Architecting the Metaverse

Wanna be the architect of your Metaverse?

This article is published on ArchDaily

Hang out @Architecting the Metaverse Discord

You might have heard that Mark Zuckerberg wants Facebook to become a Metaverse Company, and earlier this year, Epic Games, the company that develops the Unreal Engine announced that it completed a 1 billion round of funding to support the long-term vision for the metaverse. Metaverse is definitely the hottest buzzword in the tech scene. In this article, we will briefly discuss what is Metaverse, who will build it, and most importantly why it matters for architects, and how can designers play a significant role in this upcoming digital economy?

What is the Metaverse?

Derived from a 1992 sci-fi novel “Snowcrash”, the term “Metaverse” was coined by Neal Stephenson as a successor to the Internet, constitutes Stephenson’s vision of how a digital world might evolve in the near future.

You may get an idea of what life in metaverse could be like from movies like “Ready Player One” and “Matrix”, where anything we can imagine can exist, and we can connect to the metaverse all the time to extend our real lives with extraordinary experiences. There are a lot of articles out there to give various definitions and standards to the metaverse, and here are two of my favourite ones:

Who Will Build the Metaverse?

Unlike the centralized metaverse Oasis in “Ready Player One”, tech communities believe that metaverse should be an open and interoperable ecosystem, not dominated by any single company. Like Mark Zuckerberg said, “Hopefully in the future, asking if a company is building a metaverse will sound as ridiculous as asking a company how their internet is going.”

At the same time, Roblox and Epic Games, the most “Metaverse concept stocks” at present, also believe that the metaverse must have decentralized genes and avoid being monopolized by a few forces. Roblox co-founder Neil Rimer puts forward: “The energy around the metaverse will come from users, not the company.” Epic CEO Tim Sweeney also emphasized: “Metaverse does not come from any industry giant, but the crystallization of the co-creation of millions of people. Everyone makes their own for the metaverse through content creation, programming, and game design. Contributions can also add value to the metaverse in other ways.”

For many years, the internet is mostly a 2D catalogue with hyperlinks, and now it finally starts to look interesting with the potential for 3D experiences and will change the way we work, shop, live, how can architects play a role in shaping and enriching the grand metaverse?

Why It Matters For Architects?

The whole world is witnessing a major shift from the real economy to the digital economy, and the integration of these two has been accelerated drastically since the global pandemic.

Balenciaga Launches a Video Game for Its Fall 2021 Collection

We’ve seen various brick and mortar retail stores closed their doors, at the same time fashion brands like Balenciaga chose to debut its latest collection in a video game. Commercial real estate owners are struggling as tenants are either ditching the offices or downsizing, while video conferencing companies like Zoom has seen massive success and boomed amid pandemic. Like it or not, COVID-19 has changed our work culture, accelerated the rise of e-commerce, and transformed how businesses operate. Some of the pioneers of industries to be the first in building metaverses are gaming, fashion, Hollywood, and crypto. There will be no other option but to join the new game. Otherwise, you will not survive as a company.

Extended Reading: Tim Sweeney, The CEO of Epic Game, interview on Metaverse Economy

Named Mars House, the digital home designed by Kim was sold on non-fungible token (NFT) marketplace SuperRare for 288 Ether ($512,000)

Digital items are already more than a $10 billion market, and in order for digital items to have real, lasting value, they must exist independent of an entity who might decide at any moment to remove or disable the item. That’s why NFT(Non-fungible tokens), the latest application in blockchain technology, arrived on the scene. “Non-fungible” means that it’s unique and can’t be replaced with something else. The value of NFTs is therefore understood as certifying the creation of the digital item as “unique.” And that digital creation can be anything, including digital architecture. Toronto-based artist Krista Kim has sold the first NFT-backed digital home for over half a million dollars. This costs more than a real house in many North American cities.

Another trend in the crypto world is to invest in virtual real estate. Blockchain-based real estate in virtual worlds has surged in price as part of the NFT market frenzy which began in early 2021. A patch of virtual land in the blockchain-based online world Decentraland sold for more than $900,000 recently. In virtual worlds such as Decentraland, Sandbox, Somnimum Space, people can display their NFT art collections, walk around with friends, visit buildings and attend events. This may be a hoax for a lot of people, and the platform might be premature but it is definitely an interesting and possibly lucrative domain for designers to leverage their design skills in the physical world and to extend that into the virtual world.

Architects always complain that it’s hard to find good clients that fully support their creative ideas and pay the bills on time. Most of the designs will stay on the paper forever, they could be rejected for all sorts of reasons, and most of the “paper architecture” is valueless as it is not recognized by the client. Even your design is lucky enough to get build, construction is notoriously expensive, time-consuming, and full of uncertainty. A lot of opportunities for you to get sued when the project goes wrong.

Sorry for the harsh reality, besides all that, architects are no longer the master builder in modern society. Architects act as project managers to collaborate with other consultants, engineers, contractors, clients, government officials to make a project happen, and like other professionals that provide services, we are paid by hourly rate. As investor Naval said, “you’re never going to get rich renting out your time.” Instead of providing one-to-one services, architects could reinvent the business model to provide products/services that can scale, solutions that can be reused and can benefit millions of users, not just one client.

