Home in the Metaverse

Lydia Jessup

Rendering by the author of the living room of her grandfather’s house.

I still remember the moment four years ago when Meta (then Facebook) released their Horizon Worlds virtual reality app. As I watched the YouTube trailer, something caught my eye. My hand jumped forward to press the spacebar, the emergency brake of video viewing these days. I scrubbed back in the timeline until I found the frame that had piqued my interest. In one of the introductory frames stood a woman wearing a virtual reality (VR) headset in her kitchen, with a man looking back at her from the sink.

Horizon YouTube Ad, 2019

“Wait a second…”, I mumbled to myself, and started to click through files on my computer until I found a paper that a friend had recently shared, titled, “Domesticity, Gender and the 1977 Apple II Personal Computer”. I opened the PDF and scrolled down until I found the image I was looking for: an Apple II computer advertisement from 1977. I resized the windows so that I could see the magazine ad next to the paused YouTube video. “Wow,” I said, transfixed by the almost mirror images on my screen.

Apple II Magazine Ad, 1977

In both of these ads, a blonde white woman who looks to be in her thirties is centered in the frame, guiding our eye towards the new technology. In the first, the woman is the onlooker; she gazes back from the sink approvingly at the brunette man who is using the computer at the kitchen table. In the modern version, the gender roles are reversed, but the scene is eerily similar.

Seeing these ads together felt revelatory to me, yet at the same time I couldn’t put my finger on what I was reacting to. Whether the Horizon ad was an intentional reference to the Apple ad or not, the juxtaposition opened up a question I couldn’t get out of my head: What does this repetitive imagery of domesticity and computing mean for our future in the metaverse?

What does this repetitive imagery of domesticity and computing mean for our future in the metaverse?

As someone who works with mixed reality, I think about its future a lot, which often looks more like studying the past. After all, who in 1977 could have predicted that we would carry mini computers around—made by that same company that developed the Apple II—in our pockets? Does this mean that we are on a parallel path with VR?

For any emerging technology, it is incredibly hard to notice, decipher, explain and then analyze trends in real-time. Seeing the Horizon ad alongside the Apple ad helped me see patterns and trends happening today. I began to understand that this is a moment in which we are being reintroduced to computing—which is necessary, because the metaverse is an intimate technology.

The Kitchen: Where it Begins

Let’s take a closer look at this ad together to see what I mean. First, if we remove the people and technology from the advertisement, we can more easily focus on the environment.

Now, we can see the kitchen more clearly: it is neither clean nor messy; the cabinet colors and lighting are neutral; memories of family and friends hang on the wall. In their 1977 ad, Apple seemed to claim that, “This is a technology meant for the home, just like the blender in the background!”, and the modern Horizon ad is saying something similar with its unremarkable setting: “Look how normal VR in your kitchen can be!”

Adding the people back into the frame and turning our attention to the focal point, we can learn even more. The VR headset almost completely obscures the woman’s face and she holds a controller in each hand. Despite the large size of the headset, she looks comfortable and at home in her space, as indicated by her relaxed clothing, loose hair and shoeless feet.

It’s important to pause on this imagery because it is telling us how we are expected to interact with the new technology. An essential but infrequently discussed step in the transition from the 2D Internet, as we know it, to the 3D metaverse is the introduction of new hardware—not just into the consumer market, but into our homes and onto our bodies. To access this new form of the Internet, we will need to buy and rely on devices that most of us don’t yet know how to use, and that our bodies aren’t accustomed to.

To access this new form of the Internet, we will need to buy and rely on devices that most of us don’t yet know how to use, and that our bodies aren’t accustomed to.

A laptop or phone doesn’t need to be advertised this formally because it is already part of our daily lives. The metaverse, however, still feels separate, so this kind of introduction was necessary in 2019. As computing begins to involve more of our body, an already intimate technology will only become moreso. How will our relationship with computing change when we start wearing this technology on our faces?

Advertisements for the Meta Quest have since shown it in a variety of settings ranging from an architecture firm to a music recording studio.

Click footnote link to close.

The Living Room: The Room Where it All Happens

The next question that comes up as we look at this ad is: What is the woman looking at? To answer, we will need to step inside the headset for a bit. And, as we’ll see, we find domestic imagery there as well.

The first time I logged onto a VR headset, I found myself in the living room of a house with a huge balcony and windows overlooking a valley below. At the time, I was living in a tiny apartment in New York City. I didn’t feel “at home” in the headset at all. I began to wonder why this home had been chosen for me to experience; as a designer, I know that all decisions are intentional. I knew that the operating system was trying to communicate something to me, but I wasn’t sure what that was. Was I supposed to feel relaxed, excited, in awe, or a sense of familiarity?

This virtual living room is actually more than just a living room. It is the result of a design challenge that comes with going from 2D to 3D: what should the “desktop” of the metaverse be? Journalist Kashmir Hill has described the Oculus living room as a “lobby”. This is telling, because there isn’t much to do there; the living room exists mostly to take you to other places, meaning that it doesn’t function as the thing it appears to be. It is a metaphor. And like the Horizon ad, this living room metaphor isn’t new (although it is a surprising comeback).

