The Facets of a Full Metaverse Experience, By Design
As a preface, before jumping into the deep end, I’ll approach the shallower side by taking a stab at defining the “m-word du jour.” A general answer to “what is a metaverse?” is usually trifold: it’s a digital world that’s shared, spatialized, and interactive. Call the “interactive” part “social” instead and you have the 3 S’s of metaverse: shared, spatialized, and social. And that’s usually where people stop with definitions, going from there to use cases, objectives, avatar fashion, you name it.
All well and good, but I think it’s over-simplified to stop with those 3 S’s because they don’t nearly approach the special quality of metaverse that allows it to be different and arguably richer than a physical presence on its own. I adore my physical reality, and I also love that experiences in a metaverse can allow me to do what I couldn’t otherwise do. There’s a transcendence of limits here, and it has a lot to do with the nature of the metaverse itself.
While we’re about to approach the additional complexity and beauty of metaversal trans-technology, a question surfaces: should we even call it “metaverse”? Too much baggage from corporate associative confusion and 80s sci-fi nostalgia? Should there be a new term that is less allusive, more sovereign? Avi Bar-Zeev suggests the term “coreality,” which I think is a good one, even if the reality is a surreal one. How do we distinguish “coreality” in metaverse from the “coreality” we share in the physical space? I suppose that’s just it; it’s digitized reality. But it’s more.
In fact, it’s more than one coreality, more than a metaverse, even though it is “the” metaverse and not “the metaverses.” I want to address the grammatical elephant in the room that not a lot of people are explicitly pointing out, but it’s on everyone’s mind because of the “i word” about the “m word”: interoperability. Right now, there is not one metaverse to rule them all, and there’s not one company in charge. There is an overarching “metaverse” with multiple nodes, all coexisting across different platforms, each with its own way of operating and protocols. Logins are different, avatars vary, and standards are not interchangeable. This can be confusing and daunting to newcomers who want to quickly master the basics so they can move on to applications. It’s a creator’s economy, after all — or, it should be. I believe it will be, if we plan it right, building and acting according to our values and ethical standards. Now is the time to define, after all. And there’s urgency.(A great read along these lines is Tony Parisi’s The Seven Rules of the Metaverse: A Framework for the Coming Immersive Reality. Seems that the number 7 is both prime and catchy.)
What this means for each person who is new to the “metaverse” is that it’s here to stay, there are rich opportunities for business, and the time is right now to acclimate and get (ahem!) versed in both the tools and functions of these 7 S’s enriched worlds, and our own physical experience with “being there” in community.
So, what are the other 4 S’s that complete the full “7 S’s of the Metaverse”? In addition to shared, spatialized, and social, the metaverse is sensory, somatic, soulful, and storied. Here’s how and why these elements make a difference.
Anyone who has spent time in the metaverse will likely bring up the notion of presence in some shape or form. You feel incredibly present there, and a lot of this ability to feel a deep sense of presence is because of the multi-sensory inputs you’re receiving. It’s not about the inputs from the environment being hyper-realistic or replicating a physical place to a T; it’s a new form of dimensionality, often allowing us to “drop in” with our senses and really focus on what we’re receiving. In this sense, a low-poly world with minimal detail can be even more moving and powerful than a detailed hyper-realistic one if it’s designed wisely. (If you want to read more about presence, check out this chapter I wrote about The Importance of Presence). In ways, the technology flips your brain inside out, and then inputs all of the context and sensory details that allow us to make sense (!) of our situational place and form patterns and models. What about the senses that are missing? The textures? The scents (assuming you don’t have an OVR olfactory integration or something like that yet!)? Often times, our brains fill in the gaps for what’s missing. We form a complete picture in our cognitive mental model, which affects our physical, emotional, and mental experience.
So much of meaningful metaverse design should involve paying careful attention to the sensory elements, understanding that they impact the full experience in a significant way. When auditory sounds are mapped in a certain way, they can create a texture of their own, eliciting emotions and responses that are different from the way we experience physical reality. In a similar way, visual cues and inputs, virtual settings and landscapes, become part of the fabric of how we encounter the metaverse, cueing our responses, our navigation, our agency.
In addition, the sensory elements can be things of beauty, inviting us into a state of reverie or wonder. When our senses are nourished, our minds and bodies can relax, and then we are able to form better qualities of experiences. With wellness and social-emotional goals in mind, this has big impact.
