Credit: Vice Media Group
Vice Media Group recently openedViceverse, their new global headquarters. Designed by Copenhagen-based architecture firm BIG (Bjarke Ingels Group), the project is the firm’s first to be built on Decentraland, a virtual ‘metaverse’ platform. Indeed, it appears to be the first project by any serious architecture firm on any metaverse platform, which begs the following questions: Should we as fabricators be concerned? Do we need to start putting software developers on our shop floor? Will anyone even want the things that architects and designers draw to be physically built in the future? Are we a thriving buggy and carriage shop that just saw a car speed by for the first time?
When discussing something that has achieved the level of buzz that the metaverse has, it’s important to define what you’re talking about. A good place to start is with Meta, the global tech behemoth formerly known as Facebook, who believes so strongly in a metaverse future that they changed their name to Meta and bet billions on a pivot towards it. How does Meta define the metaverse, what is their role in it, and how will they create value and revenue for the company? Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg:
See? Clear as mud. This is the sort of clarity of purpose and vision from a CEO that delivers a market cap worth about half of what it was less than a year ago. In Meta’s defense, defining big concepts with specificity is difficult. Let’s instead look at some practical use cases. Horizon Workrooms is a product where, assuming everyone has purchased a Quest VR headset, you can have virtual meetings with coworkers. It’s like Zoom, only more awkward and alienating. Horizon Venues is a product where, again assuming you have a Quest VR headset, you can see a virtual concert in real time, like a recent performance by the Foo Fighters. Many would-be attendees complained about being unable to get into the virtual venue. It’s a virtual experience of the world’s worst venue.
It’s easy to poke fun of Meta (they’re the ones who changed their name), but metaverse mediocrity is by no means their exclusive domain. Samsung hosted a product launch on Decentraland, only to find that users couldn’t get into the already full virtual building because it was too small and the entrance too tight. Walmart recreated all the least convenient things about shopping in person (going up and down aisles to find things rather than just typing or saying them, harshly lit big box buildings) and took away the most convenient (having your purchases in hand when you leave the store) when they designed their metaverse. Retailers are just rendering their stores and inviting users to ‘shop’ in the metaverse.
The promise of the metaverse is that, however clunky the interface (sitting at home, alone, wearing goggles, manipulating a virtual ‘avatar’), there are no constraints on design. Anyone can create their own vision of the universe and render it as if it were real, unburdened by the reality of physics, code, cost, and practicality. What is painfully clear from these first attempts at metaverse building is that there was no design. No architect, no environmental graphic designer, no landscape designer, would, when given carte blanche, create a worse version of something that already exists. So, kudos to Vice for hiring actual architects from BIG to design their virtual office. If the metaverse is ever going to be more than a buzzword, it’s going to require the level of professional design we expect in the real world. If not, we’ll be in business for at least another 60 years.
This guy gets it.