Creativity in the Metaverse
We speak with experts in the technology and creative industries to understand how these worlds will collide in the next iteration of the web.
The Metaverse. That thing everybody has heard of, and yet very few truly understand (myself included). It was already becoming a buzzword before Facebook renamed itself Meta, but now the term has reached a new level of ubiquity, filling the technology section in almost every publication and news website. People are eager to know what it means, when it’s happening, and what it’s going to look like. For some, watching Mark Zuckerberg enthusiastically controlling his doppelganger avatar during the company’s recent grand unveiling evoked uncanny feelings. It appeared to them like a tech-dominated dystopia, where humans cease to engage with the real world, and instead live out their fantasies vicariously through their virtual selves. For others, it marked the start of something truly exciting, truly groundbreaking. A giant leap for mankind that will open doors to so many possibilities, to worlds untapped and completely unimaginable until only recently. After all, the first virtual reality headset was invented in 1968, but even at the dawn of the century an entirely virtual world, developed enough to spend long periods of time within, seemed far flung.
And to a certain extent, it still is. Facebook may have popularised the Metaverse with its monumental rebranding, and its headline-grabbing vision for the future, but this digital world, in a fully realised and functional state, remains for the most part a distant prospect. However, this doesn’t mean that we can’t start to make relatively informed guesses about what it will look like and how it will work. Over the last year or so there have been several key moments that have revealed rough blueprints for the space, hinting at the kinds of experiences and engagements we can expect further down the line. Arguably, the most tangible of all these moments was when Fortnite and Roblox – the former a Battle Royale style video game and the latter an online game creation platform – announced in 2020 that they would be hosting concerts with popular American rappers Travis Scott (Fortnite) and Lil Nas X (Roblox). These concerts were first-of-their-kind live events, attended by millions of players in-game who were able to witness the artists perform for them via gigantic lookalike avatars. They roamed around their respective digital stages, dancing and singing as players navigated their own characters alongside them, listening to their favourite tracks, as well as new songs released exclusively during the concerts.
These shows were considered the first “mainstream” glimpses of the Metaverse. A tantalising taste of what is to come, and how these virtual worlds, which for so long have been reserved purely for gaming, can eventually offer an alternate reality – one populated by gamers and non-gamers alike, who will attend events, socialise, or just explore these vast unknown spaces on a daily basis, much like how one might venture out into town to meet a friend or see a show. And that is, in very basic terms, what the Metaverse will likely offer. But it still leaves us with many questions, and for those working in visual disciplines, it poses several possible dilemmas about our positions in this new world, such as: Who will get to decide what the Metaverse will look like, and what are their plans for it? How will forward-facing professions like those in AR and VR contribute to the ways in which will we interact with it? And how will older, more analogue-based practices such as photography translate to an entirely digital context?
To attempt to shed some light on these issues, It’s Nice That has spoken with three key players in the scene: Annie Zhang, a senior product manager at Roblox and the founder of the Hello Metaverse podcast; Vivian Galinari, a technical artist and AR content creator at Meta; and Assembly, a photography-focused gallery, agency and creative studio that has been making waves in the NFT space.
Building the creative tools for a diverse and democratic Metaverse
Annie Zhang has always had an interest in “major cultural shifts” – particularly those that change the way people socialise and therefore how they live. This has led her to work on various consumer social products throughout her career, the most recent being Roblox. She says this move followed her previous role “building new experimental products” at Meta, in which she felt she kept “hitting the limitations” of the platform and its inability to keep up with people’s socialisation needs. “As people were looking for more rich and natural ways to socialise in a virtual setting [during lockdown], the asynchronous, text and image-based platform that Meta had built its foundation on no longer felt congruent to people’s needs,” she explains. “Roblox on the other hand, was a 3D native platform that had synchronicity and immersion built in. Furthermore, it focused on building tools for users to create their own 3D content, rather than building it in-house. With all this, I felt that Roblox had the right building blocks to become a next-gen social platform.”
And with Roblox reaching 43 million daily users as of the start of this year, Annie’s not wrong – that’s over twice as many as it had at the beginning of 2020. Not only that, but the platform was recently valued at just under $70 billion – much of this resulting from the huge surge in public interest around Metaverse-related stocks. Of course, other tech giants and various cryptocurrencies also profited from this surge – and in some cases merely from vague associations to it – but the key to Roblox’s particular success lies in its promise of online freedom. In other words the platform has become so remarkably popular because its product is not prescriptive: whereas other developers offer players beautiful premade worlds for them to explore, Roblox gives the player the tools to build their own world. This, above all else, has rocketed it to the dizzying heights it finds itself at today.