Speaking of mind and body connection, in addition to being sensory, the metaverse is somatic. What do I mean by this? Well, it might be instinctive to think that when we put on a headset, everything that happens in a metaverse happens in our heads, from the neck up. The VR experience is not contained in the brain. The body is constantly responding to the experiences we have in the metaverse, because it has opened up our sensory inputs, and there are valuable signals coming to and from our physical bodies that can lead us to a fuller experience. Visual signals, auditory, haptics and more. It’s about the mental and physical together. Not exclusive.
Increasing awareness that the metaverse is somatic can allow us to understand why certain experiences give us goosebumps, or why breaking past limiting beliefs by giving a public speech in a metaverse world causes our heart to beat faster and perhaps our stomach to feel those butterflies. It’s a full experience, and this is ironic because even as it’s dubbed a simulation, our full body recognizes it as “real.” There’s a vulnerability here, tuning in more deeply to the body and the brain as they are connected. We allow ourselves to be physically moved by an experience. Often times, the emotional responses in the body in metaverse will bring us to laughter, bring us to tears, bring us to a deeper understanding of ourselves and others, often across perceived boundaries. It’s different than viewing a movie because there we are, in 3D, reacting and interacting. Imagine the powers we can have, as authentic leaders and learners, to work on transformations, when we also understand our own body integration.
The word is complex, and I don’t mean “soulful” in a religious sense, though you could interpret it spiritually. What I mean is that the metaverse involves instantiations of the “self” in a collaborative context. So, who shows up there as you? You might be a certain avatar, you might be using new types of tools, you might be interacting across different languages, using a new form of what I call metaverse fluency.
Regardless of what you are doing in the metaverse, how you show up is a choice, and that choice is arguably “soulful,” in that it is “full of feeling, and full of emotion,” as the definition states. It involves a choice of how to be rather than simply what to be. And as we encounter a metaverse that is so interactive and moving, we can benefit from awareness and guidance about how to show up as a soulful self that can make the most of the experience, for ourselves and for and with each other.
Oh, this last S of the Seven S’s of the Metaverse is a powerful one! And arguably my favorite… for it’s a storied metaverse that helps to make it meaningful. We as humans share stories with each other to transfer data, understanding, history and more. We remember stories, and grow to care about them.
The metaverse is a “place” — a space with stories contained within it. We are the story makers and the meaning bearers. This is something that humans do. It’s not generated by AI — though AI can help assist us as story creators!
Because the metaverse is a cocreative enterprise, focusing on what stories we want to engage in and how to sculpt a user journey that is deeply storied allows us to really envision how our interactions play out, and how they feel. It’s been said that humans need rituals, and I believe it. Perhaps we’ve been missing rituals and ceremonies as we are physically separated from each other, and 2D interactions just don’t cut it. The metaverse allows for this deeper storied connection to take place.
As we are facing a new way of life design, rapidly shifting our approaches to business, to our daily routines, and to how we gather and celebrate together, we have the chance to approach stories in a new light, too. Humans are social animals who exist as collectives, in community with each other. The metaverse is a space for this collectivity, offering us chances to focus on cooperative models and systems designs that allow us to make the most of our quality of life. By integrating stories in the metaverse, we raise consciousness about engagement design and agency that allows us to form fuller understandings.
Methodology for a Meaningful Metaverse: Putting the Seven S’s into Practice
Recognizing those seven facets of the metaverse, which don’t claim to be exclusive, raises our awareness about how to design better experiences with intention on out values and vision.
It’s time to strive and build for the metaverse we want to live and thrive in, which means we must be intentional and take agency. Now is the time to be both optimistic and wise. Respect the risk. It’s not a time to pause. We need to push forward and make sure that our values and autonomy are defended within worlds that pioneer Jaron Lanier warns could quickly become “the ultimate Skinner box” used for manipulation and dominance rather than for freedom and flourishing. I believe in the latter, and I know the architecture is important. In this critical time, it’s possible for each of us to feel empowered and capable as we approach a new way of being together.
Let’s be bold and brave with our visions for how opportunities in the metaverse can reshape our lives, in a whole way, including our wellness, our economies, our relationships, our connectedness... and, let’s take care to build it with personal and collective responsibility, making it a place that is accessible and empowering, both of and for humanity as a whole.
The metaverse gives us even richer brands with better interactions, by design. Let’s also be compassionate with ourselves and others in this learning phase, which will be messy by design. It’s to be expected for those of us ready to embrace and shape a future that allows us to connect in new ways that deepen dialogues and enrich understanding across perceived divides.
The future can be bright, and the metaverse we dream about is only possible if we align it with our deep values and sense of ethics, and keep checking in with our humanity. This can be a starting point to a fuller, connected experience.