Main image credit: DALL-E render using "dystopian virtual city of the future" search input
Seb Dodds-Painter, RMIT University student and Icon Agency’s resident Metaverse UX Designer, is currently undertaking an R&D project at The Content Garden to assess and test virtual platforms for team collaboration. If you’re interested in learning the what, how and why of all things Metaverse, we think you’ll enjoy his article.
Adopting change from disruption
In the last few years, workforces all over the world have experienced unprecedented levels of disruption, as the COVID-19 pandemic demanded every business and industry rapidly adjust to enormous constraints and navigate the ripples and waves these constraints created in the global economy.
This isn’t really news to anyone. We were there, we experienced it. We took our jobs, our study, our leisure – our entire lives, and moved them online in a matter of weeks. It was scary and confronting, but humans are nothing if not resilient. We laughed at the novelty of it all, and as the months went by and the pandemic dragged on, novelty became normality, and we settled into our new lives. But that’s all in the past, and things are finally getting back to normal. Right?
Not quite. The pandemic may be (for the most part) gone, but the impact of nearly two years of disruption remains. Things have changed, and they’re not changing back.
Remote work… worked. Really well in fact, with the vast majority of workers finding themselves more productive and happier working from home.
The games industry, which was already growing exponentially, saw unprecedented growth in both player numbers and total value, and isn’t slowing down.
E-commerce platforms have continued to thrive as consumers increasingly take their shopping online.
Which leads us here, as tech giants spend hundreds of billions of dollars to get a stake in what’s being touted as the next evolution of the web, something that stands to revolutionise our work, personal and social lives: the Metaverse.
Few things provoke as much excitement, anger and confusion as the Metaverse. Tangled up in controversial topics like blockchain, cryptocurrency and NFTs, it’s the next big thing – according to the people spending money on it at least.
It’s fair to be sceptical about the Metaverse – healthy even. There’s a lot of talk about it, and not a lot of promising results. But without realising it, the world and the workforce is already creating the Metaverse, and has been for some time. We rely on the web now more than ever, and as a whole, people crave increasingly immersive experiences. The question of the Metaverse is not if it will happen, but when, and what that future will look like.
Starting July 2022, Icon Agency has begun a deep-dive into VR, the Metaverse and everything related, as we prepare for the ocean of opportunity and disruption that’s likely to come in the next few years. This project has a number of objectives:
> Build knowledge on the Metaverse – what it is, what it’s going to be and how the world will change around it.
> Experiment with the Oculus Quest 2 – understand its capabilities and explore work-related applications on it.
> Design, prototype and test a virtual workplace and meeting space to be accessed by Icon staff working remotely and from interstate offices.
> Continue to monitor the space, taking note of interesting developments, learn from industry leaders and apply learnings to the project.
> Generate case studies for interesting applications of Metaverse-related tech and practices, with the goal of exploring possible business opportunities.
> Share findings and insights with the broader agency, helping educate staff on the space and make recommendations for how the agency should proceed.
The project is well underway, but before we get into that, a little bit of housekeeping
What is the Metaverse?
If you’re scratching your head about what exactly the Metaverse is, we really can’t blame you. The term is vague, and different people and groups have conflicting definitions for it, but here we’ll try and give as simple an answer as possible, while clearing up a few related terms you’ve likely heard thrown around.
Metaverse refers to the next phase of digital interaction through the medium of 3D virtual environments, in a widely accessible and primarily open source format, and powered by sophisticated Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Blockchain.
While emerging technologies such as Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) will likely be key in what will make the Metaverse groundbreaking and truly immersive, it is still expected to be accessible via mobile and desktop.
In short, it’s the convergence of new and emerging technologies – the next evolution of the web.
The virtual world that is created as part of the Metaverse is as such not something to be wholly owned by one company, but rather an ecosystem of virtual worlds, connected to each other, to a decentralised economy and to our physical world through the Internet of Things.
It’s a bit wishy-washy and sounds very sci-fi, but as time goes on and this vision is better realised, it’ll feel surprisingly normal.
