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Picture: 123RF/ katisa
Picture: 123RF/ katisa

There has been much fanfare about developments in the metaverse, including the launch of Africa’s first metaverse, Africarare, created by South African company Mann Made, and the subsequent purchase of “digital land” in it by, among others, telecoms giant MTN.

I’m still not convinced that African marketing and advertising agencies are ready to make the leap beyond the obvious public relations benefits of the metaverse.

Aside from Africarare, set in “Ubuntuland”, there have been metaverse and related developments elsewhere on the continent. In Kenya, Liquid Intelligent Technologies has unveiled Liquid Space, billed as “a cross-platform application that runs across virtual reality (VR) devices, Windows, and mobile devices”. In Nigeria, Thrill Digital has created Astraverse, “a multichain metaverse for gaming, hosting virtual events and meta commerce”.

Meta (formerly Facebook) recently opened a second office in Africa in Lagos, Nigeria. Balkissa Idé Siddo, public policy director for Africa at Meta, says this is testament to the company’s commitment to Africa’s role in the metaverse. Meta has also launched its augmented reality (AR) / VR Africa Metathon programme, run in partnership with immersive tech firms Imisi 3D and BlackRhino VR. The programme, says the company, aims to support African XR talent to build innovative solutions that demonstrate various use cases of the metaverse in Africa.

But what are those use cases? So far no one has given me concrete answers. When Africarare launched, it premiered a limited NFT collection by South African artist Norman Catherine. But beyond exploring the gallery that displays these five works, it does not seem like there is much else to do.

XR is an umbrella term that stands for extended reality, encompassing VR, AR and mixed reality, plus whatever future technologies we decide fit under that umbrella. I have questions about that as well.

From what I understand, there will not be one metaverse, but multiple metaverses. A multiverse of metaverses if you like. How, then, does this affect our choices?

Should agencies (and other investors) sink costs into an experimental metaverse now in the hope that it will emerge as dominant at some future point?

Or will the metaverses merge? The way Siddo talks about it, it seems like that is the intent: “The metaverse will be a set of virtual spaces including immersive 3D experiences, that are all interconnected so you can easily move between them,” she explains. “It will let you do things you couldn’t do in the physical world with people you can’t physically be with.”

That sounds great. But how are these different virtual spaces going to engage and how are we going to move between them? Will it be like travelling internationally and you need agreement on things like visa regulations? Will we have some sort of rules of engagement? Will there be a governing body that looks at how countries or organisations participate in the metaverse? Or will there need to be silos within which a country or company ring-fences its own “virtual worlds” and the different entities then create agreements?

So my questions to the creators of any metaverse are about what it will take to achieve critical mass and utility: how are they measuring success? Beyond that, what need are they meeting or predicting? Why set up this metaverse?

My questions to investors are similar: why invest; what does success look like; what is the timeline you are working with; what are the early lessons worth sharing?

The question I would most like to ask all proponents of the metaverse is: what is the one thing that could change its destiny? Would it be governments laying down infrastructure to promote technology and therefore metaverse access by more people? Is it availability of devices? Is it some sort of global event?

While we are seeing clients that are interested in the potential of the metaverse, in an agency context it’s important for us to be interrogating the subject, so we are not steering people off course.

In the case of the metaverse, you need to realise that it is not yet a commercially viable business proposition, and make peace with that. You must be clear that you are pursuing an experimentation strategy and that it is going to take at least six to 12 months to start to figure things out. Beyond that, there are variables outside your control, such as the rate of mainstream technology adoption.

For those who are not ready to even take the metaverse seriously, I would also issue a word of caution. Some were quick to dismiss social media, cryptocurrencies and other recent technological advances that have gone on to disrupt industry. For example, many thought social media was for teenagers and only for social purposes. Today, you will be hard pressed to find a bank or an insurer that is not on social media.

When we cannot live without the metaverse in the same way that a lot of people cannot imagine life without WhatsApp, we will reach a tipping point.

The question is, how far are we from that? That is the answer we need to try to work out.

Musa Kalenga is group CEO of the Brave Group. He was previously group head of digital marketing at Nedbank and Facebook client partner for Africa.

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