Are immersive experiences creating a new digital divide?

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Natalie Lacey, Chief Research Officer, Ipsos


  • Immersive experiences are widening the digital divide that was already exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Differences based on gender, income, education and urbanicity exist in affinity to and participation in immersive experiences.
  • Inequitable access will limit the potential for global citizens to benefit from immersive experiences, but there is opportunity to close gaps.

The COVID-19 pandemic further exposed the global digital divide, underscoring that “billions of people remain without the universal human right of internet access.” Humanity is increasingly divided based on ability to access the internet, but also in the ability to be, or desire to be, part of the opportunities being made available by the emerging world of immersive digital environments.

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In a recent study conducted by Ipsos, most people in China, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) expressed the opinion that the “metaverse is for people like me”. The US (43%) was not far behind, while only 27% in the UK expressed a personal affinity to the metaverse.

The general favourability of these figures hides the wide and diverse differences among demographic sub-groups. We found a significant differences in opinions by age, with a clear line drawn between those over 40 and those 40 or younger. There is also a marked gender divide regardless of age with men registering greater interest and engagement than women.

The Metaverse is for people like me (% Agree) – US data

Age

13 to 17: 51%

18 to 30: 42%

31 to 40: 55%

41 to 55: 30%

Gender(1)

Male: 52%

Female: 34%

[1] The gender question allowed for other options, but the sample size was insufficient for analysis.

Another noteworthy difference is that higher income households and the employed express significantly higher affinity to immersive experiences than lower income households and people not actively in the workforce:

  • Household income $100,000 or more: 49% agree “metaverse is for people like me”.
  • Household income less than $45,000: 34% agree “metaverse is for people like me”.
  • Full-time or self-employed: 48% agree “metaverse is for people like me”/
  • Not employed: 31% agree “metaverse is for people like me”.

Where you live is also related to how you feel about the metaverse. City dwellers (59% agree) are much more likely to express personal affinity to the metaverse than suburban (33%) or rural (36%) residents.

The survey results show the most active communities for the metaverse are gamers, creators and influencers. Most (58%) say they have participated in an immersive experience, with a third saying it was for gaming, spending time with friends, and watching a show, movie or concert.

Across the surveyed population, there is a wide gap by gender on participation in immersive activity:

Across all respondents, barriers to participation, or greater participation, are cost and familiarity and connection:

  • One in three (34%) indicate that, for them, the greatest barrier to participation is the cost of the technology and 20% indicate the cost of the experiences and add-ons is a limitation.
  • 27% say they are hesitant because they don’t know anyone else who is participating.
  • 27% are unclear about what they would do or how they would benefit from immersive experiences.

A specific and unique facet of immersive experiences is the interplay between the personal self and the virtual self. Here again we see significant differences based on demography. Men are much more likely than women to say they feel comfortable in a virtual world (49% versus 37%).

Level of comfort in the virtual world gives those who struggle with personal identity in the real world a safer place to be themselves. Among those who agree that the metaverse is for “people like me”, 71% agree that they feel more comfortable being themselves in a virtual world than in real life. This is one of the more interesting and potentially troubling findings in the survey. For many, the metaverse could mean virtual human connection becomes their most meaningful human connection. What this means for authenticity in the future is anyone’s guess.

What we know for now is that the combination of engagement, perceived affinity and practical barriers is already resulting in wide gaps in immersive experience adoption. If these gaps are not addressed, the future of digital engagement will be increasingly the domain of specific segments of humanity, limiting the world’s potential to benefit from immersive and Web 3.0 platforms.

Taking action to slow the digital divide

There are some signals in the survey data about how to address the emerging divides. For example, although gamers are more familiar and engaged with immersive experiences, others are showing signs of being ready for deeper engagement beyond gaming. This is especially the case for women who are especially interested in other activities including fitness and travel. Encouraging and promoting a broader set of options for the metaverse will help to narrow the divide.

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What is the World Economic Forum doing about the metaverse?

Experts believe that the metaverse will come to represent the next major computing platform, transforming consumer experience and business models across industries.

Fashion brands are one example. Over years, apparel companies have perfected the design, manufacture, and distribution of clothing to anticipate consumers’ wants and needs in line with seasonal changes. But today, most of their revenue is surpassed by the $3bn worth of sales of digital cosmetic items in Fortnite, which have a cultural significance that extends far into the physical world.

This is one of the economic opportunities of the metaverse – the possibility to “assetize” digital content, creating a framework of digital ownership for users. If it is replicated at scale and across sectors, then entire industries will be reshaped by changes to their traditional value chains.

However, the promise relies on the advancement of several key technologies, including augmented, virtual and mixed reality (collectively known as XR), as well as blockchain, connected devices and artificial intelligence. How should these be governed in a way that promotes their economic upsides while protecting individuals’ safety, security and privacy?

The World Economic Forum is bringing together leading voices from the private sector, civil society, academia and government to address this precise question. Over the next year, it will curate a multistakeholder community focusing on metaverse governance and economic and social value creation.

It will recommend regulatory frameworks for good governance of the metaverse and study how innovation and value creation can be strengthened for the benefit of society. Updates will be published on the World Economic Forum website on a regular basis.

Beyond expanding what can be done on the platforms, other options for bringing more equity to the metaverse include:

  • Building awareness that the metaverse is “for people like me” by showing people what the experience will be like for them. In classic marketing this would be increasing opportunities for trial.
  • Clarity on what it takes to participate: currently device ownership is a key driver of participation. Demonstrating how people can participate in these immersive experiences without significant investment or access to devices.
  • Speaking about opportunities to participate through broad interests, such as experiencing a new city or tourist location, fitness or learning.

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