Unreal estate: making places for the Metaverse age
We dismiss the Metaverse at our peril; find out why at Virtually Everywhere, our exhibition for London Design Festival
In the future, the places DNCO works on may not be tangible at all. But if this thought may initially alarm developers, we think they should look at the potential: right now there’s a unique opportunity to become the metavangelists the world needs — and create place brands that are all the more powerful for it.
Our free public exhibition for this year’s London Design Festival, Virtually Everywhere, will cut through the VR clamour with a nuanced exploration of what the Metaverse could mean for places. Ahead of the opening on 17th September, let’s start by dispelling some misconceptions.
The Metaverse isn’t a place.
Better to think of it as a collection of virtual experiences, experiences very much intertwined with the physical world. Some of these experiences are actually fairly unremarkable — whenever you’re immersed in a virtual spin class, you’re sweating through many, many miles of metaverse.
The Metaverse is already here.
But this isn’t a red-pill-or-blue-pill thing. It’s more like an evolution of behaviours that already exist. For all the disconcerting visions of a future where we retreat meekly from our lives, the reality is less paradigm shifting, at least for now.
‘Meta’, the company previously known as Facebook, has been named after the Metaverse, not the other way around. The Metaverse is the idea that we could live on the internet in a different way by using new technology, and renaming itself is Meta’s attempt to become the largest player in this market.
The term Metaverse was actually coined by science fiction writer Neal Stephenson in his 1992 book Snowcrash, but the concept predates even this. After all, we’ve long sought to transport ourselves into other worlds. Stories told around fires, then played out on stages, in pages and on screens, are how we transcend the everyday to ignite something few other animals can muster: imagination. The Metaverse is the latest playground for this most human of cravings.
This is why we’re setting aside the term ‘real life’ for the moment, because to do so would suggest that imagined experiences have limited value. In fact, ‘value’ has nothing to do with ‘real’ at all, and this is something luxury brands understand well.
Last year, Gucci’s virtual Dionysus Bag was sold on Roblox’s marketplace for more than its IRL version, fetching an unbelievable $4,000. It was a watershed moment: virtual value didn’t just equal physical value, but actually surpassed it. No handcrafted stitching through supple leather like the skin of a perfectly ripe Seville orange, just colourful pixels on an avatar.
The lengths the Gucci gang go to conjure value in people’s minds are endless. Now, their willingness to throw money at Metaverse testing proves this is more critical than ever. Evidently, there’s potential to strike consumer gold: by some estimates, the Metaverse marketing opportunity will be $800 billion by 2024.
The future is hybrid
So what of places? They’re not handbags — you can’t hold them.
Except the Metaverse means you kind of can.
To adapt, those of us who help shape places could use learning a thing or two from luxury fashion. Such brands have to constantly create appeal through experience and storytelling. They never settle and they’re always reaching, which is why they’ve been so brilliant at adapting to the Metaverse.
And without the roadblocks of reality’s restrictions, the possibilities are epic. Imagine places designed to let sufferers of burnout recharge, their avatars serenaded by music composed for their specific brain chemistry. Or what if pandemic-ridden holiday seasons were saved by virtual trips to paradise islands with friends and family. Forget bringing experience to places — in the Metaverse, places are the experience.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
The reality is, while the meta and non-meta worlds co-exist, they exist in a state of symbiosis that tethers many virtual things with their non-virtual counterparts. This is already becoming clear in the world of events, as futurist Cathy Hackl writes: “The future of performances is online, virtual, and truly hybrid and every artist will eventually want to holoport into venues and connect with fans in person and virtually.”
This gives us an interesting early lesson for how places might actually use the Metaverse. Developers won’t disengage from the non-virtual world for never again to return. More likely, we’ll see digital experience dovetailing with physical places in order to add more to human engagement. Places will simultaneously exist in both realms, and be richer, more exciting and more meaningful for it.
It’s something we’re already beginning to see in the emergence of digital twin cities — virtual clones of real places that can be navigated and manipulated. In China, 51WORLD has created digital twins of Shanghai and Singapore, both fed by a live stream of data so they evolve in tandem with their physical counterparts. They’re already being used to simulate flood defences and understand the impact of planned developments. We can imagine the potential for making digital twin places where we can test launch event ideas, or even gather data on how people move around new squares and react to transformative architecture.
For a fairer Metaverse
The Metaverse is still seen as the preserve of digital elites, tech-savvy gamers and blockchain moguls. But the quicker it becomes familiar to everyone, the more ‘for everyone’ it will be. There are already signs that this is starting to happen. Dave Carr from virtual destination Decentraland told Euronews Next: "We have a decentralised autonomous organisation in which people can submit proposals and vote on proposals submitted by others… People who use Decentraland govern it.”
The prickly barrier of access and understanding is something developers and their partners can topple by making the Metaverse easier to engage with. Together, we can be the conductors — enlighteners that not only amplify the experience of our places, but also educate people, dispel their fears, and empower them to make the Metaverse theirs. This would also raise the bar of what we deliver, increasing engagement and overall impact. Result: our places matter even more to people.
In our exhibition at Ground Floor Space, Virtually Everywhere, we sense-check rushed-to conclusions with a more measured consideration of how the Metaverse might affect our identities and places. We also consider its wider implications for the themes of design, authority and environmental impact.
Though the Metaverse will undoubtedly change the lie of the land for brand, our core objective remains unchanged: even if the places themselves don't physically exist, place brands still need to connect with real people.
Rather than a future where bricks and mortar crumble from neglect as we spend more time online, the exact opposite will be true. Our imaginations can run wilder than ever to devise more creative experiences. We may realise we weren’t as restricted as we thought. The Metaverse might just inspire us to make our physical places better by helping us imagine what places can really be for people.
And that’s real exciting.
Virtually Everywhere will be taking place at DNCO’s Ground Floor Space between 17-25 September. It’s open to the public and free to enter.