(Image created using Midjourney software by Louis Rosenberg)
Like it or not, the word “Metaverse” will be with us for quite some time.1 It is not a particularly pretty word and is often awkwardly defined. It relates most broadly to a vision of the future in which we humans conduct a significant portion of our lives in virtual and augmented worlds.2,3 This is not a new concept and “metaverse” is not the first word that marketeers have used to represent the vision.
During the first mainstream push into VR and AR in the 1990s, the word “Cyberspace” was used by the industry in a very similar way.4 It was a convenient catchall for all types of virtual worlds. And then, when the Internet burst onto the scene around 1996 and sucked all the virtual oxygen out of all the virtual rooms, the dotcom boom adopted the “cyber” prefix before eventually outgrowing the need.
Yes, I’m saying “meta” is the new “cyber,” but I don’t mean that as an insult. I find the word metaverse to be quite helpful to the industry, refocusing energy and excitement on immersive media after a long and dark winter. And it’s a much friendlier word than cyber, which to me always conjured threatening images of red-eyed robots preparing to annihilate humanity.
But still, what is The Metaverse?
Moving past the hype and carving away the many tangential technologies that have latched themselves to the current wave of interest, we can boil the concept down to a concise definition:
“The Metaverse” represents the largescale shift in the digital ecosystem from flat content viewed in the third person to immersive content experienced in the first person.
It’s a simple definition but it packs a powerful punch, as it points to a fundamental change in how we relate to information and to each other. From the early days of computing to the present, we humans have expected the vast majority of digital content and communications to be flat images, documents, and videos viewed from the outside looking in. The metaverse transforms the role of the user from an outsider to a co-located participant who engages in natural, personal, and intuitive experiences.
To me, those are the three key words of the metaverse – natural, personal, and intuitive.
In fact, it was those three words that pulled me into the field over thirty years ago and has kept me passionate about the magical potential.5 Still, some naysayers suggest the metaverse is a dehumanizing technology that separates us from what is real. I too worry that the metaverse could be used in very dangerous ways (which I describe below), but if we put reasonable guardrails in place, the metaverse can become a deeply humanizing technology that expands and enriches our lives.6
As an example, let’s compare today’s mobile media on cellphones with tomorrow’s mobile media that will use augmented reality eyewear. Which is more “human” – a world where billions of people walk down busy streets with their necks bent, their eyes glued to small handheld screens – or – a world where people walk with their heads raised, wearing lightweight eyewear that presents digital information seamlessly integrated into their surroundings?
To me it’s absolutely the latter, for the human organism is adapted to perceive information spatially. This means the most natural and intuitive way to present digital content is by organically integrating it into our world. I was convinced of that fact thirty years ago at Air Force Research Laboratory when I studied groups of human subjects using the first augmented reality system that merged the real and the virtual into a single interactive reality, and I’m even more convinced of that today. 5
I give this background to help marketing professionals and other industry insiders appreciate what the metaverse is really about – the largescale societal shift from flat media to immersive media. This change is profound and will fundamentally transform the world of marketing, altering the core tactics used by the industry while also introducing many new risks to consumers that must be considered.6,7,8
So, what will advertising really be like in the metaverse?
As we transition from flat media to immersive media, digital advertising will increasingly shift from traditional content (text, images, and video) to more natural, immersive, and intuitive experiences that are injected into a user’s surroundings (virtual or augmented). This suggests that the two primary forms of advertising in virtual and augmented worlds will likely be Virtual Product Placements (VPPs) and Virtual Spokespeople (VSPs), also called Virtual Conversational Agents.7 I describe each of these below:
Virtual Product Placements (VPPs) are promotional objects or experiences that are injected into virtual or augmented worlds on behalf of paying advertisers. Virtual Product Placements can be deployed broadly to users, but most often will be narrowly targeted, meaning they will be encountered only by specific people at specific times or places. For example, if you are profiled as a sports fan of a particular age and income level, you might see someone walking past you down the street (virtual or augmented) wearing a jersey that promotes a high-end sports bar two blocks ahead of you. Because this is a targeted VPP, other people around you would not see the same content.7
Instead, people near you will encounter different promotional artifacts customized to their profiles. A teenager might see people walking near them drinking a particular brand of soft drink, while a child might see an oversized soda can with arms and legs waving at them as they pass. Some of these encounters might be highly stylized, while others will be so well-integrated into the virtual or augmented world, they will not be easily distinguished as advertisements.
