“Nothing is pointing to the Metaverse as an unrealistic concept”

The question is more what, when and how, says Space10’s Head of Technology, Tony Gjerlufsen.

‘The Metaverse and its boundaries as a concept is still very much a moving target.’

These days, many seem to think that Metaverse has become the umbrella name for the computing paradigm to succeed smartphones and mobile computing – Spatial Computing – encompassing both virtual and augmented reality, and being thoroughly embodied in nature

A way of looking at it is that the Metaverse is the spatial Internet, and the way the term is thrown about at current is reminiscent of the early days of the Internet, as Benedict Evans points out, back when it was all about the Information SuperHighway being the future: It shall be wonderful and it shall be built by AT&T and Disney and Microsoft. But of course that’s not at all how the Internet ended up happening.

The Metaverse is increasingly tied to Blockchain technology developments such as Web3 and NFT. Web3 is the promise of an open and decentralized internet, where incentives and economic power has moved from companies to users.

NFT allows you to create digital originals, enabling artists, collectibles communities and fashion brands. It supports our intrinsic need for personality and self expression, but in a way this unbundles it from physical form and function.

At its core, the origins of the Metaverse has very little to do with Mark Zuckerberg; namely the cyberpunk vision of virtual parallel worlds, created and upheld by technology, with its own rules, aesthetics, heroes and villains.

What’s worth noticing about this is that most of the fictional literature that deals with the Metaverse – Snow Crash (where Neal Stephenson coined the term), Neuromancer, Ready Player One, The Matrix – are all more or fewer dystopias.

So, I guess, in a sense the question for the decade is, how will we ensure we build something better? In the end, technology is neither good nor bad – nor is it neutral. 

‘The question is more what, when and how.’

There’s nothing pointing to the Metaverse as a concept being an unrealistic achievement, the question is more what, when and how.

If we’re looking for a full sensory substitution where taste and scent is part of the package, we’ll need to wait a while. Right now we’re seeing VR unfolding and with those new ways of meeting, being social and expressing oneselves. It’s still a far cry from the smartphone uptake, though.

The AR part of the vision, which is intrinsically closer tied to our real world and physical spaces, is pretty mature on smartphones, and it’s more the design exercise that is very much still evolving; trying to understand this new medium and what it can do. 

If we wait a little longer, all signs point to that medium also migrating to the face in some sort of glass-like form factor, which ultimately can release its immersive embodied potential.

Eventually, the two form factors, AR glasses and VR headsets, would likely merge making way for devices that naturally can support moving back and forth between different kinds of immersive experiences.

Digital technologies have influenced design since computers developed a graphical interface, maybe before.

They are both a tool and a material to the designer, impacting what we do and how we do it. There are two overall developments that are worth paying attention to – namely the emergence of new media and dimensions to the world; and the constant refinement of the technology.

How can we make the tools more transparent and continue to bring them closer to ourselves and our embodied way of being? 

This is something we explored some time ago both within the history of architecture, and a little more hands-on with how digital fabrication tools could be used to unlock traditional crafts and to make them available to many more.

Also within Everyday Experiments, a platform together with IKEA that explores emerging technology, where we looked at new potential, embodied, emancipation of the designer.

Techno Carpenter combined machine learning with virtual reality and hand tracking to explore how you could design your next favourite chair in VR, using only your hands. 

These days, the emerging influence is also especially apparent when it comes to augmented reality. Fundamentally, AR is neither a feature nor a tool.

Rather, it is a new kind of medium, just like text, image, or video, but where the content is 3D material. Its long-term implications could be just as broad and far-reaching for our way of communicating, shopping, producing, etc., as these ‘older’ media once were. 

‘Will we also here mainly be at risk of auctioning off our privacy?’

Of course, there’s a lot of talk about privacy, which is very important when you go from being able to track clicks to tracking eyes. The overarching question is one of ethics, and the parallel question to ask is around business models.

It could be said that the ad-driven, data-extractive, manipulative business model that has characterized the ‘free’ Web 2.0, is what is leaving us with an enormous collective hangover.

