On the Chain Reaction podcast this week, we dove into a topic that tends to stir up strong emotions, even from those outside the crypto space — the metaverse. Mercedes Bent, an investor at Lightspeed Venture Partners who focuses on consumer investments in crypto, joined us to unpack this loaded term and explain why she sees its potential.

“It’s become like a punching bag,” Bent told TechCrunch. “If you think about the potential of it, and why maybe a geek like me gets excited about it, it’s because there are things you can do [in the metaverse] that you could not do in the real world.”

The prospect of attending an event with tens of thousands of other attendees across the world in the metaverse, for example, excites Bent. But even more than entertainment, Bent is enthusiastic about the potential for the metaverse to have an impact through education. She shared the hypothetical example of public school students being able to learn from the best instructors in the world in a metaverse similar to the movie Ready Player One — though without the dystopian elements, she qualified. Bent’s vision squares up with some of her non-crypto consumer investments at Lightspeed, such as small-group live education platform Outschool.

But what will the metaverse actually look like? When we asked Bent, who once worked for virtual reality technology company Upload, she said she used to think the metaverse had to be tied to VR technology, specifically the head-mounted display screen.

She’s since realized that what the metaverse has to offer has less to do with how users access it physically and more to do with the sense of community it can foster.

“I think what this era — the 2021 and 2022 era of the metaverse terminology — has shown is that it’s not about the headset, it’s not about what physical apparatus you use, it’s about the sense of [a] collective being together, and presence,” she added.

While VR tech itself has been around for decades, Bent posits that the metaverse gained traction as a concept last year because it offered one thing classic VR games like Second Life did not — the ability to transfer in-game currency to fiat currency. Cryptocurrency, she believes, made that switch possible.

“There was obviously in-game currency and there were obviously virtual goods you could buy before, but the ability to be able to transfer that to fiat and then go use it in the real world to pay your rent bill is just something entirely different that we didn’t have in such a mass quantity before,” Bent said.

That technological development coupled with the onset of the pandemic, which gave people the opportunity to spend more time online, gave the metaverse new life, she continued.

Skeptics think the metaverse gets a lot of hype and isn’t backed by substantial technology or user adoption. Bent said that in her experience, skepticism is to be expected for any early-stage consumer products.

“These hyped areas look really nonobvious. I mean, they don’t have traction, they’re just an idea. They’re often from a founder who hasn’t necessarily had the most pedigree, so you have to kind of take a leap of faith,” Bent said. Bent’s mission as an investor is to back “early stage consumer companies that are unlocking wealth creation for underserved individuals and regions,” according to her website — a thesis that might help explain where she finds some of that faith.

As an early-stage consumer investor, Bent pushes back on the idea that it’s too early to fund consumer-facing crypto companies that haven’t yet honed their user experience.

“There are not very many companies [in web3] that I would say have scaled to what I would call a mass audience yet. We have Metamask, which is pretty far along, but I think all of these companies are up for grabs in terms of [whether] somebody else could come along to replace them,” Bent said. “I think we’re going to see the next WhatsApp, AOL, and Google founded in short order.”

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