How Will the Metavearth Materialize?

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The metaverse is as exciting as it is nebulous. The term is so overused that it’s almost lost all meaning. This could be seen to obnoxious levels at CES this month, when the M-word was slapped onto every ill-fitting (and often comical) product launch imaginable. So it goes with buzzwords and the attention economy.

Back to the metaverse’s meaning, concrete definitions are elusive … mostly because they don’t exist yet. But broadly speaking, there are two metaverse tracks. One involves virtual and synchronous worlds. The other adds digital dimension and context to the physical world. Both will take years to materialize.

Zeroing in on that second track, this is where the metaverse meets Street Fight’s editorial focus of local commerce. Also what I’ve been calling the metavearth, it’s starting to develop through geo-local AR. For example, visual search apps like Google Lens let you point your phone at places and products to contextualize them.

Who Will Build the Metavearth?

On the Map

Beyond Google and its “Internet of places” investments and ambitions, another metavearth leader is Niantic. Not only did it put this sector on the map with Pokémon Go (which is still going strong by the way), its recently-launched Lightship platform is expressly positioned as “unlocking the real-world metaverse.”

Niantic plans to do this by taking all of the game mechanics and architecture of Pokémon Go and baking them into an SDK (or ARDK) for developers to build geo-local AR experiences. That could end up meaning everything from Pokémon Go-like scavenger hunts to navigation, local discovery, and shopping use cases.

But as those gears turn, and as developers pick up the platform and run with it, Niantic is quietly building other forms of geo-local AR monetization. Specifically, its lesser-known Sponsorship Platform lets local businesses buy positioning as in-game waypoints in Pokémon Go, which can drive real-world footfalls.

Breaking that down, businesses can bid for designation as real-world destinations in Pokémon Go’s geo-oriented gameplay. This includes the gyms and Pokéstops where players descend in large numbers. Businesses can correspondingly stimulate in-game raids by choosing where and when (think: slow hours) Pokémon hatch.

Much of this ties back to Pokémon Go’s core game mechanics, which are naturally aligned with local discovery. Specifically, 73 percent of players deviate from their regular walking routes – sometimes to sponsored locations – to achieve in-game milestones. Eighty-four percent interact with commercial locations and 58 percent transact.

But the ultimate proof is in brand results. SK Telecom has achieved a 10.8 percent boost in loyalty program signups  during scheduled raids around its locations in Taiwan. 7-Eleven saw a 10.5 percent revenue lift from the in-game raids it stimulated around thousands of its locations in Taiwan, Mexico, and other regions.

Beyond these ROI signals, there are other macro benefits such as boosting brand sentiment. This happens as players associate brands with their positive game experiences — in some cases to fuel them for play (convenience and QSR are prime categories). This brand association can boost customer lifetime value.

Video Vault: The Metaverse Meets Main Street

Native Thinking in the Metaverse

Niantic isn’t alone. Google has its own geo-local AR play with Google Lens, as noted. And Snap Scan does something similar in unlocking camera-based real-world shopping. But like the desktop and mobile web, any prospective physical-world metaverse will evolve organically and in ways we aren’t talking about today.

In other words, it’s like trying to conceptualize the iPhone in 1985. Even later when the iPhone launched, it still took a few years for anyone to devise Uber, Snapchat, and Tinder. Generally, it takes a few years living with a new paradigm before native thinking seeps into the developer mindset. It will be the same with the metaverse.

But however the metaverse develops over the next few decades, there will likely be a real-world counterpart, and it could represent a land grab to drive and track local commerce. To make the m-word less intimidating and complex, this could make it simply an extension of the mobile web, rather than something that comes along and replaces it.

Meanwhile, though we’re years or even decades away from a fully-actualized metaverse — in online and offline forms — there will still be meaningful building blocks and precursors along the way. Or as my AR-industry colleague Amy Peck likes to say: “The metaverse is as much about the journey as the destination.”

Mike Boland has been a tech & media analyst for the past two decades, specifically covering mobile, local, and emerging technologies. He has written for Street Fight since 2011. More can be seen at