Guest article by Carlos Flavián, Sergio Barta, Sergio Ibáñez-Sánchez and Carlos Orús.

The growing use of immersive technologies (i.e., augmented reality, augmented virtuality, virtual reality, and pure mixed reality) and all the technologies involved in the development of the metaverse, is changing dramatically the ways of building and maintaining relationships in service interactions. These technologies are redefining user experiences by offering highly personalized and interactive environments that widen the barriers of what is possible in terms of interaction and engagement. People can transcend physical and geographical boundaries and open avenues for cultural exploration, education, entertainment and the delivery of a plethora of services. Nonetheless, this new context creates new risks and challenges. Users may face problems, such as information overload, the loss of authenticity in virtual experiences or concerns related to data privacy and security. In addition, over-reliance on virtual environments could threaten the quality of real, tangible human interactions. Therefore, while these technologies offer us the possibility of moving towards a promising future full of possibilities, it is also essential to approach these challenges with caution to ensure that their impact on service relationships is positive and enriching in all aspects.

Before analyzing the challenges, opportunities, main risks and threats, it is worth briefly recalling some of the differences between these technologies. In the context of augmented reality (AR), virtual people or objects are superimposed on a real environment; in virtual reality (VR), both people and objects are reflected in a virtual environment; in augmented virtuality (AV), real objects or people are reflected in a virtual space; finally, pure mixed reality (MR) combines virtual objects and people (either virtual or real) in a real environment. Regarding the metaverse, the metaverse can be defined as a persisting and continuous multi-user realm that combines physical reality with digital virtuality, using advanced technologies to create multisensory interactions between individuals, digital objects and virtual environments. The metaverse has generally been conceptualized as a completely generated virtual environment or as an extended physical reality enriched by immersive technologies.

Focusing on the opportunities and positive aspects of immersive technologies to improve service interactions between people, citizens and organizations, that these technologies could redefine service experiences in four key aspects:

  1. Customer experience enrichment. AR and VR can significantly improve customers’ purchasing decisions and experiences. In fact, both technologies allow consumers to obtain more accurate and close-to-reality information about the products they are going to buy or the final result of the service they intend to hire. This reduces cognitive dissonance and confusion during the buying decision process, especially when there are many alternatives, these alternatives are similar, or the expected result is particularly difficult to imagine. Immersive technologies make it possible to visualize the final outcome of a product, facilitating a more informed and satisfactory decision-making process. This improved customer experience not only increases purchase intent, but also fosters a greater willingness to pay for better-presented products.
  2. Increased social interaction and entertainment possibilities in social media. AR filters in social networks are creating new opportunities for entertainment and social interaction among users and between brands and their potential buyers. Far beyond mere gadgets for personal amusement, these innovative tools are revolutionizing marketing. Brands now wield them as instruments to forge deeper, more customized connections with their audience. Through immersive technologies, individuals don’t just observe, they dive into tailored brand narratives. This evolution not only deepens the bond between enterprises and their clientele but also cultivates a community that is more involved and connected.
  3. Virtualization of events and experiences. The metaverse presents a unique opportunity for the virtualization of cultural events and experiences. The metaverse dissolves barriers, allowing those hindered by financial, time, or physical limitations to participate in global events remotely. It’s a cultural melting pot, uniting people worldwide and enriching the event landscape with diverse cultural nuances, thereby extending its influence far beyond its physical confines. Moreover, it can function as an effective precursor to the actual experience, encouraging users to attend the cultural event in the future, and offering the opportunity to learn about the event in ways that may not be feasible in the actual rendition. The experience can be tailored to the users’ unique needs and interests based on the data collected, resulting in a personalized experience that keeps them engaged for extended periods.
  4. Personalized and immersive experiences. All these emerging technologies share a common denominator: the ability to deliver highly personalized and immersive experiences. Whether through the visualization of products in AR, interaction in social networks or participation in events of a different nature in the metaverse, these technologies enable richer, more varied experiences tailored to individual preferences. All of this can lead to an increase in user satisfaction, which also opens up new opportunities for the design of services and user experiences.

