Jaime González Gasque
Voice AI and the Metaverse Shopping Experience
Whatever else it is, the metaverse is undoubtedly a commercial enterprise. This immersive virtual space—a kind of 3D internet, accessed through virtual reality, augmented reality, and other devices—leapt into mainstream public consciousness in October 2021. That’s when Mark Zuckerberg announced Facebook’s rebranding as Meta, asking us to think of it less as a social media company and more as a metaverse pioneer.
In an earnings call a few months earlier, Zuckerberg hinted at the business model underlying this shift. Advertising would remain “an important part” of the company’s profits in the metaverse. So would digital retail—leading to widespread speculation about what the metaverse shopping experience will look like.
It’s a vital consideration for retailers. Analysts theorize that people will spend increasingly more time in these persistent virtual spaces. Gartner predicts that 25% of consumers will visit the metaverse for at least an hour a day by 2026, whether that’s for work, socializing, entertainment, education, or, of course, shopping.
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But to answer the question, we need to know how the metaverse will develop. For all the hype surrounding this topic, the “place” itself is still mostly hypothetical; the metaverse does not yet exist in a stable, universally accepted form. Retailers can start imagining the metaverse by looking at the development of similar technology trends in the past, from the internet in general to the rise of social media.
Charles Cadbury, CEO of conversational AI agency Say It Now, has observed that most new interactive digital technologies follow a similar progression:
Novelty abounds. The new technology is cool, and early adopters focus on that coolness factor. Gaming and socialization are the main activities. The metaverse is still in this stage as we publish.
Utility emerges. Play reveals more practical possibilities. In the metaverse, maybe that means far-flung colleagues meeting in a virtual space to collaborate. Maybe it means immersive training and educational content. It will almost certainly involve virtual reality stores that render products—both real and digital—in 3D.
Monetization arrives. Where there’s utility, there’s value, which is to say money. Brands show up where people cast their attention. Products and services follow. The internet is clearly at this stage; so is social media, and so are mobile apps. The metaverse will inevitably end up as a space for commerce, too.
Of course, these stages of digital maturation don’t occur along a straight line. They blend and merge. Given the rise of in-app purchases, gaming is commerce, which you could argue has utility (at least for the game studios). Still, this three-stage model provides a hazy picture of development for the internet, social media, and mobile apps. It will probably apply to the metaverse, too.
But to return to our central question: What will the mature metaverse shopping experience look like? Here are some of Simms’ ideas on the topic.
Defining the Metaverse Shopping Experience
First, a clear definition: Metaverse shopping is any commercial transaction made in immersive, online, virtual worlds. That could include:
Digital recreations of physical retail stores. Say you want a pair of Nike shoes. Right now, you go to the website (or, more likely, Zappos or Amazon). You make your decision based on two-dimensional pictures and customer reviews. In the metaverse, you might enter a 3D Nike store, talk to sales associates, pick up digital models of shoes, and even have your avatar try them on. Maybe you walk your items up to a virtual counter to make the purchase; a few days later, the shoes arrive on your doorstep, just like with traditional e-commerce.
Virtual brand experiences. In the metaverse, retail stores can be hubs for direct experiences unavailable in the real world. Rather than just looking at Patagonia jackets, for instance, you might be able to virtually climb a section of Kilimanjaro—while noting what that jacket looks like on your avatar during the trip.
Streamlined app purchases. Say you’re logged into your virtual office, VR headset on, coworkers from all over the world sharing the same space. Maybe you’re working with Google Sheets or Excel and you need mail-merge functionality. In the metaverse, you could access a mail-merge add-on app by calling up an app store in mid air. You buy the add-on, charge it to the company account linked to the system, and continue working—without leaving the virtual space you already inhabit.
Buying virtual goods. Globally, in-app purchases were already worth more than $100 billion in 2021—and that figure is expected to rise at a compound annual growth rate of over 20% through 2027. These transactions include the purchase of digital goods, like new outfits for gaming avatars. In the metaverse, the options for persistent virtual clothes, properties, and items will have no limit—and these purchases will be a powerful revenue source for retail brands. As Zuckerberg said in his July 2021 earnings call:
“I think digital goods and creators are just going to be huge…in terms of people expressing themselves through their avatars, through digital clothing, through digital goods, the apps that they have, that they bring with them from place to place.” — Mark Zuckerberg on the Metaverse
These speculative examples only scratch the surface, of course. If there’s one thing the growth of the internet has taught us, it’s that innovation will surprise you. But no matter how metaverse shopping develops, we’re confident of one element of the technology: conversational AI, specifically voice AI, will be a major contributing factor to the metaverse shopping experience—as it already is in today’s retail environment.
How Voice AI Will Support Retail in the Metaverse
Voice has a good chance of becoming the predominant interaction modality in the metaverse. As we publish, the metaverse doesn’t render arms or legs on your avatar. It can’t, because you’re not wearing sensors on your elbows, ankles, fingers, etc. So the software has no way to tell how you’re moving, and it can’t mirror your actions in the virtual world.
Think about the ways we interact with the digital world: keyboards, mouses, taps, and swipes. None of those are currently available in the metaverse. Maybe a computer vision sensor will eventually allow the subtle movements of your fingertips to register in a metaverse environment. Maybe you’ll put on sensing gloves, or a whole bodysuit. But for now, voice is the simplest way to interact with metaverse systems.
by Gaea Vilage