Everyone is tired of hearing about how Covid has changed the ways we work and socialise. And it is often framed in the negative context of Zoom fatigue and doomscrolling our way through TikTok or Twitter. But while most of us have been living 2D lives, there are others embracing what is being called the metaverse.
There are, in fact, several metaverses out there. These are virtual worlds such as Decentraland, Cryptovoxels, and The Sandbox. Accessed through VR (virtual reality) headsets, these platforms are made not only for exploring but for spending money and making a living. As long as you have a digital wallet full of cryptocurrency you can invest in real estate, set up shop or in the case of Dublin-based artist Fionnuala Hanahoe Rowell, exhibit and sell your art.
Rowell discovered the NFT (non-fungible tokens or unique digital artefacts verified by blockchain technology) art scene early this year and was soon putting her work on platforms like Open Sea, which she says is great for beginners, and Foundation, which is invite-only.
Anyone can place a bid on listed items – no VR headsets are required – but NFTs are interwoven into the metaverse because this is how land is bought and sold. Cryptovoxels is a virtual world where users can buy land and build shops or art galleries. Rowell submitted a piece of art to imnotArt, a gallery that also has space in both Cryptovoxels and real-world Chicago.
“It got accepted and they had a virtual opening night. This was back in March when people all over the world were still locked down to some extent so it was really exciting to be part of this,” she explains.
“It was 4am Dublin time but I set the alarm! People were walking around, looking at the art and listening to the featured artist give a talk. For me, that one experience opened up the possibilities of making work for virtual spaces and augmented reality too.”
She recently created a piece called Sky Sculpture, and through Foundation’s AR functionality it can be virtually placed anywhere, bringing art out of the metaverse and into real life. Rowell tried it out on Dollymount Strand.
This writer paid a visit to the imnotArt gallery on Cryptovoxels. It’s located in the popular Vibes neighbourhood on the corner of Popular Avenue and Ideal Close. A good place to invest? Only if you have a bulging digital wallet. No 3 Truthful Gardens, for example, is prime real estate but it will set you back 5.5 Ethereum or $18,336.62.
Is this a virtual property bubble? Well, this very plot of land sold for a mere 1.05 Ethereum two months ago so you tell me. Meanwhile, my budget stretches to a virtual IPA – a bargain at $10 for 20 bottles.
Dr Michael Dowling, professor of finance at Dublin City University Business School, spends a lot of time thinking about cryptocurrency and metaverse real estate. I ask him if growth of these NFT art-driven spaces can continue apace.
“To understand the economics of the metaverse you need to begin by understanding why people would want to spend their time in these virtual spaces. The Celts didn’t arrive in Ireland and think ‘we’d love an art gallery here’. It’s better to figure out what would make people enjoy being in these worlds and build an economy around that,” reflects Dowling.
“If you look at the Oculus Quest 2 headset, it’s expected to sell 10 million units which is at the games console level of popularity. It’s creating a consumer base that will use VR for gaming and entertainment.”
But one needs to be cautious of a money-first mindset: “If the metaverse is going to be a thing – and it most certainly will be – then it needs to be about more than NFTs and cryptocurrency.”
“If you visit the Decentraland homepage the first thing you see is messaging all about their currency, Manna. But when you visit, say, the tourist website for Barbados the selling point isn’t ‘come for our currency, the Barbados dollar’.”
We’re still quite crypto-centric, he says. It should be a facilitator of the experience but these virtual worlds are still little more than a way of selling cryptocurrency.
Dowling thinks larger adoption is likely to come on the back of a platform like The Sandbox, where users not only create assets like characters, buildings, vehicles or trees but can also build gaming experiences that they own as an NFT and have the ability to monetise. Big brands have already set up shop: there’s a retro gaming space courtesy of Atari, a Walking Dead experience and a fully explorable version of the village from The Smurfs (yes, really).
He suspects that Gen Z will be more willing to spend time and money in the metaverse given that they are growing up with Minecraft, Roblox and Fortnite, all of which The Sandbox has elements. Investing in these items and experiences in these worlds might seem like a frippery to many adults but not to a younger generation.
Beyond gaming, VR technologies can also be leveraged for the workplace. There’s a lot of buzz around this since Facebook just announced the beta release of Horizon Workrooms, their VR solution for remote working. MeetingRoom is an Irish company that has been in this space for several years.
“Simply put, we use VR to help companies solve tough problems that require collaboration. We go beyond the limitations of what you can do in 2D but it’s not just about creating virtual versions of a bricks and mortar space where they can bring in their whiteboard and sticky notes,” says Jonny Cosgrove, chief executive of Dublin-based meetingRoom.
“We work with large enterprise customers, most of whom are Fortune 500 with at least 10,000 people working for them and we offer Virtual Space-as-a-Service that caters for a lot of different use cases,” he says. These include remote presence, training and site visits. But what do you see when you enter a custom meetingRoom space? It depends on what the client wants. It might be an oil platform where a decision is being made about the installation of a new material and users are being given a walkthrough of the process with a 360 video or image of the actual platform. As Cosgrove explains, this is something you can’t achieve on a Zoom call.
“Our vision is that we deliver the types of spaces needed for specific tasks rather than pushing people towards spending all their time in VR spaces,” he adds.
“For example, a company might be dealing with a fire on site and they need the remote expert there immediately. They’ll still hop on the plane later to make sure it’s being done on the ground but we want to make sure people can make fast and efficient decisions.”
Outside of work, Cosgrove is enthusiastic about VR, and dons his headset regularly for virtual paintball sessions with friends. So what does he think about life in the metaverse?
“I don’t think we should get caught up too much in the concept of the metaverse and what it means for the future. We’re more concerned with what value our tech can offer right now, today,” says Cosgrove.