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What Will the Metaverse Look Like?

Updated: Dec 17, 2022


Michael Beneville established his studio in New York City's Flatiron district a decade ago. The newly renovated two-story office features 20-foot-high ceilings, custom furniture, and a wall of arched windows overlooking 19th Street. Beneville and his team haven't been in the studio together in months, at least not physically.

Due to the pandemic, the employees of the small creative studio, known for its design work on immersive experiences such as Las Vegas' mega-entertainment complex AREA15, are dispersed across the country, but they regularly gather for meetings in a virtual replica of the studio, sitting around a digital table, their avatars carrying digital cups of coffee.


The virtual studio resembles its physical counterpart. It's done in a flat style, but it has all of the defining architectural elements—windows, hardwood floors, and a modern staircase. "It's basically a one-to-one representation of itself," Beneville explains over Zoom as he walks through the airy layout. Nonetheless, the space lacks many of the textures and unique details that give a physical office its atmosphere. There are no random Post-it notes tacked onto computer screens, no coffee stains on surfaces, no scuffs on the floor, and no coats draped over chairs. Employees can access this office from anywhere, as long as they have an internet connection.

Beneville and his team built this digital version of their workspace on a platform called Vatom Spatial Web, a piece of software Beneville and his partner Eric Pulier created for building 3D virtual worlds that people can inhabit in avatar form and navigate as if they were in a physical environment. Through Vatom Spatial Web, Beneville is creating his own little slice of the metaverse, an inhabitable form of the internet that is powered by blockchain technology and accessible through web browsers, VR, and AR headsets.

As companies race to build platforms that will draw people into their respective corners of the metaverse, the all-encompassing term used to describe this constellation of world-building software, each operating with its own rules, aesthetics, and purposes, virtual spaces like these are becoming both more common and more sophisticated. The metaverse appears to be an extension of work or life for platforms such as, Microsoft Mesh, and Facebook's Horizon Worlds, where avatars can meet in gleaming modern environments or otherworldly landscapes for get-togethers. Meanwhile, mega-platforms such as The Sims, Minecraft, Second Life, and Roblox have been creating vast, immersive virtual worlds for years, allowing players to construct their own structures and explore these ever-expanding landscapes.


People will navigate multiple interoperable metaverses in the future, all with the ability to connect to one another in a tapestry of digital space, and all powered by the blockchain and in-platform currencies that fuel their meta-economies. "No one is creating the metaverse," Beneville claims. "Whatever the metaverse becomes will be a synthesis of all of these things into whatever best serves humanity."

But, in this new digital realm, what does it mean to best serve humanity? And who gets to make the call? Despite its benefits, the virtual world still requires design and construction. The question is, who will be held accountable? Architects, engineers, and builders have largely dictated the shape of the built environment for centuries, largely out of necessity. The complexities of the physical world necessitate safeguards in the form of regulations, zoning, accreditations, and best practices. There are several reasons why not just anyone can construct a skyscraper.

In contrast, the metaverse is widely regarded as a collective reimagining of the built environment. It's frequently compared to the Wild West, where anyone with a pioneering spirit and a little crypto can plant their flag and build their own slice of the virtual world in whatever form they want. The reality, of course, is far less egalitarian. The same forces that control real estate in the physical world are increasingly influencing the metaverse, namely money, access, and knowledge. Speculative cryptocurrency investors and real estate firms are already purchasing large tracts of "land" in the metaverse, where a parcel of virtual space can fetch thousands of dollars.

Image Courtesy of REPUBLIC REALM

In one of the largest metaverse platforms, Decentraland, the price for a parcel (approximately 52 by 52 feet) has risen to more than $10,000 in the game's busiest virtual districts. This price increase is largely due to the hype surrounding Facebook's Meta rebranding, as well as investments in metaverse technologies by other companies and brands such as Microsoft, Google, and Nike. It's also a result of basic land economics and the platform's limited virtual acreage. Decentraland has stated that it will only make 90,000 parcels available, effectively re-creating scarcity dynamics seen in cities such as New York and San Francisco.

