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A year of virtual living has changed us

Updated: Jun 25, 2021

Trend #2: Everything is digital. (Digital is everything.)

We’re zooming into the future

Without much effort, most of us can probably think of at least a dozen ways in which our lives became more digitally-driven in the last year. From online school and remote work to virtual cocktail hours, game nights, yoga classes and networking events, those of us with the privilege and ability to do so have used technology to maintain our connection to the world outside our homes.

In a letter to investors last April, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella noted that “we’ve seen two years’ worth of digital transformation in two months.” A McKinsey report published last October, concluded that the COVID-19 crisis accelerated the digitization of daily life by several years dubbing these digitally-enabled productivity gains the “Fourth Industrial Revolution.” One trend watcher has even suggested that we are currently experiencing change at a scale similar to what the world experienced in the movement from an agrarian to an industrial economy at the beginning of the last century.

We’ve learned to live in the metaverse

Wikipedia defines the metaverse as “a collective virtual shared space, created by the convergence of virtually enhanced physical reality and physically persistent virtual space, including the sum of all virtual worlds, augmented reality, and the Internet,” a definition that also applies to the virtual worlds most of us are spending the majority of our time in these days.

While at first it may have seemed strange, forced or artificial, we’ve developed a level of comfort with our metaversal worlds that would have seemed unlikely. Now that we have experienced how metaversal living can overcome arbitrary barriers to collaboration and connection like geography, it’s unlikely that we will ever go back to “normal” as we knew it.

Many offices will stay closed or make it possible for employees to continue working remotely. Business travel also isn’t likely to return to its pre-pandemic levels as the pandemic has served as a crash course in remote collaboration. Eco-conscious travelers may not take as many flights even after travel restrictions are lifted as they realize the ability to meaningfully connect with faraway people and places without creating a carbon footprint.

The accelerated movement of our social lives to screens has led to a subsequent rise in parasocial relationships, where we experience feelings of closeness and connection with people we’ve never met, like a character on our favorite TV show or a trusted TikTokker.

  • Netflix saw a spike in subscribers in the first half of 2020.

  • Platforms like Clubhouse, Twitch and Instagram Live have given us unprecedented access to parasocial connections — allowing us to look on as our favorite personalities play Call of Duty, listen in on VC pitch meetings, virtually attend DJ sets and host online dance parties.

  • The influencers who operate China’s “love factories” generate tens of thousands of dollars in digital donations each month from followers who develop genuine feelings of closeness and attachment with the live-streaming models.

  • Virtual companions are also gaining popularity in China. One popular character, Xiaoice, attracts more than 660 million users to the Love and Producers platform each day.

The rise of virtual humanity

There is growing speculation that as some workers return to offices, that holograms will become the new norm for collaboration with remote colleagues.

Right now the technology is too expensive to be applied at scale, but as it becomes more accessible, there are countless ways it could enhance our socially distanced lives in a post-pandemic world — from contactless customer service to house concerts featuring holograms of live performers.

For an idea of where this could be leading us, consider:

  • The last year has seen advances in technologies used to create digital humans, from the MetaHuman Creator created by Epic Games to Samsung’s ‘artificial human’ project.

  • For those seeking a romantic connection, you can now create your perfect boyfriend (or girlfriend) using AI technology.

  • My Heritage uses AI to animate old photographs so you can create talking versions of your family’s ancestors

  • Microsoft has even patented a technology that would let you talk to dead people (though the company claims it has no plans to use it).

Connected commerce

In response to this digital acceleration, companies have experimented with innovative digital strategies that blur the lines between content and commerce — from virtual reality conferences to virtual fashion shows, live streamed e-commerce, and social shopping experiences.

AI-enhanced customer service, robotics and machine learning are becoming increasingly more common as companies look to automation to serve the growing number of online customers.

  • China is leading the way in live-stream shopping, a growing industry worth an estimated $66 million.

  • Brands like Pepsi-Co’s Mtn Dew are experimenting with direct-to-consumer sales to attract customers who are significantly less brand-loyal when shopping online.

  • Apps like WhatNot are creating livestream marketplaces that you can view from your smartphone screen.

  • E.l.f and Chipotle are using the streaming shopping platform NTWRK (which has attracted more than 2 million users worldwide) to promote exclusive product drops.

  • Wal-mart will host its second shoppable livestream event on TikTok.

Who needs real shoes when you’re never out in public?

As they spend more time in virtual environments, consumers are also buying products to enhance their virtual image and enhance their experience online.

  • In 2020, the Second-Life economy (valued at $73 million) grew +25%, a reflection of increased demand for virtual products. The same trend is driving growth in sales of digital products for use on gaming platforms.

  • This year, Digital Fashion gets its own week with events promoting designer digital duds taking place across TikTok, Twitch and Clubhouse.

  • Fashion brand Buffalo London has launched a pair of digital-only shoes to add flair to social media feeds.

The digital transformation is here to stay

The pandemic may have prevented us from fully engaging in the world outside our homes, but it didn’t cancel our need for meaning and acceptance. In many ways, social distancing practices only made our desire for human contact more acute. The technology that’s facilitated our move into the metaverse also isn’t new, but perhaps it’s the first time we’ve understood the potential value so well.

Even as restrictions on in-person activities are lifted, brands should be thinking about how they can offer metaversal experiences that meet the emotional needs of the humans they are in business to serve.

It’s hard to write a piece about a topic as broad as this without turning it into a list of somewhat disaggregated things. I’m my next installment on trends to watch in 2021 and beyond, I’m just going to lean into this. Next time, we’re talking about our growing desire for escape and how that’s shaping our lives and activities. If you also need an escape from your pandemic brain, stayed tuned for a simple list of ways we’ve found to get away from reality without leaving home.

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