Article By Sanford Stein | April 4, 2022
Two unrelated events took place 30 years ago in 1992 that altered our world. The first involved Charles M. Stack who started Book Stacks Unlimited, the first online bookstore, selling books via a dial-up bulletin board based in Cleveland. This predates Mr. Bezos’s endeavor by three years. The other curious occurrence taking place that same year was the authorship of a science fiction novel, entitled Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson. Stephenson penned the portmanteau of “meta” and “universe” to create “metaverse,” a word that would become associated with the blending of virtual and physical space. Fast forward three decades and Meta CEO, Mark Zuckerberg refers to the Metaverse as an “embodied internet.”
Now this convergence is expanding the notion of “the great cyber-store” to include the concept of a metaverse mall; you knew it had to happen. Adryenn Ashley, global blockchain influencer and co-founder of the Billionaire Zombies Club decentralized NFT art community, believes retailers and developers will need to claim an early stake in the still nascent metaverse mall market to be competitive when meta becomes ubiquitous.
While there are already multiple retail/experiential/gaming destinations in cyberspace, a couple of potentially breakthrough initiatives have caught my attention. Both are layering on Web3, 3D technologies to lay claim to becoming the first metamalls (my term not theirs). This “build it and they will come” notion seems to be 2022’s version of the Mega-Mall, which is “Twin-Citians” favorite nickname for the Mall of America, which by coincidence also opened in 1992. Are we seeing any patterns here?
Going by the Book
According to the “Metaverse Manifesto,” written by Alan Smithson “The Metaverse (also referred to as Web3 in some circles) is a combination of a number of exponential technologies building on the infrastructure of the internet to provide a new set of tools.” They include Extended Reality (XR) which includes 3D, avatars, VR/AR, game engines; Artificial Intelligence (AI) which includes computer vision, Natural Language Processing (NLP), Simultaneous Location and Mapping (SLAM), suggestion algorithms; and finally, blockchain which includes Non-Fungible Tokens (NFT’s), cryptocurrency (BTC, HBAR, ETH), digital land, and Decentralized Finance (DeFi).
Got all that? It’s a tech engineer’s dreamscape. Suffice it to say these pioneer metamall concept creators appear to be cooking up a new stew, using these digital ingredients in new ways, to wow us and I imagine separate us from our valuable time and money.
The Mall in Cyberspace
One of these meta incarnations comes by way of developer Dan Reitzik, CEO of TerraZero Technologies. It has acquired a 185-parcel of “virtual estate” in Decentraland, described as the first-ever virtual world owned by its users. TerraZero plans to build an immersive “digital destination” experience which includes concerts, film screenings, shopping, and educational and cultural experiences. Reitzik describes shopping in the metaverse as where consumers use augmented reality and virtual reality (AR/VR) technology to digitally engage with each other and their surroundings, with crossovers into the physical world.
“Shopping in the metaverse operates with your avatar going into a store, such as an art gallery, where your avatar can click and buy a digital NFT asset (such as artwork) and/or also place an order to have a real-world item bought and shipped to you in the real world.”
Retailers operating stores in Decentraland will need to rent space, and Reitzik currently has paying tenants. Reitzik goes on to explain that payments are made in cryptocurrency, so you are expected to have a crypto wallet to transact. In my humble opinion that last caveat excludes the entire viewership of the initial seasons of both Seinfeld and Friends.
A “Betta” Meta Mall
Two others change agents, Michael Zakkour and Alan Smithson are collaborating on an even more robust undertaking, to be known simply as “The Mall.” I had a lengthy and highly animated conversation with these two change agents recently.
Zakkour is a true internet ecommerce retailing veteran, selling products on AOL, CompuServe and Prodigy beginning in 1992 (of course). He went on to co-found the first internet marketing agency in New York. On the cusp of Alibaba’s introduction of the breakthrough ecommerce site Taobao in 2003, Michael moved to Shanghai to be on the frontlines of the birth of the ecommerce movement, and launched China Brightstar, which he subsequently sold to Tompkins international in 2010.
Two and a half years ago, Michael started 5 New Digital to work with global brands on digital commerce and ecommerce, which he stresses are not the same. Digital commerce is more like a culture, whereas ecommerce refers to the functional aspects of selling online. Michael has been on the forefront of the “New Retail” model, which encompasses the complete integration of online and offline supply chain and media into a new ecosystem known as “unified commerce.”
Michael’s co-evangelist, Alan Smithson (author of the Metaverse Manifesto), is the co-founder of MetaVRse along with his wife, Julie. Alan was on the forefront of VR development going back to his involvement in the development of Westworld for HBO in 2014. The dystopian scI-fi neo-western series became the most watched first season of any HBO original series.
The Smithsons founded their company with the goal of becoming the leading game engine on the web by developing a fully web-based design and collaboration tool, capable of immersive 3D and virtual, augmented, and mixed reality experiences. Their secret sauce is the fact that unlike other similar tools, their engine can be deployed across multiple operating systems, browsers, and devices with little or no code. In effect anyone can be a creator.
