Makers of The Metaverse: John Marx Of AIA, Form4 Architecture On The Future Of The VR, AR & Mixed Reality Industries

An Interview With Fotis Georgiadis

A sense of creating community through activation strategies that fully engage people in virtual environments.

The Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality & Mixed Reality Industries are so exciting. What is coming around the corner? How will these improve our lives? What are the concerns we should keep an eye out for? Aside from entertainment, how can VR or AR help work for other parts of life? To address this, we had the pleasure of interviewing John Marx, AIA.

John Marx, AIA, is the founding design principal and Chief Artistic Officer of Form4 Architecture, a San Francisco firm that creates prominent buildings, campuses, and interiors for Bay Area tech companies such as Google and Facebook, laboratories for life-science clients, and workplaces for numerous other companies. Marx and Form4 are the recipients of 215 design awards. Named a Laureate of the American Prize for Architecture in 2017, Marx lectures and writes internationally on the topics of design, placemaking, and emotional meaning in architecture. He is the author of Wandering the Garden of Technology and Passion and Études: The Poetry of Dream + Other Fragments.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory and how you grew up?

I have always had a multi-disciplinary focus, striving to be an architect, artist, and poet. My first love was drawing, then painting, both media for the creation of imaginary worlds. In the Midwest, where I grew up, these were not considered suitable for making a living. When I was seven years old, after an illuminating career day in grade school, architecture became my chosen focus as it promised to be a creative profession.

After graduating from the University of Illinois, I worked for a variety of firms. In 1998, I joined two colleagues in founding Form4 Architecture in San Francisco. There is a certain freedom that comes from owning a small office that permits one to explore design in more creative and adventurous ways, and ultimately to advocate for change through design and writing. Throughout my career I have tried to maintain a balance of architecture, art, and poetry in the way I approach design, perhaps evidenced by my corporate title of Chief Artistic Officer at Form4 Architecture.

This comes from taking a deeply philosophical point of view about the connection between architecture and humanity. As we take a step out each morning, we are confronted by a balance dynamic with the world. There is a moment, in the lives of most artists, where we realize we exist in relationship to a complex world, a world of paradox — of abundance and scarcity, of pleasure and pain, of epic beauty and inexplicable tragedy. For me, this means adopting a reflective approach to marshal what abundance life gives you in order to create positive change in the physical world.

While architecture has been my primary focus, this creative dynamic has come full circle with the 2020 publication of Études: The Poetry of Dream + Other Fragments, a book of my watercolors and poetry, which won the 2021 James Gates Percival International Prize for Literature.

Is there a particular book, film, or podcast that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

Snow Crash by Neal Stevenson, published in 1992, is a science-fiction novel that coined the word Metaverse. The book’s powerful main character, Hiro, had an ordinary pizza-delivery job in the physical world but was one of the most powerful people in the Metaverse. I found that notion very compelling.

Is there a particular story that inspired you to pursue a career in the X Reality industry? We’d love to hear it.

I co-taught a class at UC Berkeley with Yehuda Kalay beginning in 2000 called “Placemaking in Cyberspace.” We included Snow Crash as part of the curriculum. We assigned it to the class because the book explores the parallel natures of existence: physicality, virtuality, and their intersection.

As background, I’m interested in placemaking as a way to define the role of the physical 3D-experience environment in the virtual world and the idea of creating activation. This goes to place theory, which relates to the Metaverse.

Place theory is based on three things, a triumvirate necessary to create “place”: people, physical context, and physical activities. Those three things, when they come together in the right mix, produce place. Place is an enduring, significant, enjoyable, and emotionally engaging relationship with a particular environment that has the three qualities (people, context, activities). Those qualities can vary.

For example, Venice, Italy, is a very strong place. It’s strong on physical context with historical culture and the beauty of the canals. But in terms of activity, the activity is tourism — eating, visiting ancient things. Venice in some ways is a dying city. It’s been criticized as being an authentic version of Disneyland, but Venice is in essence a museum. Very little new culture is produced there; Venice currently struggles to find its voice. While the mass numbers of tourists create a certain kind of vibrancy, it’s a city based on consumption of historic culture rather than the production of new culture. All great cities in their golden moments produce more culture than they consume.

