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Starting the Metaverse Design Journey

How to Design for the Metaverse

Designing a space for the metaverse is not especially difficult, however a great space requires a level of “rethinking reality” that might not seem obvious on the surface.

For example; in the real world a nightclub needs chairs for people to sit on, tables to rest their drinks and a bar for the bottles to be stored and poured.

In virtual reality, there’s no difference between standing and sitting for the end user, so chairs are unecessary. Objects can float in mid-air or instantly created and destroyed, making tables and bars unnecessary as well.

Because of this we must boil down a space to it’s essential element and purpose. In the case of a nightclub the core use cases are dancing and mingling with other people.

Once we have the core idea of a space we come to the core of designing for a metaverse: the experience.

Highlight areas of a nightclub that are not necessary.

All of the highlighted areas in the nightclub above are considered essential for a physical environment: places to sit, tables to rest food or drinks, a bar to serve them, speakers to play music from. In the digital environment, none of these elements serve an intrinsic purpose.

The Experience

What if there was a dance floor on the Moon, or a gathering space underwater? What if we put a giant fishtank on the Moon and put a dance club inside it?

Once freed from the constraints of what a space “should” have (based on preconceptions we have from the real world spaces) we can truly be free to design compelling experiences for people to engage with and return to.

Here are some simple prompts that will help you to break the tyranny of reality and design compelling interactive environments that really reflect their digital nature. Just take any project you’re about to do and ask yourself:

  1. What would it be like if there was no gravity, or gravity was inverted?
  2. What would it be like if there was no need for storage?
  3. What would it be like if we could be as big or as small as we wanted?
Art gallery in an abandoned drainage pipe.

Scale really has no meaning in the digital space. Here we can walk around an art gallery inside an abandoned drainage pipe.

The Other Side of the Screen

Metaverse designers can’t forget that they are designing spaces for people to experience through a digital medium. No matter how the user is interacting with your environment, it is through a screen. Designing an experience to work well on a phone or a VR headset or a desktop computer will go a long way to making it fun and engaging – so make sure you have an idea of your target platform(s).

Even with the best headsets, we can’t smell the virtual environment, feel the atmosphere of a room or experience different textures under our fingertips. This lack of sensations will change how a user will interact with a space and make them less likely to behave like they “should” in real life. Experiences need to be designed with this in mind.

VRChat is one of the most popular social VR applications and clearly demonstrates how people don’t interact with virtual content in the same way they interact with real-world environments.

In designing a space you only have access to three senses; sight, sound and a small range of tactile sensations. It’s up to you as the designer to get people to forget that the environment they’re interacting with isn’t real and you only have these limited tools available to you. For a discussion on how to achieve this take a look at the Elements of an Experience article.

The final barrier to an experience feeling frictionless and real is the user’s technological comfort level. If you are designing an environment that targets players of fast paced shooters you probably don’t need a detailed tutorial explaining how to navigate 3D space. If your primary market is board members and CEOs you will probably want at least a basic primer on how to move around. 

Lean In or Lean Out

Because of this lack of experience potential, designers have three major options to guide their design philosophies;

  1. Lean out: Design for photorealism. Realistic audio, realistic animations, everything.
  2. Lean in: Design for the digital environment. Use setting and visual style to let the user know they’re interacting with a simulation and the simulation knows it.
  3. Mix it up: Some combination of the two. Perhaps you include a 3D scanned element inside a very virtual environment, or visa-versa.

Many video games today use 3D scanned assets to produce photorealistic results.

Bringing it all Together

The metaverse is a completely blank slate for the imagination. Don’t get bogged down in what you think a space needs because that’s what a real-world space with a similar function requires. In the metaverse, chairs are a decoration element or a way to encourage users to stay in one spot for a social interaction.

You will need to be aware of your user’s comfort level with technology and what type of screen they will use to interact with your environment. This will be informed by as well as help you define your target market.

This information all feeds into how you use your limited set of tools (mental, sight, sound and some touch). Your job is to use them to create compelling experiences that engage users enough to forget that they are sitting in an office chair or wearing a box on their face.

Now get out there and free your mind!

Next Elements of a Virtual Experience
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