In sum, VR, AR, pure MR, and the other technologies associated with the evolution of the metaverse show great potential to transform service interactions by making them more immersive, personalized, and accessible. Not only will these technologies improve the quality of the service experience, but they will also provide new opportunities for social engagement, cultural participation, and interaction between individuals and brands in ways that were previously unimaginable. As we witness the evolution and maturation of these technologies, their influence on the dynamics of service interactions is about to intensify, signaling the beginning of a transformative era that reshapes our understanding of digital engagement.

Despite the significant opportunities presented by the growing use of immersive technologies, it is important to address the negative aspects and challenges associated with them to avoid potential harm. The following issues should be highlighted:

  1. Information overload and user confusion. One of the main issues associated with the metaverse and immersive technologies is the possible information overload to which the user may be subjected. Users’ lack of prior experience may cause them to be overwhelmed by the sheer number of options and interactions possible in virtual environments. This can lead to negative experiences in which users feel lost or unable to concentrate on achieving their goal. Certainly, appropriate measures should be put in place to ensure that information overload does not detract from the service experience or reduce the effectiveness of communication.
  2. Lack of authenticity. Virtual experiences often lack authenticity, making it difficult to convey genuine emotions and resulting in a disconnect between users and the experience. Virtual experiences often lack authenticity, making it difficult to convey genuine emotions and resulting in a disconnect between users and the experience. This emotional and psychological detachment can reduce engagement. The disparity between the real and virtual experience can undermine the image of the platform or brand providing the experience, especially in contexts where authenticity is critical to user satisfaction or purchase decisions. Likewise, idealized or exaggerated depictions may create unrealistic expectations and lead to disappointment and skepticism about future interactions.
  3. Loss of one-to-one human interaction. The digitization and automation of services through technologies like VR and AR pose a risk of losing personalized human interaction. This is especially problematic in industries like tourism and hospitality that rely on personal attention and connection. The absence of genuine human interaction may lead to reduced customer satisfaction with the experience and the quality of the service-customer relationship.
  4. Privacy, security, and identity issues. Emerging technologies frequently involve the aggregation and scrutiny of substantial personal data. Such practices engender considerable apprehensions regarding privacy and security, potentially fostering a climate of skepticism among users towards both the technology and its deploying entities. Security breaches or misuse of personal data could severely damage the relationship between users and companies, reducing trust and customer loyalty. Currently, no technology can guarantee the identity of the user controlling an avatar in the metaverse, which poses potential challenges and risks for identification and associated activities.

In summary, immersive technologies and the metaverse are at the forefront of transforming service interactions, bridging the gap between businesses and consumers, and between government entities and the public. Their potential to enrich and redefine these relationships is significant, yet one must tread cautiously. The adoption of these technologies is not without its risks and challenges. It’s crucial to navigate these waters with an ethical compass, prioritizing user-centric approaches. The goal is to harness these technologies to create service experiences that are not only more inclusive and accessible but also deeply engaging for everyone involved.

Further Reading:

  • Barta, S., Gurrea, R., & Flavián, C. (2023). Using augmented reality to reduce cognitive dissonance and increase purchase intention. Computers in Human Behavior, 140, March 107564.
  • Flavián, C., Ibáñez-Sánchez, S., & Orús, C. (2019). The impact of virtual, augmented and mixed reality technologies on the customer experience. Journal of Business Research, 100, 547-560.
  • Flavián, C., Ibáñez-Sánchez, S., Orús, C., & Barta, S. (2023). The dark side of the metaverse: The role of gamification in event virtualization. International Journal of Information Management, 102726.
  • Ibáñez‐Sánchez, S., Orús, C., & Flavián, C. (2022). Augmented reality filters on social media. Analyzing the drivers of playability based on uses and gratifications theory. Psychology & Marketing, 39, 559–578.

Carlos Flavián, Professor of Marketing
Sergio Barta, Assistant Professor of Marketing
Sergio Ibáñez-Sánchez, Assistant Professor of Marketing
Carlos Orús, Professor of Marketing
University of Zaragoza

Image credit: Saj Shafique.