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Design in the metaverse: what to expect at Design Joburg 2022

What are the implications for art, design and architecture in the virtual worlds of the metaverse? Graham Wood spoke to some of the experts who will be speaking at Design Joburg this month

15 May 2022 - 00:03 By Graham Wood
Living in a VR world.
Living in a VR world.
Image: 123rf.com/katisa

“There are no stupid questions,” Melody Maker, digital consultant at advertising agency M&C Saatchi Abel, assures me as we kick off our discussion about the moment’s buzziest buzzword, the metaverse. In fact, one of the first things everyone I consulted on the topic assured me is that what we call the metaverse is shifting terrain.

It’s a technology in its infancy, and what it is or might be in the future is still being forged. It’s one of the focal points at this year’s Design Joburg, which will be at Sandton Convention Centre this month, where virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) will feature in the design fair’s “Architects Gallery”.

There will be ‘digital twins’ of two of Joburg’s landmark buildings, The Leonardo (above) and the Bank, both of which you can tour using a digital headset.
There will be ‘digital twins’ of two of Joburg’s landmark buildings, The Leonardo (above) and the Bank, both of which you can tour using a digital headset.
Image: Supplied

There will be “digital twins” of two of Joburg’s landmark buildings, the Bank and The Leonardo, which you can tour using a digital headset.

And the topic will also be explored in a panel discussion, which will include Maker and Ann Roberts, who founded TMRW Gallery nearly five years ago as a kind of experiment to explore what would happen when contemporary artists were introduced to VR technology, as well as Steve Pinto, founder of New Reality, a local immersive-experience production company, who will moderate the discussion.

The Bank building.
The Bank building.
Image: Supplied

The next question, after being told that the metaverse isn’t really a clearly defined thing yet, is to insist: “But really, what is the metaverse?” To this, someone will usually concede that it’s a kind of network or constellation of virtual worlds — parallel digital realities you can enter using a VR headset (and also sometimes via less immersive technologies like gaming consoles, computers and smartphones). It exists, in essence, on the internet.

Maker breaks it down for me in the often-used terms set out by the woman who’s described as the “godmother of the metaverse”, Cathy Hackl.

In a nutshell, she says that if Web 1.0 is understood as the internet, which created “access to information at scale” in ways that it wasn’t before (search engines, Wikipedia and the like) and Web 2.0 has more to do with “the rise of social networks”, which “became about networking and how to connect people”, then Web 3.0, which is the metaverse, is about connecting “people, places and things”. It’s a form of the internet you can enter as if it were a place.

Roberts puts in perspective by comparing the point at which we find ourselves now to the early days of VCR. Who knew which of the two dominant technologies — Betamax or VHS — would end up dominating the market? Similarly, it’s hard to know which of the myriad iterations of the metaverse out there now will become entrenched and which will fade away. Another useful analogy, she suggests, might be to consider all the companies that existed when internet search engines first appeared.

Which aspects of the nascent metaverse will be ‘Google’? Who knows? For the moment, it’s a bunch of interactive, immersive virtual or synthetic worlds which you can enter or leave as you please. “You enter the metaverse with an avatar,” says Maker — a sort of digital version of yourself.

What you do there might vary — one of the earliest areas it gained traction was in the world of gaming, which is a considerable industry in its own right worth billions — but it’s a phenomenon that’s starting to bleed out of the geeky corners of the internet into the mainstream, affecting ordinary, everyday activities, industries and professions.

Ubuntu token.
Ubuntu token.
Image: africare.io

Maker explains that people are often attracted to the metaverse for entertainment, as a form of escapism. (The pandemic might have accelerated its adoption, as it did other technologies.)

In this digital fantasy world, you can do things akin to what you might do in the real world. Of particular significance are the currencies that have sprung up in the metaverse built on blockchain technology.

Each world, sometimes called an ecosystem, has its own — Ubuntuland, Africa’s first metaverse marketplace, which launched in February this year, for example, has $UBUNTU token. The advent of non-fungible tokens (NFTs), another blockchain technology, has made the ownership of unique items in these digital universes possible.

So, as Pinto explains, this means that in the virtual worlds of the metaverse, commercial activities have taken off — you can buy virtual real estate, for example, and economies have developed. They’re a bit like real-world economies, he says, operating according to laws of supply and demand, but with a different ideological approach.

Cryptocurrencies are inherently anti centralised control; in fact, this might be their reason for being. There are no centralised financial institutions of governments in this digital dimension — the rules are based on transparency and the accessibility of information to everyone. Pinto points out that as a result, without real-world bureaucracy, the economy in the metaverse is relatively frictionless and so the economy moves faster.

For some industries, especially in the fields of design and architecture, where 3D VR technology has been used for some time, the implications of the metaverse are more obvious than others.

During the pandemic, particularly, when travel was restricted, architects and interior designers with overseas clients began working more intensely with VR technology. It allowed them to design buildings and interiors in incredible detail, and their clients could don a headset and enter virtually across the globe (or down the road). They could move around their buildings and “experience” them before they were built.

This meant architects and their clients could change and refine their designs before spending a cent on brick and mortar with an unprecedentedly clear idea of what the results would be. It’s a development that has streamlined certain aspects of the field of architecture and design in meaningful ways.