If so, what will the Metaverse / Web 3 counterpart to that be? Will we also here mainly be at risk of auctioning off our privacy, or will there be something else entirely?

The rise of play-to-earn as exemplified by Axie Infinity represents an interesting case.

The gist of it is that it is a game where you play by evolving these small virtual creatures, Axies, by breeding, battling and other activities. The game has an internal NFT based value system where Axies can be traded.

Due to potential high yield and high economic barriers to entry, this has created a secondary job market in low-income countries (mostly the Philippines right now) where workers are being staked by wealthy foreigners to perform the laborious task of growing Axie value on their behalf.

On the one hand, this shows how new opportunities arise that let people provide for their families in other ways than, for instance, factory labour.

On the other hand, grown up people are spending their lives breeding virtual dragons to make money for others. Perhaps Elon Musk wasn’t too far off when he noted that time is the ultimate currency.

‘The challenge could actually end up being that we have to remind ourselves what we’re missing out on’

The mind is extremely malleable and we sometimes have a tendency to underestimate just how attuned it is to fill in blanks and immersion is intrinsically tied to a willing suspension of disbelief.

We let ourselves be tricked in the moment into believing experiences are fuller than they really are, and VR, in general, is an enormous sensory sleight of hand.

Anyone who has ever played around with virtual objects with different weights in Holonautic’s Hand Physics Lab can testify to the immersive experience they bring. 

I think the challenge could actually end up being that we have to remind ourselves what it is we’re missing out on because we willingly lose ourselves in limited experiences that take some of the friction – and needed richness – out of the real world.

As Jaron Lanier succinctly puts it in conversation with Lex Fridman – the best part of a VR experience is taking off the headset and stepping into the physical world anew.

Virtual Reality is changing the game for product designers, offering a range of software for designing products and realising designs, from sculpting to animating in VR.

‘I don’t think anyone has uncovered the winner-takes-all use cases for the Metaverse’

As it stands today, the Metaverse encompasses both AR and VR. This is important to recognise due to the inherent difference, that one is intrinsically tied to (and augmenting) our physical reality, while the other enables the building of entirely alternate realities.

Together they hold potential to influence our experience of the world well beyond anything seen in earlier technological evolutions. 

AR enables adding unlimited digital layers to our reality, making the world and any object in it, essentially, a computer interface. For instance, inanimate objects can from an experience point of view be imbued with digital capabilities.

What will that then mean to product and industrial design practices, when the relation between form and function could be altered like that?

VR enables new worlds, like immersive versions of the ones we’re already seeing in Fortnite, Roblox and beyond. It allows new ways of meeting, socialising, experiencing, flaunting your (virtual) identity. What will that mean, for instance, when designing a brand identity? 

I don’t think anyone has uncovered the winner-takes-all use cases for the Metaverse yet; not that they necessarily don’t exist – perhaps we just haven’t been looking in the right places, or we’re not ready yet from a socio-technical point of view.

Digital sculptor and creator of Brussels-based MAUU Studio, Manon Aubry is currently shaping Y.A.N.T.A., a VR environment to reconnect with the inner self in the current hyper-productivity era.

‘What I would love to see more of, is applications of technology for doing better’

It is at least clear that we currently see the signs of an amalgamation of social, expression of personal identity, entertainment and gaming.

And it could likely be within that the Metaverse would initially take off. I think there are many indicators that point in that direction, in between the aforementioned Axie Infinity, virtual real estate with Decentraland, concerts within Fortnite, Bored Apes and other communities, Netflix buying gaming studios, etc.

In the end, however, what I would love to see more of, is applications of technology for doing better.

As we literally build the foundations of the next evolution of everyday technology, we have this exceptional opportunity to purposefully design it in ways that support us in doing the right thing(s).

For instance, Seeds, which is a digital currency that seeks to align money and value by incentivising collaborative and regenerative behaviours and activities for the wellbeing of the whole. 

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