I'd been hearing rumors of a small society of people who LIVE inside of a VR application. Maybe a hundred people or so - clocking 10+ hours a day? It was serious. I finally made the decision to dip my toes into Neos to see what it's about.
My understanding was that it was a "metaverse engine," a kind of multiplayer application where you could edit the source code of reality from within it. The whole thing is technically impressive. Apparently it's all built by a single Czech engineer who pushes daily updates and is funded through Patreon.
My biggest curiosity though is the culture that is emerging within it. It feels like a digital CBGB - a Computer Graphics underground, where the freaks can go to build a new culture that will eventually burst into the public's eye.
From the outside, it looks like the prototype of a 1990's Neal Stephenson society - live concerts, design competitions, an effort to rebuild the entirety of Halo 3, virtual drugs, cryptocurrencies, marriages. It's a big bang of digital culture, with the front door open, and everyone welcome in.
My goal was to meet one person.
I spawned into a place called the "Neos Hub." I was using a USB-C cable to connect my Quest to a dated TI-1080, but the graphics were noticeably better than the cartoon worlds of Altspace and VR Chat.
Looking down at my controllers, I saw my "computer hands" with transparent skin and robotic knuckles. After clicking the A button, a radial dashboard flipped up around me. This is what I imagined alien technology to look like, both in it's aesthetic and complexity. It was a "spatial" operating system, and I had the ability to customize it.
I saw hours of tinkering ahead, but I looked up and got distracted by the building in front of me.
Forty feet ahead was some kind of otherworldly temple. It's form was something like a Zaha Hadid structure, with no right angles. Protruding out from the organic mass was a 60' tower element, in the form of a slowly rotating turbine, flanked by other small towers, each connected through beams of electricity.
The whole structure felt Gothic in form, but cloaked in an alien aesthetic - dark steel, crystalline glass, and neon lights that pulsed between pink, purple, and red. It was sublime, but not spooky. It felt ... religious. Where as Facebook's Metaverse feels safe for your kids, this is a place where extra-terrestrial monks croon the music of the spheres.
I looked up and behind me, finding a massive planet in the distance. I recognized the edge of Saudi Arabia. It triggered the realization that I was in orbit, looking back at a beautiful Planet Earth. There were floating names in the air, slowly rotating around the sky sphere. Were these ALL of the citizens of this virtual society? Where these active players? Or maybe patron saints who financially support this place?
I stood out here in space, alone. I figured the others were inside of this Halo temple? The lack of instructions made it feel like I was on some type of medieval quest. Puzzles ahead. I tele-skiffled forward, up the ramp, and towards two large doors. When I got close enough, the doors flung open like a poltergeist, and let out a deep "ooohhhmmm" sound.
The temple's interior had 40' ceilings. I was hypnotized down a central axis, concluding in a bridge that crossed over an infinite void. I arrived at a small floating platform, right underneath the rotating turbine.
It was like an altar, but surrounded by digital screens: a live Discord chat, a "fund me" Patreon widget, and thumbnails of worlds with ridiculous names, like "the Gravity Playground." Directly in the center of this altar was a small scale model. It was a solar system of 30 little spheres rotating around a turbine. Each one had a name and number count. I reckon these are the live sessions happening in Neos, right now.
The Metaverse is different from an urban downtown. There is no relationship between <building> and <city>. Each world is a lone planet, and when someone steps foot on it, it gets shot into a "feed." We know of feeds as endless 2D scrolls on glass screens. But feeds in the Metaverse could look like a solar system, or even a procedurally generated Main Street.
In one glance, I was able to see where all (human?) life existed. I pointed towards a world, and a laser shot out of my finger. I figured I could click it to learn more information about it. CLICK.
The world faded to black, and soon I found myself on a 40' circular platform floating in the clouds. It seemed like one of those starter maps in Unreal Engine 4, but it was populated with 3 human-scale racoons. They were bi-pedal (standing on 2 legs), freeing their hands to string together C# nodes. One raccoon was smaller than the other two, and spoke in a higher-pitched voice. It seemed like his parents were teaching him visual scripting.
"...hmm.. so with Logix, there should be a way to PACK files so that you ... with it ... you know they make ... it's like an experimental feature ... yeah ... RIGHT ... it can respond to it's own patterns ..."
I must have been crashing a teaching session. A few seconds in, when their heads glanced up from their floating code, I was spotted. Busted. We were about to have our first contact moment. Would this be like the Aztecs and the Spanish? I felt like a human intruding on a Martian society. Were they friendly? Were they hostile? How would I be greeted by these racoon coders?
It's not often that you confront a life-form with almost no idea of how the interaction might go.
They were friendly. I greeted them back, but they went silent.
"Mr. Duke - do you have a microphone?"
They must have seen my name over my head. I gave the racoons a nod and a thumbs up with my virtual first.
"I'm taking that as a yes? Hold on one second Mr. Duke."
The raccoon held one hand out in front of him. With his other hand, he pointed and flicked his wrist, like a Mickey Mouse sorcerer from Fantasia. He pointed at me, then back at his menu. After 3-seconds of what must have been witchcraft, he pulled a menu out of thin air.
"Here you gooo, Mr. Duke!"
He handed me a tablet with all of my PC audio settings on it. WTF. How did he spawn this so quickly? On the right side of the menu was an array of all my system inputs:
- Logitech USB Headset
- Oculus Virtual Audio
- PreSonus Live AR-16
I switched to the Oculus Virtual audio, and let out a classic Earth meme: "Can you hear me now?"
Contact - we can communicate in the same language. I later learned that this society built in a real-time language translator so that they could communicate with a growing Japanese community.
