Future of Design November 14, 2022

The Metaverse is coming. Here’s what that means.

Artistic rendering of a scene in the metaverse

Facebook recently renamed itself Meta. J.P. Morgan predicts the metaverse will be a $1 trillion market. And Nike, Coca-Cola, and Louis Vuitton are among the major brands who have ventured forth into this new world. Perkins&Will digital innovation strategist Thomas Kearns explains why the metaverse is important, and what he’s working on for clients.

Q: What is the metaverse?

A: The metaverse is the next step in the maturation of the internet, what people are starting to call Web 3.0. It adds a spatial dimension. In the same way every company has a website today, every company will have some representation in the metaverse. There won’t be one single metaverse, but many virtual worlds that are interconnected. The easiest examples of these virtual worlds are multiplayer video games like Fortnite and Minecraft. At the heart of each world is a community of people.

Q: Who will build the metaverse?

A: Digital agencies and video game developers are the incumbents to design the metaverse because they know how to craft rich, immersive experiences that have emotional depth. There will be a part of the metaverse that is pure fantasy and entertainment. But there will be another part that is about productivity and expanding the physical realm, which is where companies will look to architecture firms to offer expertise. Architects won’t have to develop new skill sets; the actual work of building metaverse spaces will be done by specialists, or through advancements and plug-ins to additional tools and workflows. At Perkins&Will, we are already invested in professional software development, so we are in a unique position to offer both the beautiful digital building and the interactive user experience.

Q: Why is it a big deal?

A: Well, there’s a lot of money at play. The market potential is huge: People already spend $54 billion a year on virtual goods, and digital real estate prices are skyrocketing. But there are many motivations for entering the metaverse. To help our clients, I created a map to guide this conversation, essentially a flow chart with questions. Some clients want to develop and sell NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, which are digital collectibles. Others want to build brand presence, like Acura, which opened up a virtual showroom on a metaverse platform called Decentraland. I think most companies are going to be very interested in creating hybrid work environments. Going forward, the most interesting opportunity for designers is creating digital extensions of physical environments.

Q: What kinds of experiences will be possible?

A: As a thought experiment, we looked at a well-known global coffeehouse brand and brainstormed various ideas. A wall display of coffee beans could become a virtual museum experience that explains how coffee is grown and produced. Customers in the café could interact with customers in a metaverse lounge; next to their chair, there would be a video wall displaying the other person.

Q: Do we all have to be avatars in a cartoon universe?

A: You’re in good company: Many people have a knee-jerk reaction to the cartooniness. Fortunately, the technology is advancing very quickly. Within 12 to 24 months, we’ll have the equivalent of Zoom in the metaverse. Our faces and expressions will be captured by webcams and rendered in 3D. That’s where Microsoft is going with Teams. So the experience will be much more intimate and transparent. Our studio is working with Epic’s Unreal engine, which was used to create the video game Fortnite, to deliver high-fidelity experiences that will be completely different from most of what you see today.