Metaverse needs massive content to entertain the users. We need experiences like virtual amusement parks, virtual movie theatres, virtual concerts, virtual casinos, virtual schools, virtual conferences, anything you can name it. For architects, the metaverse is a virgin territory full of possibilities, and a Utopia without the constraints of the physical world. Architects can create unique designs backed with NFT for people who like to collect one-of-a-kind assets. Architects can also build digital assets like cities, buildings, furniture, sculptures, point clouds, textures..etc, and sell them multiples times to virtual worlds, games, and movies. This is very similar to the work environment artists do for a game or a movie. Besides static designs, architects can also develop design “formulas” that users can tweak the parameters to generate various outcomes, like grasshopper script or Houdini digital assets.

While architecture is relatively a local business, you can provide digital products/services across the globe. It might be difficult to find clients who value your design from your region, but it’s much easier to find users that appreciate your taste globe-wide. Like the 1000 true fans book claimed, you can earn a living doing what you love with a niche.

No matter what you do, try think like a content creator, leverage your effort for exponential growth, find your ways in the digital jungle to market yourself across different platforms, reach out to the potential users with quality content, keep them engaged and grow your user bases.

Extended reading from Matthew Ball, a venture capitalist

How to Extend the Design Frontier to the Digital World?

So, you are excited about the new opportunities, but how can designers join the game?

Gaming is the tip of the Metaverse. Games are considered to be the best carrier of the metaverse, especially the increasingly popular sandbox games, which now have a primitive form of the metaverse. Such as the GTA series, Minecraft, Fortnite, etc., all provide a high degree of freedom of the game experience, many games also provide professional tools for the production of self-made Mod expansion content, in order to enrich the game content and extend the life of the game.

Gaming is also an industry that architects can relate a lot. Games like SimCity is a classic city-building video game that a lot of urban designers find inspirational. Worldbuilding in games is the process of constructing an imaginary world and is very similar to the design process in the real life. Environment artist turns 2D art created by concept artist and turns it into a believable environment in 3D. The tools of the trade are 3D modelling software that architects are more or less familiar with: Blender, 3Ds Max, Maya, ZBrush, Substance Painter..etc, and also game engines like Unity and Unreal.

  • Think Like a (Software)Developer
Computational Thinking Key Concepts

Computational design is not a new topic in the architecture field. We’ve seen terms like generative design, parametric design, algorithmic design. I don’t want to argue the differences between these terminologies, overall, it is a new way of problem-solving. Instead of just relying on the intuition and experiences of designers, designers abstract the design process, decompose the big challenges into smaller ones, define the parameters or constraints that will impact the design outputs, iterate design workflows and options, and finally make decisions based on the analytic rationales. Computational thinking is the key to scale your design like a software developer.

Tools like Grasshopper are already well adopted in the architecture field. It is a good approach to apply computational tools in your design workflow to amplify the power of computation.

If you want to learn how to code, Processing could be a good language for learning programming within the context of the visual arts. Python is also a relatively easy language to pick up and has wide application in data analytic/visualization, AI/ machine learning, web development and other general uses.

  • Procedural Content Generation (PCG)

In computing, procedural content generation(PCG) is a method of creating data algorithmically as opposed to manually, typically through a combination of human-generated assets and algorithms coupled with computer-generated randomness and processing power. In computer graphics, it is commonly used to create textures and 3D models(Wiki). Procedural generation is often used in video games and films to allow developers to produce larger amounts of content, and the possibility of games with endless content.

There are many approaches to procedurally generate content, and I’d encourage you to watch a fantastic presentation by Kate Compton at GDC.

Practical Procedural Generation for Everyone by Kate Compton at GDC 2017

Townscraper, one of my favourite indie games, is another great example of PCG. Users can click randomly and generate beautiful cities based on the constraints that tiles have, similarly to solving a Sudoku.

Townscraper, developed by Oskar Stålberg

Houdini is a great tool when it comes to proceduralism. It was designed for artists working in 3D animation and VFX for film, TV, video games and virtual reality. Houdini brings these worlds together into a single powerful platform. What really separates Houdini from other 3D animation software is its procedural nature. Houdini has an open environment and offers scripting through a variety of APIs, but Python is the language of choice for most packages.

Credit: Adrien Lambert

CityEngine is a commercial three-dimensional modelling software application developed by Esri R&D Center Zurich and specializes in the generation of 3D urban environments. Using a procedural modelling approach, it supports the creation of detailed large-scale 3D city models.

User interface of City Engine
  • Design with Artificial Intelligence

AI is a hot topic in the tech scene, and we’ve seen a lot of great applications in computer vision, natural language processing, and so on. In the design context, AI can be used to train machine learning from existing content to generate new content. Among all the machine learning platforms, GAN(Generative Adversarial Network) is definitely a rising star that catches the attention of design professionals. Here are some examples I found inspirational:

Credit: Stanislas Chaillou

Stanislas Chaillou’s thesis project uses GAN to generate floorplans of different styles.

Refik Anadol installation

Artist Refik Andaol applies data-driven machine learning algorithms to create abstract, dream-like environments.