The web is constantly evolving, and has already had one massive upheaval, that being the transition from web1 to web2, where the web transitioned from static pages with little user interaction, to a web centred around user-created content uploaded to and accessed via forums, social media platforms and networking services.
No doubt you’ve recently heard a lot of concerns around data security, digital access and interoperability between platforms, as users increasingly rely on the web for their personal and professional lives, and want greater control over their digital identity. These are the first real signs of another potential upheaval of the web towards a version that is less centralised and more ‘free’ – a transition to web3.
The idea of web3 has been met with mixed reactions. Many tech giants, venture capitalists, entrepreneurs and generally tech enthusiasts are touting it as a fundamental change to the internet and global economy, while others are sceptical of it, wary of how leading attempts at facilitating web3, namely cryptocurrencies and NFTs, have often wound up being scams and cash grabs, and what a web built on these would look like.
Blockchain is very complicated and a bit of a headache to understand, but the gist is it’s a technology that allows data to be stored across an ecosystem of computers and servers owned by completely unrelated actors throughout the world. Doing so ensures no individual, company or government can feasibly interfere with the data.
The technology also allows for chronological recording of data in a way that’s incredibly hard to alter or interfere with, allowing for accurate recording of transactions and ownership, in turn facilitating things like NFTs and cryptocurrencies.
Cryptocurrency and NFTs
While being incredibly volatile and the subjects of enormous scepticism, cryptocurrencies and NFTs are nonetheless central to the current discussion around the Metaverse.
Cryptocurrencies (such as Bitcoin and Ethereum) are decentralised digital currencies that use blockchain to create scarcity and keep track of how much currency an individual owns.
NFTs are digital assets, including virtual art, clothing, environments, and anything else with potential commercial value, that use blockchain technology to record ownership, and as such create value.
If talking about cryptocurrencies and NFTs leaves a bad taste in your mouth, you’re not alone. And while you don’t have to buy into the hype, it is important to understand the purpose of these – to allow purely digital transactions to be safe, secure and recorded, and by doing so, foster a global digital economy. As the Metaverse would be built almost entirely around virtual assets, having some means to securely buy and sell these assets is crucial.
Image credit: Imagined virtual building generated by DALL-E 2
Research and Experimentation
We want to do this right, and to have a strong foundation to build on, we needed to know as much as we could about the Metaverse, related tech and the options available. This meant a lot of reading, thinking and deliberating to get an understanding of the landscape.
Much of this time was spent experimenting with different platforms available on Meta’s Oculus Quest, searching for what would be best for conducting virtual meetings, while also introducing staff to immersive virtual environments and what they could offer.
Many factors influenced our considerations, namely:
Ease of use – how hard was it for a totally new user to jump in and use the tools? Did the platform have a tutorial? Did it need a tutorial? Was it an enjoyable user experience, or were there many points of frustration?
Flexibility – how easy was it for us to modify and direct the experience? Could we import custom assets? Could we create an entirely custom environment?
Accessibility – how hard was it to get into the platform? Was the signup process quick and easy, or filled with barriers? How could the platform be accessed? VR was a necessity, but could it be accessed via Mac, PC, browser?
Cost effectiveness – how expensive was the platform to use? What features were locked behind a paywall? How appealing was its payment model?
Reputability – was the platform well regarded? Was it receiving active support, updates and improvements? Was it or the company backing it involved in controversy? Did we feel comfortable being associated with and supporting the platform?
We explored a lot of possibilities, and most fell short. Some were too bare-bones, lacking integral features. Others weren’t cost effective, locking experiences behind steep paywalls not sustainable for extended experimentation. The most common issue was a lack of flexibility, with many platforms not supporting deep customisation, or severely restricting it.
In the end, we settled on a shortlist of three platforms that each offered unique takes on the VR experience while checking off all our requirements:
Developed by Microsoft as of 2017, AltspaceVR is in our experience, the “jack-of-all-trades” of VR platforms. Featuring custom environments uploaded from Unity, simple, stylised graphics, and a mix of tools for both professional and recreational settings, it’s highly customisable and able to be taken in a variety of directions, depending on the needs/wants of users.
