Exploring New Kinds of Spatiality

Throughout the course of our lives, we project who we are in various different ways — from our taste in music, movies, fashion, video games, personal possessions and of course, the spaces in which we inhabit. Our personal environments — whether they’re our studio flats, our dorm rooms or our penthouse mansions — play a part in defining our everyday identities. Even the smallest details, artefacts or shreds of information can say a lot about who we are at a particular point in time. Research has even suggested that details as minuscule as our email addresses or our online usernames can reflect some of our personality traits.

In the last 6 months, I’ve had an interesting relationship with spaces. After making the decision to move overseas at the tail end of a global pandemic, I left my long-time apartment in the Trinity Bellwoods neighbourhood of Toronto, Canada and ventured across the pond to London for a new adventure. 

Others who have taken a similar path will know that moving internationally means paring down which items you can bring with you (unless you’re willing to pay exorbitant luggage fees). Several years’ worth of collected art, posters, figurines, gaming consoles, electronics and furniture items were forced into storage and left behind. Now, with only two suitcases full of essentials and small allowances, my new space in London feels a tad barren and, well… not quite like mine just yet.

By contrast, decorating virtual spaces inside metaverse platforms such as Spatial, Rec Room and Decentraland has been a new, fun take on the art of space-building — all while defying the limits (and costs) of physical parameters. This mini-experience has also brought a good question to light: will we one day attach our custom environments in the metaverse to our personal identities? Better yet, will our personal spaces be akin to what we currently know as our online profiles, taking the place of things like custom cover photos or layouts?

All answers are already pointing towards ‘yes’ — but first, let’s review some ins and outs of personalising an online space in the metaverse, what that currently looks like and which processes are needed for users to establish ownership of said spaces and the assets that can be featured within them. Also, let me place a disclaimer here: I’m by all means no digital architect, but this was still a fun experiment.

Building custom rooms in Spatial

As part of our quest for a better meeting alternative to Horizon Workrooms, I started using Spatial with two of my colleagues. For the most part, it’s been a success so far — we’ve explored ways to import images and PDFs of our company branding, collaboratively write on shared boards or sticky notes and seamlessly communicate through the built-in party chat feature.

We were also able to bring more 3D images into the space using Spatial’s ‘search’ feature, located on the main menu at the bottom of the screen. Spatial boasts a decent repository of 3D models — ranging from cute cats to Master Swords to blocky renderings of Final Fantasy VII’s much-loved protagonist.

One day, after one of our virtual meetings, I perused the various space-building options that appeared on the app’s start-up screen. The first space I decided to explore was the one that Spatial had titled “Coral’s Home”. Here, I was able to decorate my own custom room (which effectively looked like a cubicle surrounded by a proto-version of Lake Hylia) with any of the built-in models and featured items. 

Better yet, I was even able to connect to Spatial using my crypto wallet and import my NFTs into the space. All it took was a few clicks and before I knew it, one of my digital assets appeared — framed and all — as if it were mounted onto my space’s wall. Given that these are early days in Web3, I felt like this was a perfect and seamless example of the interoperability we want and need to see in future applications.

Little Frens NFT

However, as a shameless lover of hygge and IKEA catalogues, I eventually decided to build a new space using the “Mountain Lodge” template. I was able to upload images of some of my most-loved pieces of artwork — including works from sci-fi legend Syd Mead, East London duo Gilbert and George and one of my all-time favourites, The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch. Image size wasn’t an issue, either — I enlarged the triptych so that it was perfectly centred and gracefully overlooking my virtual abode.

I was also able to upload transparent 2D images into my space, as well as 3D renders I was able to source. I experimented with setting a giant Gunpla model up in my space — because, why not? One of our goals is to defy physical odds in the metaverse — and these are all things I’ll never be able to cross the Atlantic with.

In all, it felt like the experience I was offered in Spatial was reasonably customisable and fun. I especially enjoyed the option to upload my own images through the platform — whether that was JPEGs, 3D models or my NFTs.

Dorm-decking in Rec Room

Alongside my colleagues, I’ve also recently dipped my toes into the popular multiplayer VR platform Rec Room. At a first glance, Rec Room looked a bit like Spatial for kids (unlike the creepy facial recognition tool used to build avatars in Spatial, my Rec Room avatar is a cute, smiley figure that’s currently sporting a green and red superhero garb). 

But as far as experiences go, Rec Room is fantastic — with an incredible marketplace and creator’s ecosystem at its helm. It’s also well-supported — at the end of 2021, the platform closed a funding round of $145 million USD and is currently valued at a total of $3.5 billion.

Like Roblox, Minecraft and other world-building games, there are hundreds of games available for players to join and play collaboratively. However, what I mainly focused on this time around was the space-building function inside my dedicated “dorm room” — the in-game personal space that each user is granted as a virtual landing pad.

The default Dorm Room setting in Rec Room.

