4 Reasons Our Future Is Decidedly Virtual

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In January, new reports on Apple’s long-awaited augmented reality/virtual reality headset were released. And if what’s in these reports is even partially true, Apple is poised to give the world one of the most jaw-dropping, powerful pieces of technology in history (again) — which is why it was a bit surprising that this news didn’t make more of a splash.

This is the same company that has fans enter lotteries for tickets to corporate keynote addresses! Yet, outside of the usual tech blogs and a few newspaper columns, the future of Apple’s AR/VR device went largely unnoticed.

Of course, Apple is not the first company in the virtual space to experience disappointment. Facebook stock has plummeted since it first announced its name change to Meta and made a commitment to the metaverse in October 2021. Sony just announced a drastic reduction in its anticipated launch numbers for its PlayStation VR2 headset, dropping its initial forecast by 50%.

And the European Union was roasted on social media a few months ago after spending more than $400,000 to host an event in the metaverse that drew only a handful of thoroughly disappointed attendees.


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So, has the virtual bubble burst?

Nonsense. Not only is virtual here to stay, it’s our future. Here are the four biggest reasons why, like it or not, humans will be living in a virtual-first world one day.

1. Tech

The most common complaint about virtual reality is that it’s not the same as real life, which is true. But how long before it feels real?

People forget that the first cell phones weighed 5 pounds, lost signal every few blocks and were so big they needed to be carried in briefcases. But today, we all carry phones that weigh a few ounces in our pockets, can connect seamlessly via video to almost any person on earth and boast more than 100,000 times the processing power of the computer that landed two men on the moon in 1969.

Even with all the incredible achievements in AR/VR, we are still in the “cell phone in a briefcase” phase. The uncanny valley. But the technology will get there sooner than we think.

How do I know? Because the businesses that get virtual right will be handsomely rewarded.

Look at the success of 19 Crimes wine. The company took the basic paper wine label and turned it into a one-of-a-kind experience with the help of AR. Now, when consumers see a 19 Crimes bottle on the shelf, they are quick to pull out their phones and use the 19 Crimes app to bring the figure on the bottle to life.

Are there wine brands that receive more awards and higher rankings than 19 Crimes? Certainly. But that’s not the point. Embracing virtual allowed the brand to take a typically mundane item (a paper wine label) and turn it into an experience, and in the process, went from 4 million bottles sold to 18 million in just 18 months.

It’s the same principle used by The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios. The once “discount cousin” to Disney World, Universal Studios took everyday items such as cream soda and pieces of molded plastic and turned them into experiences. Now, that cream soda sells as a “Butterbeer” for $7.99, and that piece of plastic is a $55 wizard wand.

Because they started selling an experience, not just a ticket for some rides, attendance to Universal Studios jumped 20% and revenue shot up more than 40% for the year.

Younger generations are driving a consumer culture that’s much more focused on experiences than things, and they’re willing to pay a premium for them. As AR/VR tech improves, so will these experiences. Brands will no longer be limited by time, money and the physics of the natural world.

They’ll only be limited by their imagination.

2. Gaming

Did you know that 65% of American adults play video games? Or that the video game industry is five times larger than the film industry? How about the fact that nearly seven years after first going viral, the AR sensation “Pokémon Go” reported more than $1 billion in annual revenue in both 2020 and 2021, a 45% increase over what the game earned the year it made headlines across the globe?

Video games are already the clearest use case for AR/VR. But in the future, these games won’t just be embraced at home. Once businesses realize the creativity and innovations they can unlock by immersing employees into virtual worlds, virtual gaming will become part of our work as well.

While C-suite executives might look down their noses at gamers, they’d be shortsighted to do so. Video games encourage many of the behaviors that leaders want to see in their employees. Teamwork, communication, problem-solving, resilience to failure, innovation, creativity and more. Gamers are required to use these skills regularly while immersed in their virtual worlds.

As soon as businesses see this, they’ll be quick to embrace virtual as the future of work.

3. Global warming

From 2003 to 2019, the number of air passengers, and therefore volume of air travel, more than doubled. With this increase has come an increase in our impact on the planet. Scientists have estimated that a single passenger’s share of emissions on a flight from New York to Los Angeles is enough to melt 32 square feet of arctic summer ice, according to The New York Times.

Our travel habits are causing serious harm to our planet. And virtual worlds and experiences are a major part of the solution.

My sister recently attended the ABBA Voyage concert in London, where virtual avatars perform a 90-minute set, singing, dancing and traversing the stage in a way that is incredibly real. My sister even admitted to me that there was a long period of the show where she didn’t even realize it wasn’t the real ABBA. The virtual experience was that good.

With mega reunion concerts all the rage these days, one forgets that a touring arena show requires dozens of semitrucks and countless international flights, making it a carbon emissions nightmare. But what if there were a future where fans could experience an amazing show locally (or even in their living rooms!) and the bands didn’t need to travel at all?

While this may sound ridiculous, consider that the ABBA Voyage virtual concert has sold more than one billion tickets since it opened in May 2022. When you consider the speed at which this technology has improved, the future for virtual concerts and events (and their role in reducing carbon emissions) is quite bright.

4. Pandemics

There was no greater glimpse at the future of virtual than during the COVID-19 pandemic. As the world braced itself against the virus, everything became virtual. Gyms were swapped with Peloton classes. Conference rooms for Zoom. Grocery stores for Instacart.

And these changes weren’t just short-lived. Recent reports show major cities like New York losing more than $12 billion in annual revenue due to remote work. People are spending less on restaurants, bars, gyms, salons and retail stores, and more on goods and services that suit remote work lifestyles.

I experienced this shift firsthand in my own business. Prior to the pandemic, 85% of my speaking engagements were at live, in-person events. But in 2021, I did 100% virtual events. In 2022 I snapped back to 70% live and 30% virtual. And now 2023 is shaping up to be a 50/50 split.

I don’t believe I’ll ever go back to 100% in-person events. Although there was some attendee fatigue after two years of all-virtual events, event organizers are now realizing that the cost savings and convenience of virtual events are hard to beat. Plus, a steady mix of virtual events will help insulate the live event industry from future pandemics.

Don’t think we’ll see another pandemic like COVID-19? Think again. In the past 40 years alone, we’ve had outbreaks of SARS, H1N1, MERS, Ebola and, of course, coronavirus, all just a few years apart. Sure, many of these outbreaks were regional, but humans have battled widespread disease since the beginning of time. And this battle won’t be going away anytime soon. So, there will always be a need for virtual events and gatherings.

We’re all going virtual

Stock prices and poor press aside, why did a company as successful as Facebook change its name to Meta and make a very risky, public commitment to the metaverse? Why is Apple spending years and investing countless dollars into building an AR/VR device for a category without a proven use case? Why is Disney filing metaverse-related patents and hiring a substantial number of employees to support its new metaverse strategy?

It’s because they believe. And if some of the most innovative, successful companies on Earth believe the metaverse is the future, we should start believing, too.

Sure, it might still take a few generations before humans live in a virtual-first world. But that world is coming. And we should prepare ourselves (and our businesses) for when it gets here.

Duncan Wardle, former VP at The Walt Disney Company, runs iD8 & innov8.


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