Guest article by Dominik Mahr, Tim Hilken and Jonas Heller.

A glimpse into the Future

Emma wakes up in her cozy apartment, greeted by the gentle hum of her virtual assistant. She starts her day with a brisk walk enhanced with augmented reality (AR), exploring an art exhibition that is projected onto the trees and flowerbeds in her garden. After breakfast with her family, she transitions to her role as a university lecturer and commutes to her workplacewhere she trains students in their communication skills with the help of virtual reality (VR) simulations. During lunch, she switches off all devices to enjoy a meal with her colleagues. As the day progresses, Emma attends a virtual fitness class, shops in her local neighborhoodmarketplace, and participates in a town hall meeting in VR. Back at home, she prepares snacks for friends whom she invited for a holographic concert of Taylor Swift. Along the day, Emma seamlessly navigates between physical and virtual worlds to live her roles as consumer, employee, citizen, friend, and family member.

What is this thing called Metaverse?

This short scenario summarizes what we believe is the essence of living in the ‘Metaverse’. Others might disagree. For instance, the vision originally proposed in Neal Stephenson’s novel Snow Crash is much more dystopian; the vision propagated by Marc Zuckerberg revolves around a single virtual world, controlled by a central platform provider. However, recent developments, including consumer adoption of augmented and virtual technologies and regulatory changes like the European Union’s Digital Services Act, along with device launches such as Apple’s Vision Pro, suggest that the “Metaverse” is likely to evolve into the vast service ecosystem that we outline above. The recently hyped terms, often incorporating elements like reality, -verse, or computing, share a common theme: customers will seamlessly transition between physical and virtual service experiences, interacting with diverse service providers throughout their daily lives. This is also arguably most consistent with the origins of the ‘Metaverse’ term (i.e., ‘beyond a single universe’). 

Synthetic customer experiences: overcoming the stigma of ‘virtual is false’

We argue that the result is a new paradigm of synthetic customer experiences in which physical and virtual experiences become perceptually and functionally equivalent – that is, fully interchangeable in some cases or fully complementary in others. However, this view has not fully been embraced by all service providers and consumers just yet. Many still view virtual experiences as non-tangible, inconsequential, and thus inherently ‘false’ and worth less than their physical counterparts. However, as service researchers we know a thing or two about the value of intangible offerings and should reject such ‘naïve realism’. Virtual experiences are just as real as physical ones – they really happen, they need not be fictitious or fantasy-based, and they create tangible value for consumers. For example, a growing number of universities, including Maastricht University, train their students’ professional skills through virtual simulations (see pictures below); healthcare providers such as the Charité Berlin leverage VR for patient recovery or trauma therapy; and restaurants such as the restaurant chain Sausalitos have replaced their traditional menus in favor of AR-based ones. All these service innovations, and many more, are based on synthetic experiences – and yet they hold vast potential for value creation, at least equivalent to that of physical ones.

The value potential of synthetic customer experiences

In many cases, synthetic customer experience extends beyond what is possible in physical servicescapes, simulating difficult, impossible, counterintuitive, or expensive experiences that create value for consumers, employees, and citizens. We, therefore, advocate for an academic paradigm shift that dismisses the false dichotomy of “physical is real and virtual is false,” and instead leverages the unique advantages of synthetic experiences. At the same time, we should not become hopeless techno-optimists and neglect the novel challenges, and the potential for value-destruction that such ‘falsity’ bears. Deepfakes or counterfeits that are impossible to detect, spreading of (really) false information, amplified echo-chamber effects, heightened impulses for social isolation and addiction are potentially taken to the next level. Thus, service providers and policymakers must also consider how to mitigate falsity. 

Managing service innovation in this new paradigm

To achieve this seemingly counterintuitive balance of leveraging and mitigating falsity, we call for service researchers and practitioners to embrace a ‘diversity thinking’ mindset. Just as the metaverse manifests itself as an inherently diverse eco-system, service innovations based on the paradigm of synthetic customer experience require us to systematically think differently. We break an assumption and embrace the notion of ‘falsity’. In the table below, we share our vision of what this means, together with various current examples of synthetic customer experience in the Metaverse.

A call to explore strange synthetic worlds

To bring this transformation to services for a better world, we call upon service researchers to explore, understand, and shape the evolving landscape of synthetic experiences in services. Academics can, when embracing this paradigm, lead the way in developing frameworks and establish effects and contexts that ensure these experiences not only deliver value customers and service providers,but also address the ethical, social, and technological implications. Service researchers are uniquely positioned to construct the narrative of synthetic experiences, separating beneficial innovation from harmful deception, and to guide the integration of virtual and physical worlds in a manner that enhances the human service experience. 

Let us, as a scholarly community, take the lead in navigating this new reality, steering towards a future where virtual and physical experiences are not only indistinguishable in value but also jointly contribute to well-being. 

Dominik Mahr
Professor for Digital Innovation & Marketing, Maastricht University
Co-founder of the Digital Experience Lab

Tim Hilken
Assistant Professor, Maastricht University
Co-founder of the Digital Experience Lab

Jonas Heller
Assistant Professor, Maastricht University
Co-founder of the Digital Experience Lab

Image credit: Julien Tromeur.