Users have the option to customise their dorm room, both with in-game skins and items that have been provided by other creators. All creator-supplied inventory is branded as an ‘invention’ — and as far as I’ve learned, all of it can be crafted within the game using the special Maker Pen tool. In all, various different props, materials, shapes and substances can be produced by the Maker Pen.

I’m not quite an expert in Rec Room content creation yet, so I instead opted to pick from items that were already supplied by other ‘inventors’. I didn’t want to be limited in my selection, however, so I purchased a small batch of in-game tokens and flicked through a list of dorm skins. When I landed upon the Zelda-themed dorm skin, my choice was pretty clear.

Once I was in my Zelda-themed pad, I decided to visit the ‘Store’ section in the main menu and see how I could deck out my space with some additional gear. To my delight, there were loads of other Zelda-themed items — far more than Spatial had to offer. Other Rec Room users had produced a surplus of different swords, floating fairies, posters bearing memorable quotes and other supplies.

But, my favourite function? Without question, it was the ability to not just add custom items, but also to ‘spawn’ a custom song and attach it to my space. Those (like myself) who are old enough to have experienced the MySpace era will especially appreciate this option.

Users should be mindful that despite its multi-functionality and free-to-play approach, Rec Room isn’t yet the most robust of systems. Each ‘invention’ contains a certain amount of ‘ink’ (this can be equated to its file size), which is basically synonymous with in-game bandwidth. Should too many inventions be added into one space, the system can start to lag and even crash at times. There were at least a couple of times when I had to restart the system and re-render my items.

Also, whether Rec Room will adopt Web3 technology is still yet to be seen. Currently, the game’s model enables creators to subscribe to the Rec Room Plus plan — a monthly paid membership program that enables players to earn in-game currency for selling their creations. Subscribers can cash out in-game tokens for real currency, based on a rate determined by Rec Room‘s mechanics.

Trying Decentraland’s Builder tool

Lastly, I wouldn’t be fully embracing space-building in the metaverse if I didn’t try out one of the most popular Web3 applications — Decentraland. I’d been wanting to try Decentraland’s Builder tool for some time, so I decided to see what I could explore on the growing platform.

For those who aren’t familiar, Decentraland allows users to create scenes that can be placed within virtual land parcels purchased on the Ethereum blockchain (which grants them proof of ownership). While owning virtual land isn’t required to visit or use Decentraland, it is required for users to invest, build and publish spaces on the platform so that they’re available for others to visit. Each land parcel in Decentraland is an NFT — which means that just like physical land, it is unique and cannot be forged or duplicated.

While logged into Decentraland using my crypto wallet, I ventured over to the Builder tool and began creating a scene with a small area, to start. While I wasn’t able to purchase a land parcel for my space this time around, I still decided to have some fun with the tool.

Once inside the Builder tool, users can select from a range of in-app asset packs that are categorised under different themes — such as sci-fi, fantasy, Halloween, cyberpunk and Chinese New Year. I mainly chose items from the cyberpunk pack, piecing together a small space with a glass floor, some graffitied walls and neon lights.

What I really wanted to see was how easy it would be to bring my own collectables into my space. Like Spatial‘s mechanics, it was quite simple — since I was already connected via my wallet, I had no issues with importing my NFTs into my creation. I simply had to scroll down to the bottom of the provided menu, select the ‘Collectibles’ option and voila — my NFTs were already selectable as assets.

Loner Girl NFT

It would be nice to see the building process in Decentraland be a little more streamlined (I give more points to Spatial here). In my experience, it was a tad tricky placing objects on top of other objects or situating signs and posters so that they looked a little more lifelike (for example, it took me multiple attempts to place a lamp on top of a tabletop before finally giving up). However, after seeing a spike in visitors after the highly popular Metaverse Fashion Week, I’m hopeful that we will see Decentraland’s Builder tool become more refined and easily accessible.

What will our spaces become in Web3?

In the last 15 years, we’ve created social identities through not just our physical spaces, but also our online profiles. MySpace, for instance, was a great example of early space-building — users were able to craft personalised profiles using custom HTML, an embedded music player, the liberty for layout overhauls and much more. Facebook may have introduced a more ubiquitous experience for non-tech savvy users, but it has still continued to provide options for personal flair. Functions like the cover photo and personal fields have remained ways for us to express ourselves through creative imagery and other identifiable information.

It’s exciting to imagine that in Web3, we will be able to bridge the concepts of both the physical and digital to create and further personalise our online hubs. Like in the ‘real world’, there will be several ways where we’ll be able to modify our spaces to support our thoughts and feelings — from adjusting the lighting, colours, items, patterns, sounds and functions within them.

As far as our current, Web2 online profiles go, however, these experiences have been limited — and this isn’t just due to their dimensions. When it comes to our profiles on platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, we don’t own the spaces we customise — and we also lose full ownership of what we upload. Web3 technology, on the other hand, presents an opportunity for us to deck out our profiles with assets that are actually ours — bringing a whole new understanding to the concept of space-building and online identities.