A few days ago, Mark Zuckerberg presented his vision of a virtual world called ‘Metaverse’. Personally, I found it difficult to watch the presentation. It was an endless string of warmed up ideas, bland concepts, and visual disappointments. It was infantile and tacky. But one thing intrigued me: if the Metaverse is a unique computational space where we could do anything — why is it just replicating things we know? Why is it so obsessed with simulation?
The presentation of Mr. Zuckerberg was full of simulated bodies, clothing, buildings, products, sports, games, work, nature, and social relations. It even simulated simulations like interactions with digital products. On a visual or conceptual level, nothing was more than a pale reflection of an already existing thing. Nothing was meaningful beyond itself. The way the Metaverse was presented, it was an insipid simulation of a cold, consumerist world.
To be fair, simulations have always played an important role in the development of the computer and the design of user interfaces. The Desktop Metaphor was a simulation of an office desk. You had documents, folders, and accessories. Digital applications often imitate a process or a workflow from the analogue world. In a way, Microsoft Word still simulates a typewriter. But these simulations have largely been symbolic. In the Metaverse as presented by Mr. Zuckerberg, the simulations are quite literal.
Creating user interfaces that are too literal spells disaster. From an interface point of view, the Metaverse feels like a high-resolution version of Microsoft Bob.
The main problem of Microsoft Bob was that it confused familiarity with meaning. It tried to be approachable by providing the users with everyday settings like a room with furniture. However, there was no visual distinction between applications and ornament. The drawer in the desk is ornamental, the paper on the desk is not. The drawer is a literal simulation — it just represented itself — while the paper is a symbolic simulation — it represents a writing application. The lack of distinction between symbolic and literal simulation was highly confusing and Microsoft Bob was consequently discontinued after just one year. In any case, it is important to note that just because objects are familiar, they are not necessarily meaningful.
In his book Software Takes Command, Lev Manovich talks at length about the role of simulation in software. It is a great read — but I don’t want to get too theoretical. So let’s just say that simulation in user interfaces is a complex subject matter. If you do it right, it enables users to transfer existing knowledge and experiences to an abstract digital system. If you do it wrong, you just create a meaningless mirror image. And my impression is that the Metaverse is just that — a pale reflection of Silicon Valley Zeitgeist.
But how could it be different? What are the alternatives? How could virtual worlds look and work like if they are not literal simulations? For me, the most promising approach are virtual Information Spaces. Instead of simulating a world view, Information Spaces can be used to display relationships of information and data in time and space. Instead of organising the wardrobe of my avatar, I want to organise my ideas, thoughts, projects, and plans. Instead of staring at a data on a virtual screen, I want to be in the data.
There is one seminal project from 1994 (!) that encapsulates these ideas very well. The ‘Information Landscapes’ by Muriel Cooper and her team of graduate students was conceptually and aesthetically ground-breaking. They proposed a vision of 3D virtual spaces that went far beyond literal simulation.
One project in particular is a great example for an abstract 3D information space: Financial Viewpoints by Lisa Strausfeld. For me the Financial Viewpoints project encapsulates what information spaces should look and work like.
In the project, the user is placed next to a typographic structure in an endless space. The text and numbers represent a portfolio of seven mutual funds — the values of the funds themselves as well as context data. A movable and translucent plane slices through the space along one axis, displaying data on one of the seven funds. There are no physics, the user can freely float and move through the data. Furthermore, there is no pre-defined way to look at the data. By moving through the data space, the user is constantly changing her or his perspective.
In her paper on the Financial Viewpoints project, Lisa Strausfeld aptly writes:
‘3D virtual information spaces, because they are abstract worlds of suspended text and images rather than simulations of the physical world, have a somewhat paradoxical relation to the body. As explorers of these spaces we become (at some level of consciousness) both embodied and disembodied. We rely on bodily intuition to navigate through and understand the structure and contents of the space, but we also have the ability to do what our bodies do not allow us to do in the physical world: we can fly (even through time), change our size (e.g. zoom through multiple scales of information) and see through objects (via transparency).’
For me, this concept is much more intriguing and has a much greater potential than the simulacra of Mr. Zuckerberg.
I don’t know how the Facebook Metaverse will evolve — but I am sceptical. The way it is right now, I don’t want to spend more than 5 minutes in it.
A connected, immersive virtual space can be so much more than the vision of Mr. Zuckerberg. It can be informative, enlightening, stimulating, demanding, laborious and weird. A true Metaverse should challenge the way we see the world — instead of confirming a questionable world view.