The Metaverse Is A State of Mind
A few weeks back, during our asynchronous conference dedicated to Beautiful Business in Web3, we were invited to visit a metaverse. A real, existing metaverse designed and built for new brand experiences by Journee—The Metaverse Company. From its early stages of creation, Journee was inspired by art that evokes imagination and stunts, and this was a space created just for that: unleashing that imagination. It is typically open for clients, but on this special occasion we, the participants of the conference, got to see it with our own eyes.
We didn’t need special VR glasses to see it. A click on the link, and we were there, in this world where futuristic smooth-shaped constructions would emerge from above the jungle, where stages arose at the tropical-looking beaches. We chose our avatars, picked a name, and gathered around our host, Ida Kymmer, Journee’s strategic business development manager.
Journee has built this space for brands like BMW, Adidas, and H&M. We roamed through the rooms with gigantic sneakers rendered in fantastic quality so that every little detail was visible to the goggle-naked eye. We walked past H&M’s first metaverse runway, took a look at BMW’s vehicle from the future. Then, by pressing one letter of the keyboard, we were transported onto a beach. Giant Coldplay holograms were playing a concert while we were offered to take hoverboards and go chase the dolphins surfing. On another beach, we took selfies with a golden elephant. The nearby forest, Ida said, is where one of their designers would come to take a rest from a long day of work.
“Isn’t it sad to be relaxing in a digital forest instead of a real one?”, someone asked me later. It depends on how you look at it. Relaxing in a digital space may sound strange to some, but if it is well designed and provides comfort to some, why not use it? At the same time, as Mark Wilson of Fast Company writes, “If we know a simple walk through a garden will measurably lower our cortisol levels, I simply don’t understand: Why are we still building more screens instead of more gardens?”
Gravity in the metaverse
“Should the metaverse hold familiar elements at all?” asked Mark Rolston, another contributor to the conference, the founder and chief creative of product design consultancy argodesign. Why do we plant gardens, or construct buildings in the metaverse? The latter “are necessary in the real world because of weather and limited footprints within costly land, but in VR, we don't need bodies; we don't have weather; we don't have limited land,” Mark argued. And yet, as Tim O’Reilly, who first popularized the term Web 2.0, mentioned in his recent article on the subject, Google’s search engine is already seeing a rising demand for purchasing land in the metaverse.
The architects and interior designers participating in the conversation in our Discord channel agreed that spatial qualities in virtual worlds can be created without using buildings, which was so well demonstrated by the Journee team that used plants and trees as “structures to frame space but not to completely contain the user experience.” At the same time, keeping familiar elements from the physical world for navigation can be essential for comfort, they said, seeing as our real bodies are influenced by earth gravity. One of our participants, Kim Baumann Larsen, architect and 3D designer, wrote: “Spaces with some familiar architectural and spatial elements allow anyone regardless of race, cultural background and education to understand how to behave, what to expect, where to move, and go. While we don't need structures in virtual spaces to shelter us from weather, designed spaces are a crucial tool for storytelling and communicating the intent of the space and its world.”
“We can build virtual rooms where we slow down the internet, where we can stay for a while, breathe in, breathe out. Meet someone, speak, learn from each other, exchange, and tackle new giant challenges together.”
Placefullness and new patterns of computing
Mark Rolston, who had started the conversation, presented us with an alternative vision of the metaverse, an AR-powered experience he is busy developing at argodesign. He elaborated: If “VR is a move away from the real-world into a task focused tool, AR is a new way, like the smartphone, of bringing the computer with us into the world,” as opposed to “bringing a new world in the computer.” His vision of the metaverse doesn’t necessarily mean a departure into a 3D world, but a focus on our actual world and the ways of facilitating our navigation through it with the use of AI and computing. A particular role in this vision is played out by spatial computing which allows us to passively and actively consume information by wearing an AR device, not only in the normal line of sight, but also integrated into that line of sight. This makes the AR-powered metaverse “a digital overlay of the people, places, and things that we interact with in the real world.”
A concept crucial to this vision is placefullness, or the idea that the whole world is unlocking itself through information visible to us all around when wearing a smart AR device — “our homes, the places of work, and the places where we take care of each other, places where humanity happens in its most intense forms,” like hospitals. That way, the metaverse takes all the knowledge that computing and AI have processed, and lays it on top of the world. So when we, as customers, are looking at an object in our reality, everything that the business world has learned about it can be laid on top of it. “My hope is to see new patterns of computing be used to enhance our connection with the world,” Mark told us, “I want to be able to look at the people, places, and things I encounter and decipher, learn, and engage those things. AR promises that. I think we're at the early days of a 50-100 year journey of remapping the human experience with all this new tech.”
Restoring belonging, equity, and spirituality
So what about that blissful spot we traveled to with Journee? Upon comparing the two visions for the metaverse, many of our participants had the same question: is it supposed to be an escape from reality, into a 3D world, or will it be something interconnected with our real world in the hopes to make it better?
