The Metaverse is an approaching three-dimensional internet that will be accessible through phones, computers, VR, and AR headsets. When we try to imagine it, we either fall back to what we've seen in fiction, or we conjure up something that's unknowingly based on the familiar. The gaming industry has been the first to develop infrastructure for multiplayer 3D worlds, so many envision a future where we escape into a massive multiplayer online game (MMO) like Fortnite. However, we might get a better idea of what's coming if we compare the Metaverse to a physical city.
In the spirit of framing the Metaverse through things we already know, the perfect metaphor to understand it's experience and architecture is the city of Las Vegas.
The Metaverse will be like a digital Las Vegas. I don't mean it in the sense of vices, gambling, or a Hunter S. Thompson hallucination. I mean it more in the sense of architecture historian Robert Venturi, like in his book, Learning from Las Vegas.
Like Las Vegas, the Metaverse will feature an extreme juxtaposition of uses, replica's of places we already know, dream-like transitions between spaces, and the experience of being in multiple places at the same time.
Las Vegas was conceived to be a mirage in the desert. After driving through miles and miles of nothing, you arrive in a hyper-stimulating, compressed, and exaggerated form of modern culture. The Metaverse is a digital mirage. The multiplayer VR world in the book Ready Player One is even named "Oasis." It will be hallucinatory, logic-defying, and dream-like.
It's possible that the web already expresses these characteristics, but since it's in 2D dimensional form, we don't realize it yet. The Metaverse is the fusion of 2D web dynamics (instant access, multiple tabs, lack of thresholds, web surfing) with 3D cities. The result will resemble one of the strangest American cities we have: Las Vegas.
Comparing the Metaverse to Las Vegas:
1. Extreme juxtaposition of use cases
Las Vegas wouldn't be Las Vegas if it was only a strip of casinos. It contains extreme versions of the full width of human activity. Las Vegas is a place to gamble, to get married, to celebrate a bachelorette party, to bring your kids on vacation, to watch magic, to see the circus, to laugh at tasteless XXX billboards, and to watch the hologram of Frank Zappa perform. All of this exists on a single strip, just a short walk away.
The Metaverse will be more than a single type of experience. Call of Duty is not the Metaverse just because 110 million monthly players compete within a 3D multiplayer world. VR Chat is not the Metaverse just because thousands are immersed in VR together.
Interoperability is the key tenant of the Metaverse, and it's the main thing missing right now. Where as 2D web browsers give you quick access to many things (games, social media, news, search, video calling), multiplayer VR experiences still operate in the 2003-era of console gaming. Each game has it's own self-contained set of worlds, interfaces, rules, and social graph.
If you want to switch from Beat Saber to VR Chat with a group of friends, you have to 1) decide a meeting place with your friends in VR Chat, 2) sign out of Beat Saber, 3) loose visual and audio connection with the group, 4) sign into VR Chat, 5) navigate to the room you agreed to meet in. It can take several minutes, and breaks immersion.
The UX of moving between VR experiences is on par with AOL and the dial-up age of the internet. The Metaverse is "here" when you can jump, as a group, from Beat Saber to VR Chat, in under 10 seconds, while maintaining audio connection during the transition.
With this interoperability comes the implication that any experience is just a wormhole away. You and your friends can jump from Call of Duty, to a VR Chat birthday party, to a library modeled off of Wikipedia data, to a co-op 3D modeling program, with seamless transitions between these different functions.
2. Replicas from the flesh world
Las Vegas is known for it's replicas. It's designers have time traveled through every civilization to extract world wonders and offer them to families of tourists. The Eiffel Tower, the Egyptian Pyramids, a Venetian canal, a Roman Palace, the Statue of Liberty, a medieval castle, the Arc de Triumph.
Replicas are a common thing in architectural history. You can also find the Arc de Triumph in New York's Washington Square. But the difference with Las Vegas is, 1) they've decided to create a carnival-like hall of replicas, instead of just featuring one, and 2) their architecture is ONLY based on replicas (there is nothing unique to Las Vegas other than the welcome sign that states it's own name).
The Metaverse will be much more than a fantasy world of no physical origin, designed and built by a team of video game designers. It will be filled with user-created real-world replicas.
The rise of accessible 3D scanning technology through smartphones and headsets means that, 1) the Metaverse will be filled with replicas (digital recreations of real places), and 2) these replicas will be generated by users instead of teams of skilled specialists.
