The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Welcome to the metaverse, where the art is virtual but the headache is real

Hrishi Rajasekar takes a screen image of Tamer Rasamny while viewing augmented reality artwork at Verse, an immersive NFT exhibit at the San Francisco Mint on Feb. 10. (Marlena Sloss for The Washington Post)
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SAN FRANCISCO — “Are we in the metaverse right now?” I ask the man in line behind me. We’ve been waiting about 30 minutes to be outfitted with holographic glasses that will make 3D digital images appear in rooms that, to the naked eye, look empty.

Once we have on our glasses, a whimsical forest with falling origami-shaped leaves appears in one room, the skull of Abraham Lincoln in another. A horse neighs down the hall. As we wait, a child twirls around a virtual ballerina as his parent cautions him to look out for the flesh-and-blood humans.

We’re at Verse, an art exhibit where nothing is nailed to the walls and visitors can walk right through the digital images before them. It’s held at the Mint, a stately building in downtown San Francisco. In the 1870s, the Mint was said to have housed nearly one-third of the nation’s wealth. The vaults that once held gold are now bare, and the brick-walled space is a backdrop for weddings, haunted houses and tonight’s display of non-fungible tokens, or NFTs.

Peter, who’s waiting patiently in line behind me, says that yes, we’re in a version of the metaverse. He declines to use his full name because he works at Meta, the company formerly known as Facebook, which is working hard to convince the world that this next version of the Internet will be awesome.

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The term metaverse was coined 30 years ago by novelist Neal Stephenson, who imagined a science fictional universe where avatars inhabit a virtual world similar to our physical one. Peter’s boss, Meta co-founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg, calls the metaverse “an embodied Internet where you’re in an experience, not just looking at it.” Like walking through an exhibit of 3D art, going to virtual concerts or conferences.

In the metaverse, paper money is replaced by cryptocurrency, which you need to buy the art dancing before your eyes at the Mint. Each NFT costs between $25 and $250,000, though they’re priced in various cryptocurrencies.

The NFT craze has already ensnared Melania Trump (she is selling 10,000 NFTs for $50 each to celebrate moments during her husband’s presidency), Paris Hilton and the descendants of Pablo Picasso (who created a digital spinoff of the Spanish artist’s work). An NFT of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden sold for more than $5 million last year.

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But wandering through the Mint, Sari Stenfors is skeptical.

Everyone is talking about the metaverse, Stenfors said, “but not so many people are actually visiting it.” A self-described “futurist” from Berkeley, Calif., she stands in front of a television screen that projects fiery wings off her back. Stenfors thinks she resembles a heavenly creature or something from hell — she’s not sure which. “I keep feeling like I’m at Burning Man, but I want to touch and interact more,” Stenfors said. “Touch is needed. I’m sure it’s going to come. Smells. We’re going to get it all.”

Later she straps on a HoloLens2 — a bulky $3,500 pair of glasses from Microsoft — and tries not to bump into anyone. Being transported to another world is uncomfortable. For my maiden voyage, the HoloLens is screwed on too tight and leaves a mark on my forehead that’s visible hours later.

Before a Verse attendant sends me to explore on my own, she asks whether I can see the ballerina pirouetting down the hallway. When I reach my hand out in front of me, its shape is rendered in multicolored polygons, twisting as I turn my hand this way and that. Instead of a traditional art exhibit with plaques on the walls, at Verse, attendees point the cursor in their HoloLens toward a square icon to reveal who made the NFT, its price and a little about the artist’s intention in creating it. This is about commerce, after all.

Sure, it’s cool to be immersed in a forest or walk past glowing lotus flowers, but navigating it is difficult. The glasses call for precise movements, and most Verse attendees are still learning. I aim my HoloLens at a specific icon, and if I move my head just a smidge, the display vanishes. There’s so much to absorb that it’s easy to forget to blink or feel nauseated.

A banner in LED lights beckons attendees to ponder “What Is Real?” as they wander from one hologram to the next, potentially missing a huge artifact in plain sight: A stamp mill from the late 1800s, used to pulverize quartz so that gold could be extracted. Advanced technology for its time that’s now obsolete. At one point, I reach out and touch an empty brick wall to remind myself that the physical world exists not just as a container or a backdrop. Tiny grains of brick dust fall to the floor.

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Wandering through Verse reminds me of the thrill and disorientation that came with the early days of smartphones. Accessing email while out and about instead of seated at a desktop at home, looking up maps while en route from point A to point B, sharing pictures of your lunch on social media before you’d taken a single bite, or Googling facts about an old building as you were sitting on its steps. That was the information overload circa 2007.

The newer version on display at the Mint is even more dizzying. It’s like having a million tabs open in your brain and walking right through them splayed out in front of you.

