By Christina Flores-Chan and Matthew Davison
Long before the metaverse became a common term, Michael Bergmann, an assistant professor at Toronto Metropolitan University’s (TMU) School of Performance and director of research at the Technological Research in Performance Lab had been incorporating it into not only his own storytelling, but also in his teaching.
Throughout the university’s time online during the pandemic, Bergmann said he took the opportunity to explore other mediums of performance besides the program’s usual in-person theatrical shows. He began using virtual reality (VR), a computer-generated experience that immerses users into a simulated environment with a headset, as a virtual stage for his students.
“Taking aspects of scenic design, lighting design and sound design, we’re basically creating that environment originally in VR, then we’re having the actors come into it,” Bergmann said.
For certain projects, actors would perform live using their own headsets and the audience would join in through VR. “The fun aspect of it is you can do things in VR and in the metaverse that you can’t do in real life. So all of a sudden, we can jump between floors, you know?” said Bergmann.
“The actors can change the entire scene and now we’re in a completely different environment. It takes a lot of the magical aspects of theatre and performance and gives us another tool to really make that immersive.”
To some students, the term metaverse may be a foreign concept—a word associated with the neon green coding language from The Matrix or reminiscent of a dystopian future where society exists only online. For others, the word might just have as much significance as the newest name of the technology company Meta, formerly known as Facebook. And as it happens, none of those guesses would be very far off.
“You can do things in VR and in the metaverse that you can’t do in real life”
The “metaverse,” according to Forbes, is an umbrella term for the virtual, online worlds that are accessible through three-dimensional, immersive technologies such as artificial intelligence, VR and augmented reality. Different applications of the metaverse work to simulate and enhance the physical reality in which society currently exists.
For instance, while Bergmann’s virtual stage helped students to maximize their education in the physical world throughout online learning, other spaces aim to simply provide users with a digital alternative to the analog one.
These digital spaces are made possible through blockchain technology, which is defined by the International Business Machines Corporation (IBM) as a decentralized database that collects, records and tracks all digital assets and transactions, like the trading of non-fungible tokens (NFTs), that exist across a network.
“If we’re not engaging with the metaverse at this point, then we’re behind”
Through the trading of NFTs, virtual real estate and cryptocurrency, metaverse users can spend and earn capital in the digital space. Brands like Gucci and Nike have already released fashion designs made specifically for digital avatars, while the National Football League partnered with Ticketmaster earlier this year to offer NFT tickets in celebration of the 2022 Super Bowl.
And these spaces are projected to keep growing. A September report by GlobalData valued the metaverse market size at $22.79 billion USD (or $31.1 billion CAD) in 2021 and it is estimated to balloon to $996.42 billion by 2030.
According to another article in Forbes, the metaverse’s eventual goal is to create “an individualized experience for the user,” allowing participants to travel and experience destinations around the world through VR and a headset or communicate with other users in ways that mimic real-life interaction.
For Bergmann, one of the only setbacks of using advanced technology for performance was the challenge of making VR headsets accessible to members of the audience. He thinks, however, that in a few years time, metaverse technology will become more common.
“It’s still kind of a niche market because of the hardware requirements. As soon as the hardware becomes ubiquitous, that’s going to open the floodgates for people creating for this space and for the people engaging with that,” Bergmann said.
He said so far, his students have been excited about the possibilities of performance in the metaverse, especially within education. “If we’re not engaging with the metaverse at this point, then we’re behind.”
Fourth-year marketing management student Sabrina Padilla said she has noticed her Ted Rogers School of Management (TRSM) classmates taking an interest in the metaverse as well.
“[The metaverse] is a big area of interest for student innovators, especially within the business, finance and tech realms,” Padilla said. “Although I can’t guarantee that it will be successful, it has a lot of potential for growth.”
“Right now, it feels like a spruced-up Poptropica or Club Penguin”
Padilla recalls analyzing furniture brand Ikea’s AI interactive design experience, IKEA Kreativ, in class. The program allows users to visualize what specific products would look like in their own homes by using their phone’s back camera to place furniture virtually in a space.
“When you get the app, you can see the products and visualize it as if it was right in front of you. It creates a more dynamic environment for people,” Padilla said.
Once developed, digitally-focused companies hope the metaverse will become a resource for shopping for both digital and physical products, plus being used for services like education and doctor’s appointments, according to Reader’s Digest.
At the moment though, the virtual space is mostly used for gaming, an activity in which students participate at their leisure. Ben Chandler, a fourth-year sport media student and the captain of TMU’s National Hockey League esports team, believes that gaming in the metaverse still has room for improvement.
“There are definitely some cool parts, but as far as the practicality of competitive gaming goes, being in VR [and] being in the metaverse doesn’t add much to the experience,” Chandler said.
A poll conducted by Globant, a tech company that helps businesses move into the digital sphere, found that 52 per cent of gamers in the United States believe that the metaverse will change the landscape of the industry and 41 per cent believe that it will have a positive impact.
Chandler added that because it’s still so new, most gaming in the metaverse is similar to existing in a virtual meeting room, like Zoom, rather than the immersive experience that video games provide. “Right now, it feels like a spruced-up Poptropica or Club Penguin.”
“You never know how integral it could be [to] the way we live 15 years from now”
One of the main ways gaming is changing is through the continued development of NFTs. According to digital business consulting firm EY, items within games that are purchased or earned, such as weapons or skins, are turning into NFTs. This allows gamers to acquire, create, develop and sell virtual properties.
Chandler said that while he would not invest in NFTs at present, he believes this aspect of the virtual world could explode as gaming within the metaverse continues to grow.
Padilla shared the same opinion as her fellow student on the potential of the metaverse, in all its industries and purposes.
She compared the ever-growing digital sphere to the internet in the 90s:, a new technology that had not yet been explored but would soon be transformational to human life and interaction around the world.
“The one constant about our world is that it’s changing,” she said. “And people should be open to learning more about the metaverse,” Padilla said.
“You never know how integral it could be [to] the way we live 15 years from now.”