Science & Tech

The metaverse could lead to an urban exodus

Several companies, including Apple and Microsoft, are betting that the world of tomorrow will, at least in part, be carried out in the metaverse. To this end, Microsoft recently acquired the video game giant Activision Blizzard for US$68.7 billion.

As more of our daily activities take place online, we believe it’s time to consider how this may eventually play out; if tomorrow’s city dwellers prefer the metaverse to brick-and-mortar stores and other urban amenities, what will it 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 examine how the metaverse could profoundly change our relationships with urban spaces. This vision of the future may seem quite dystopian, but let’s take this opportunity to imagine what the cities of tomorrow might look like.

From science fiction to reality

The term metaverse does not come from the fields of science and technology, but rather from science fiction. Neal Stephenson coined the term in 1992, in his novel Snow Crash to designate a dystopian virtual urban environment.

Stephenson’s metaverse is depicted as a very long boulevard generated by powerful computers. It is controlled by the Global Multimedia Protocol Group, which manages building permits, regulates zoning, and delimits the boundaries of businesses, parks, and advertising spaces. These spaces, rented or bought by large corporations, make the metaverse a virtual urban environment entirely 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 are now giving us a preview of the new realities and new urban challenges to come. We are currently spending astronomical amounts of money to make our cities more liveable, equitable, and sustainable, but what good are these investments if the citizens’ of tomorrow will only experience the city virtually?

Let’s start by tackling social activities. Many urban attractions such as cinemas, restaurants, museums, and historical monuments will see a drop in the number of customers passing through their doors. It’s already possible to visit several museums virtually.

The virtual reality experience ‘Eternal Notre-Dame’ was launched in Paris in January 2021, and allows virtual visitors to tour the famous cathedral.

As the metaverse grows, it will need more money, land, and infrastructure to house the computer servers it runs on. Although the experiences are virtual, their costs — in terms of money, energy, and environment — are real and increasing.

Will funding come from budgets previously allocated to urban spaces and infrastructures? Will our governments follow Saudi Arabia’s or South Korea’s example and start investing in infrastructure and plots of land within these novel virtual cities?

In the coming years, other social activities such as enjoying a coffee or a beer with friends, may also take place online. Not only will these virtual meetings eliminate the constraints of distance, reducing our use of urban transport, but they will also allow us to choose a location for a meeting anywhere on the “planet.”

For example, a morning coffee with colleagues in the virtual garden of the Eiffel Tower could give way, in the evening, to festivities at a Super Bowl game in augmented reality. It would be like having sideline seats, but with the ability to choose different camera angles with a wave of the hand.

Microsoft already offers a vision of this futuristic sporting experience with an augmented reality helmet called the HoloLens. Not only does the helmet give viewers the impression they are sitting in the stadium, it also allows them to interact with the screen using hand gestures.

Urban outings in virtual mode

Will the sociability of strolling through shopping malls, already virtualized by online sales, be reincarnated in the metaverse? Several companies believe so, including Samsung and Nike, which have launched retail spaces in the metaverse. And the Ralph Lauren clothing company launched a digital collection in the Roblox immersive world in December.

Imagining 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 transitioned to virtual venues, including the Sundance Film Festival, and artists like Ariana Grande, J. Balvin, and Travis Scott are performing virtual concerts. Scott’s concert, shown on the video game platform Fortnite in 2020, attracted more than 12.3 million guests.