Is the Metaverse really the next user experience?

Pimp.
9 min readFeb 9, 2022

And how will I design for it?

If you’ve lived on our planet the last few months you know the Metaverse is a thing. It’s the promise of a new digital era where we’ll live, work and play in an environment fully entwined with virtual experiences. If the word rather puzzles than inspires you or you feel like no explanation ever gives you a tangible feel of what it’s really about, then welcome, you’re among a few billion others of us. This article hopes to clarify some of that and give you an appreciable feel of what it’s all about.

A believer of the Metaverse myself — or whatever you’d like to call it — I’m convinced it’s real. That’s not the question. The question is how we perceive and define it and to what degree it will pervade our lives. Today the term has a distinct association with Facebook and how they market the future or our social lives to be. A large part of that future will contain living (or playing) our lives in virtual reality, extending our physical selves with a digital counterpart capable of much more. Think Facebook meeting Fortnite. I’ll let you decide how much you believe in that vision or how much you want to be a part of it. Personally, I don’t buy it. At least not the part where we’ll be wearing headsets all the time. Sure, that kind of experience has its audience but unless play-to-earn games promise above average earnings, this thing will always remain a niche market. The true value lies somewhere else. After all, you don’t drive from home to work as a slick rally car racer in a pimped up WRC car. However, you do use its technology on a daily basis.

Let’s dive in, but first…

What is the metaverse really?

The Metaverse is a word derived from the author Neal Stephenson who coined it in his 1992 sci-fi novel ‘Snowcrash’, depicting a coded 3D landscape in which users could have lifelike experiences.

Today, the word has stuck as a name to encompass all the interactions we have with our environment in a virtual manner, accessed through the internet. You can think of it as a set of interconnected digital systems, each aligned to work with each other, aimed at setting the user at the center and sometimes allowing you to do stuff you can’t do in a physical world.

As such, we’re already living in the Metaverse, but in a rather decoherent way. When you’re having a Teams call with your colleague or chatting with your friends over Messenger, you’re in the Metaverse. However, you have a profile in Teams but that profile means nothing in Messenger. The Metaverse aims to combine and merge all those experiences into one seamless world, where you decide where to go and what to do with your data (wipe that cynical smile from your face!). The obvious exponents of this experience are augmented and virtual reality, but its decentralized and collaborative character hone technologies like Blockchain, artificial intelligence and many more. Following the decentralized principles of the Blockchain, on which the lion’s share of applications will be built, less will be dominated by any company, but rather co-created in symphony with peer users, who are regarded as builders of their own future. This co-creation can be epitomized in DAO’s, or decentralized autonomous organizations, where the organized part will not be run by a central body but by a joint collaboration of people (called nodes for the computers each of them use to run it). By adding each one’s node to the network, a blockchain is built, which is basically a huge database onto which decentralized apps (or dApps) run. These apps, or more specifically how they deal with each other, will be regulated by smart contracts, which is code that runs automatically on the blockchain and will self-execute any transaction between parties as long as the requirements within the contract are met. As a user you can do any transaction like buying a concert ticket online, proving your identity or voting in an election through tokens, which are encrypted strings of numbers the blockchain can validate. The fuel that will run any transaction is cryptocurrency like bitcoin, ether or ADA. Amidst all of this, you are unique, preferably anonymous and the sole secure owner of every digital asset you henceforward own, also known as an NFT or non-fungible token.

Long story short, we’re entering a completely different mindset where the underlying architecture is remodeled to steer away from the monopolized and centralized world we live in today, thus liberating the internet and giving power and ownership back to the people. After the internet of websites (1.0) and that of social media (2.0), it marks the advent of web 3.0, the proliferation of decentralized networking. And it’s on top of this under-the-hood architecture the Metaverse aims to be your living experience, at least for every digital interaction you’ll have.

If the above doesn’t sound like a perfect script for revolution, I don’t know! Obviously, there are some caveats. It’s not within the scope of this article to elaborate but it is at least appropriate to reflect upon it:

  • As we can agree that too much centralization is dangerous, too much decentralisation on the other hand puts a serious strain on regulation. Who gets to decide what and how?
  • Even when projects claim to be decentralized, what happens when there’s a security breach, exposing users details? In the heat of innovation and open resourcefulness, a lot of organizations are only too eager to jump right in and release their project prematurely, opening up possible gaps for hackers.
  • And then there’s the question how this model will play out for today’s big tech sector. There’s every reason to believe the major tech companies like Meta or Microsoft will unleash their own tokenomic model (which Meta has tried twice without success). I can’t imagine these companies opening up their metaverse to the main competitors, even when Zuckerberg claims the Metaverse will be open for everyone.
  • Furthermore, how will you be able to port your data from one platform to the other. Who owns your data really? You or the organization?
  • And finally, but not lastly, are we really expected to be wearing VR headsets most of the time? Or even augmented reality glasses? Maybe I’m just getting old and don’t yet sufficiently realize how young digital natives are perfectly moldable into this model, but I tend to think that we are — for now at least — still homo sapiens prewired to interact with our environment in a mainly physical way.