2020 has already seen some crazy previews of where "democratic" 3D scanning is headed. This video shows a point-cloud being created and meshed in real-time. Facebook reality labs has a prototype of a headset with internal cameras that can animate an avatar in real time. Epic released a mobile app that does something similar within Unreal Engine. Matterport came out with an iOS app in 2020 that can create web-hosted point clouds. And here's a high-quality scan of a village that was uploaded into VR Chat.
3D scan of village brought into VR Chat.
We are approaching the ability to project our presence and our environment into the Metaverse in real-time. Each person will turn into a replica factory, scanning chunks of their real-life into the Metaverse, so that their friends, family (and followers), across the world can experience them as if they were there.
We will have replicas of ourselves, of others, of our work space, of our living room, of our back yard, of an office conference room, of a statue in a park. We'll be able to send these replica's to each other via text message.
3. Dream-like processions through space
When you walk through Las Vegas, the experience resembles a dream. Within minutes, a stroll leads you through Paris, a medieval castle, and then New York City. On the way, people are dressed up as clowns, as cartoon characters, as cross-dressers. It feels like dream logic. The thresholds between spaces span centuries, and there is no correlation between person and place.
The original version of these replicas all exist within a context. But Las Vegas strips away that context. Replicas are arranged in a new way: in relation to each other. The Metaverse will be the same, a melting pot that blends all elements of our physical history and our internet culture.
Kevin Kelley uses the term mirror world, to explain an exact digital replica of Earth. It could be something like a digital version of China's replica of Paris, where context is preserved. This somewhat already exists in Google Earth VR (a low-res point cloud), and Wander (an app where you can experience "Street View" in VR). While these types of mirror worlds will improve with time, I still think they will be overshadowed by a surge of user created replicas that are stripped from their original context.
It's definitely possible to create a digital context to contain replicas and 3D models. A context makes things rational, and less dream-like. But how will things actually unfold?
Above is an image of Decentraland, a virtual city where land ownership is registered on the Ethereum blokchain. They've created "artificial scarcity," by establishing plots within a grid and selling these plots to crypto-cowboys and companies. Their premise is that context is important, and the rules of physical real estate should translate to the digital world. In Decentraland, buildings are persistently and located on a 2D grid. As you walk around a flat plane, you will always discover buildings in more or less the same place.
On the other hand, the internet is a city without limits or scarcity. There is an infinite capacity to spawn islands with unique URLs, and then hyperlink them together. The Metaverse won't have constraints in the way that New York City does.
The Metaverse won't have sidewalks that bring you from building to building, or world to world. 3D spaces, both scanned and modeled, will grow out of control, and hyperlinks will be the main mode of transportation between them. Instead of clickable links, hyperlinks will take on many new three dimensional forms - frames, tunnels, portals, doors, virtual headsets (VR inside of VR), etc.
Just like Las Vegas replicas work together to inform navigation through the city, Metaverse worlds will be linked to each other, instead of a masterplan.
For a 2D web surfer, only the screen in front of them changes. At least their external surroundings are stable. A 3D web surfer stays in place, but the environment around them is consistently warping. They spiral forward through a sequence of spaces, and there is no coherent context to unify one space to the next. If Las Vegas is a mirage city, then the Metaverse is a digital lucid dream.
4. Here, There, and Everywhere
When you're on the Vegas strip, you get the sense that you are in many places at once (New York, Paris, and Ancient Rome). We get this sense two dimensionally through the internet when we're on a Zoom call on one monitor and Twitter on another. The same thing can happen inside of the Metaverse. Not only will multiple replica's be united in a single space, but we will be able to simultaneously perceive the happenings in other spaces.
A given space could have windows looking into another. These windows can be more than "view-only." Your avatar could be operating another avatar in another world from a 3rd person point of view. Here's a video of someone operating a VR Chat avatar while inside of Neos. You could imagine a single control room, where an avatar could have a dozen "auto-pilot" avatars in different worlds to monitor what's happening. When something catches your attention, you can pilot that avatar through the 3rd person, or temporarily jump into that world to experience it from the 1st person point perspective.
Time Square, but billboards as portals instead of advertisements
Augmented reality can also play a role within VR. Avatars, objects, frames, or messages from other worlds can appear in your own world to give you a glimpse of what is happening elsewhere. Check out Pluto's VR.
To get metaphysical for a second, the Metaverse can grant us the superpower of digital omni-presence. Even though humans still only have a single vantage point of perception, digital spaces can be constructed in a way so that one room = many rooms. Human beings are beings of limited attention, meaning interfaces and spaces could be built in a way to enable us, or to shatter us.