greater spaces

The Meaningful Metaverse

I recently attended AWE - the Augmented World Expo, in Lisbon. Hundreds of people, eagerly jumping into The Metaverse with their various inventions, everything from smart glasses, to haptic gloves, to full body VR immersion were there to meet, greet, try and build together. What is it about the metaverse, about virtual, augmented and mixed reality that has people so excited? Is it the sci-fi futures we've all been promised by popular culture? Or is it something else? Something deeper, something about our identity and evolution as human beings into our next phase of existence?

Illustration: Vanessa Julia Carpenter

My research has centred around Designing for Meaningfulness in Future Technologies - emphasized as this is the title of my PhD dissertation, where I worked with companies at FORCE Technology to explore the concept of Designing for Meaningfulness in hardware. Here, I introduced concepts such as identity, purpose, short (hedonic) and long (eudaemonic) goals, a sense of significance, ah-ha moments and critical thinking, as key drivers for technology development. I argued that if we, as technology developers and designers, consider these parameters, then maybe the technologies we're building can move beyond just being convenient, quirky or something that is shelved after six months of use, to something that helps people develop and even evolve as human beings. And to that end, I created a series of prototypes with companies which exemplified these aspects. Read more about this here.

Illustration: Vanessa Julia Carpenter

I reflected on Designing for Meaningfulness after attending AWE. Of course there are specific applications in VR and AR which are asking us to reflect or to grow as people through meditation or empathy (a favourite of mine is Traveling While Black by Felix & Paul Studios), but the overall obsession and excitement for spatial computing has me wondering about how we might explore this opportunity to dive deeply into our identities and purpose using XR.

I framed Designing for Meaningfulness in three ways, as people-to-people connections, as a person-to-their-sense-of-self and as a person-to-time.

Illustration: Vanessa Julia Carpenter

These three aspects can be combined in a multitude of ways:

  • There can be people-to-people connection which causes a person to look into their relationships

  • There can be a person’s sense of self reflection and growth which causes them to look to who they have been and who they want to be

  • There can be a people-to-people connection which asks people who they want to become together.

All of these involve critical thinking, reflecting and acting on some level. I believe that technology can help facilitate these types of personal development - beyond just a Tinder match, or the classic Interaction Design 101 project of wearing an LED that blinks green when you’re single and red when you’re taken. It often comes back to romantic relationships when people are first trying to think about their relationships to people, so let’s continue on that line of thought:

One of the sessions I attended at AWE was perhaps unsurprisingly, the most popular - “Senses and Sensibility: Sex and Love in the Metaverse”. Here, speakers introduced the concept of dating in the metaverse, and Cam Mullen from https://www.nevermet.io/ explained about how users need to manage their expectations of the first physical meet up after a time of dating in the metaverse. This got me thinking about Designing for Meaningfulness, and this sense of identity: Who am I? Who have I been, Who do I want to be? Or what one’s values and priorities are? And how we portray these in the metaverse versus when we meet physically. Do we behave like our avatars? Do we still uphold the self we presented in the metaverse? Are we that self, or do we want to become that self?

Illustration: Vanessa Julia Carpenter

In this session, I asked a question of Francesca Rosella from CuteCircuit - I’m a huge fan of CuteCircuit and have been since the days of GeekPhysical when I also aspired to make projects like the ubiquitous Hug Shirt that CuteCircuit quickly became known for. I asked - what about touch? And Francesca replied immediately: “The only sense that makes you feel like you exist is touch.” and I couldn’t agree more, but then again, I’m from an older generation and a different group of people. And of course, there are applications for touch in the metaverse, like the HaptX haptic touch gloves.

Illustration: Vanessa Julia Carpenter

I love the physical world, and have fought against the idea of a person sitting in a VR headset for years until I started working for Gagarin and was immediately convinced of the usefulness of VR as an incredibly useful tool for climate change education, with our product, Astrid because it facilities debate, discussion and connection, and my mind changed about how VR could exist. So I’m beginning to understand, that as The Copenhagen Institute for Future Studies (CIFS) recently wrote in their Metaverse whitepaperWhile older generations will have a hard time grasping this, younger generations already view virtual interactions, skins, and digital assets as being just as ’real’ as their physical counterpart and having equal or often higher value than physical clothes and objects.”

Illustration: Gagarin

Herein lies the Designing for Meaningfulness aspects that intrigue me endlessly - how can technology act as a catalyst for exploring essential aspects of oneself and your relationship to yourself, others and time? How can technology facilitate ah-ha moments - like when a person explores an avatar in VR and suddenly finds that they are in fact, intrigued by the ability to explore things like gender fluidity, sexuality, their values, priorities, and what is significant to them in and out of the metaverse? And importantly, at least for me, how does this translate into ‘the real world’? Or does the Metaverse, as explained by CIFS, become more real for people than the world we (currently) breathe in and physically touch? Is it phenomenology we should look forward in the metaverse, and try to recreate sensations and interpretations of lived experience?

Illustration: Photo by Billetto Editorial from Unsplash

Finally, maybe the meaningful metaverse is about giving people a reason to engage with the metaverse rather than just replacing real world experiences. We can provide them with the opportunity to develop personally, to find meaningfulness in their lives, whether that is in a virtual or physical world.


Vanessa has a PhD in Designing for Meaningfulness in Future Technologies from Aalborg, University. She currently works at www.gagarin.is and is interested in how the Metaverse can give us an opportunity to explore personal development and a meaningful life. Connect with Vanessa at LinkedIn or on her personal site, www.vanessacarpenter.com

Majken Overgaard er programleder ved Catch (www.catch.dk), som er et center for kunstdesign og teknologi. Ud over sit fuldtidsarbejde har hun været medstifter af to firmaer siden 2011 og har fokuseret på feministisk aktivisme inden for kunst og teknologi. Vanessa Julia Carpenter har en ph.d. i Designing for Meaningfulness in Future Smart Products fra AAU. I sit firma, Kintsugi Design, udvikler hun design- og teknologiløsninger med et meningfuldt perspektiv for at fokusere på vores mål i livet. Hun har for nylig taget initiativ til det nordiske netværk Women in Hardware (www.womeninhardware.dk).
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