I don’t know. As with a lot, we need to take several aspects into account and search for a middle ground between the physical and the digital. It will be a mix of digital solutions layered in between the physical ones, much more so than today, where the user decides which mode to be in and who to interact with. Interestingly this world needs deliberate design. The big shift of our experience will be a transition from a 2D to a full 3D environment, remodeling our entire environment as our interface. And that opens up huge opportunities.

The Metaverse needs content creators

Designers, get ready! This shift requires a deep understanding of spatial design. So roll, pitch and yaw your head around in 360 and start conceiving novel ways of interaction. The focus of user experience will take a shift towards storytelling, animation and choreography.

We’ll need to create from a sandbox approach and consider dynamic paths users follow, based on their interactions and input. It’s kind of giving the user an environment with some cues but letting him free to discover that environment himself, possibly adding to it. As time and space become subjects of design, we’ll need to describe physics in a virtual world and adhere to the laws of physics and quantum mechanics as well.

Typically, designing and building these experiences will require a mixture of different types of 3D data, such as modeling, shading, animation, lighting and rendering, neither of which are — to this day — readable or editable by any other application by default. Companies like Pixar (Disney) have already paved the way on this space and dubbed it the USD or universal scene description. Other companies like Nvidia are building on top of this space framework and are building their own platforms to allow developers to collaborate and simulate easier between different 3D tools. In the case of Nvidia this is called Omniverse, wink wink.

Such a world consumes data and requires massive content to entertain its users. This inevitably offers ample opportunities for a designer, at least if you’re willing to adapt. We’ll need well thought user experiences for communication, transactions or proving one’s identity. We’ll also need new digital assets like offices, parks, factories and theatres in virtual cities. Basically, everything we designed for in the real world will have a digital counterpart in the Metaverse. Rendering photo-realistic experiences will require massive amounts of data computers can manage very quickly. This means better graphic cards and artificial intelligence processors.

Furthermore, in virtual worlds, everybody can become a designer and display their assets, or NFT’s, at various virtual locations. It might sound shady but it makes for a possibly lucrative domain for designers to leverage their design skills in the physical world and to extend that into the virtual world.

It could mean creating your own avatar, being who you want to be, being with who you want to be. Avatars shouldn’t be restricted to a kind of pixelated version of yourself but can be your lifelike replica too. Techniques like motion capture make it possible to create a fully 3D version of yourself.

I understand, but I’m not that kind of designer!

As exhilarating this all is, it can be daunting as well. It might feel like a tsunami heading for us, while not realizing its full impact and surely leaving us with too little time to plan a workable approach.

In a previous article on ‘The end of UX’, I already pointed out some clues as to where the role of designer is evolving to. Of course, UX as we understand it today revolves mainly around translating business and user requirements into functional prototypes and visually user-friendly 2D applications, mobile or web. It rarely ventures into the realm of emerging technologies, of which the Metaverse is a pioneering exponent.

We have some time adapting but designers would be well advised to already start tinkering with it. UX design will still be needed, but there will come a point where the exact definition of our current day role is questioned and we need to move along with the effect of emerging technologies. A first step could be to shift your focus from 2D to 3D. Designing for virtual and augmented reality is a first logical step, something we’re already undertaking for years now at RMDY. Some concrete steps into that realm can be found in our article about it (the text is in Dutch).

What’s in it for me and my organization?

Regardless of what you’ve just read up until now, if someone were to ask you how you perceive the Metaverse, my bet is you’d refer to gaming or social media. If your answer was Fortnite, that would be even more impressive. Surely gaming is one thing. And not an irrelevant one for that. It is said that industries have the money, but gaming has the experience. However, as much fun gaming is, it’s not necessarily functional for what we do on a daily basis. In that aspect the Metaverse comprises may more applications that make our professional lives much more user-friendly.

Take BMW. The company has already built a 3D digital twin of a factory wherein the carmaker is able to learn, train and reassemble new models more efficiently than real life. Still in the automotive industry, virtual worlds can become an accelerator of testing autonomous vehicles driving around situational environments and scenarios. This would make it much safer to train.

Present-day examples include bringing augmented reality objects to life in your physical environment. Think about the IKEA-app where you can put any type of furniture in your room. Wearing a headset and walking around it makes it even more immersive than looking through the small screen real estate of a mobile phone. Designers like Balenciaga already promote their clothing in videogames. And education could be made much more effective if children didn’t need to learn about the Romans through books but could actually walk amongst them.

There’s a sheer list of possibilities waiting to happen. And that is surely what makes this whole wave of innovation so damn interesting.

Bart Van Hecke | UX/UI Architect & Solutions Lead RMDY

#grow&glow | #maketheworldperformbetter

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