(Image created by Louis Rosenberg using Midjourney)
Obviously, VPPs do not need to involve a virtual person but could be any virtual experience introduced into a VR or AR world for promotional purposes. With that context, we can define a Virtual Product Placement in the metaverse as follows:
Virtual Product Placement (VPP) is a simulated product, service, or activity injected into an immersive world (virtual or augmented) on behalf of a paying sponsor such that it appears to the user as an integrated element of the ambient environment.7
Such advertising can be quite effective because users will encounter promotional content as organic experiences in their daily life. For a variety of additional examples of VPPs, I direct you to a short narrative that I wrote a couple years ago entitled Metaverse 2030.
Because Virtual Product Placements have the potential to be deeply impactful and persuasive, they also have the potential to be abused by advertisers if not regulated. That’s because VPPs will eventually be so realistic and so well-integrated into virtual and augmented worlds, they could easily be mistaken for authentic experiences that a user serendipitously encounters. If consumers can’t easily distinguish between authentic experiences and targeted promotional content, advertising in the metaverse could easily become predatory, deceiving users into believing that specific products and services are popular in their community (virtual or augmented) when in fact they are observing a promotionally altered representation of their surroundings.8
Taken to an extreme, you could imagine walking down a virtual or augmented street filled with political posters and banners supporting a particular candidate. You might believe that this community is highly supportive of that candidate and not realize that what you are seeing is targeted propaganda. In fact, you might be entirely unaware that other people walking on that same street are being targeted with posters and banners for alternate candidates. This is the danger of promotionally altered experiences.
For these reasons, consumers should be protected from predatory uses of virtual product placements in the metaverse. A simple but powerful protection would be to require that all VPPs look visually distinct from organic experiences. For example, if a virtual person using a promotional product is placed into your surroundings as a targeted advertisement – that virtual person should be visually distinct such that it cannot be confused with authentic people in that virtual or augmented world. The same is true for injected objects, activities and other artifacts that could be confused by consumers.
If regulations are put in place to require visual distinctions, consumers would be able to easily tell the difference between authentic encounters and promotionally altered experiences. This is obviously good for consumers, but it’s also good for the industry, for without such protections users would likely cease to trust anything they encounter in the metaverse as authentic.7
Virtual Spokespeople (VSPs): In the metaverse, promotional content will go beyond inanimate objects or silent people, to AI-driven avatars that engage users in promotional conversation on behalf of paying sponsors. While such capabilities seemed far off just a few years ago, recent AI breakthroughs in the field of Large Language Models (LLMs) and photorealistic avatars, makes these capabilities viable in the near term and likely to be deployed widely in metaverse platforms. It can be defined as follows.
Virtual Spokesperson (VSP) is a simulated human or other animated character injected into an immersive world (virtual or augmented) that verbally conveys promotional content on behalf of a paying sponsor, often engaging the target user in interactive promotional conversation.7
Virtual Spokespeople are likely to target users in two distinct but powerful ways – either (i) for passive observation or (ii) for direct engagement. In the passive case, a targeted user might observe two virtual people having a conversation in the metaverse about a product, service, or idea. For example, a simulated couple could be placed near a targeted user in a virtual or augmented establishment. The user may assume these are ordinary users, just like themselves, not realizing that a third party injected those virtual people into the environment as a subtle form of advertising.
For example, the targeted user might overhear the couple discussing a new car they purchased, touting the features and benefits. The user might perceive those comments as authentic views of genuine purchasers and not targeted promotional content. Similar tactics could be used to convey any promotional message from touting products and services to delivering political propaganda, or even deliberate disinformation. And because metaverse platforms will have detailed profile information about each user, the overheard promotional conversation could easily be crafted by algorithms to trigger very specific thoughts, feelings, interests, or discontent in targeted users.
For these reasons, regulation should be considered to protect consumers from predatory tactics in the metaverse. At a minimum, regulators should consider requiring that Virtual Spokespeople deployed for promotional purposes be visually distinct from authentic users (or avatars controlled by authentic users) in immersive environments. This would prevent consumers from confusing overheard conversations that are targeted promotions with authentic and unaltered observations of their world.
Of course, Virtual Spokespeople will be most persuasive when directly engaging targeted consumers in promotional conversation. The verbal exchange could be so authentic, the user might not realize they are speaking to an AI-driven conversational avatar with a pre-planned persuasive agenda. As mentioned above, recent advances in Large Language Models (LLMs) have made authentic conversations with AI agents viable in the near term, especially when discussing casual topics.7
In addition, it’s important to stress that these AI-driven agents would likely have access to detailed profile data collected by metaverse platforms about each targeted user, including their preferences, interests, and a historical record of their reactions to prior promotional engagements. These AI agents will also have access to real-time emotional data from facial expressions, vocal inflections, and vital signs of targeted users. This will enable the AI agent to adjust its conversational tactics in real-time for optimal persuasion based on the verbal responses from the target user in combination with an emotional analysis of that user’s face, voice, posture, and even heart rate and blood pressure.8
Even the manner in which these AI-driven virtual spokespeople appear to consumers will be custom crafted for maximum persuasion. It is very likely that the gender, hair color, eye color, clothing style, voice and mannerisms of VSPs will be custom generated by AI algorithms that predict which sets of features are most likely to influence the targeted user based on his or her previous interactions and behaviors. For all of these reasons, the potential for predatory advertising tactics is significant and likely requires regulation. At a minimum, regulators should consider requiring that virtual spokespeople be visually distinct from authentic users within immersive environments, thereby alerting consumers that the conversation is targeted promotional content rather than an authentic encounter.