People, context, and activities don’t have to take sides, but you have to have sufficient quality and sometimes quantity of these three aspects. You might be at a café in an Italian piazza that lacks activation; 200 years ago it was full of people, now it’s a parking lot. There’s no place there anymore. Even though the physical context still has some charm, there’s no activity and no people.

Now, how do you apply all this to the virtual environment? That’s what my Berkeley class was about, modeled on the idea of Snow Crash. But there is a dynamic: the richest activation in the physical world normally involves food and drink. The challenge is how to create activation and engagement without having food or drink. When your primary thing in the physical world is gone, you’ve got to try to make up for it with other activities. Shooting games are popular; their first-person environments are very compelling. In the Berkeley class, we created environments that were non-violent. But games can be a form of activation — for that reason we excluded shooting games. However, game-based learning where you use your mind and memory is very engaging. People have applied game theory to almost anything: education, shopping, entertainment, and even world-building.

We haven’t even scratched the surface of the Metaverse yet. If you exclude games, shopping is another activator. Amazon made shopping easy. Amazon has not made shopping fun. If you can make online shopping fun, people are going to go because it’s engaging. My contention is that we’ll solve this in the third dimension. The technology is almost there. We need a 3D environment where you go to a place, see other people, feel like you can pick up the object, you can try on clothing, or you can virtually test the car or whatever you’re interested in buying. It needs to be tactile.

To make it fun, you need to have other things going on beyond what you’re looking for. That experience of discovery is an activator.

So the first stage of a virtual-experience portal might focus on shopping, because economics motivate change. The reason this will be compelling is we’re trying to get people to buy things online. The intention is to create a balance of experience where you can also buy things. It’s that balance of those things together that will make the Metaverse compelling.

The second part is community. Imagine you go to an online, 3D place that’s full of your friends. Online 2D communities, including Facebook, Instagram, and Slack, are very compelling (Twitter, not so much). But these 2D spaces are very limiting in the immersive quality of the experiences. It’s like the difference between reading a travel book about Paris versus actually going to Paris. So what if these social communities offered compelling virtual environments? You can meet your friends and go shopping together in both a virtual and physical Paris, even though most of you might be in other cities across the world.

Whoever adds how people can engage with their social community while shopping, learning, and entertaining will take over the world. The Metaverse is like a tidal wave that will crash over all of us. The analogy: We’re on a surfboard, we’re looking toward the shore, we’re on a nice wave that’s just the right size. But while we’re focusing on the shore, we don’t see that the wave rolling in behind us has grown to 500-feet tall. All we notice is that the sun is suddenly gone, but we think it’s from a cloud. We just have to catch the big wave and hope we don’t drown.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began this fascinating career?

I’m a veteran “Burner” and have designed several installations for Burning Man. I draw inspiration from how people interact with each other and the built environments at Burning Man, then use those observations to add as much humanity to physical architecture as possible. The same approaches apply to placemaking in virtual environments.

My most recent project for the festival is called The Museum of No Spectators (MoNS), originally designed for Burning Man 2020. The premise is that everyone in the museum becomes an active participant, creating art that is then displayed to inspire other visitors. When COVID caused the festival to be delayed, I collaborated with digital artist Tomek Miksa to re-imagine MoNS as a virtual experience. It was online for more than a year, literally in the Metaverse.

MoNS was also included in Black Rock City VR’s Virtual Worlds in 2020. With my artistic co-lead Absinthia Vermut, we activated MoNS with poetry readings, storytelling, art on the wall, and even a 2021 New Year’s Eve dance party. You could experience it with or without Oculus goggles, using the Altspace VR engine.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

In retrospect, it might have made more sense to conceive MoNS as a virtual experience instead of intending it to be the latest in a series of Burning Man experiences I designed to be built at Black Rock Desert. When Burning Man 2020 was delayed for COVID, we pivoted instead of mothballing the project. Since we already had multiple 2D renderings of the project, we took what we had and, in the true spirit of Burning Man, collaborated with other artists to re-imagine the museum in the Metaverse. We came full-circle this August at Burning Man 2022 and were able to compare the actual experience to the born-from-necessity virtual one. Never intending MoNS to be anything other than a Burning Man installation, the funniest part of the process is that the project was named one of Designboom’s Top 10 digital and virtual experiences of 2020 in the entire world, alongside Bjarke Ingels’ Vancouver House and virtual tours of leading museums.