Even though these two visions seem to be somewhat opposing, none of them see the metaverse as promoting escapism. “Today we have glimpses of what the metaverse might become, building blocks that we keep developing and combining in different ways,” Ida Kymmer told us. To the founders of Journee, building the metaverse is a chance to explore a more beautiful, inclusive, human-centered internet space than the one we have today. As Journee co-founder Christian Mio Loclair said, today’s interaction with the internet is paradoxical: we are more closely connected than ever, but never felt further apart; we meet each other, but we don’t really care. Seeing that design finds itself right between culture and business, we need to design an internet that focuses on how we meet and learn from each other, side by side. Only such attempts may conjure a beautiful business reality in the future. “We can build virtual rooms where we slow down the internet, where we can stay for a while, breathe in, breathe out,” Mio told us, “Meet someone, speak, learn from each other, exchange, and tackle new giant challenges together.”
How shall we shape the metaverse? How can it best reflect our interests and principles of diversity, equity, and inclusion? Just think about how much potential it has, be it a VR or AR-powered space. Alongside technology and format, it will inevitably include the intangible, unquantifiable, and ethical aspects of human interactions and relationships. During one of our Resident Circles a few months ago, Micaela Mantegna, video game lawyer and Berkman Klein center affiliate, asked, “How are we going to integrate the beautiful things about imperfection of the human experience into the metaverse?”. Indeed, how can we take the most profound and unique aspects of humanity, and build an intimate space, guarantee a safe, non-toxic environment, and even bring forth a sense of spirituality? “How can the metaverse become an environment of learning through the kind of radical, deeper, and truthful exploration and experimentation that is not possible in the real world?” writes Tim Leberecht, co-founder of the House of Beautiful Business.
In one of her conversations on spirituality, House Resident Shannon Mullen O’Keefe, chief curator of the Museum of Ideas, quotes former president and CEO of the Aspen Institute, Walter Isaacson: “Innovation will come from people who are able to link beauty to engineering, humanity to technology, and poetry to processors.” She suggests approaching the metaverse as a way to “provide opportunities for creative modeling and experimentation that could help us improve the real world.” For instance: redesigning a simulation of a real-world city in the metaverse in order to make it more beautiful, sustainable, and human-friendly. It’s not exactly the same, but the Hong Kong International Airport has a live “digital twin,” allowing airport operators to use a live 3D simulation to best decide where passengers and planes should be directed.
Shannon’s interlocutor, Jim F. Alexander, lawyer and author, confessed that this kind of vision reminds him of people who thought “television would serve primarily as an instrument for education and edification.” But a human can dream, right?
“How can the metaverse become an environment of learning through the kind of radical, deeper, and truthful exploration and experimentation that is not possible in the real world?”
Schools in the metaverse
In fact, why don’t we dream more? Yes, our hopes of education being transformed by the digital era have not seen the traditional education system change much. Since 1983, “the cost of higher education has grown over 1,200%,” Matthew Ball writes for Time magazine. Education requires physical presence, feeling the energy of the room, eye contact, hands-on experimentation, equipment, and other elements that digital experience just can’t bring. On the other hand, the metaverse can open up the limits of lived educational experiences today. Ball envisions “elaborate virtual Rube Goldberg machines, which students can then test under Earth-like gravity, on Mars, and even under sulfuric rainfalls of the Venusian upper atmospheres.” Alternatively, imagine: “Instead of dissecting a frog, we can travel its circulatory systems not unlike the way we drive the Mushroom Kingdom in Mario Kart.” And the best part is: all of these experiences can happen anywhere on the planet.
Surely, for this type of education to happen in every country, we need to provide people with equipment. Maliha Abidi, Pakistani-American artist and another participant of our Web3 journey, is working on education initiatives in Web3, hoping to use this space for 129 million women and girls around the world who have not had access to education. She knows it will take time; normalizing education for everyone is a hard quest, and one needs to be mindful and use a phased approach to implement it in different cultures. But the dream is strong. Maliha has always used art as a tool for storytelling, to celebrate women. Her project, WomenRise, comprises 10,000 NFTs that represent women from all over the world—and she sees Web3 as a way to encourage women, people of color, and other underrepresented groups to take up space which was inaccessible to them for so long.
It’s through education that we can spread a new vision for the digital shift that awaits present and future generations. The metaverse can be a space where a new kind of leadership is cultivated, but where actions are meant to have just as many consequences as in our present reality. A space where the decolonization of knowledge is encouraged, but where the millenia-old wisdom accumulated by humankind is not forgotten.
Jay Owens of New Humanist quotes philosophers Katleen Gabriels and Marjolein Lanzing, who argue: “Virtual space has to be understood as an embodied space in which actual-life selves, practices, and norms continue to exist.”
So instead of replicating and exacerbating the flaws and injustices of Web2, let’s take notice of the moments where our humanness is most alive. “If we hope to build a better future, then we must be as aggressive about shaping it as are those who are investing to build it,” Matthew Ball writes. We’ll just let ourselves down if we turn the dream of the metaverse into a more fractured, imperialist reality, a sort of capitalism on steroids.
And if you want to reflect on this together, you still have a chance to join our asynchronous conference: we’re only halfway through it. In fact, it’s perfect timing: this Friday we’re hosting a community hangout on our Discord, to exchange key learnings of the past ten weeks, share open questions, and learn about your wishes for the second part of the program, as well as the visions for a beautiful future in Web3.