Steve Pinto, founder of New Reality, a local immersive experience production company.
Steve Pinto, founder of New Reality, a local immersive experience production company.
Image: Supplied

Pinto explains that one of the foundational economic activities in the metaverse is buying virtual real estate. And what do you do with space, whether real or virtual? You build something … a house (or a shop, a club, an art gallery or whatever you like).

Increasingly, architects are using their VR technologies to design space that exists only in the metaverse and only for the metaverse. When it comes to designing exclusively for the metaverse, of course, a whole new realm for architectural expression arises. Architects are designing digital fantasy spaces, unconstrained by gravity or engineers or materials.

And, as Pinto points out, if, as an architect, you charge for that work, it’s as real an economy as anything. While some of what people do in the metaverse has to do with ordinary human impulses like displaying wealth and status, or simply expressing themselves, there are other possibilities for what can happen in these spaces, too.

Maker says that M&C Saatchi Abel’s office in Ubuntuland, apart from providing an opportunity to immerse themselves in the technology to understand it, is to make it possible for people all over the world (it’s a global company) to meet in the virtual office. There, in the digital space, they can share expertise around the globe, which might not be easily accessible in the real world. They can crowdsource ideas and basically unlock creativity and opportunities to collaborate in new ways.

That’s one possibility for how the metaverse might function in our lives beyond the realms of fun and entertainment. Others might include anything from art to education. When Roberts established TMRW, she saw it as an experiment to see what might happen if you introduced artists to VR technology. “TMRW was set up to give contemporary artists access to the tools of virtual and augmented reality, because for me digital technology should just be another brush. It’s an extension of an artistic practice.”

While she’s a little sceptical about the hype about NFTs and art in the metaverse — “It’s like a get-rich-quick scheme rather than having any kind of solid, credible artistic foundation,” she suspects — she’s still very interested to see “how the technology can be used by artists to create meaningful artworks”.

Despite the noise, she says there are a number of organisations doing fascinating work with digital art — she mentions Acute and Aorist — and she remains convinced that “it’s important that people should be exploring the space.”

It has the potential to open up avenues of creativity and imagination unlike anything in the real world, and what happens in the metaverse might enter our consciousness in ways quite different from art in the real world. For example, Roberts recalls that when Mary Sibande worked with TMRW, she said that she dreamt about her work for the first time.

Ann Roberts
Ann Roberts
Image: Supplied

Maker notes that if she had to bet on an area of growth in the metaverse, it would be fashion. Just as you can select an avatar, you can select clothes for your avatar. The metaverse, she points out, “opens up opportunities for self-expression”, and fashion offers all sorts of new possibilities in a way that might be more accessible than architecture, for example.

Already, “virtual fashion” is a growing phenomenon with several fashion houses having hosted virtual fashion shows in the metaverse. But Maker says that while there might be design disciplines that are suited to the metaverse to a greater or lesser degree, sooner or later it’s bound to matter to any and all industries.

You might consider its relevance in the same way as we thought about social media in its infancy, she explains. Once, a brand might have asked why or whether they should bother to have a Facebook or Twitter account. Now, there’s barely a brand out there that doesn’t have a presence across all social media platforms.

The metaverse is likely to play a similar role in its own way. She notes that in the same way as jobs like social media managers didn’t exist even a few years ago, whole new employment descriptions will arise from activities in the metaverse. “I’ve got a virtual community manager who manages people online; that’s their whole job,” says Maker.

As for the future, she thinks the real game changer will be when the digital world and the real world relate seamlessly. If there were glasses you could wear, for example that allowed the metaverse to free itself of 3D headsets and clunky goggles, it could become a layer of reality, rather than a separate reality. That, she suspects, would unleash a whole new raft of potential, and possibly realise the greater purpose of the metaverse.

Roberts points out, however, that a lot of its broader applicability will depend on the lowering of barriers to entry. At the moment, access to headsets — which is prohibitively expensive — and super-fast internet, hinders its broader applicability beyond a privileged few. But, what also seems inevitable is that the metaverse will become more realistic and convincing; more like the real world.

Already, there are examples of how hyperreal fashion items are springing up. It would be a game changer for artworks, which Roberts points out, rely on being unique, which is experiences in the detail. Maker notes that things called “haptic suits” are already available that translate things that happen in the metaverse into physical sensations. (We agree not even to broach the implications of this kind of technology for the pornography industry.)

The funny thing about the development of the metaverse, it appears, is how much it seems destined to become more like the “real” world. Its apparently inevitable march towards some sort of form of augmented reality is one aspect of the question. The other might be the ways in which moral and ethical questions related to the material world are already manifesting in the metaverse.

What do you do about cybercrime, for example? “How do you prevent hate speech?” adds Maker. “People are speaking about a constitution for the metaverse,” she says. “How do you ensure that there is a code of conduct that people are adhering to?” Is it inevitable, even as we create a marvellous, brave new digital world, that we will take our problems with us?

• Africa’s Metaverse and the Question of Whether Designers and Artists should be Paying Attention to it’ will take place on Thursday May 19 from 1.30pm to 2.30pm.

Panellists include Ann Roberts of TMRW Gallery and Melody Maker, Digital Consultant at M&C Saatchi Abel. Moderator: Steve Pinto.

Design Joburg is on from  May 19 to 21 2022 at the Sandton Convention Centre, while the fringe event, Design Joburg Collective — which will include industry walk-arounds, trend talks and networking events — kicks off on May 17 and will be live in nearby décor and design districts Kramerville and 44 Stanley.