None of us is able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful toward who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

The person who had the greatest influence on my career was architect Charles Warren Callister, whom I worked for in the 1980s. Warren integrated poetry into his architecture, and largely focused on high-end residential and large community developments. He taught me how his practice was based on the concept that architects were artists, and architecture is an art form — a commitment he followed throughout his long career.

Warren’s interest in art and emotional meaning applies to the Metaverse, which is an idea platform for self-expression. The Metaverse has the opportunity to create a great deal of resonance within the context of emotional meaning and human engagement. The hope is that we can create lovable environments, which was Warren’s goal as an architect. That’s the link to all future environments — lovability.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

We were invited to participate in a paid competition to design environments in the Metaverse as part of an international team of about 60 people from various parts of the creative community. That project is under NDA, but it’s basically a large research project based on experience design in both physical and virtual forms about various ways environments can benefit people.

Relative to Warren Callister, Form4 Architecture collaborated with his office on the design of the Episcopal Church of St. John the Baptist in Aptos, CA. It marked Callister’s final project before his death in 2008. Because of our existing relationship with the church’s board and clergy, Form4 was asked to design a columbarium, which we call “Intertwined Eternities,” to occupy a 4,000-square-foot garden of decomposed granite located behind the existing church. Form4’s approach was to contribute a poetic and meaningful addition to honor Callister’s legacy and complete the next phase of the church campus. The architects sought to create a design that is lyrical, poetic, rigorously modern, and emotionally engaging.

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. The VR, AR and MR industries seem so exciting right now. What are the 3 things in particular that most excite you about the industry? Can you explain or give an example?

1. Seeing how the technology will progress to the point of opening up all of the possibilities for the Metaverse. Visual, aural, and tactile elements are emerging, and there’s more to come. Every month reveals something new. For example, Lensa portrait imagery in an AI context lets you become a better version of the person you are, in essence raising your self-image. Midjourney creates worlds that don’t exist but are very compelling, places you aspire to dwell in. The ability of AI to almost instantaneously create alternative universes will be very powerful in an experience-based Metaverse. There is still a long way to go in order to achieve the environmental quality needed to be compelling, but the rate of change is astounding and should get here very soon.

2. The potential for shared experiences and discovery is exciting. Attending virtual concerts with both actual and online friends is one intriguing example. In addition, the Metaverse offers an opportunity to powerfully extend a sense of community across the entire globe in a fundamentally safe environment.

3. Although entertainment and associated e-commerce will likely be the Metaverse’s foundation, the educational ramifications are enormous. Lecture-based pedagogy could be totally replaced by experiential learning in the Metaverse.

What are the 3 things that concern you about the VR, AR and MR industries? Can you explain? What can be done to address those concerns?

1. The industry doesn’t have mass appeal yet, although COVID helped build momentum very quickly. People aren’t racing from work to put on their VR goggles; AR is a more comfortable technology, with Pokémon Go being a prominent example of overlaid experiences in the physical world. But just as social media mushroomed from kids on MySpace into what’s now the primary communication and commercial platform for many people, the Metaverse should experience massive growth in the near future. Enthusiasm for the blockchain/crypto/NFTs is also helping build momentum. MR might accelerate the transition, with people wearing goggles and blending physical and digital activity.

2. Hardware cost is a barrier to entry, although economies of scale will likely bring prices down as more goggle options enter the market. Some people are building VR rooms where you don’t need goggles but are in a purely immersive virtual space.

3. Interaction seems to be the Metaverse’s largest hurdle. Fundamentally, there’s potential to make it highly engaging and participatory. How do you physically engage with an environment versus experiencing it purely as a spectator who has influence over what you’re seeing?

4. AI and the Metaverse both ask us to question what it means to be human on a deeply fundamental level. This is a critical challenge to world cultures that we have historically not been good at resolving. There are issue of ownership of the fundamental OS, and social media has shown us the ease at which societies can be manipulated. We will need to address these issues collectively, and it may require some thoughtful consideration of poets, philosophers, and artists to navigate what it means to be human.

I think the entertainment aspects of VR, AR and MR are apparent. Can you share with our readers how these industries can help us at work?

Architects have used digital design tools for more than a generation. Drafting with pencils gave way to CAD, which evolved into BIM (Building Information Modeling), where we can simulate design’s effects on performance. Applying VR, we now take our traditional building renderings and animate them to create virtual walk-throughs.

