Will MacNeil is Design Director, Experience of The Mill. Here here shares his thoughts on the emerging metaverse and the role design will play in shaping it.
To what extent do you see design playing a vital role in the evolution of the metaverse?
I think good design is essential for the Metaverse to be a place people want and can visit. It is broken down into two disciplines: Experiential Design, where we find out how people actually use and experience the Metaverse, and Aesthetic Design, where we decide how the Metaverse will feel. These two elements are closely linked and must be treated together. But for the Metaverse to succeed, the inner workings of the experience really need to be explored.
The metaverse is an opportunity to remove a lot of barriers from the physical world. Distance, economic disparity, barriers that encumber people with disabilities: the negative impact of all of these things could be lessened in a well-designed mixed reality world. Or it could be reinforced, which is why having the right experiential side is so important. Aesthetically, if we’re going to spend as much time immersed in the metaverse as we currently do surfing the internet, I want it to be a beautiful place. I suspect the look and feel will evolve in a similar trajectory to the early days of web design. Faced with a somewhat limited toolset, designers will slowly learn to work with and exploit these limitations to create acceptable virtual worlds. Then, as technology develops, we can create richer spaces that will end up feeling truly immersive and welcoming.
How do you think the metaverse will reframe human-centered experiences?
A lot of the talk around the metaverse right now seems to suggest that it will be something we enter and leave as a conscious choice – as a space of our own. But I think it will more likely be an extension of the Internet as we know it today. We’re already used to carrying around smart devices and wearables, as we barely notice when we hear a ping. We travel through our minds in our social media feeds or receive a haptic reminder to get up or take a deep breath to relax. When the right optical device arrives, I expect we’ll start to see this kind of interaction seep into our visual experience of everyday life. Perhaps this is how the Metaverse begins to exist for us: as a mixed reality in which we exist for much of our waking hours.
Obviously, there is a risk here that we will simply be overwhelmed with sights, sounds and sensations that begin to interfere with our experience of the physical world. As designers, it’s essential that we create an experience that enhances the authentic human experience rather than supplanting it.
What are the complexities and challenges of this new reality?
The metaverse adds another dimension to the internet and therefore multiplies design tasks exponentially. In terms of design aesthetics, we’ve been building immersive 3D worlds for some time now and the technology behind it is evolving at a breakneck pace. We’ve made huge strides in image and sound fidelity, as we can create believable 3D creatures and spaces for movies and games.
The challenge is to make it all work in a large-scale lightweight real-time system. But there is a clear roadmap for it. What is much more difficult to grasp is how we conceive of the interaction itself. Do we approach it as an operating system in which we configure rules for user interfaces and application development? Are we trying to put in place standards that developers agree on so that we can share assets and create an open system for development, similar to the web? What does ownership look like in the metaverse? Who controls things like money and centralization? What does crime look like in the metaverse and who controls it? These are really tough questions to answer, and frankly, they’re way beyond my expertise.
Will digital art change the way we create, consume and commission artwork?
The rise of NFTs has made two things obvious: digital artists want a way to retain the value of the art they produce – even if that art is easily copied, and the world of buying and selling d Art is always an anarchic book for everyone. I totally understand that people who make art want to sell it. And NFTs have shown us one way this could work. The idea that the creation of a work of art can be logged on a blockchain with the history of every time it is bought and sold is, to me, fantastic.
It’s a great way to ensure that artists are recognized for their work, even after it has changed hands multiple times. But NFTs are flawed. They don’t actually store the art on a blockchain, just links to files on servers. So the advantage of blockchain technology is not really there. The cryptocurrencies that most NFTs are minted, bought and sold with are a mess, as are many NFT auction platforms. We regularly see stories of NFTs being stolen or people’s work being cashed in without their permission. So despite this potential big leap forward for digital art, what we’re seeing looks a lot like the crazy art world we’ve known for 150 years. Some artists earn a lot of money. Some earn nothing. Some have their jobs stolen. And a small group of people, who don’t care about art at all, make huge sums of money from other people’s creativity. I would like to see NFT 2.0, where these issues are resolved. But I’m not bold enough to suggest that we’re about to fix the art world.
What interesting metaverse design concepts have you seen recently?
As a designer, I’m excited for what could happen in terms of visual quality and impact. But we’re probably still a long way from seeing a truly beautiful and immersive metaverse. What interests me the most right now are experiences that emphasize interactivity, bringing people together in a virtual space. The Mill’s Lovecraft Country did it brilliantly with virtual reality (VR) chat. Despite the size and scale limitations with VR chat, the experience was truly a place where people could come together and share a common interest. And of course we should look at what the next generation is already doing. This type of interaction already exists in Roblox and Fortnite. These are not just games, they are meeting places. We should take a close look at how these spaces work and why they are so popular (and they are hugely popular). This kind of organic growth, from simple ideas to vast online ecosystems, is likely the path we will inevitably take. Despite everything I’ve said about the design of the Metaverse, these things feel a bit like military campaigns. As soon as the first shot is fired, strategy goes out the window.