A few recent sightings: Microsoft moved to buy game developer Activision Blizzard for $69 billion. Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg called the metaverse "the next stage of the internet," at SXSW. (Fittingly, the company is also battling it out with competing tech giants to carve out market share in the space.) And, name a company and they've likely launched a metaverse-related brand activation or campaign: Nike, Roblox, Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Coca-Cola, and Wendy's are all in the mix. But the metaverse also doesn't really exist yet, at least not as one cohesive virtual world—which means there's a lot of space for designers to get involved as the space evolves, if they want to.
So we asked digital scholar Janet Murray, a professor at Georgia Tech's Digital Media Graduate Program and author of Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace, to help make sense of the metaverse hype: what it is, what it means for the future of web design, and how designers can get get ready for it.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Shaping Design: “Metaverse” feels like such a buzzword. What actually is the metaverse, in practical terms?
Janet Murray: It is a buzzword. There is no metaverse. Right now all we have is a lot of VR applications and a lesser amount of AR applications, unrelated to one another, in their own silos. Then [there's] a proposed metaverse, which is a dream of some big tech companies to get richer by making an omnipresent platform that blurs the boundary between the physical world and virtual images.
The “metaverse,” as it currently exists, seems to be a bunch of decentralized experiences led by individual companies (take Facebook, Nike, or Ralph Lauren, for instance). Do you expect the metaverse to largely stay in the corporate sphere?
JM: Exactly. There are game platforms that offer immersive possibilities, but they're walled gardens, proprietary. Companies like Facebook (now Meta) see that if they could own a universal platform, the equivalent of one of the current smart phone platforms, that everyone would build on to make VR and AR experiences, then they would be well positioned to profit from what they see as a gold mine of direct marketing opportunities. But that assumes a lot of things that may not happen. Most importantly, it assumes people will want to spend a lot of time in an imaginary space, and that they will be willing to do so at a considerable loss of privacy and tolerance of invasive brand messaging.
So how much of it is hype? And how seriously should designers consider the metaverse as a new frontier in web design?
JM: What is real is that a lot of money will be thrown at VR and AR applications over the next few years, until the bubble bursts. It’s hard to predict how long that will be—these things go in waves. And in the long run, there are certainly design opportunities for VR and AR applications that people might actually want to use. So this is a good opportunity to get some experience designing VR and AR. I would say designers should look for what money is actually on offer and then ask if there are actual users who might want whatever is proposed.
So let’s say a designer wants to get into the space and design for the metaverse. What are some must-have skills they should learn this year to be competitive?
JM: I think they should learn Unity if they are developers, since that's not limited to VR and AR, but it is foundational to both. And they should play VR games. There are AR toolkits based on mobile devices that would be useful.
For designers, it's also important to cultivate a frame of mind that is grounded in experience. As you go about your life, is there any occasion where you wish there were an AR overlay to tell you something? Is there a game you want to play with friends that would be more fun in VR, because you could mess with the physics in some way? I would think about specific activities and about what affordances different platforms have or ought to have to support those specific interactions.
Which design roles would typically work on metaverse and virtual reality projects?
JM: [My research group at Georgia Tech] has an AR project in progress right now that has an important role for modelers, as well as unity programmers and project managers. One of the participants on another project has a background in landscape architecture, which can be very relevant for AR.
VR games may grow at a steady pace (I don’t track those things, but it seems like the only application that actually exists), so all of those jobs may increase. Standard HCI skills should be in demand, from needs assessment to interface testing.
With a new medium, if you want to be innovative, you have to think about specific expressive tasks and what conventions are needed to perform them. So the most important part of a project is finding a focus where VR or AR is truly value added and then letting the specific task tell you what kind of expertise you need.
"If you want to be innovative, you have to think about specific expressive tasks and what conventions are needed to perform them"
People who have not done digital design work, like historians who have worked with specific historical sites, might be important team members, and good guides to functionality that has not been thought of yet. Or maybe you need skateboarders or parkour athletes to help you design movement through the space.
Anything else designers should know that I didn’t ask?
JM: I would encourage people to take advantage of the flow of dollars to learn some new design skills, but to be prepared for ups and downs in confidence in VR and AR. The jobs they take now may lead to bust in 5 years, but [may also have] lessons worth learning that they'll get to apply later in their careers.