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Journey to the Metaverse: Connecting the Dots in Unexpected Ways with Adobe’s Chris Duffey

By June 12, 2023No Comments

Growing up in a multicultural home—with a Mexican mother and Irish father—Chris Duffey has always had an affinity for the power that comes from connecting the dots in unexpected ways. From his earlier experiences in applying Google Glass to improve healthcare, to his current role in strategic development for Adobe Creative Cloud, Chris shares his thoughts about what he sees as the value of the emerging metaverse and challenges we must overcome to realize its true potential.

What was your path into immersive technologies?

I worked for many years in digital health at WPP, focused on creating digital health experiences for physicians, caregivers, and patients themselves. In 2013, my team and I were invited to the first health care use case for Google Glass. We were working on a new oncology drug that had a unique mechanism of action (MOA) in the industry. The drug had both an interesting delivery mechanism, as well as an interesting action within the cancer cells. It essentially went into the cancer cells and it would inhibit what was called a BTK—it’s called a BTK inhibitor—and it would almost short-circuit the GPS system of the cancer cell, and it would distribute into the bloodstream and that’s where the natural immune system could take it over. We wanted to represent that in an equally interesting way to physicians, and that’s where we used Google Glass to showcase that MOA. 

That was really one of two “aha” moments for me in my latter years of my career where the power of augmented reality was quite profound for me as a creator, but also to see the effectiveness in the use case. That started my journey in many ways into more immersive experiences, AKA the metaverse, as we call it. 

The second one that I don’t think we focus on enough is artificial intelligence—the role of AI in terms of making better decisions, in terms of making better content, in terms of making better distribution and optimization of those experiences. 

There are so many varied definitions of the metaverse. How do you define it?

I’m quite excited about the fusion of the metaverse plus AI, and then to compound it with Web3 capabilities.

I recently wrote a book called Decoding the Metaverse. I spent four years digging really deep into it, and started having a lot of conversations literally around the world. And what I started noticing was there was a conflation between Web3 and the metaverse. And so, within the book, I try to detangle those two. 

There’s overlap, of course. But I also took influence and inspiration from technologies that came before and how they approach defining, or describing, the technology. I took reference from one of the more recent concepts called creative ops, where they almost intentionally did not define it, knowing that it was moving and evolving so quickly. So, I took that to heart, and I try not to define the metaverse, I try to describe it. But, if I was really forced to give a definition of the metaverse, I would say, it’s the merging of the digital and the physical world for more immersive experiences. 

I tend to gravitate towards describing it in seven characteristics: immersive 3D, real-time characteristics, ownership, interoperability, shared experiences, shared economy, and persistence. I’m a little more fluid in the term, in the sense, if something has six out of the seven characteristics, I would say that’s, you know, the metaverse. I don’t think we have to get that exact or rigorous on how many characteristics define something as a metaverse engagement. 

For Web3, again, there are about seven or so core characteristics that I like to use to describe Web3. These are what we know so well: decentralization, blockchain capabilities, decentralized finance, decentralized applications, smart contracts, DAOs and NFTs. And again, for something to be a Web3 engagement doesn’t necessarily mean you have to have all seven attributes, but these are the universal common characteristics of Web3. 

This is just a baseline I would offer to everyone. Spend some time learning the characteristics of both the metaverse and Web3, and then, how they relate to each other. After four years digging deep from both a practitioner standpoint and an academic and research perspective, I am 100% sure the metaverse is inevitable at this point. I think the only question is, will the name metaverse stick or will it evolve to something else? But the core characteristics are here to stay. They’re here already, and now we’re just building out the experiences and the ecosystem to power a more expansive immersive experience.

What opportunities do you think the metaverse can help enable?

One of my favorite books is The Innovator’s Dilemma, which sets up a really interesting premise from the very beginning—both from a poetic standpoint as well as a strategic standpoint—by opening up with the provocative statement,  “everything you know about business strategy is wrong.” And I think in some ways, we are truly flipping the script on how we’ve approached business with the metaverse. 

I came up through the ranks over the years as a marketer, which then evolved into experience design, which ultimately evolved into product design. For many of those years, there was a conversation in the marketing world, “how can we monetize consumers’ time and attention?” Using that as a reference, the metaverse takes a completely different approach to consumers’ time and attention. How can we reward their time and attention? And so, I think in many ways how we’ve done business in the past will just not work going forward for a multitude of reasons. I think from a consumer expectation standpoint, from a technological standpoint, from a speed-to-market standpoint, those strategies just don’t work any longer. So how can we use decentralization? How can we have co-ownership? All of these themes are really completely different ways for businesses going forward. 

The one subset of this paradigm shift that I’m personally very excited about is its impact on the creator economy, which we talk about quite often at Adobe. Similar to the metaverse, this was a somewhat nebulous term in the beginning, but when you really look at what the creator economy is, it’s “how can platforms, ecosystems and technologies empower people to create value systems, economic systems, businesses for themselves?” 

So, I am quite energized and inspired by just looking at how we’ve leapfrogged as a creative industry—industry meaning just all creatives—and how people are so empowered to create content, like podcasts, right? This is amazing. People have been enabled to create experiences through the power of technology, and I think this is one of the core promises of the metaverse, that it’s going to amplify creativity. 

