An architect of the Metaverse

Jan 14, 2021
Virtual Reality
6 min

A new internet is being built on real-time gaming technology. Instead of a network of 2D websites, it will be a network of 3D spaces filled with avatars. Architects will become the web designers of the 21st century. My thoughts on what the Metaverse might become and how I want to contribute to it are rooted in my early experiences in architecture school.

The Challenge of Conveying the Un-built

I spent 2009-2014 immersed in a world of building design. Architecture school bred a culture where people would obsess over composition. I spent years designing spaces, and then communicating them through "representations." Building a structure is obviously very difficult. As a student you couldn't build out and walk through your design. It was all theoretical. You had create a series of things that approximated what that building was.

Plans, elevations, sections, and details are called "orthographic" 2D drawings. They are rational symbols to help people understand how space and materials are organized. To get a more human-scale perspective, we would spend hours creating digital renderings that gave a sense of lighting and materials. Much time at school was spent orbiting around and tweaking 3D models. For design critiques, we would go through the process of converting our 3D models into "laser cut" files. These files would be fed into machines that would precisely cut basla wood, and then we'd pay friends in beer to help us glue together a 3D puzzle. This resulted in a 1:100 scaled model, which helped guess critics visualize our building proposals.

Representation was a pain.

VR for Arch-viz

The winter after I graduated architecture school, I tried the Oculus DK-2 at a friend's apartment in Astoria. I was shocked. After 6 years of grappling with the art of representation, I put on a headset and was teleported into a Tuscan villa. I was walking around the space (with my legs, not a keyboard). I was able to lean through door frames, and lay with my back on the floor to look up at the sky. It rendered a 3D model at over 60 frames per second, and it gave me a real impression of a Tuscan villa. It wasn't a representation. It was instant comprehension. Virtual reality was a new medium that would completely change how we viewed 3D models.

Within a year after that experience, I taught myself Unreal Engine, left my job (which ended up focusing on construction administration instead of design), and started a virtual reality company. For 4 years we would lug around an HTC Vive headset with a hilarious amount of half-portable equipment, but it blew people's minds. We would create photo-realistic simulations of un-built projects. I would design interfaces to let architects, clients, developers, and buyers navigate through and interact with a design proposal.

By the end of 2018, I found myself working as a VR specialist at an international architecture firm. In 2020, due to the pandemic, we began using multi-user VR applications to remotely jump into 3D models together. Teams from New York, Miami, Austin, London, and Shanghai would tune in for a weekly tour of an in-progress design. By the end of this year, we're on track to have over 100 architects using virtual reality in their workflow.

It's interesting to see how in the arc of just 6 years, a technology went from being a taped together prototype to something that architecture firms are integrating into their practice at scale. It's making me think: what is the thing that seems far away now, but might come to fruition by the end of the decade?

Digital Buildings

My experience in the last 6 years has been all about helping designers use VR to visualize projects that have the intent of being built in the physical world. The digital models we built weren't meant to be inhabited. They were previews of what was to come. Offices, homes, airports, amusement parks, etc. These projects would cost millions (sometimes billions) of dollars, and it was worth spending X% of the budget to improve the design and catch errors.

In the last few years though, a completely new function for 3D models has emerged. Millions of people are starting to gather in social-VR networks. Anyone can upload a 3D model into a "spatial internet," where people gather to socialize, consume media, play games, dance, perform, and work. The 3D models aren't made for the purpose of making design decisions. They are made for digital beings to inhabit.

The 2020 Burning Man festival happened in a network called Altspace this year. Thousands of people gathered in a virtual desert to experience installations that were built by "world builders," or digital architects. I also had some brief experiences with a network called Neos, a community of a few hundred people that live inside of a multi-player VR engine, where they are building their own virtual society (games, applications, currencies, buildings ... everything).

The 2020's could end up being the decade where the average person starts meeting up with people in multiplayer VR environments. Virtual offices, art galleries, concerts, festivals, lounges, classrooms, offices, museums, and scans of real-world spaces could be hyperlinked together to form the beginnings of a virtual city. Spaces will be needed for communities and events, and there will be a demand for digital architects. There will be a new demand for building designs that will be occupied but never constructed.

Cloud Cities

The discipline of architecture spans many millennia, and history has different ways of breaking it down. There are large categories: Ancient, Classical, Byzantine, Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, etc. Then if you look at just the 20th century, there are smaller scales: Russian Constructivism, Art Deco, Modernism, Post-Modernism, Brutalist, Bauhaus, etc. There is an idea that emerged near the end of last century that architecture has found itself in an existential crisis. It's iterating rapidly through styles of form, but there is no shared definition of what progress is, or even what the purpose of form is. It's almost as if architecture as we know it has reached the end of a long arc.

The 21st century might be a dramatic shift in architectural thinking. It might be the delineator between "pre-digital" and "post-digital" times. The 21st century could become the century where people began to inhabit architecture that doesn't exist in the physical world. Buildings and cities will be hosted in the cloud. It's a new paradigm where buildings don't require expertise, years of construction, and million dollar budgets.

The Next Generation of Architects

It's almost a revolution-type moment where the "means of producing" architecture are shifting from extremely high net-worth individuals to "the people." The art of building will become democratized, and it's already starting through video games. Children can go from fort-building to building digital spaces for their teenage friends to hang out in. Those spaces could become wildly popular and attract millions of people. Instead of architects serving clients, the next generation will become architects that serve themselves and their online tribes.

While these buildings will be inhabited by real people, they will turn into a kind of digital wizard that can teleport around and manipulate objects with their hands. The Ivory Tower architects have never tackled a design problem of this nature. Right now, it's being explored by kids, who either are trying it out for fun, or, have a vision for a new society.

As a student of architecture, the idea of a society-scale Metaverse is this new limitless vista. We don't have to go through a Heruclean effort to erect a physical structure if we want to craft spaces for people to inhabit.

The Next Decade

I'm looking to orient myself in the next decade to find communities and companies that are in need of digital architecture. I've shifted away towards design in the last few years, but now there is an opportunity to fuse design, psychology, and code into finished works that are actually applied to a community (instead of theoretical portfolio projects). There is value in gradually building up technical skills that allow for the expression of design across many platforms. I'm aiming to improve my modeling skills in Rhino, learn computational design through Grasshopper, and code in C# through Unity.

When I look back, even to my earliest memories, there is a theme of "world-building" throughout my life. When I was 5 years old, I would draw out levels on grid paper for a simple game called "Inside the Monster Human" that my Dad built for me. When I was 15, I learned Game Maker and built a dozen sprite-based 2D games. At 20, I was all-in on building design. Then at 25, I was helping create photo-realistic simulations to help sell designs.

Now, I see direction in designing spaces that can be inhabited digitally, by friends, family, strangers, and communities. In order to build digital structures that actually have meaning and real context, I need to do a better job at "finding the others," who both see the Metaverse as an emerging historical object, and who also believe that it's within their grasp to help steer it's evolution.


Michael Dean


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