The average person may be aware of the metaverse only through hearing about Mark Zuckerberg‘s decision to change the name of his company from Facebook to Meta, a move designed to highlight the social media firm’s shift into a new virtual world of building in the metaverse.
Described by US consultancy McKinsey as “the emerging 3D-enabled digital space that uses virtual reality, augmented reality and other advanced internet and semiconductor technology to allow people to have lifelike personal and business experiences online,” the term “metaverse” was coined by science fiction author Neal Stephenson in his 1992 dystopian novel “Snow Crash.”
Since the advent of computer games, numerous metaverses have emerged for gamers to inhabit digital worlds, such as “Fortnite” and “World of Warcraft.”
And, for an industry like construction which is already undergoing digital transformation, the metaverse is set to have a significant impact.
What does the metaverse mean for architecture?
In essence, the metaverse opens up a near-limitless world of design opportunity, from being able to build a house in the metaverse to much larger structures, and a number of architects have already embraced the technology. Software giant (and Bluebeam owner) Nemetschek highlights the potential, since the metaverse creates a wrap-around 3D approximation of projects in a virtual environment.
“It allows people to be immersed in the construction project during a wide variety of phases. They can augment the physical world with all the information in the model or digital twin as the infrastructure is designed, built and operated,” the company says.
Given its almost “anything goes” potential, it’s easy to understand why building in the metaverse should prove so attractive to architects, offering the ability to incorporate augmented reality, virtual reality, 3D holographic avatars, video and other forms of digital communication.
The sky is almost the limit in terms of designing in the metaverse, since at this stage one isn’t creating something tangible or physical. Whereas in the real world architects are bound by the rules of form, function and practicality, availability of materials, suitability of location and generally a fixed level of investment in a scheme, there are no such constraints when designing a metaverse building.
As interior design studio Hommés puts it, there are “no budgets, no height restrictions, no panel sizes … all kinds of material are at their disposal.” With such creative freedom and endless resources, Hommés argues that “architecture projects in the virtual world can be dream-like spaces that trigger emotions that one would hardly experience in the real world.”
When it comes to what makes a metaverse architect, Spain-based architecture and design 3D rendering agency render4tomorrow makes the point that creative vision, collaborative skills and an awareness of what makes the metaverse “tick” are essential.
“Creating immersive and engaging virtual environments requires the ability to design and manipulate three-dimensional objects in a digital space … architects must understand user psychology and behaviour to design virtual environments that motivate users to explore, interact and return.
“They should also work closely with other members of the development team, including programmers, designers and project managers … and stay up to date with emerging technologies that continue to shape the metaverse,” the studio says.
As with all aspects of digital construction, building in the metaverse is approached via a platform. Decentraland is one, where participants buy a 16-square-meter plot—the largest size available—to “build” virtually on. Furthermore, reports highlight that architects are creating their own metaverse studios to design virtual architecture.
Voxel Architects has built virtual spaces on a number of platforms, including Decentraland and The Sandbox. Projects have included a virtual rendition of the headquarters of global auction house Sotheby’s. Voxel’s version—built at 1:1 scale—is a detailed reproduction of its offices in London.
The benefits for construction companies of working in the metaverse include the simplification of collaboration on international projects or among different locally based teams. Nemetschek notes that all stakeholders can meet in one place, exchange ideas and monitor progress.
“There is no longer a need for video calls or on-site inspections; instead, all work steps can take place in the metaverse. In addition, the metaverse offers the potential for a centralised project facility where all model data can be hosted to streamline collaboration, BIM coordination and visualisation.”
The potential benefits of the metaverse for construction companies “are too great to ignore,” the company adds. Walkthroughs of projects can be conducted via the metaverse, allowing contractors and developers to show potential clients around a metaverse building before it has been completed.
How to build in the metaverse
Know your market—and be brave
Consultancy EY says “the journey to success starts with having the right strategic direction, focus and priorities, followed by building and leveraging your own capabilities in combination with ecosystem partners. Finally, there has to be an appetite to jump into the unknown.”
EY has a checklist of things construction firms should consider when first getting into and building in the metaverse.
“Consider how the metaverse impacts your current offering and where there’s potential for new opportunities … [since] entering the metaverse means breaking new ground and you will need to find new ways to engage with customers. What capabilities are needed?”
“Which of these do you already have in house, and where can you upskill? How can you leverage your network and who are the right collaboration partners to complement your position in the metaverse ecosystem?”
Working in the metaverse will, in a relatively short space of time, become the norm for many architects, perhaps even as ubiquitous as using a laptop is today.
What does the future hold for architects?
As the metaverse expands, so will the opportunities for architects to collaborate more, design virtually with an eye on what can be delivered in the physical world and do so anywhere in the world.
Says George Bileca, co-founder of Voxel Architects: “I think there will be a ton of opportunities for architects and interior designers; there will be diverse architecture in the future. I’m convinced of that because we are already evolving from a 2D space to a 3D space.”
“As businesses will more commonly start to have three-dimensional environments where their customers can interact,” he continues, “you will need designers or architects to create this world by building it.”
That sounds like the perfect storm of opportunity. But for some, things can be a bit clunky. “The technology doesn’t exist yet to replicate 3D space in a fidelity that captures anything more than static elements with data links,” says Greg Schleusner, New York-based director of design technology at architect HOK. “We don’t even have ways to model something as simple as a person walking through a door.”
“Though the technology has never been better, we have a lot of work to do if the metaverse is intended to twin reality.”