Learning to use a HoloLens is akin to learning to use a mouse and cursor for the first time, explained Ray Kallmeyer, the start-up founder behind Verse. “We find usually, after 30 to 60 minutes, that people are pretty solid with it,” Kallmeyer said.

“Hop off, because I think you being on my shoulders is messing with my vision,” 32-year-old Aaron Jones said to his daughter, Kaelyn, 6. He gently deposits her on the ground, where she spins alongside the ballerina and paws at the other creatures surrounding her. The dragon is Kaelyn’s favorite; “I think it’s majestic,” she said, before telling the creature to “get out of my face!”

Jones and Kaelyn have played around with virtual reality before, he said, but before they set foot in the Mint, Jones introduced a new concept: art. “I was trying to explain to her that art can be money and can be traded,” Jones recalled.

Summer Lindman, a 32-year-old marketer in San Francisco, showed up at Verse armed with the cryptocurrency Ethereum she bought about six years ago, when it was $11 a coin. (It was hovering around $2,500 early this week.) She had never seen an NFT in the real world and was curious. One artist’s work caught her eye — “that looks like real art,” she said of an animated illustration of a reclining woman taking a selfie. But she wasn’t convinced.

“In covid, we’ve constantly been on screens, and I’m craving more of a physical experience,” Lindman said. Though her journey through the metaverse did involve leaving the house, she still felt disconnected from those around her. “Would I want to go to a gallery to see a bunch of NFTs in the future?” Lindman asked herself. She’s not so sure.

Xiaochen Yang, a 32-year-old San Franciscan who works in art and design, has traveled to the metaverse before, when the HoloLens was in a rudimentary state. Though the technology has evolved, and her walk through Verse is “pretty vivid,” she still feels like she’s wearing a shield and heading off to battle. People go to galleries for people-to-people interactions, Yang noted, and wearing heavy glasses adds “an additional layer of friction between humans and the art.”

“As an artist, I’m not convinced this is the route,” Yang said. “Most people thriving in this community, they’re investors, not artists.”

Are the images on display at Verse art, money or both? Kallmeyer freely admits that some NFTs — like the Bored Ape Yacht Club’s primate illustrations, two of which are on display at Verse — are not aesthetically pleasing. “I don’t think anyone is looking to put a Bored Ape in their bedroom,” Kallmeyer said. Owning a Bored Ape NFT, which can set you back $235,000 to $2.8 million, is more about the status that comes with it (like being part of a virtual country club, Kallmeyer said) than the visual appeal. Kallmeyer likens the popular BAYC to the Dutch tulip mania of the 1630s. Eventually the bubble will burst.

The NFT enthusiast at the Mint will essentially be taking home the rights to a one-of-a-kind piece of digital art. Verse has sold almost $40,000 in NFTs since opening in early February, Kallmeyer said, with 300 of the exhibit’s buyers making their first NFT purchase. Since each piece is unique, it can be bought and sold like a collectible.

For some potential buyers, the fact that NFTs can only be displayed digitally (on a phone, on the Web or viewed through a virtual-reality device) causes them to pause. “I don’t know if I’d want this,” said Jorelle Jones, 40, “it’s not the same as my art on the wall.” Jones likens his night in the metaverse to the experience of playing Atari as a child in the 1980s versus what it’s like to play video games now. He’s waiting for the technology to advance. “It’s cool now,” Jones said, “but it’ll be cooler in 50 years.”

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Kallmeyer sees the metaverse as the evolution of the Internet. And yes, he created an NFT, called “Nature,” to depict that progression: A chrome-colored man, hunched over and lumbering on all fours like a primate. He considers the work, which sells for 1.5 Ethereum or around $4,000, as a comment on humanity’s role on Earth. “Are we part of nature or separate?” Kallmeyer asked. “If a human makes a building, a hologram or the Internet, are those part of nature too? I would say yes. Most of our lives are enabled by the parts of us that are in the cloud.”

Stenfors, the futurist, would like to see the metaverse used to facilitate more personal connection. Maybe her activity tracker would notify friends that she’d only had five hours of sleep, so they’d know why she’s cranky while sitting down to coffee together, without her having to say so. “We could share a lot more than in real life,” Stenfors said.

But do we want to render the question “How are you?” obsolete?

Being in this altered state is taxing, even for digital natives like 6-year-old Kaelyn. Before her 30 minutes with the HoloLens is up, Kaelyn pronounces herself done. “I have a bigggg headache,” she said.

Her dad removes her glasses. For the young girl, the dragons and ballerinas are out of sight, though still spinning, breathing and up for sale for those of us wandering through the metaverse with cryptocurrency to burn.