One of the first applications of the proprietary software was for the Samsung flip phone. From there they began their first foray into spatial ecommerce, building virtual showrooms, using the MetaVRse Engine proprietary 3-D software.
If They Build It…
As we began a deep dive into their plans for TheMall, formerly known as MetaMall, the Smithson team shared their belief that “retail may well drive much of what we refer to as the metaverse.” I was also emphatically told “If Mark Zuckerberg says he’s building the metaverse, run away.” I took the statement as analogous to Al Gore laying claim to the internet. TheMall team plans to build a 100-floor mall in cyberspace, and lease out or sell space, with the initial phase slated for launch in October 2022.
I asked about the principal differences between their plans and that of TerraZero’s Decentraland venture. They explained that Decentraland was built on voxels (computer-based modeling or graphic simulation) which all the graphics look like they are constructed from Legos. The technology is from the 1990s and works only on desktops. More importantly, that technology is not natively compatible with any of the brand’s 3D assets or imagery. In my own comparison between Decentraland’s graphic imagery and that of MetaVRse’s hyper-realistic rendering technology, the differences are profound.
The MetaVRse Engine produces lifelike hi-resolution 3D, photo-realistic imagery, which works on the web and on mobile devices, with no apps required. Additionally, their graphics system is Chronos Group 3D compliant; the standardization group which includes Apple, Google, Wayfair, Ikea, Target, Amazon. This means all the assets are portable and can be used across the web. This will be invaluable when it comes to cross-utilizing third-party brand assets that have laboriously rendered. You may think this sounds geeky, but these are the essential building blocks a retailer will need to thrive in the metaverse.
Not CryptoWorld or BroTown
Alan and Michael were clear that their early adaptors will not be headset-wearing, crypto -wallet bearing “bro-types,” but rather a mainstream market of 20–45-year-old, iPhone bearing women. And that is exactly how they have been able to convince major brands and high-worth investors out of the box. to commit to major swaths of TheMall.
Regarding transaction methodology, they indicated that they expect less than five percent of the products or experiences will be purchased with cryptocurrency. They will accept fiat currency, their partner is Stripe, and Bit Pay is their cryptocurrency partner.
Experiential Retail on Steroids
Michael weighs in, “TheMall is a combination of ecommerce and pure experience. Brands are looking at this as a marketing and branding and experiential play.” He went on to say they are not expecting brands to go into this with certain monetization expectations. When describing entities that have reserved space or bought entire floors of TheMall, Michael said “They can do anything, whether pure experience, NFT, a mix of commerce and experience, it will become their space to do with it whatever.”
He continued “Whether you sell products in the virtual world or the real world, you can now buy a pair of Nikes for both you and your avatar to wear.” They plan to work with fashion houses to sell products within the mall. They will work with the brands in-house creative agencies or facilitate the “build-outs” with MetaVRse’s studio, or a combination of both. He said frankly, “we do not know what people are going to build.”
And that open-endedness comes with challenges to the team, as I see it. In many ways Michael and Alan take on similar responsibilities as a mall developer and manager of any major shopping complex. And my decades of experience having been a retail designer on “both sides of the lease-line” have taught me that there is a highly choreographed dance that takes place between lessor and lessee. Besides, even with the greatest experiences that LVMH, Gucci or Nike might create at TheMall, if the visitor does not know it exists or what it offers, it will not matter. It presents a wayfinding challenge for the (new) ages.
Conversational Commerce and Clienteling
TheMall plan calls for 100 floors, offering 100,000-square-feet per floor. And 10 million square feet its 1.5 times the size of Mall of America. However, owners have the option of upgrading to as much as 1,000,000-square-feet per floor bringing the build-out to a staggering 100 million- square-feet.
So, visitor experience planning will indeed be a big thing. Alan said they are committing to conversational AI including having avatars linked to a mall concierge “that will speak to you in real English.” Additionally, they described very robust plans to drive traffic, having events and concerts, even “celebrity avatars.” Michael stressed that they expect to employ conversational commerce, and are trying to get commitments from retailers to have real people, utilizing real-time livestreaming to facilitate “clienteling” to personalize the experience.
The New Retail Realized
Michael referenced his book “New Retail: Born in China Going Global” in which Alibaba’s CEO Jack Ma’s realization of “The New Retail,” where 800 million consumers will take for granted an unimaginable world of convenience with the complete integration of online, offline, technology and entertainment has changed the rules of commerce forever.
Michael himself predicted the convergence of QR codes, social commerce, and livestreaming converging to disrupt retail, and further propel unified commerce in real and holistic ways. I believe what TheMall represents is a kind of “defining disruption” of the kinds that Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Jeff Bezos, and Elon Musk brought us. And within each of these change agents “developmental trajectories” there were great strides and stumbles, breakthroughs, and recalibrations. I believe much the same is in store for these two agents of change.
What matters most here is my sense that the team of Michael Zakkour and Alan Smithson represents the blend of vision, expertise and innovation that equips them for radical disruption and change. I will be watching http://themall.io/ with great anticipation, and I will not be alone.