via metaverse learning experiences, but within the physical classroom, not away from it.

“Going to school is about building character, connections and social skills,” he said. “But the metaverse world will complement what happens in real life.”

Shoppers in the region remain wedded to bricks-and-mortar malls while also increasingly using e-commerce platforms. But hybrid physical and digital in-store experiences are now a strategic priority. The Adidas store in Dubai Mall has “smart” fitting rooms and a Maker Lab enabling customers to personalise products. 

Similarly, legal and security systems are preparing to monitor the metaverse. The Dubai International Financial Centre Courts have issued a set of rules designed to address digital business disputes relating to big data, blockchain, AI, fintech, 3D printing, robotics and more.

The metaverse is transforming how we see the world and how we participate in it – and it is with us already.

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