Reality is shifting, and no one understands what’s real anymore.

A new version of reality has emerged and it’s manifesting itself in strange phenomena such as Frye Fest, fake news and synthetic influencers. This version of reality – the synthetic layer – sits on top of our senses and language, and has emerged thanks to our powerful digital landscape: social media, television, video games and the interconnected global community. These digital networks alter our perception of what’s real, and reinforce that position through likes, comments and shares. Synthetic reality is rapidly shifting our culture, and it’s time for brands and consumers to understand what is happening to the world around them.

What is real?

Living in synthetic reality means something different entirely. In its most innocent form, you get oversaturated beach photos and exaggerated selfie smiles filling newsfeeds. No one looks quite like their Instagram photos in ‘real’ life (an entire subreddit exists to document this disconnect). While this misrepresentation is accepted on digital platforms, it has allowed bad actors to exploit synthetic reality to create fabrications like the ill-fated music festival, Frye Fest.

Donald Trump Presents the Fyre Fest

Today, trying to manifest synthetic reality into something that’s physically experienced results in failure and disappointment. As Alfred Korzybski, the father of general semantics, once said, “the map is not the territory”, but in synthetic reality, selling maps is very profitable. Frye Fest wasn’t selling a music festival that consumers could actually experience for themselves. Frye Fest was an aspirational concept that only existed in synthetic reality. When its founders attempted to bring their synthetic reality into physical reality, it resulted in refugee tents and cheese sandwiches.

What you see is not what you get.

The disconnect between what is seen and what is experienced is nothing new, of course. The McDonald’s cheeseburger depicted in a commercial is never the same burger you eat in real life. Thanks to powerful mobile apps and social distribution, however, the power to decieve has now been democratized. Collectively, we are experimenting within this new version of reality and figuring out the rules. Every participant in synthetic reality, including consumers, brands and marketers, has a little bit of Billy McFarland (the now jailed creator of Frye Fest) in them as they use Facetune and Snap filters to create themselves as they want others to experience them. Can you blame a generation who has been fed a diet of fake cheeseburgers?

Augmented and virtual reality – literal lenses in to the synthetic world –  are the final tools of the third reality. Adding a synthetic layer on top of the real world is the physical manifestation of our new reality. This will allow every physical object to have a digital doppelganger, in what Wired’s Kevin Kelly calls the Mirror World. Every thing will be connected to every one, and increasingly, entities of entirely synthetic origin.  

Synthetic influencers, characters made in 3d modeling software who live in Instagram, are digital manipulations with millions of followers, real world brand deals and social activist causes. AR and VR will break synthetic influencers out from the confines of a mobile screen. Future synthetic influencers will attend events, store openings and trendy pop-ups, bringing synthetic reality brands with them.

Legacy brands will need to blur the line between these two worlds, cautious of the strange place they must sit. But emerging brands can exist completely in the third reality, seamlessly blending its physical and digital variants. This can best be observed today in companies making the tools to usher in synthetic reality. These brands are already being acquired for hundreds of millions dollars. Looksery, for example, were the makers of the now ubiquitous animated face filters, who sold to Snap for $150m two years ago. Such filters are now a hallmark of Snap and Instagram stories, and they serve as a bridge to bring everyday people, and brands, into synthetic reality.

The megahit Fortnite is further taking over physical reality, as its digital world replaces physical spaces, like the mall or Starbucks, as a place for teenagers to hang out. Gen Z can spend time in this digital location at any time, no matter where they are physically. They spend real dollars, to the tune of $350m+ a month, to alter their digital appearance, standing out or fitting in just like everyone does in physical reality.

Times of great transition lend themselves to great opportunity for those who can read the writing on the wall and take action. Legacy brands were built on the shoulders of radio and TV. Today’s brands were developed on digital and social networks. The brands of tomorrow will be created in synthetic reality, and those creations are starting right now. It starts with tools like Looksery, and infrastructure, like Fortnite. Future synthetic brands will seamlessly blend technologies like synthetic influencers, artificial intelligence, AR and VR to manufacture a brand experience that exceeds Billy McFarland’s wildest post-truth dreams.

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