In the past, experts have expressed doubt that computer generated avatars could successfully fool consumers, but recent research suggests otherwise. In a 2022 study, researchers from Lancaster University and UC Berkeley demonstrated that when virtual people are created using generative adversarial networks (GANs), the resulting faces are indistinguishable from real humans to average consumers. Even more surprising, they determined that average consumers perceive virtual people as “more trustworthy” than real people.9 This suggests that in the not so distant future, advertisers will prefer AI-driven virtual spokespeople as their promotional representatives.
Conclusions and Recommendations
Whether we like it or not, the metaverse is coming and will impact society at all levels. Among the fields that will be most affected is marketing, as the tools and tactics will undergo a dramatic shift from flat content delivered in the third person to immersive experiences delivered in the first person. These tactics will likely involve Virtual Product Placements (VPPs) and Virtual Spokespeople (VSPs) and will employ AI technology to adjust how these virtual experiences are crafted for optimal persuasion. For these reasons, we must consider regulation as a means of protecting consumers from predatory tactics.
For example, regulators should consider requiring that VPPs and VSPs be visually distinct from authentic products, services, and people within immersive worlds, thereby protecting consumers from confusing promotional encounters from authentic experiences. It is my belief that regulations would be good for consumers, advertisers, and platform providers, for without sensible guardrails, users in the metaverse would be unable to trust the authenticity of any experiences, damaging the industry at all levels.
- October (2021), Facebook, Letter to Shareholders, F., Zuckerberg, M. 28 October 2021. https://about.fb.com/news/2021/10/founders-let
- Strange, A.: Facebook planted the idea of the metaverse but Apple can actually populate it. Quartz, 29 November 2021. https://qz.com/2095986/facebook-is-marketing-the-metaversebut-apple-can-make-it-real/
- Burke, E.: Tim Cook, AR will pervade our entire lives. Silicon Republic, January 2020
- Adams, Paul C. “Cyberspace and Virtual Places.” Geographical Review, vol. 87, no. 2, 1997, pp. 155–71. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/216003.
- Rosenberg, Louis (2021). “Augmented Reality: Reflections at Thirty Years.” In: Arai K. (eds) Proceedings of the Future Technologies Conference (FTC) 2021, Volume 1. FTC 2021. Lecture Notes in Networks and Systems, vol 358. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-89906-6_1
- Rosenberg, Louis (2021). “Fixing the Metaverse: Augmented reality pioneer shares ideas for avoiding dystopia.” Big Think; Dec 9, 2021. https://bigthink.com/the-future/metaverse-dystopia/
- Rosenberg, Louis. (2022). Regulating the Metaverse, a Blueprint for the Future. XR Salento 2022, Part 1, LNCS 13445 Proceedings (pp.1-10)Publisher: Springer Nature. 10.1007/978-3-031-15546-8_23
- Rosenberg, Louis. (2022). Regulation of the Metaverse: A Roadmap. 6th International Conference on Virtual and Augmented Reality Simulations (ICVARS 2022) March 25-27, 2022 – Brisbane Australia 10.1145/3546607.3546611.
- Nightingale, S., Hany, J.F.: AI-synthesized faces are indistinguishable from real faces and more trustworthy. In: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 22 February 2022. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2120481119
Dr. Louis Rosenberg is an early pioneer in the fields of virtual and augmented reality. His work began over thirty years ago in research labs at Stanford University and NASA. In 1992 he developed the first functional augmented reality system at Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL). In 1993 he founded the early VR company Immersion Corporation (public on Nasdaq). In 2004 he founded the early AR company Outland Research. He’s been awarded over 300 patents for VR, AR, and AI technologies, has published over 100 academic papers, and writes often about the metaverse for mainstream publications. He is currently CEO of Unanimous AI, the Chief Scientist of the Responsible Metaverse Alliance, the Global Technology Advisor to the XR Safety Initiative (XRSI) and an advisor to the Future of Marketing Institute.