Another example is how newer technologies even allow architects to actually hear how different interior materials and their arrangement absorb noise. We can demonstrate to the client the difference between a 45-dB design and a 65-dB one, with BIM providing the cost analysis for both scenarios.

I don’t know that we’ll be able to virtually test office furniture for comfort and ergonomics in the foreseeable future, but the VR technology will definitely evolve architecture. Also, virtual real estate is creating a demand for architecture in the Metaverse. We’re interested in those conversations — but aren’t quite ready to accept crypto for our fee!

Are there other ways that VR, AR and MR can improve our lives? Can you explain?

One of the problems with remote working is the lack of a sense of shared experiences. You’re talking on Zoom but you don’t feel together. VR, AR, and MR can give us that sense of being in the same place at the same time, sharing the same environment. I spent a fair amount of time meeting people virtually in MoNS through Black Rock City VR. Everyone had an avatar. It was a much deeper and personal experience than a Zoom call. VR/MR is close second to physically being together compared to other tech-based forms of remote communication.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about working in your industry? Can you explain what you mean?

We’d like to dispel the myth that architects will be replaced by AI. To put it in context, tract homes and gray-block industrial parks have possibly downgraded architects’ importance in the general public’s perception. The Metaverse could reverse that. At our best, architects are trained to design spaces that elevate people’s work and private lives through a uniquely human passion and vibrancy, while integrating required features for useability, health, and life-safety. Virtual buildings allow us to take what we’ve learned about how people interact with their physical environments and design beyond the envelope. In the Metaverse, the architect’s role is going to increase multi-fold to create experience-rich and texturally engaging environments where people want to be. We don’t have to worry about gravity, building codes, green materials, and other physical realities in order to design virtual cities. The primary question for architects, from a cultural perspective, is are we capable or interested in designing “lovable” enough environments to engage the Metaverses users. This is a very different type of client/user group from what we are used to in the physical world.

We feel that architects are uniquely suited to designing “built” spaces in the virtual world. At my firm, Form4 in San Francisco, we have designed what we feel are lovable buildings and spaces since 1998 — many for the Silicon Valley tech companies that are leaders in Web 3.0. There aren’t a lot of architects who can say that they started working in and teaching about the Metaverse 23 years ago: I co-wrote papers with UC Berkeley professor Yehuda Kalay on “The Role of Place in Cyberspace” (2001) and “Architecture and the Internet: Designing Places in Cyberspace” (2005). They describe the criteria for making cyber places different: hyper-reality spaces, abstracted reality, hybrid virtual spaces, and hyper virtuality.

What are your “5 Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Career In The VR, AR or MR Industries?”

These are all discussed in more detail above:

1. An understanding of the theory of place (people, context, activities).

2. A sense of creating community through activation strategies that fully engage people in virtual environments.

3. Combining social networks and e-commerce.

4. The realization that you’re still in a physical place that someone designed when you’re experiencing a virtual reality. The triumvirate of people, activity, and context is critical, even in a virtual environment. You need to be somewhere.

5. A desire to create lovable places — environments people look forward to experiencing.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

The most powerful force for change is technology. Innovation, through technology, has created undeniable changes in the world by its very existence. These are foundational changes; they affect everyone in some way over time. As much as technology changes the way we do things, it does not always affect the fundamental core of the human condition. The change created by technology is not truly effective unless people care about each other.

If I could inspire a movement that would change the world, it would be one that encourages you to embrace community and kindness through participatory art. This is a profoundly powerful spark, that, in turn, will inspire you go out and change the world in myriad unimaginable ways. The Metaverse expands this beyond physical communities to a global scale. The Metaverse has limitless potential to facilitate the balance of self-expression and a sense of belonging to various groups.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

Because Google is such a visionary company, I’d like to sit down with Sergey Brin. I’m particularly interested in the concept of creating a physical portal into the Metaverse, possibly at an aircraft hangar Google owns in Mountain View. The sheer size and scale of this hangar could provide a profoundly compelling place to create a major portal to the Metaverse. This is how the physical and virtual worlds can overlap in a symbiotic relationship.

Thank you so much for these excellent stories and insights. We wish you continued success on your great work!

Makers of The Metaverse: John Marx Of AIA, Form4 Architecture On The Future Of The VR, AR & Mixed… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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