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Designing the Metaverse – Getting it Right from the Start

We are in an enviable position, where we are right at the start of something that is likely to become so huge, and so important to our everyday lives, and it will make them just what we want rather than end up with something foisted on us. I speak, of course, about the Metaverse; the embryonic communications, interactions, and virtual environment that is fast becoming a reality. 

The potential that exists within the Metaverse are truly huge, and industries as diverse as entertainment, gaming, publishing, and even quick-service restaurants and luxury goods manufacturers are experimenting with ways to obtain a piece of the market that is projected to be worth as much as $800 billion within the space of a few short years. We have only just begun to scratch the surface of what can occur in the Metaverse, as virtual events become more common and consumers spend very real money on dressing their avatar in the latest virtual fashions, as well as deliverable goods. The possibilities of what we can do in the Metaverse are practically unlimited; yet, the user experience (or UX) design of the environment now needs to be the primary focus of attention if we want it to be a place where people of various backgrounds and experiences may feel welcomed and at ease.

The Metaverse has several issues in terms of design, content, and user experience that do not exist in any place else, and it is strikingly different from the current iteration of Web 2.0 to which the vast majority of us are accustomed. Designers who are currently working in this young business have the ability to set new standards for the way the Metaverse will be designed and accessed in the future. However, due to the fact that the Metaverse is so dissimilar, there are a number of fundamental challenges that need to be resolved before it can be considered anything more than a specialised subset of the internet as it exists now. 

However, the Metaverse benefits from one important factor; the hardware infrastructure is pretty much already in place, so the main task falls to developing the content that runs off that hardware. OpenReach – the infrastructure arm of British Telecom – is now fast rolling out full-fibre connections and it won’t be long before the majority of the country has access to super-fast (900Mbs) internet connectivity, and that will help power the Metaverse. Furthermore, we also have devices – computers, VR equipment and so forth – that have the power to use information delivered at those speeds. 

So, the hardware is looking pretty good, and the real challenge comes with creating the experience that runs on it, and that will be no small or easy task. Currently, online design is open to anyone with the right tools and the inclination to do it, and while that is a good thing, it is also a potential recipe for chaos, with the possible resulting Metaverse akin to a bout of seasickness rather than the smooth experience that everybody wants.

The Metaverse presents designers with both an opportunity and a significant problem in the form of a new world that may fully interact with one another and features rules of engagement that have never been seen before. UX Designs will be the ones to establish the guidelines for this communal network, and it is almost certain that they will begin by drawing on the expertise they’ve gained over the past two decades in the field of digital communication and applying that expertise to the Metaverse. But, is that sufficient? Is there a risk that the ideology behind the Metaverse – a shared virtual platform of freedom – will become hijacked by corporations (such as Meta) and will just end up as an ersatz version of that, and will become dictated to us?

Neal Stephenson, the author of Snow Crash, which became the first literary depiction of the Metaverse, described the online world as one designed with very little corporate or ‘official’ input, and where those who could imagine did so in abundance. The infrastructure in Stephenson’s book consisted simply of an enormous circular virtual highway with a central monorail, but everything away from this massive structure was the preserve of individuals with a dream. The result was a bewildering cacophony of designs and styles, with no common theme.  

While that may seem like an exciting prospect for some, the average current internet user – keen to shop and lower their bills – may well find it overwhelming and not to their taste, limiting their interaction with it and driving it to a niche application. To counter this, some artistic-based businesses, such as Adobe, are focusing on giving developers the right skills to create exciting yet thoughtfully considered virtual content for use in the Metaverse. The company has developed the Adobe Substance 3D Collection, which is a set of interoperable tools and services that support 3D creativity from the very beginning to the very conclusion of any design project. This was done to empower creatives so that they can succeed in 3D. Adobe’s mission was to develop software that is not only simple to use but also difficult to become obsolete, so that users’ creative potential may be used to its fullest. Substance 3D delivers the cutting-edge technology that seasoned 3D artists require, while at the same time rendering the medium approachable for newcomers interested in 3D. The system eliminates much of the technical complexity that is associated with 3D design by utilising the power of artificial intelligence and has an intuitive interface that artists are already familiar with from programmes like Photoshop and Illustrator. The use of tools such as these will not only stimulate creativity, but will also lend a degree of uniformity to the virtual designs produced.

Unity is also aware of this need for structure and is doing all it can to help focus developers on best practices. The company has developed a series of curated sessions that are designed to guide both developers and decision makers on the best way forward with Metaverse, with the hope of instilling some order in the potential chaos.

Early 20th century French politician Georges Clemenceau said “War is too important to be left to the generals”, meaning that no one group should be in a position to make decisions on important issues, and this is true of Metaverse design too. We can’t let the big corporations direct us, but neither can we simply put it into the hands of disconnected UX developers dreaming their own dreams, and each trying to ‘out-whacky’ each other. Structured design by individuals focusing on building up from a common infrastructure would appear to be the most desirable way forward, just like Neal Stephenson pointed out back in 1993. 

We don’t know how the design of the Metaverse will end up, but we have a pretty good idea on how it is going to start. It’s going to be a long journey, and with plenty of twists and turns, but never fear, Unity Developers will be here to keep you updated. Check back often for the latest on this exciting ongoing development.