Several companies, including Apple and Microsoft, are betting that tomorrow’s world will run, at least in part, in the metaverse. To that end, Microsoft recently acquired video game giant Activision Blizzard for: US$68.7 billion†
As more of our day-to-day activities take place online, we think it’s time to think about how this could turn out in the end; if tomorrow’s urban dwellers prefer the metaverse to brick-and-mortar retail and other urban amenities, what does this mean for cities and what purposes will cities ultimately serve?
As professors in the departments of urban environment and digital culture, we delve into this question and explore how the metaverse can profoundly change our relationships with urban spaces. This vision of the future may seem rather dystopian, but let’s take this opportunity to envision what the cities of tomorrow might look like.
From science fiction to reality
The term metaverse does not come from science and technology, but from science fiction. Neal Stephenson coined the term in 1992in his novel snow crash to denote a dystopian virtual urban environment.
Stephenson’s metaverse is depicted as a very long boulevard generated by powerful computers. It is managed by the Global Multimedia Protocol Group, which manages construction permits, regulates zoning and defines the boundaries of businesses, parks and advertising spaces. Rented or bought by big companies, these spaces turn the metaverse into a virtual urban environment completely controlled by private interests, those of the digital technology giants.
Virtual urban environments: grab your helmet!
Thirty years after the publication of Stephenson’s novel, elements of science fiction now give us a taste of the new realities and new urban challenges to come. We are currently spending astronomical amounts to make our cities more livable, fairer and more sustainable, but what good will these investments be if tomorrow’s citizens only experience the city virtually?
Let’s start tackling social activities. Many urban attractions such as cinemas† restaurants, museums and historical monuments will see the number of customers passing through their doors decrease. Viewing is already possible various museums virtually†
The virtual reality experience ‘Eternal Notre-Dame’ was launched in Paris in January 2021 and allows virtual visitors to see the famous cathedral.
As the metaverse grows, it needs more money, land, and infrastructure to house the computer servers it runs on. While the experiences are virtual, their costs — in terms of money† energy† and environment – are real and increasing.
Will the funding come from budgets previously allocated to urban spaces and infrastructures? Will our governments follow? Saudi Arabia or South Korea’s example and start investing in infrastructure and parcels of land within these new virtual cities?
In the coming years, other social activities, such as a cup of coffee or a beer with friends, could also take place online. These virtual meetings will not only remove the distance restrictions, reducing our use of urban transport, but they will also allow us to choose a meeting location anywhere on the ‘planet’.
For example, a morning cup of coffee with colleagues in the virtual garden of the Eiffel Tower could give way to evening festivities at a Super Bowl game in augmented reality. It would be like sitting on the sidelines, but with the ability to choose different camera angles with a gesture of the hand.
Microsoft is already offering a vision of this futuristic sports experience with an augmented reality helmet called the HoloLens† The helmet not only gives viewers the impression that they are in the stadium, but also allows them to interact with the screen with hand gestures.
City trips in virtual mode
Will the coziness of strolling through malls, already virtualized by online sales, be reincarnated in the metaverse? Multiple businesses believe it, including Samsung and Nike, which have launched retail spaces in the metaverse. And the clothing company Ralph Lauren launched a digital collection in the immersive world of Roblox in December.
Envisioning a future where social activities take place in the metaverse may seem hasty and even a bit far-fetched, but the transition is already underway. Several major events have already switched to virtual venues, including the Sundance Film Festival, and artists like Ariana Grande, J. Balvin and Travis Scott give virtual concerts. Scott’s concert, shown on the video game platform Fortnite in 2020, attracted more than 12.3 million guests†
Physical activities are also increasingly performed virtually. Companies such as Peloton now offer Tour de France and Giro-caliber bike tours without you having to travel to Europe. Their popularity has soared to 5.9 million users in 2021 from 1.9 million users in 2019.
Another example would be the company pacewhich uses artificial intelligence to offer in-home workouts with a virtual personal trainer.
A new city escape
While practical, this transition to the metaverse changes the way we interact with the urban environment and forces us to rethink our urban priorities.
Even today, many cities turn their attention to improving the quality and quantity of their parks and green spaces. But what’s the point of these parks and green spaces – places to meet, socialize and play sports – if tomorrow’s city dwellers perform these activities online?
Without the need for urban spaces and the businesses around them, the benefits of living in the city may also diminish. Many Canadian households became accustomed to telecommuting during the pandemic and have since chosen to: go out of town and take advantage of more affordable rents. If many people are able to carry out their social and physical activities remotely from the metaverse in addition to working from home, we could very well see a new urban escape.
Reinventing urban design
Apple, Meta and Microsoft aren’t the only companies convinced that we will occupy the virtual worlds they invest in, and cities need to start taking this into account. Many urban spaces, infrastructures and developments will have to be revised and even reimagined. This process can take many forms.
For example, a response to the corporate promises of virtual happiness associated with the metaverse could come in the form of new urban projects, such as the creation of community gardens and the redevelopment of coastal areas into urban beaches. Initiatives such as these, coupled with a renewed supply of affordable housing, may very well partially counteract the expected urban flight.
Whatever solution is chosen, it must come from concerted and collective efforts by both the public and private sectors. Such efforts will need to involve today’s citizens to identify the roles we want the metaverse to play in the cities of tomorrow.
If we don’t start asking these questions soon, Silicon Valley is happy to provide the answers. There’s little to stop Stephenson’s dystopian metaverse world from becoming a reality.
In any case, it is clear that the more private companies invest in virtual urban environments, the less we, as a society, pay attention to the urban spaces in which we live.
This article by Mischa Youngdeputy professor, Universite de l’Ontario français and Sarah ChoukahAssistant Professor, Center for Studies and Research in Digital Cultures, Universite de l’Ontario français has been reissued from The conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article†