The metaverse is closer than you may think. In some ways, it is already here. Although graphics still have a way to go and many activities are not yet taking place in a digitally interactive space, progress is accelerating. Open source development, the boom in the use of blockchain technologies and even changing lifestyles that have come from the pandemic have all had a hand in this. This development presents significant opportunities to interior designers.
Read on to find out why.
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What is the metaverse, anyway?
Though you have probably heard of the metaverse, it is worth beginning with a brief description of what it is. The term first showed up in the novel Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson in 1992. He used it to refer to a shared, persistent, virtual world in which many of the activities of ordinary life are carried on. I like Mark Zuckerberg’s brief description: “[You] can think about the metaverse as an embodied internet, where Instead of just viewing content — you are in it.”
A Zuckerberg quote is particularly appropriate here, as it happens. Facebook recently changed its name to Meta, signaling its intention to lead the way in the creation of a fully-realized metaverse.
Little metaverses already exist. Minecraft, one of the best selling video games ever made, is essentially a metaverse. So is Second Life, which kicked off all the way back in 2003. These are shared, virtual spaces in which users interact in various ways.
But these worlds are limited, both in what you can do in them and in their inability to connect with other, similar worlds. The metaverse is, like the internet, a universally shared and accessible space, where people don’t just play together, but also work, shop, learn, and do a host of other things that we now mostly do in the physical world or in a digital, as opposed to a virtual, space.
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A key to making the metaverse a reality is the ability to create a sense of presence. As Zuckerberg says above, this is an embodied digital world. We all know from our experience on Zoom calls that being face-to-face on the screen is a distant cousin to being present with another person in the same room.
Recent advances in virtual reality and augmented reality technology are finally allowing users to enter a shared, digital space in an immersive and compelling way. As that technology gets better, so will the sense of presence.
Imagine a Zoom call where you’re not staring at a screen but sharing a high-fidelity, virtual setting with realistic avatars of others in the meeting. That could even be better than a normal face-to-face meeting as possibilities open up for collaboration and creativity that are not presently possible. (See the video below for Microsoft’s vision of what will soon be possible.)
Once we have the hardware right and digital infrastructure in place that will allow us to share a single, virtual world in the same way we share a single internet, the metaverse will have arrived in full.
How can interior designers fit within this VR space?
What does this future mean for those who work in the design industry? It means incredible opportunity. Obviously, someone has to design all the spaces that will house our virtual interactions. This has so far mostly been the work of game designers and illustrators. But architects, interior designers, and others who work with our built environment have unique contributions to make. Why?
First, the virtual world of the metaverse is one in which the design of space becomes very important. The internet as it presently exists is mostly flat. It is a realm of graphic design which doesn’t have any obvious place for interior designers or others who work in space. The metaverse, in contrast, is a virtual world that will be experienced largely through virtual reality or augmented reality hardware. There will be an increasing need for those who are used to thinking about how people experience and interact with three-dimensional space.
Designers are also used to thinking about the built environment in a holistic way. They realize that while bearing in mind cost, aesthetics, and structural requirements, they also have to think about things like sociability. Some ways of designing public spaces, for instance, promote healthy human interactions and other ways don’t.
These kinds of considerations have not been front and center for the creators of current virtual worlds, which are mostly created for games. But as the metaverse becomes more immersive and more of the activities of ordinary life take place there it will become increasingly important to recognize that we are building a place for “human society, rather than a product or service.” Interior designers are already used to thinking in this way.
Finally, the metaverse provides an exciting opportunity for exploration. Building in the physical world comes with a set of constraints that will no longer apply in the virtual one. Materials costs will no longer be an issue nor will one need to consider, for instance, whether a particular span can bear the weight of the building above it. Both the form and the function of built environments in a virtual world are going to be different. It is, quite literally, a whole new world to explore.
Design professionals on positioning yourself for the future
The AEC industry is no stranger to the world of virtual reality. This technology is already widely in use in applications like 3D home tours and architectural visualizations. These uses, however, remain focused upon the built environment in the physical world. Those who want to prepare to take advantage of the opportunities presented by the metaverse will need to turn their attention to intentionally designing for shared, virtual spaces.
In part, this will mean learning new tools. Game developers use software like Unity and Unreal Engine to build virtual environments. Getting up to speed on these kinds of applications will likely be just as useful as learning HTML and WordPress has been for those who design for the web.
It will also, of course, mean looking for opportunities to explore working in virtual space. For instance, a designer might create a VR portfolio as a way both to experiment with new tools and also to demonstrate a readiness to work in this new domain.
The metaverse is coming. It is going to have an insatiable appetite for virtual spaces. If you are an interior designer, an architect, or anyone else who works on creating our physical environment, you have skills that position you to be a valued contributor to this new domain of human interaction. There is no better time than now to begin to establish your brand and expertise in this area poised for explosive growth.