Everyone knows the Metaverse is coming, but no one knows what it will be like.
At present, people say it’s clunky and difficult to use and are waiting for further development. Are brands just jumping on a PR bandwagon in hyperspeed? Is this the future? Is it a place or a time that is coming? And how soon?
So, I packed my virtual bags and took a trip to find out.
Most of you have probably entered or seen images of the Metaverse, maybe somewhere like The Sandbox or Decentraland. But unless you’re a gamer or a devotee, visiting it may still be a little underwhelming, at least for now — and especially for gamers.
If you’ve seen Second Life (circa 2006) or even Golden Eye 007 from the late 1990s, it’ll be familiar, as the Metaverse’s graphics haven’t advanced that far forward from those pixelated images.
Of course, now we have virtual reality headsets to put you right in among those pixelated images.
Shared virtual worlds created in part by users already exist elsewhere. Roblox has 43 million daily active users and 202 million monthly active users, half of whom are under 12. You make friends online these days — if you’re 12. So, the investment thesis is clear: These kids will not feel so strange in the Metaverse.
And adults still feel the need to escape to different realities. Escapism is ageless. Pokemon Go was a global phenomenon accelerated by a nostalgia that made sense to everyone.
Here are two things I learned from my trips to the Metaverse over the past few weeks:
First, the Metaverse works well for virtual events.
Second, the Metaverse only works well for virtual events.
Ready Player One
I’m not a gamer. I like ocean sports and the outdoors. I’m a believer in decentralized tech and all that it may or may not offer, but I’m not sure the current version of the Metaverse is the place I’d like to hang.
I enter Decentraland, and I soon face choices: Should I select a cartoonish or realistic avatar?
This first part makes sense. Who should I be in Decentraland? People’s images of themselves never correlate with other people’s images of them.
I decide to choose a woman. I feel obliged to choose the Sailor Moon Japanese schoolgirl outfit, as that’s the image of Comic-Con seared into my brain.
The avatar helps you choose by grunting at the outfit selections, more approvingly for some choices. You can select a bald woman or buy banana “skins” in the gift shop. In the end, my desire to do something different is undercut by impatience, so I click “randomize” to keep the story moving — and get a man dressed in something I might actually wear.
Loading… Then I jump off a diving board into a wormhole, which I initially thought was a stripper pole.
I spawn in “Genesis Plaza,” a bar in a shopping mall plaza for avatars — a bar without alcohol.
There are numerous avatars everywhere. Most people look remarkably human, aside from a dogeman (Shiba Inu, not Chewbacca) and a purple octopus woman. We can speak in real time, so I try to strike up a few conversations. “Yo,” I offer, which is met with “Hi.” Good chat. (I thought “Do you come here often?” might come off wrong.)
I’m struck by the thought that, maybe, most people do select lifelike avatars? Except for dogeman.
Things do get a little interesting. There is one chat discussing crypto market prices and altcoins, and I see the Shiba Inu dogeman avatar strutting around like he owns the place. Is this an omen? Or a paid ad?
More crypto market conversations happen. Then a cigarette or marijuana sale URL — “Visit [insert name].com” — pops up in the chat. Clever guerilla marketing, I think, though perhaps not at scale, considering there are only three people in the room.
New avatars spawn next to me. A young white man morphs graphically into a white-haired black man, and then they split left and right. Weird.
I click “escape” to leave the page, and suddenly, I’m in a disorienting fantasy land. I teleport from place to place. I instantly recognize the Twitter and Discord logos on street signs, jolting me from the noise. Brand recognition in the Metaverse distorts my escapism, thanks to every brand trying to be there. Virtual Times Square is coming soon, I think.
Press “M” and you teleport to another room. It’s all a bit confusing and disorienting.
So, I wander around aimlessly. There are only a few other people around, and I feel like a lost tourist without a Lonely Planet or Google Maps who cannot speak the local language. And there’s no street food online. I give up and decide to hire a tour guide.
Trip 2: Reentry with a tour guide
The next time, I get a tour from Adam De Cata, head of partnerships at Decentraland.