In 1995, Microsoft released an operating system called “Microsoft Bob” that was styled like a home interior and targeted towards new users. The design used the conceptual model of a house to navigate the computer’s files and software applications. On top of this, the user was guided by talking animals to complete tasks they might be interested in, such as clicking on papers on the desk to open a word processor (the animal part sounds odd at first, but makes more sense when you remember Clippy or think of Siri or Alexa today).

Microsoft Bob was designed to be a “social” interface, informed by research from Stanford professors Clifford Nass and Byronn Reeves on how people interact with, think about and learn from computers.

Click footnote link to close.

Most analyses of Microsoft Bob focus on the animal guides, but I’m more interested in the metaphor of a computer as a home. My guess is that the designers hoped that a living room would help new users feel more comfortable and therefore get started faster, rather than struggling to learn the terms associated with a then-unfamiliar concept of a “desktop”. Microsoft Bob did not take off, however; it was discontinued a year later, and today we still access our computers through desktops. But now, over 20 years later, as companies need to introduce the public to a new type of computing, the digital living room is back.

Oculus Home, 2021
Microsoft Bob, 1995

Was Microsoft Bob ahead of its time? Or was the home a computing metaphor that consumers don’t want or need? It’s impossible to know, but it clearly shows how computing concepts and metaphors are being recycled because we haven’t broken out of our defaults. When I first found myself in a VR living room, I felt let down. I had expected something other-worldy and futuristic. But then I realized that familiarity is the point. Living rooms are comfortable, safe and friendly, and blend into everyday life. Our physical living rooms are all-purpose, flexible spaces too: they are where we host parties, read books, play with kids, watch TV, listen to music, and much more. And they have now become the multi-purpose desktop of spatial computing.

The living room is not the metaverse I imagined, but maybe that’s okay for this first step we are collectively taking into VR. This living room launch-point could be computing’s chance to move past the work-centric desktop. I hope that we move even farther than the living room. I find it exciting to think about what could be possible if we push past default computing metaphors. What, if anything, is beyond the living room?

The Bedroom: Where We Can Expand the Definition of Our Virtual Home

To me, seeing this repetitive home imagery means that we all need to actively take a role in imagining the future of our virtual domestic spaces. Someone else is already doing it for us, so why can’t we? If we took this trend seriously and thought about the metaverse as a home, how would that framing change how we approach these new virtual spaces?

I love the work of two artists in particular who tackle this topic in their autobiographical work: Jackie Liu (@jackieis.online) and Amy Wibowo (@sailorhg), who grew up in the 1990s and early 2000s. In “Jackie’s OS”, Liu creates the desktop computer experience she wishes her childhood self could have had: one that values emotions, agency, and self acceptance. It is tender and dreamy. Wibowo’s zine “Home Sweet Homepage” describes the role that making personal websites ranging from classical music fan pages to tamagotchi guides played in her own self discovery and growth. This longing for safe and genuine self expression on the internet strikes a chord with me.

Home Sweet Homepage by Amy Wibowo
Jackie’s OS by Jackie Liu

We see through these artists’ work that the internet was a medium they could use to explore a question that is central for all of us: “Who am I?” This is the same question that researchers at The University of Wales found at the core of personal web pages (or “homepages”) that started popping up in the late 1990s. The study argues that the nearest IRL comparison to a teenager’s personal homepage was their bedroom, another multi-media space (think posters and music) where they could play with identity.

Both then and today we use the internet—whether it is 2D or 3D—to explore, grapple with, and delight in questions of self-expression. I worry, though, that many mainstream metaverse spaces—either because of high price tags, or creator guide rails imposed by companies—are too easily being stripped of true personal exploration. As Trevor McFedries argues, “In really simple terms, a better web would be one that allows people to explore their humanity”.

People are already paying attention to these issues in the Web2 space. Groups such as New_Public are devoted to studying how to foster healthy and safe public spaces online, and startups like Somewhere Good are reimagining what it means to have conversations in a digital social setting together. Last year, The Browser Company released Arc, which has a layout designed to declutter, focus and personalize the web browsing experience. This gives me hope for the Metaverse too.

Oculus announces homeworld customization on YouTube

As we move into a spatialized internet, I wonder what my virtual home might look like. Oculus now allows the home space to be customized or changed. Of course, people have always made home spaces online since the beginning — niche chat rooms, The Sims, Second Life, MySpace, Geocities homepages, to name a few. I have a desire to be creative in a way that is closer to Geocities than The Sims, to express myself with a variety of materials, rather than the form and function prescribed by a handful of companies. In order for this freedom to be default to the future that the metaverse grows into, we need to actively think and plan for how we want not only our public, but also private spaces to be.

So, returning to the original Horizon ad, I can now better identify the underlying question it brings up for me. Seeing the VR headset in the kitchen, stepping into the virtual living room, and reflecting on customizable personal spaces, I am left asking: What kind of home do I want in the metaverse?

Lydia Jessup is a mixed reality designer, researcher and teacher. Her work consists of creating augmented and virtual reality experiences, building 3D spaces and characters, and designing digital interfaces. Using these mediums she creates work to open up a conversation on the ethics and philosophy of technology, our civic relationships and life online, and the history of computing. She graduated from NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program where she now teaches as an Adjunct Professor. She lives in Brooklyn with her two cats and partner. More at lydiajessup.me and @lydsicle.