Back in August, I blogged on the reportedly poor aesthetics of Meta‘s metaverse, the enterprise that Mark Zuckerberg has poured billions into. Unlike most of my blogs, it attracted the attention of several people, including one Katie Rosin, who works as a publicist for an alternative metaverse company called Nowhere. She offered me a chance to try out their platform, so last week I spent half an hour Nowhere in particular — literally.
According to Rosin, Nowhere began when the event developer firm Windmill Factory faced a crisis caused by COVID-19. “Event developer” is my phrase for describing an organisation that, in their words, “manufactures sublime experiences.” For a younger generation that values experiences over objects, that’s probably a good business to be in going forward.
Judging by the list of experiences on their website, they specialise in getting people together in a defined space to do something cool — hear a concert, maybe, or experience some sort of light-show-assisted event. Without actually attending one of their events, I can’t say what it’s like, but I assume they don’t use the word “sublime” lightly.
Anyway, the Windmill people were planning their next big effort for April 2020 when you-know-what happened, and they faced the problem of doing events without people. Thus was born the idea that ultimately became Nowhere.
The goal of Nowhere is to create interpersonal connections in a safe space. Regarding safety, everybody who enters Nowhere has to be identifiable at least by a legitimate email and a password. And your real name is available to anybody who happens to meet you in Nowhere.
What does it take to get into Nowhere — special VR goggles? No. My middle-aged Macbook Pro running Chrome and a pair of headphones was all it took. That’s a big plus in my book already.
What do you see when you get there? First there’s a black screen with moving stars on it, sort of like the old Star Wars titles. This is a screensaver to give the software time to boot up. Then one of the stars gets bigger and you enter one of their many spaces.
The first one I got to wasn’t that impressive. It was totally black except for things around a square perimeter that looked like electronic billboards. I could move my point of view around with some simple key commands or mouse movements.
When Katie showed up, she took the form of a “nonagram” (nine-sided roundish screen) inside of which I had a view like you would see on Zoom, just a real video of her seated at a desk. But the way she entered the space reminded me of how Glinda the Good Witch arrives in Oz to rescue Dorothy — her nonagram zoomed in from a tiny spot and showed up in front of me. What took MGM thousands of dollars of optical-printer equipment and hours of time can now be yours for free.
A nonagram viewed from the side is shaped like a thin slice of a sphere, as if you cut the end off a tomato. The flat part holds the screen and the back is just a black surface. It floats above the — ground — or whatever is beneath it, and its position (in technical terms, four degrees of freedom — x, y, z, and yaw) are under the control of whoever’s nonagram it is.
One thing I wish they’d install is a mirror, so you could see your own nonagram. Maybe there is one, but I didn’t get to it.
A whole new world
Katie took me to a couple of spaces that were a lot nicer than the black one with the billboards. One had what looked like a grassy hill with a giant apple on it, surrounded by blue skies. She informed me it was supposed to be a cherry, not an apple. Then we went to a forest (there was a selection of about six or eight such places on a pop-up panel at the bottom of the screen), which had a sort of wooden platform that she guided me on to. The background there was very peaceful — trees in a fog, and bird sounds.
What that place reminded me of was the old video game Myst, which is somewhat legendary among persons of a certain age (it came out around 1993). Myst consisted almost entirely of static scenes that the user could move through in a limited way — but what scenes! The whole thing was a work of art that portrayed a kind of heightened reality that was the product of much study of how the real world really looks and sounds.
To the extent that Nowhere’s developers have followed that principle, they have my vote. It’s rather exciting being in on the early stages of yet another medium, if metaverses can be called that. Zuckerberg obviously wants to dominate the new medium, but we may see a kind of PC-versus-Mac thing happen, in that the old, existing dominant platform may not be agile enough to come up with innovative approaches that lots of people prefer.
I would much rather show up to other people as a kind of videoscreen on a tomato slice than as some crude animated caricature of myself. And I’d also like to know who it is I’m talking with — really — rather than taking my chances on some wacko pretending to be a CEO or what have you.
It’s vitally important to get certain things right when an enterprise is small and starting out, and doesn’t yet have a ton of legacy issues to deal with. In principle, I suppose, we could redesign the Internet so that everybody on it could be tracked down instantly. But such a redesign is a practical impossibility, now that the huge infrastructure is in place that allows anonymity at such a large scale.
I wish the developers of Nowhere well, and hope that their good ideas about beauty, if not their actual platform, will positively influence whatever the metaverse becomes for most people most of the time. Beauty is one of the three transcendentals, the other two being truth and goodness. Anyone who ignores it in making something that could be beautiful is going against the design of the universe, and will face the consequences.