“The true magic will come when everyone has the ability to create – that will foster unpredictable outcomes.”Annie Zhang
However, beyond just giving young gamers carte blanche in creating the sorts of games that they want to play, the significance of Roblox’s approach lies in its potential applications in the Metaverse. As the technologies that will enable the Metaverse to grow become more readily available and more widely utilised, the most important thing to consumers will be the ability to decide how they want to spend their time in the virtual realm – and this is where Roblox is ahead of the game. As Annie attests to, the platform not only allows users from all over the world to socialise in real-time, but it also allows them to choose what the context of that socialisation will be and, aesthetically, how it will appear. A question that crops up time and time again as we think about the Metaverse, is who gets to make the calls when it comes to the visual and functional sides of these spaces.
According to Annie, this is one of the most exciting and important aspects of designing future digital experiences: “Creation in the Metaverse is currently limited to a small minority, however, the way public events and experiences are created in the physical world is that they are organised by very different collectives of people that come from various backgrounds and represent different perspectives and intents… While major studios can take the lead on setting examples and standards of what experiences could look like in the Metaverse, the true magic will come when everyone has the ability to create – that will foster unpredictable outcomes.” As such, it’s crucial – even at this early stage – to prioritise the building of tools that will allow for a democratic creative process. If we can ensure that these are an integral part of the development, then, hopefully, we will end up with a Metaverse that feels accessible, diverse, and ultimately, more interesting.
But that still leaves us with the question of what professions will have a role in this process? After all, regardless of whether we end up with tools that facilitate widespread and democratic creation, certain skill sets will still be required to be able to engage with them in the first place – as is the case with all technology. Speaking on this, Annie says: “Developing the physical attributes of the Metaverse will definitely require a new class of artists, engineers, architects and designers to all come together to redefine the new forms of spaces. Currently, there has been more activity from artists and engineers and less input from architects and product designers. This is why there exists lots of beautiful online spaces that might not have a ton of functionality or usage, or functional spaces that might not have a strong purpose or intent. Architects and product designers can help identify the goals and needs of various new types of spaces and inform how those spaces will gain utility and ease of use based on the types of users participating and the corresponding needs of users.”
Why Meta’s vision for the Metaverse “isn’t as scary as it might sound”
Alongside developers such as Roblox, who appear to be just as invested in the Metaverse and yet are quieter about their plans for it, there are companies like Meta, who have arguably beaten everyone else to the punch in making it clear that this digital future is their priority. Mark Zuckerberg’s high-profile public introduction to the Metaverse, and his decision to rename Facebook’s parent company accordingly, sparked off a flurry of media coverage that declared that the Metaverse was indeed real, and that tech giants such as Meta were already in the process of building it. This came as old news to some, but for many, it was a wake-up call that technology was again taking a huge step into the future, though this time it felt markedly sci-fi. Whereas Web 2.0 has rapidly connected the global population through a far more open and usable version of the world wide web than the first iteration, Web 3.0 offers an even more immersive experience, totally transforming the ways in which we can communicate, socialise and, at the core, exist. Contemplating the ramifications for society of such a vast and surreal idea, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. But Vivian Galinari, one of Meta’s AR content creators, says this vision for the future needn’t be as jarring as it sounds.
“We already are more embedded into the digital realm than we think and, to me, what it means is that instead of looking down into our phone so much, we will be looking up and experiencing this digital layer through AR glasses or other wearable technologies,” she explains. “In this vision, you will be able to play chess with someone across the globe, have your avatar attend virtual events, try on AR clothes for real-world purchases, work remotely in virtual work rooms, and more.” From this perspective, Vivian says the Metaverse promises to be more than just a distraction from real life, but not so intrusive as to try to replace it. These advancements will simply build on aspects of our daily lives that are already in place, such as the global shift to working from home, the use of digital platforms to reach friends and family around the world, and the use of online destinations for shopping. These are relationships with technology that we have already developed and made strong, and they’re not going anywhere anytime soon, so why not try to enhance those experiences?