Simon Fraser University and Autodesk Research’s recent paper refined GAN to generate automated house layouts for architects.

NVIDIA Research’s latest model, featuring GANs under the hood, turns 2D images into 3D objects for game developers, artists, designers, architects.

New Balance is using Runway, a user-friendly ML tool for creators, to design their next generation of athletic shoes.

Credit: New Balance

Ultimate Quest: What Value Can Architects Bring to the Metaverse?

  • Architect’s Identity Crisis in the Digital Economy

Architects already face the identity crisis in the physical world. We used to be the master builder, knowing all the knowledge and techniques of construction. However, in the modern industrial society, many majors like structure, mechanical, electricity, budget, construction management have been separated from architecture discipline, the remaining part is mostly form-making, visualization, collaboration and so on, we are lack of core technology.

“Architecture is a profession that takes an enormous amount of time. The least architectural effort takes at least four or five or six years, and that speed is really too slow for the revolutions that are taking place.” Said by Rem Koolhas, the Pritzker Prize-winning Dutch architect, pointed the shortcoming of the profession, how it could adapt to the changing social and technical climates of today. Technology is advancing, and tech “outsiders” are aiming to refactor or revolutionize the AEC industry. From industry to academia, we need to change to adapt.

Metaverse is a new playground that architects could take part in together with other stakeholders. If we are competing against game designers or developers, what extra value can we bring to the game?

  • Architect as the Bridge Between the Physical and Virtual World

For centuries, architects are leading the construction of physical worlds. Acting as the project manager to collaborate with all the disciplines to deliver projects to the end-users, we have a comprehensive understanding of the projects, while the other consultants are more likely to be familiar with only part of the whole picture.

With the trend of creating Digital Twin in the practice in the AEC industry, architects can act as the bridge between the physical and virtual world. According to Autodesk, “A digital twin in construction, engineering, and architecture is a dynamic, up-to-date replica of a physical asset or set of assets — whether it’s a building, a campus, a city, or a railway — that brings together design, construction, and real-time operational data. Digital twins simulate, predict, and inform decisions.” Architects could run simulations to create real-world scenarios virtually to “test drive” unbuilt buildings. A digital twin uses data from connected sensors to tell the story of a building all the way through its life cycle. From testing to use in the real world. With IoT data, we can measure specific indicators of building health and performance, like temperature and humidity. A digital twin can also augment the physical experience, imagine you have a stadium that can only host 20,000 audiences for a live concert, but you can enable millions of the users to participate in that event through digital twin while having dynamic interaction between the two.

There will be a lot of interesting applications in the metaverse that hosting digital twins or scan data like point clouds and photogrammetry of real-world places. Just be creative to utilize the assets and curate experiences and interactions for both domains.

  • Social Responsibility in the Virtual World

Intangible humanistic ideals, social responsibilities and professional beliefs derived from Western classical architecture have shown their unique value in this era. Homeownership, promoting social justice… These parts are not originally exclusive to architecture, but compared to civil engineering, industrial and civil construction, real estate and other related disciplines, architecture has acquired these extra attributes due to the inheritance of general education in history. These characteristics are precious in the context of the chaotic value of the Internet era.[1]

Architects are good listeners and communicators. We begin with a lot of listening to understand what clients want and what communities want. Besides serving clients, architects tend to put the social impact and responsibility at first to serve a community as a whole.

Architecture is the manifestation and expression of culture. We try to understand a given cultural setting that involves languages, the memory of place, and lifestyles prior to conceptual design. While the metaverse is not location-specific, the users do coming from different cultural backgrounds, and we could design “vernacular” metaverses that are full of varieties and cultural inclusion.

  • The Value of Architecture

This is a deep topic, and I just want to quote Rem Koolhas again: “Architecture stands with one leg in a world that’s 3,000 years old and another leg in the 21st century. This almost ballet-like stretch makes our profession surprisingly deep. You could say that we’re the last profession that has a memory, or the last profession whose roots go back 3,000 years and still demonstrates the relevance of those long roads today. Initially, I thought we were actually misplaced to deal with the present, but what we offer the present is memory.”

History is like a mirror that when we look at it we see new reflections each time. “The values of architecture” vary across history. From “Stability, Utility, Beauty” in the Roman time, to the “The seven lamps of architecture(Sacrifice, Truth, Power, Beauty, Life, Obedience and Memory)” by Ruskin in the 19th century. From Le Corbusier’s “Toward an Architecture” that unfolded the modern architectures in the 20th century to dismiss decor and embrace pure form as the new spirit of the industrial age, to Christopher Alexander’s “Pattern Language” that heavily impacted software engineering… Do we need to define the new values of architecture in this digital age? This is an open question to my dear readers. The better we can define and implement the value of architecture, the better we can architect a great unmaterial metaverse.

Metaverse is unfolding and evolving. My dear fellow architects, are you ready?

Bibliography

[1]Yuan Mu, Industrial Dilemma and Educational Reform of Architecture, published in: Times Architecture. 2020.2 (14–18)

Architect/Software Developer/Design Technology Specialist @HOK https://github.com/chloesun