Janine Yorio compares the current metaverse gold rush to the early days of the web 1.0, when companies that were early adopters of a new technology could make a fortune. Republic Realm, a metaverse development company that invests in metaverse real estate and NFTs, is cofounded by Yorio (non-fungible tokens). Her team has invested in over 2,500 real estate holdings on 19 metaverse platforms, including six large-scale real estate developments on Decentraland, The Sandbox, and Axie Infinity. "We are effectively the metaverse's landlord," she explains.

Republic Realm, like real-world developers, has collaborated with architects and designers to create its developments, such as Metajuku, a 16,000-square-foot mall in Decentraland modelled after Tokyo's Harajuku district. Martin Guerra of Austin, Texas, was hired by Republic Realm to design the glowing space where avatars can roam around and spend money on virtual goods using their crypto wallets. However, Fantasy Islands, a planned community of luxury private island villas sold as 3D NFTs on the metaverse platform The Sandbox, is the company's most ambitious and lucrative project. Owners use their virtual villas, in the same way, they would in real life—as a quiet retreat, a gathering place for virtual friends, or a lovely storage facility for any NFTs or objects purchased in-game in metaverse

Image Courtesy of BIG and UNSTUDIO

The villas were designed by Vlad Yakovlev, an in-house 3D designer and developer at Republic Realm, and each one sits on a 325 by 325 foot plot of land. The virtual homes are all unique in their own way, ranging from Costa Rican ecolodges to Mediterranean-style island abodes. The most valuable virtual home in Fantasy Islands' portfolio right now is a futuristic structure on an ice island. Republic Realm has sold six villas for the equivalent of $15,000 so far (only 100 will be built in total). They are currently worth around $300,000 in today's market.

The villas represent an intriguing case study in metaverse aesthetics. They have a softly pixelated fuzziness, as if viewed through fogged glasses, like much metaverse architecture. Walking around a metaverse building can feel like wandering through a recently completed construction project—structurally sound but lacking in texture. In contrast to videogames, which are rendered in photorealistic high fidelity, metaverse architecture is frequently designed in lower resolution so that anyone, using any web browser, can access and load the spatial environments.

As a result, several metaverse platforms, such as Decentraland and Cryptovoxels, regulate their worlds through a set of laws that govern, to varied degrees, what parcel owners can create on their property. Users in Cryptovoxels, for example, pay extra to build in colour. A parcel of land in Decentraland must adhere to a set of design requirements in order for the platform's diverse artwork to render quickly regardless of browser performance. These laws effectively function as zoning regulations, determining everything from construction height to how close adjoining structures should be.

Though the metaverse frequently roughly resembles the actual world's organisational mores, the buildings themselves frequently diverge from what may be deemed feasible real-world construction. Gravity and material restrictions do not exist in the metaverse. "Things like structure, materiality, and cost go out the window," says Leon Rost, a principal at Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) who has worked on a few virtual projects for clients. This absence of aesthetic constraints has drawn architects who want to explore the formal bounds of what space might look like. BIG collaborated with UNStudio to create SpaceForm, a virtual meeting platform that allows people to engage in real time inside future rooms equipped with holographic tables that display 3D renderings and data.

An aerial view of developer Republic Realm’s Metajuku, a virtual mall in the Decentraland platform based on Tokyo’s vibrant Harajuku district.. Image Courtesy of REPUBLIC REALM

This might feel like an existential threat to some architects, but Sanchez of Plethora Project views this realm as an opportunity to question who can and should participate in the design process. “There’s power in a crowd to explore a space of possible designs way faster and with less bias than one designer,” he says. “The platforms that are able to expand who has a seat at the table will bring, perhaps, the most interesting and most expansive sense of what design really is in this environment.”

This article has been deeply inspired from archdaily's metaverse edition.

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