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The Mill's Will MacNeil on the role of design in the metaverse

by Isabelle du Plessis

June 1, 2022

Will MacNeil is design director, experience of The Mill. Here here shares his insights on the emerging metaverse, and the role that design will play in its make-up.

How much of an integral role do you see design playing in the evolution of the metaverse?

I think good design is critical to the metaverse being a place that people want to, and can, visit. It breaks down into two disciplines: experiential design, where we figure out how people actually use and experience the metaverse, and aesthetic design, where we decide how the metaverse will feel. These two are closely linked and need to be addressed together. But for the metaverse to succeed, the nuts and bolts of the experience really need to be explored.

The metaverse is an opportunity to remove a lot of barriers of the physical world. Distance, economic disparity, obstacles that encumber disabled people: the negative impact of all these things could be diminished in a well designed mixed reality world. Or it could be reinforced, which is why it’s so important to get the experiential side right. From the aesthetics point of view, if we’re going to spend as much time immersed in the metaverse as we do currently surfing the internet, I want it to be a beautiful place. My guess it the look and feel will evolve in a similar trajectory to early web design. Faced with a somewhat limited toolset, designers will slowly learn to work with and exploit those limitations to create acceptable virtual worlds. Then as the technology develops, we can build richer spaces that will eventually start to feel genuinely immersive and welcoming.

How do you believe the metaverse will reframe human-centered experiences?

A lot of talk around the metaverse right now seems to suggest it will be something we enter and leave as a conscious choice - like a space of its own. But I think it’s more likely going to be an extension of the internet as we know it today. We’re already used to carrying around smart devices and wearables, to the extent we hardly notice when we hear a ping. We travel in our minds into our social media feeds or get a haptic reminder to stand up or take a deep breath to relax. When the right optical device comes along, I expect we’ll start to see this type of interaction permeate into our visual experience of daily life. This may well be how the metaverse starts to exist for us: as a mixed reality that we exist in for much of our waking hours.

Obviously there’s a risk here that we’ll simply be overwhelmed with images, sounds and sensations that start to interfere with our experience of the physical world. As designers it’s vital that we create an experience that enhances genuine human experience rather than supplants it.

What are the complexities and challenges of this new reality?

The metaverse adds another dimension to the internet and therefore multiplies the design tasks exponentially. In terms of aesthetic design, we’ve been building immersive 3D worlds for quite a while now and the tech behind that is moving at a furious pace. We’ve made huge leaps in image and sound fidelity, to the extent that we can create believable creatures and spaces in 3D for film and games.

The challenge there is to make all that work in a lightweight real time system at a massive scale. But there’s a clear roadmap for this. What’s much harder to grasp is how we design the interaction itself. Do we approach it like an operating system where we setup rules for user interfaces and application development? Do we try to setup standards that developers agree on so we can share assets and create an open system for development, similar to the web? What does ownership look like in the metaverse? Who controls things like currency and centralization? What does crime look like in the metaverse and who polices it? These are really tough questions to answer, and frankly they’re way beyond my expertise.

Is digital art going to change the way we create, consume and commission artworks?

The rise of NFTs has made two things obvious: digital artists want a way to keep value in the art they produce - even if that art is easily copied, and the world of buying and selling art is still an anarchic free for all. I completely understand that people who make art want to sell it. And NFTs have shown us one way this could work. The idea that the creation of an artwork can be noted on a blockchain along with the history of every time it’s bought and sold is, to me, fantastic.

It’s a great way to make sure artists get recognized for their work, even after it’s changed hands many times. But NFTs are flawed. They don’t actually store art on a blockchain, just links to files on servers. So the benefit of blockchain tech isn’t really there. The cryptocurrencies with which most NFTs are minted, bought and sold are a mess, as are many of the platforms for NFT auctions. We’re regularly seeing stories of NFTs being stolen, or people’s work being minted without their permission. So despite this potentially great step forward for digital art, what we’re seeing feels a lot like the crazy art world we’ve known for the last 150 years. Some artists are making a lot of money. Some are making nothing. Some are having their work stolen. And a tiny group of people, who really don’t care about art at all, are extracting huge amounts of money from other people’s creativity. I’d love to see NFT 2.0, where these issues are fixed. But I’m not bold enough to suggest we’re about to fix the artworld.

What interesting metaverse design concepts have you seen recently?

As a designer, I’m excited for what might be coming in terms of visual quality and impact. But we’re still probably a long way from seeing a really beautiful, immersive metaverse. What interests me the most right now are experiences that focus on interactivity, bringing people together in a virtual space. The Mill’s Lovecraft Country did this brilliantly with virtual reality (VR) chat. Despite the limitations of size and scale with VR chat, the experience was genuinely a place people could congregate and share a common interest. And of course, we should be looking at what the next generation are already doing. This kind of interaction already exists in Roblox and Fortnite. These aren’t just games, they’re hangout spots. We should be looking carefully at how these spaces work and why they’re so popular (and they are hugely popular). This kind of organic growth, from simple ideas to vast online ecosystems, is probably the path we’ll inevitably take. For all my talk about designing the metaverse, these things are a bit like military campaigns. As soon as the first shot is fired, the strategy goes out the window.


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