Metaverse is the name used to name an immersive, collective and hyper-realistic virtual environment, where people will be able to live together using 3D customized avatars.
It was coined by writer Neal Stephenson in his science fiction book “Snow Crash”, published in 1992. The work tells the story of “Hiro Protagonist”, a character who in real life is a pizza delivery boy, but in the virtual world – called metaverse in the story – is a samurai.
Some projects have tried to create something similar to a metaverse. One of the main examples is the game Second Life, released in 2003 by Liden Lab. The game is a 3D virtual environment that simulates real life. Users can create avatars and socialize with each other. The game has attracted thousands of gamers, but has failed to fully unite real and virtual worlds.
Games like Roblox, Fortnite and Minecraft also take advantage of the metaverse concept, and introduce some elements of this new universe. In these games, people have their own characters, participate in quests, bond with each other, and go to events. Travis Scott performed a concert inside Fortnite that was watched by 12.3 million people, for example.
In the midst of the confusion surrounding the term, Facebook Inc. announced in October 2021 that the organization would change its name to Meta (the social networks remain the same name).
Facebook's link to the metaverse is old, and the commercial interest is nothing new. In 2014, the group acquired Oculus, a company that makes virtual reality headsets, equipment necessary to access this new reality still under construction.
The idea is for the metaverse to have a virtual economy of its own, and for people to be able to work, buy houses, buy clothes, go to parties, have meetings and actually have a life online. The blockchain and the technologies that run on it – cryptos, NFTs and others – are essential to this new reality. Science fiction? Each day it feels more real.
Blockchain could be the basis of the metaverse economy. This technology, which was born with Bitcoin at the end of 2008, allows the creation of immutable records without the need for a third party, and is quite a tool for platform governance – without banks and governments.
Virtual environments are becoming more common and ever more sophisticated as companies race to build platforms that will draw people to their respective corners of the metaverse. For platforms like Spatial.io, Microsoft Mesh and Facebook's Horizon Worlds, metaverse feels like an extension of work or life, where avatars can meet in bright modern environments or supernatural encounter landscapes.
Meanwhile, mega-platforms like The Sims, Minecraft, Second Life and Roblox have been building expansive and immersive virtual worlds for years, allowing players to build their own structures and explore these ever-expanding landscapes.
In the future, people will not experience a single metaverse; instead, they will navigate multiple interoperable metaverses, all with the ability to connect to each other in a tapestry of digital space, and all powered by the blockchain and on-platform currencies that power their meta-economies.
For centuries, architects, engineers and builders largely dictated the shape of the built environment. The complexities of the physical world require safeguards such as regulations, zoning, accreditations and best practices. There are good reasons why not everyone can build a skyscraper.
The metaverse, on the other hand, is generally thought of as a collective retelling of the built environment. It's often compared to the Wild West, where anyone with a pioneering spirit and a little bit of cryptography can plant their flag and build their own slice of the virtual world however they want.
The reality, of course, is less egalitarian than that. The metaverse is increasingly being mediated by the same forces that control real estate in the physical world – money, access and knowledge. Already, speculative cryptocurrency investors and real estate companies are buying up vast swaths of “land” in the metaverse, where a portion of virtual space can be worth thousands of dollars.
On Decentraland, one of the biggest platforms in the metaverse, the price of land has jumped to over $10,000 in the game's busiest virtual districts.
Virtual land to build virtual buildings, and some of them quite atypical of what we are used to, without laws and without constructive barriers.
End of Barriers
In the metaverse, gravity does not exist, nor do material constraints. Things like structure, materiality and cost, by the way, go to waste,” says Leon Rost, director of the Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), which has worked on some virtual projects for clients. This lack of stylistic restraint has attracted architects interested in pushing the formal boundaries of what space can be. BIG partnered with UNStudio to develop a virtual meeting platform called SpaceForm, where people can collaborate in real-time inside futuristic rooms with holographic tables that display 3D renderings and data visualizations.
Often these spaces are designed and coded by users or developers with no formal design experience. This may seem like an existential threat to some architects, but experts see this realm as an opportunity to question who can and should participate in the design process.
Some architects have spotted the new opportunities and have extended their design frontiers into the virtual world. Zaha Hadid Architects presented “NFTism”, a virtual art gallery at Art Basel Miami that explores architecture and social interaction in the metaverse.
Would the metaverse work in the same modus operandi of the real world when it comes to attracting clients and projects?
In the real world, architects and designers need clients to get their offices started. It seems logical for architects to spend most of their time designing buildings, but in practice, most of an architect's efforts are directed towards finding more clients and projects.
The creative economy in the metaverse can guarantee equal and abundant opportunities for emerging and/or underrepresented designers regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation. You can even earn commissions if you want to develop virtual experiences for brands and landowners. Users become owners, and so reduce customer acquisition costs to almost zero.
For each design competition, we can only have one winning design. Every designer has amazing designs lying dormant on their hard drives. In addition to hosting an exhibition of “unbuilt architecture”, you can revitalize it in the metaverse to share your creativity with the world.
Each niche can find its own group in the community, form its own industrial chain and find users who identify with it.
Metaverse and Design
What about in the design world?
Earlier this year, lighting design and technology company Nemo announced that it was the “first” design company to break the NFT world – non fungible token, a kind of virtual art encrypted and traded on platforms to be used in metaverse environments.
He did this with a collection by Luca Baldocchi, a digital interior designer. Baldocchi worked with Nemo to reinterpret some of the brand's iconic physical lighting solutions in a "metaphysical direction".
Although the buyer may only be interested in the digital part, Nemo's NFTs come with rights to the associated drawings, renderings, and sketches - thus telling the story behind each part.
Furniture and lighting NFTs don't have to agree with real-world physics — and Palazzari says Nemo's NFTs are good examples. Because they are maximalist creations, “the creative process, spontaneous and unintentional, blends several unrelated components, finding balance,” he says.
We need to learn to enjoy living in a digital sphere, develop a unique way of owning and curating objects and artworks. — Luca Baldochi
Nemo's classics were inserted into surreal settings and inevitably acquired a new power of speech – perhaps it is possible to start a conversation about the high-value connection between reality and virtuality.
And the metaverse goes further…
Metaverse and Transport
Even the transport universe can be affected by the arrival of this new way of communicating, living and working as in the case of travel.
There is no longer a long-term future for intercity business travel thanks to the trajectory of online collaboration tools. So everyone aboard a future aircraft will be leisure travelers of some kind doing what leisure travelers do: connecting with people and places in ways that won't be promptly replaced by the metaverse, from retreats and vacations to natural wonders and gastronomy.
As all travelers will be leisure travelers, the appearance of airports and aircraft, train and rail terminals, stations and capsules, and other transport infrastructure and vehicles will change accordingly.
With so much work going on in the metaverse, transit systems like subways and light rail, originally designed to funnel people's bodies to and from centralized urban centers at predictable morning and night cadences, will struggle for relevance — and funding.
This does not mean that these systems will disappear completely. Instead, the metaverse itself will help transform its use. That's because the metaverse involves creating high-fidelity digital twins of the things we physically experience — including transportation infrastructure, from really big things like airports and highways, to bus shelters and bike racks — and then managing those things digitally.
This, at least in theory, will create all sorts of new efficiencies. With these efficiencies, we will likely need less infrastructure, which means we won't need to build and maintain as much infrastructure.
There is still a lot to question, understand and study about how these consequences will reach areas that we can't even imagine yet.