You can still be forgiven, for now, for not understanding what the metaverse is — even as the burgeoning network of interactive virtual worlds wins over firms like Zaha Hadid Architects, which recently unveiled its own online version of the micronation Liberland.
The metaverse is banking on technological advances and increased adoption of immersive VR headsets to reach its full promise. But anyone with a phone or a laptop can already stroll through a virtual city, meet with others and attend digital events like concerts and fashion shows. And while some remain skeptical, others are investing.
Earlier this year, Pallavi Dean’s Dubai-based architecture and interior design firm Roar paid about US$68,000 for four land plots in the Decentraland metaverse. Dean has plans for an NFT art gallery, furniture showroom, event space and “experimental hotel” that will hopefully pave the way for more digital commissions. “I see it as an extension of the work that we already do,” she says. If architecture is about bringing structures to life, “how is the metaverse any different?”
That said, there is a learning curve. Building a metaverse property starts with selecting a virtual world, such as Cryptovoxels, The Sandbox or Somnium. Each one has different features, costs and availability of land — which can be bought or rented directly from the platform, on marketplaces like OpenSea or through metaverse real estate agents. After that, translating a traditional CAD or BIM design requires specialized software, which varies between worlds.
George Corneliu Bileca, CEO of the Madeira Island-based virtual architecture firm Voxel Architects, has a background in automotive design, but several of his staff members trained as architects. To help designers move projects into virtual reality, Voxel Architects also has several developers on staff to code interactive features for metaverse buildings, like the ability to move furniture or open doors and windows. “All those details that we take for granted in the real world need to be addressed by developers in the virtual world,” he says. “You need to play video games — or at least study game design — to understand.”
Voxel Architects has produced more than 80 metaverse projects, from the B.20 Museum (think brutalism meets Tron) to the Decentraland replica of Sotheby’s London headquarters. Despite its traditional exterior, the auction house’s digital interior was altered to resemble a swamp for one exhibition and a cathedral for another. This is normal in the metaverse, where real-world restrictions like permits and engineering constraints like gravity don’t exist. There are height regulations, however, and network performance places some limits on functionality and ideas. But as the field grows, new possibilities promise to cater to new ambitions.
As architects enter the online world, the line between video games and reality is starting to blur.