“Hopefully it might mean that we will be able to live in less crowded cities, have a better quality of life, and still feel like we’re connected to a workspace and other global communities.”Vivian Galinari
That is, at least in part, one of the core aims of the Metaverse, and the technologies that will make it possible have already been in existence for some time – they just haven’t been utilised to their full potential yet. As Vivian explains: “I personally feel that the Metaverse is a way of grouping all the technologies and developments that are coming together, such as blockchain, AR, VR, AI, etc. and banding them together into one vision. But [this vision] won’t replace the physical experiences we have (nor is it trying to do that); instead it will add to it and offer more opportunities to trade and connect on a global scale.”
As a technical artist, it is Vivian’s job to help implement these technologies and expand their use cases. In recent years, we have already seen the magical potential of AR, especially where brands and commerce are concerned, but there could be so many more uses for this technology. And one thing the Metaverse will certainly encourage is experimentation with the medium, perhaps allowing people who reside outside of the tech industry to engage with it and come up with ever more creative and promising ways of using it – applications that can benefit society in a much wider sense. The same goes for all of the other technologies that the Metaverse encompasses and, considering them as a whole, Vivian says she feels optimistic about their potential: “Once you start learning about this vision, it isn’t as scary as it might sound. Hopefully it might mean that we will be able to live in less crowded cities, have a better quality of life, and still feel like we’re connected to a workspace and other global communities.”
Reimagining photography’s purpose and potential
So we’ve established that these new technologies, which are the building blocks of the Metaverse, have the capacity to facilitate amazing new opportunities in connection, communication and commerce, but how do mediums that have their roots in analogue processes fit into this future? How does photography, which still achieves most of its power from real world use, despite its progression into the digital realm, adapt to an entirely virtual setting? Well, like it always has done, as Ashlyn Davis Burns and Shane Lavalette of Assembly attest to: “The nature of the medium is to change, especially as a technology that is ever-more embedded in our experience as humans,” they explain. “Photography has always been intrinsically linked to technology – this is not new.” And that is true enough. The camera – a photography practitioner’s usual tool of choice – is in itself a remarkable piece of technology, and has undergone many changes over the decades. But even without the camera, the essence of photography lies in the process, not the tool, and this understanding changes the way we can perceive the medium’s potential in the Metaverse.
Assembly’s roster of photographic artists are already well aware of this, and many of their practices are suitably positioned to make the transition. “The artists we work with are usually all interested in pushing the boundaries of the medium, so the lens becomes much more than a tool to freeze time,” Ashlyn and Shane tell us. “It is a way to interrogate time, truth, and light – intrinsic aspects of the medium that we sometimes take a little too much at face value.” These are also elements that will be present in the Metaverse, in some shape or form, even if our perception of them changes or they manifest in a different way. So it feels accurate to say that photography’s power will not necessarily be lessened by the Metaverse’s emergence, nor will photographers’ ability to use it to engage with the world around them – real or digital.
“The nature of the medium is to change, especially as a technology that is ever-more embedded in our experience as humans.”Assembly
In fact, Assembly’s artists are already capitalising on recent technological advancements in this area. NFTs, which captivated the tech and art worlds in equal measure after they broke into the mainstream just last year, have given these artists a new way to present, distribute and think about their work. Digital imagery, which for so long has held little financial promise, is suddenly a viable and even sought after pathway for many photographers, and their potential to become minted as NFTs offers a new conceptual playground to explore. On its website, Assembly expresses its excitement for this technology: “We envision the NFT space as both an important emerging market for artists to find long-term support for their creative activities as well as an exciting space for conceptual gestures that expand what’s possible.”
But, in light of all of this talk of avatars, digital currencies, and AR and VR experiences, it’s also important to remember that, as Vivian insisted, the physical world will not be in any way diminished by the arrival of the Metaverse. Perhaps, on some level, it may even be enhanced by it, and not just because Web 3.0 can facilitate better methods of connection to one another (in times where physically connecting is not possible), but because as we advance into the digital world of the Metaverse, we may gain an even greater appreciation for the beauty of the real one. Certainly, Ashlyn and Shane believe that to be the case: “We still live our lives as embodied beings and while of course someone can display their NFT photograph on a screen, there is a lot of work that simply demands physicality… Who knows, maybe at-home, on-demand VR displays are coming sooner than we imagine and might provide an interesting alternative to displaying this type of work, but it does not replace it. We feel any true photography lover can appreciate the unique magic of a carefully printed photograph, even in its simplest form — it is a craft. We believe both are here to stay, and we think that’s an exciting moment to be a part of.”
About the Author
Daniel joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in February 2019 and continues to work with us on a freelance basis. He graduated from Kingston University with a degree in Journalism in 2015. He is also co-founder and editor of SWIM, an annual art and photography publication.