Everybody talks about Metaverse, but hardly anyone agrees on what it is. For the moment, it is still enigmatic, however, it seems like its ambiguity is its strength. Not a day goes by without a new article or a video on this subject, trying to convince people that Metaverse will inevitably become a part of our daily lives soon. Architects and designers are essential parties to the ongoing discussion as it is a spatial innovation that requires the Internet to be redesigned as a 3D environment.
When architects think within the limits of real-life architecture, their initial response to this new universe is to celebrate the “unlimited possibilities” of the Metaverse. Leon Rost, director of BIG claims that in the Metaverse, “structure, materiality, and cost, all go out the window” while Rashed Singaby, senior project designer for HOK believes that “between designing for the metaverse and leveraging its capabilities, the potential is almost limitless”. Metaverse feels like a light at the end of a tunnel as a limitless realm for architects, who have been designing as if the resources were endless for the past decades and are now forced to restrict their imagination because of the current ecological and economic crisis in the world. However, the construction of a virtual environment -simultaneously experienced by the masses- still has its limits, such as budget, gravity, or materials, rather than being an unlimited domain.
Budget, still the main issue.
Since the buildings and environment will not be physically constructed in the Metaverse, architects could free themselves from contractors, project management teams, and grumpy clients who complain about the budgets. Yet, this time, freed from all the annoying parties above, architects will still become part of a team to create virtual habitats, with UI-UX designers, software developers, and coders who also need time and money to construct a virtual environment. Dr. Tuna Çakar, an AR-VR researcher from MEF University Department of Computer Engineering, reminds us that financial background is still one of the significant constraints especially if architectural designs for Metaverse become more interactive and customized. If architecture in the Metaverse does not use the possibilities of new technologies such as big data, AI, and AR/VR, then it is a missed opportunity. But if the architectural design is combined with programming, coding, or computation, it becomes more challenging in terms of time and budget. Though architects tend to ignore the monetary issues in Metaverse, designing a virtual universe might be as costly as a physical one.
Double-ganger of real-life or a new universe?
Though Metaverse has been introduced as a new digital universe full of opportunities, the main actions of this new domain -for the moment, with the rapid rise of cryptocurrency- are almost similar to our existing daily lives: shopping and business. Whether you buy land or clothes, the leading activity of existing metaverses mainly stands on buying or selling. Even the parcelization systems in this novel realm, a virtual map divided into grids by a ruler, duplicate the cartographic methods that have been used for centuries. For some, Metaverse will be the double-ganger of real life, including all the details and imperfections real-life assets have. But, does it make sense to spend so much energy and time creating a copycat of existing real life? Or can we find new ways of inhabiting a vast, desolate universe rather than replicating our planning traditions or real estate ambitions for the real world, of which we have already seen unpleasant results all over the planet?
Teddy Bergsman, the co-founder of Quixel, a company that aims to scan the entire world to create convincing digital environments, claims that it is necessary to rebuild the digital world by scanning real-world objects to obtain more immersive habitats. Since the main idea of creating immersive virtual worlds is to trick our brains into believing what we see is real, the company’s aim of scanning, for instance, every single rock in the Canyons of Utah is legitimate up to a point. But what if the main trigger for people to continue their daily activities in the digital realm is not the resemblance to real-life but rather “novelty and uniqueness”?
We are still at an initial phase of Metaverse, and this demand for realistic environments does not reflect the virtual trends all around the world, says Alper Özyurtlu, the co-founder of Timelooper, a company that builds virtual environments for clients around the globe. Özyurtlu adds that while their clients from the Americas expect more grounded ideas of realistic virtual habitats, the expectations radically change in countries like Japan or South Korea, where the clients persistently chase novelty, innovation, and unprecedented digital atmospheres instead of replicas of the real world.
When it comes to our bodies in the digital realm, being extraordinary is a general tendency of users regardless of their location. Our bodies, as avatars, will be represented in the Metaverse, using all the flexibility and variety technology provides us. Unlike virtual buildings, avatars extend the limits of imagination. Paradoxically, your unique avatar with fancy wings or a giant monster head could meet with friends on a virtual yet ordinary campsite. Then they climb a virtual tree house, which is presented precisely as a duplicate of its real-life version, designed initially almost centuries ago. Architecture in the virtual world seems to be slower in adapting to the ongoing technological change than in other fields, just like real life. But sooner or later, it has to rebuild itself considering the new technologies of AI, VR, blockchain, or big data.
Experts who want to duplicate the real world in the Metaverse have neuroscientific explanations. Recent research shows that our brain perceives new images relating them to past experiences. So even if you do not need a door in digital life to enter a space, or the pillars of a bridge to span, we still need to use these elements of real life to convince our brain, at least for the transition phase. But of course, while the Metaverse does not necessarily stand on the traditions of architecture, it brings its own rules to the game. Why would anyone walk through a long promenade, or climb a modern ramp that goes for meters if there is a chance to teleport? With the current technology, teleporting is an action that limits the spatial experience since it is a button that directs your avatar from one point to another without being able to reflect the pleasure of travel. Yet it is also not plausible to try to walk long distances, with a headset, in a closed space.
Gravity, only when necessary
Gravity ties down architects. So many times, dreams of exceptional architecture need to be tamed and grounded when structural engineers join the discussion. Architects are happy that there won’t be any gravity in Metaverse. Yet, gravity is another tool to trick our brains into thinking that the virtual environment is real. Even in our dreams, gravity is one of the most substantial feelings. People with a fear of heights can not walk the plank and jump down the 50-story high building in a VR demo where users who succeed in crossing and jumping down the plank feel a real sense of falling. So, a bridge in Metaverse can have more slender columns -as there is no structural engineer to intervene or geological conditions to worry about-. However, it still needs railings to prevent people from falling. Besides, as Galina Balashova, the designer of the Soviet Spacecraft Soyuz, said, it is very challenging for an architect to design spaces as if there is zero gravity. Gravity, which makes things complicated when building structures, is a life-saving rule while creating the other phases of digital life.
The main dilemma of architecture in Metaverse is that if the digital built environment has to mimic real-life to trick the brain of users, then it has to be elaborately modeled as if there are the constraints of real-life such as gravity and climate conditions, which do not exist in the digital realm. But then, it is much more challenging to render details and textures of such a virtual environment that thousands of people will commonly visit.
Moreover, it is an ongoing discussion of how the energy required for rendering realistic multi-user environments will be provided without further damaging the planet. Though the outcome is virtual, Metaverse will still need to exploit vast resources unless it is designed with a conscious approach, starting from scratch. Considering how much energy every rendering that runs the fans of CPUs requires, the digital representation of virtual architecture needs to be rethought for a better future for the planet.
Rather than welcoming this new universe as a boundless territory that will only help to accelerate the existing crises the planet currently has, architects have the chance to create a hybrid universe of inherited images with the emerging ones for this new realm. Unless we, as architects, find a new language that does not require vast resources, in collaboration with software developers and engineers, the same barriers to real-life architecture will continue to be prevailing in the Metaverse.
In Spring 2022, Sevince Bayrak was the tutor of the Diploma Project course ARC 402 / Architectural Design VIII at MEF University Faculty of Arts Design and Architecture and she chose the topic of Metaverse. All images in this article are from the students' works produced for that course at MEF FADA.