While it doesn’t really do anything the best, it can be used for meetings, presentations, events and casual catch-ups with relative ease. Users can access a browser page via an Edge Browser extension, connecting them to documents uploaded to OneDrive or Google Drive, though not as intuitively as other platforms.
The biggest barrier is the signup process, which requires users to jump through just a few too many hoops to be an easy or enjoyable experience.
The most professional, and most ‘realistic’ platform on our shortlist, Spatial was originally created to help facilitate the growing NFT movement by helping artists display and share virtual environments, 3D objects and artworks within virtual galleries.
Spatial offers great features for collaboration and brainstorming, allowing users to link to their Google Drive and Microsoft OneDrive, bring documents, videos, images and even browser windows into the space, and then annotate and comment on them with sticky notes and 3D pens.
It’s also incredibly easy to access, with users being able to join via browser with no download required should they not have access to a headset. It can be a bit clunky at times, and its UI, while ambitious, isn’t particularly intuitive. Nonetheless, it’s a robust and interesting platform.
While the least flexible or professional tool on the short list, Rec Room offers a very unique take on virtual meetups, in that it’s a fantastic platform for experiencing a lot of Metaverse ideologies.
The app features a wealth of user-created content and many gamification elements, while also having the most emphasis on personalisation, making it the most fun option of the three. One of the biggest appeals is the physics engine, which feels more natural and intuitive than any other VR platform we experimented with.
While it’s unlikely to be a great platform for professional meetings, we found it was a worthwhile option to explore to help users get a broader understanding of what VR has to offer, as well as to see if staff would be interested in going down a more casual route for VR.
The purpose of shortlisting a variety of platforms is to allow us to initially test what platform staff would respond best too. AltspaceVR, Spatial and Rec Room all have very different features, interfaces and overall ‘feel’, and to best test if staff would be interested in and use a custom VR environment for remote meetings, we needed to ensure we were building in the best platform possible for them.
The next step as such was to build three similar, low-fidelity prototypes in each of the platforms, leveraging their strengths and taking note of their weaknesses, before getting a group of staff to have a play around with it.
The three environments are relatively similar in design, emphasising the platform’s tools and usability over the visuals.
AltspaceVR allows users to upload scenes directly from Unity (with considerable effort), provided they contain the Universal Render Pipeline (URP) package, as well as AltspaceVR’s custom uploader package.
The process creates a template to act as the environment, with nothing from the Unity scene capable of being interacted with, moved or otherwise edited once uploaded. With the environment in place, a variety of other 3D assets are able to be imported, while users can upload custom assets via the ‘Kits’ feature.
While the process has a lot of steps, uploading via Unity offers nearly endless possibilities when it comes to creating a space.
Custom environments in Spatial are uploaded as a single 3D model, textures included, which presents more challenges than using a game engine like Unity. 3D modelling software tends to be better suited for designing independent objects over whole spaces, and to further complicate matters, Spatial has a hard limit on environment file size at 100mb, a limit that can be easily exceeded when including high quality textures.
That’s not to say you can’t create a high quality environment for Spatial, you absolutely can, it just takes more time, and was certainly the most labour intensive environment of the three, despite also being the least complex.
Rec Room has the most limitations on environment design, using an in-built tool as opposed to an external one. Although this does make it less flexible, it also makes it the quickest and easiest platform for creating spaces, being more streamlined and not having complex upload requirements.
There are hard limits on the amount of ‘ink’ (objects, scripts, gadgets, etc.) able to be present in a room to ensure performance doesn’t drop, which does limit scope in some ways, however it’s still an incredibly easy and intuitive means of designing a space, with a lot of content built into it.
Now, it’s time to test.
With three low-fidelity prototypes across AltspaceVR, Spatial and Rec Room, we’re ready to start exploring what platforms, features and content the Icon team finds most useful and usable, helping refine our approach moving forward.
As the project evolves we’ll continue to share our findings, learnings and developments, as we all wrap our heads around what the Metaverse is, and how it’s shaping the future of industry.
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