My thinking has evolved over the last couple of years. I’ve always considered myself a creative, but I’ve now evolved and I identify as more of a creator than just a creative. If we think about this in the business sense, creativity has somewhat of a bias, where creativity means simply unbridled creativity. But a creator is creating innovation, new products, new business models. So, I think I’m quite excited about how the metaverse is going to amplify being a creator going forward.

Are there any other ways that you think the metaverse will bring value?

At the end of Decoding the Metaverse, I did some research and came across the longest known study of happiness—over 80 years—that came out of Harvard. The study involved two cohorts, each consisting of ~ 230 participants, one on the higher end of the socioeconomic spectrum and the other on the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum. The study revealed that people who were the happiest were not the wealthiest. They were not even the healthiest. They were the ones with the most deep connections. And I think that is where the metaverse can really bring immense value, enabling us to connect on a deeper, more immersive level—whether it be through shared topics or shared points of interest—and hopefully allowing us to resolve some of this divisiveness that we’re seeing in society today and helping us unite for a happier, healthier, and wealthier future.

What do you foresee as key challenges we’ll need to overcome to realize the promise of the metaverse, and how can they be addressed?

Trust is going to be extremely important, even more so after some of the learnings from the last few years in terms of misinformation, echo chambers, algorithms, and the like. And I think this combination of metaverse characteristics we talked about, plus Web3, will really allow us to thoughtfully address some of the concerns, and then create an environment where there is benefit to acting ethically, you know, with the betterment of society as a whole. 

The more things seem to change, the more they stay the same, in some respects. So, we do have some analogies we can learn from in the past.

Take the HashCash initiative, as an example. This was an early email capability that said, ‘to offset some of the misinformation trust, let’s make the users put some skin in the game,’ right? And so, HashCash was born. And essentially, it was this notion that you have to showcase your compute power to signal that ‘we’re not a spammer sending out mass emails that are not of true value.’ And so, I think we do have learnings where technology creates some unintended consequences, but that’s where we can use technology to offset some of these scenarios. 

How is Adobe approaching the metaverse, and what role will the company play? 

My day job is strategic development for Adobe Creative Cloud, and we have a new go-to-market offering that we’re quite excited about that we’re calling Content Supply Chain. Content Supply Chain is an end-to-end, multi-layered tech stack to enable greater creativity, creation of assets, distribution, measurement and optimization for better efficiency, effectiveness and scalability. I think this tool is really reflective of the proliferation of new channels. Now that the metaverse is introducing new ways to express ourselves as an individual, as a society, and as business, I think that is where the multi-layered tech stack is becoming table stakes currently.

How do you think open standards and open source will play a role in our collective path to the metaverse?

I started getting into the industry out of university around 1998 or 1999, so I missed some of the formative foundational years. This is why I really celebrate, acknowledge, and am grateful for this moment in time for the metaverse. 

And that’s where the Open Metaverse Foundation (OMF) comes in. One of the things we’ve seen time and time again that has allowed for successful creation and deployment of new technologies is standards. We’ve seen this through universal hardware as an example, right? We’ve experienced how frustrating it is when we travel abroad and there isn’t a standard, so we encounter the need for different adapters. From a technical standpoint, we see a lack of interoperability where there is a lack of standards. Standards will be one of the driving forces as the ecosystem builds out. Not to conflate the term interoperability, but I think that is one of the top topics that is needed in terms of a standard going forward, and essentially, that interoperability will allow for the exchange of digital assets. 

Things are moving really quickly, but a big focus on standards going forward will be very important.

As we know, we’re in the early days of the metaverse. What would you recommend to others who are interested in getting involved in the metaverse?

One mantra that speaks to me is to create the future you want. We are at a very special moment in time when you can literally create the future you want for yourself, for businesses and for society. And I think that’s where I’m quite excited to get to know and work together with OMF more deeply, more closely, going forward. I think this is a very opportunistic time for individuals and businesses, and I encourage people to spend some time getting to know the technology. Technology is table stakes—so, first understand that. Then, seek to understand the characteristics. And then, to our earlier point, we’ve got to start to build out what this ecosystem looks like and the standards that will really drive the ecosystem forward. 

There are so many levels involved in building and shaping the metaverse that I think there’s something in it for everyone, especially in these super early days. If privacy is your area of passion, there are infinite ways to contribute there. If your expertise lies in security, there are obviously a whole host of new security concerns that must be addressed. Ethics, I think, is a personal passion of mine. And then, there’s opportunity in more broadly creating the value system that we build into the metaverse, where there is an incentive to act holistically.

There’s this sense that we gravitate towards extremes, and we like to put things into buckets. And so, I think quite often we look at technology either as a utopia or a dystopia. And I would offer, it’s neither. Yes, it’s good to explore both of those, but I would offer a more pragmatic approach that it’s a protopia, which is, it’s an incremental evolution of where we are today. It is not a pure utopian state and it won’t be a pure dystopian state. So, I’d like to introduce that, and hopefully, that becomes more of a cultural focus going forward. We don’t have to gravitate and solely stay on these extreme use cases—I think there’s some value in being in the middle as well.