At a time when daily life and cultural events are increasingly moving into the digital sphere, community experiences are being translated to digital formats at lightning speed. But how do we preserve the intimacy of human connection when we’re interacting through a screen?

This is where experience product company Meta comes in. They are in the business of creating multi-sensory experiences that “virtualize your reality.” Below, we catch up with Meta founder and CEO Justin Bolognino on the future of the experience economy, the importance of tactility and how to maintain human connection in a digital-first world.

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Android Jones Playa VR Experience by Android Jones, executive produced by Meta

What is Meta’s philosophy when it comes to digital experiences?

Our tagline is “the art of being there” and we’ve always said that “there” means both the digital and the physical space. Everything we do at Meta blends the physical and digital into the “meta.” The company is named for this liminal world between digital and physical realities. We wholeheartedly specialize in meaningful human connection, and that doesn’t mean either/or, digital or physical; it means both/and, digital and physical—and how we can bring those two together.

Amidst COVID-19 lockdowns, quarantines and social distancing, experiences are being forced almost entirely into the digital realm. But how important is the physical element when creating experiences?

What you’re seeing immediately are a lot of Zoom conferences and virtual conferences and online streaming. I think that’s really obvious and there’s a lot of good stuff that can come from that. But we have to have the physical side. You can’t negate that. For [Meta], we’re thinking about how we can keep the tactility of what we offer. One of the things that we’ve been exploring is some sort of an AR [augmented reality] box kit. So, let’s say you had an event for 300 people, you could instead assemble 300 boxes of really beautiful tactile things, and then add an AR component.

I cannot believe there’s not another side of this, where we’re safer and taking more precautions, but there’s no way that human nature won’t find a way to convene physically at scale. There’s no way that this is the end of [physical gatherings]. It’s going to be a rocky road to get there, but we’re going to get back to that. We have to. You can put that on my headstone. But for the time being, we can learn how to augment [in-person experiences] in safer ways.

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SyFy “Hunters” AR Experience. Meta in collaboration with Mountaingods.

In an increasingly digital-first world, how can we maintain an element of physical human connection?

I think what works for kids is what’s going to work for everyone. And that’s always been the case in our industry. Take an immersive experience—if the kids love it, the adults are going to love it. That’s just a rule we have in general. I have two little girls, and we’ve been using AR coloring books for years. Meta is taking inspiration from stuff like that, where there’s a tactility, there’s a human energy component, there’s a human creativity component; stuff that you can actually touch and feel and make. And then, there’s a whole digital component, a whole other story that you can layer over the top of this tactile object or set of objects, so you can experience the digital side and then share it.

We’re much more focused on maintaining the tactility and maintaining that sense of awe and wonder. A lot of our work incorporates multiple rooms, like Arcadia Earth—you open a door and, all of a sudden, you’re in another world. There’s no reason you can’t take that and translate it into this situation.

How is Meta working to augment human connectivity for digital experiences?

We’ve spent the last two years basically adding an entire digital product component to our business, called Unreality. And the whole point of Unreality is that reality itself is the medium of our time. If there’s one thing you take away from this interview, it should be that: reality itself is the medium of our time. If the medium of the impressionists was paint, and Ansel Adams’ medium was celluloid, and Spielberg’s was film, then the medium of our generation is reality. That’s why you see XR and large-scale interactive art installations blending into one thing, bridging the digital and physical realms.

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Meta's periodic table of reality

Take a look at our periodic table of reality. One of the ways we’re trying to bridge this gap is through language and graphic representation. Look at the center of the periodic table: “you are.” That’s the center of everything; you are existence, consciousness, business. You are. You exist! You get to perceive all six of these realities, simultaneously. How cool is that? Our whole platform is based on this idea.

How does Unreality work?

There are three main elements to it. The first is basically a workforce community; jobs, resources, tools, direct connections to find the specific creator that you need. There are amazing creator platforms out there, but they’re not for the experience economy. Creatives are just the tip of the iceberg for this industry. There are so many more below-the-line people and finding them is even harder than finding the creative people, but without them you can’t do anything. So, we’ve created essentially a two-sided marketplace for that economy.

Then, rentable experiences. Like a digital graffiti experience in a box, or an immersive dome rental. Any sort of physical experience package; like Airbnb, you can rent my farm, or you can rent my dome on our platform. And there are tens of thousands of cool things that can be rented in this marketplace. And then on the digital side of that, you have a digital immersive marketplace. So all the digital premade content out there that’s licensable will be available on the Unreality marketplace as well.

And then finally, the third main component of it is the database. There is no IMDB for experiences; it doesn’t exist. There’s no central place where you can find out who did what on anything. And so we’re building that, because everyone wants to be known and credited. And so when you’re building your events page or virtual experience page, you’re crediting everyone involved and that’s going to feed into this centralized database. It’s kind of like a Linkedin for experiences, plus an Airbnb for experiences, plus an IMDB for experiences.

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SyFy “Hunters” AR Experience. Meta in collaboration with Mountaingods.

Do you think any positives will come out of the current global health crisis that’s moving our experiences online?

You know, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it’s going to feel like when we’re able to hug each other again. These things that we take for granted are going to have so much more meaning.

I think what’s most extraordinary about what we’re facing is that it’s going to essentially sift out a lot of the inauthenticity.

The idea of authenticity online has been really tantamount to the last decade or so of social media marketing and I think that’s going to become even more prevalent and easy to detect. When something like this happens, we suddenly have newfound superpowers to perceive authenticity; to perceive bullshit; to perceive what’s truth and what’s not. That’s optimistic, but hopefully this catalyst advances us culturally.

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