We enter Vice Media Group’s building, which is not as edgy as I expected for Vice. It has a strange post-modern architecture. I would’ve thought warehouse industrial for that once-grungy mag, perhaps.
De Cata explains the ethos of Decentraland as we wander around. The DAO was set up in 2019, and it has sold 90,000 parcels of land, which are community-owned and managed. The experiences are mostly gated, so you need a particular NFT to enter a particular building. So, it’s just like being on a Hollywood bus tour and not being able to see inside the celebrity-owned houses.
The “tech has its challenges, but the fundamentals are truly intriguing,” says De Cata. “It’s still in an entrepreneurial testing stage and financially driven by the degens driving it.”
He says that “Building in real time is the true challenge, but companies are willing to build experimental case studies.”
He invites me back in a few days for Metaverse Fashion Week.
“You need to see an event,” he proclaims.
Metaverse Fashion Week and other adventures
I return to meet De Cata for Decentraland’s Metaverse Fashion Week, but he ghosts me. To be fair to him, it was not a calendar invite but a tentative virtual meet-up.
I’m in. The elevator music suddenly starts randomly as I move around. The music changes from dead silence to up-tempo to heavy guitars as I battle with the keyboard, as to be expected.
I try to click on a blackjack competition but end up teleporting outside The Aquarium.
I then find an empty building telling me that “NFTWeek” has been held. I think. So, I press escape and keep looking for “Metaverse Fashion Week.”
I battle with the keys to move around and wonder if I’m uncoordinated cos I ain’t no gamer. I feel a little dizzy.
I get lost and find myself running aimlessly, but it’s freeing, like when you go for a jog in a new city as soon as you land and end up finding some cool local fare. You see the architecture differently than if you were riding a bus or taking an Uber.
I feel like a Smurf running from Gargamel and his cat.
The landscapes change quickly, making me feel like I’m a pioneer before the hotel developers build skyscraper accommodations. I find some “ancient” ruins — broken Greek columns in a garden somewhere.
I look at the map and jump to the “Muslim Quarter,” thinking it’s like a Metaverse version of the Old City of Jerusalem. After teleporting there, I realize nothing has been built yet, but the call to prayer rings out as I raise my volume. It truly makes me feel like a tourist somewhere exotic but familiar. However, there is no hummus.
You want to pray🙏 but there is no mosque🕌 available ? Visit the “Muslim Quarter Project” in @Decentraland 📡🌍! Happy to have built this mosque for Deem ! And many thanks to my 3D-artist @horstremote for his fantastic work ! #mosque #islam #shahda #turnthemusicon #decentraland pic.twitter.com/3a507JrBhc
— acl_crypto (@acl_crypto) September 13, 2018
Imagine if all the 90,000 plots of land get filled. How will we navigate the sites?
I spy “Jammin’Land” and think I’m heading to Jamaica. The place is deserted, with a frozen bartender image behind the bar. There is no Bob Marley avatar asking me if “I like jammin’ too.” With outdoor markets, out the windows, I still get a sense of how music events in this place could pop.
I then teleport to the Ukraine War Protest Gallery. It looks like an art gallery. All the buildings seem to have that smooth virtual concrete aesthetic. The Metaverse doesn’t do rustic well. It also reminds me again that this is not Disneyland. Anyone can build anything quickly — this is decentralized land.
I spend two hours wandering around before I decide to actually head to Fashion Week. Somehow, I click on an event taking place live in my time zone. Time is actually a massive problem. Even in the Metaverse, we still live in different time zones. Being based in Australia, I already hate scheduling international meetings for work.
It’s colorful and vibrant, and avatars abound. The proof-of-attendance tokens are all gone from the vending machine by the time I get there. I realize that this is avatar fashion week. It’s a little bit like the bar scene in Mos Eisley in Star Wars.
Avatars are able to strut remarkably well. They also tend to jump a lot as they enter the runway. The poses are less Blue Steel and more Sonic the Hedgehog.
Two things: One, I made it to Fashion Week, finally. Maybe WAGMI is a prophecy? And second, only pictures can do it justice.