I was in shock from everything I'd experienced so far - the UI, the architecture, the scripting language, the avatars. The open-ended nature of a Metaverse engine seemed to allow a programmer/artist to elevate themselves to become a manipulator of reality - a shaman, a wizard, a God.
"This... is fucking insane." I blurted.
The father raccoon shuffled up to me - just an inch from my face - so close that I could see his semi-realistic fur in high resolution. His voice deepened, and he warned me in a pissed-off mobster accent.
"Careeeeful man - there are CHILDREN in our presence..."
I apologized and offered to leave. I didn't want to crash their session. I just accidentally spawned here from the Neos Hub.
"Nah, you're good man!"
His friendly tone resumed and he backed away. He said he would give me the tour, but insisted that I set up an account first. He spawned another menu for me, and assured me that it would only take a minute of my time. He was right. The check-in process was smoooooth.
When I spawned back into the world, I noticed that other astronauts had found their way into our Cloud World. The baby racoon spotted my return right away.
"He's back! He's back! Give him a skin!"
"Easy, easy - one step at a time," said the father.
Chaos was around me. Two other creatures were adding spaghetti strings to the visual code matrix. A few people were floating 10 feet in the air, watching YouTube videos and heckling like hyenas. What shocked me most was a life-sized squirrel, 3D modeling a 1:10 model of his own body, altering his avatar in real-time.
"Things are getting a bit craaazy in here - why don't we go back to my place to talk Neos and get you setup with some avatars?"
As much as I wanted to be a fly on the wall in this weird underground party, I couldn't turn down an invite to a virtual apartment. The father raccoon spawned a 10" planet in front of me and told me he'd see me on the other side.
$6 MILLION ARCHITECTURE
After a quick loading sequence through a black void, I arrived in a new space, and a house started materializing in front of me, one plane at a time.
The raccoon gestured me through his front door, into what would be a $6 million modern piece of architecture in the flesh world. It was spacious, with white walls, and views looking out to a wireframe neon landscape.
"So in addition to a cool-looking, generic flat, I also have a secret lab downstairs - like all mad genius's do!"
He guided me through a narrow hallway.
"Feel fee to grab any logic panels you see."
I felt like a was in a Suburban home, but instead of family pictures on the wall, there were blocks of code. Do I just take it and put it in my pocket? It wasn't a norm I grew up with. If I were to take one, would it re-generate like some kind of infinite vending machine?
I followed him down a staircase, which opened up into this massive subterranean space. I felt like I was in Dexter's Laboratory.
"This... this is where the magic happens."
There were gadgets and gizmos scattered around. I saw a couple of half-built avatars. Floating code was everywhere - in space, in objects, around objects. Suspended in mid-air were memes, looping videos, and grids of images. A 7 foot panel featured a live Discord chat, which was next to a desk with a seemingly functional, two-monitored computer (perhaps just a novelty).
Naturally, I just gasped out a "whoaa."
"Well, as promised, let's get you into something good looking. You don't want to be caught walking around with a DE-FAULT avatar, do you?"
At the same time he said the world "DE-FAULT," he spawned a full-scale mirror with his hand, to show me that I looked like a floating grey head with two disembodied hands.
"We have an avatar designer lab, or you can trade and commission avatars. You can get a great one, pretty much anything you can imagine, for as little as $400 if you know the right people. For now, let me give you this Starter Pack."
He pulled a folder out of his infinite backpack, and placed it right in between us. I paused. I didn't know what to do.
"So, to save an item, you grab it with one hand. With your OTHER hand, you use your laser pointer to navigate through your inventory. Find the folder where you want it to live, then click the green plus button on the top right ... whatever you're holding will get saved."
This was my first hand-to-hand digital file transfer. It was an ancient style of transaction. Isn't it curious how technology first goes through phases of abstraction (e-mail), before a digital real-world equivalent can take form? It felt like a milestone.
I grabbed the folder with my right hand, and had the option to place it in a folder: a Neos local drive, my C:/ drive, B:/ drive, or my Dropbox. My whole computer hard drive was visible in here. I could even take anything from my PC and place it here in this mad scientists startup garage. I clicked the green button. BOOP.
"You got it!"
I saw a menu of avatar thumbnails: a Chad-looking guy, a skeleton, a racoon, a fox in jeans, Rick from Rick and Morty, Kermit the frog. I clicked on the Raccoon avatar to have something in common with my new friend.
"There you go. So, Mr. Duke - tell me about yourself."
I opened up to my raccoon friend and told him how I'd been an architect working in the virtual reality space for the last 5 years. I brought up some of the challenges with user interface design, and how I was blown away but what I'd seen in the last 15 minutes.
After only 30 seconds of back and forth, I was told my audio was no good.
"Hm, your noise bleed is pretty bad. I hear a bad echo of myself whenever I'm talking. Do you have a pair of headphones you can plug in?"
I had a pair on my electronic drum set, which was on the other side of my room in old-school New York. I took a step across my physical room, but forgot that my headset was connected to my PC through a wire. I had become too familiar with using the wireless Quest headset in recent weeks. I tripped, and ripped the cable out of my headset. I had a bad feeling that my journey was over.
I plugged the cable back in, but I couldn't hear or see anything. I was disconnected from my session. That whole scenario? Poof. I thought I might've been hanging out in that garage for hours. Just as it was getting started, it ended.
I went back into Neos, and I couldn't find the user, the raccoons, or the secret underground lab. I did make my way back to the Cloud World, but it was completely empty. No signs of life.
The whole thing was surreal enough to be written off as a dream. No one would believe me. I opened my radial dashboard - I figured I'd spend some time exploring this alien interface.
But when I went to my hard drive, I found the Starter Pack of Neos Avatars - it happened! It was proof that I wasn't hallucinating, and that I achieved my goal: to meet one person.