I begin to understand that Metaverse events tourism has already become a thing — if you like events like avatar fashion shows and prerecorded computerized concerts, that is. Milli Vanilli, unfortunately, missed their chance for a comeback show. May Rob Pilatus rest in peace. Sorry, degens, if you’re too young for the reference.
Otherwise, the Metaverse is a bit like Adelaide in South Australia. It’s a lovely place without much to do.
Next stop: The Museum of Crypto Art
Let’s just say it: For art NFTs, a Metaverse museum makes a lot of sense. It’s just the vibe.
The Museum of Crypto Art is not subject to the laws of gravity, physics or modern engineering. Staircases can be majestic, even if not mathematically load-bearing.
There’s a lot of art on each wall.
The museum uses a token to give its community members a say in the project’s direction as part-owners and co-curators. It declares on its website that its earliest acquisitions will “represent the earliest etchings on the blockchain, and will come to be regarded as the digital cave paintings of our transhumanist narrative.”
As an art fan, it’s hard to find a context for art NFTs. There’s no time period or a genre to use as a reference point. Luckily, I’m given a guided tour by its co-founder Colborn Bell. He explains each piece and why he is documenting NFT history.
Bell first sought to build a collection in 2017 and is now the largest collector on the NFT sales platform SuperRare. He was an investor in Decentraland’s 2017 ICO, but his gallery was built on Somnium Space, which has “nice light and shadows and is not as cartoony as its competitors Cryptovoxels and Decentraland.” Bell can configure an exhibition in a couple of hours, for free.
Having a tour guide in the NFT space right now helps. Bell is a patron documenting crypto history. Without his curation, I would be lost as to why one piece is valued over another.
Cryptoland loves a meme, and some works relate to the earliest history in the space, like the Bitcoin volatility clock piece. There are 350 pieces in total, going for an average price of $300, but only 50 pieces are on display.
Seeing NFTs on a virtual wall is still strange to me, as art is usually fixed in size and hung on a real wall based on that size. Small paintings are cute in a nook, for example. But as I noted when I tried to value NFT clones, the art is in the code — and the curation of the collection.
So, I ask my tour guide, “What is art?”
His take is honest and crypto-native.
“Out the gate, a lot of NFTs aren’t art. They are really not. I look to the fringe for art, as in the existing art movement and art market already gate-kept. I want that piece by a queer artist in Kenya depicting two women kissing in a field of flowers.”
He’s referring to an actual piece in his collection. “I don’t have an investment thesis,” he adds. “I like validating artists.”
He says that art NFTs are “familiar but also have elements of the surreal.” Famed project CryptoPunks gave Bell “a terrible first impression,” he says. “Pranksy built the market, and he was a notorious scammer.” (Lawyers, note: Magazine is not suggesting Pranksy really is a scammer, notorious or otherwise.) Bell bought his first Punk relatively late, after Christie’s auctioned Alien Punks in mid-2021. Bell also notes that Pak, another famed NFT artist, “is good at social manipulation, not art.”
So, the Museum of Crypto Art is not about the art? Apparently, it’s more about patronage.
“If it all [the value of the collection] went to zero tomorrow, I wouldn’t care. I’ve built friends all over the world. What was important to me was the growth of cryptocurrencies and bringing in creatives to the space. We already had devs and programmers.”
For me, the gallery is a great tourist destination because it houses NFT artworks. It has digital works exhibited appropriately. I accept the glitches, like the time it takes to load pages, and the distracting ID numbers across my avatar detracting from the art.
Events and attractions work well in the Metaverse
There will be a Lonely Planet for the Metaverse. Do not let its current pixelated state fool you.
Events and attractions work well in the Metaverse. But for now, it’s like throwing goo against a wall. Some things will stick.
Every tennis ball avatar still walking around in Decentraland is a reminder of the success of the 2022 Australian Open’s Metaverse activations. Fans could actually watch real live tennis from the Metaverse.
I’m still hungry, and virtual coffee has no caffeine. Real beers have alcohol. So, I depart for the real world with a final thought:
Perhaps the Metaverse is like crypto in 2011: You just have to believe and hodl.
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