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The Meeting At The Tower
A metaverse story
Toby stepped out of the drop-pod onto the platform and paused to survey the lush canyon before him. From his perch up on the canyon’s steep side, he could glimpse the river down below winding its way through the beeches, elms, and oaks, and past the Tower that jutted up from the valley floor less than a mile away.
The fading light of the rapidly setting sun glinted off the window at the top of the Tower and lit up the leafy vines and flowers that blanketed the structure’s sheer stone face. The Tower would be locked this evening, and he wasn’t wearing his access cloak (he’d loaned it to the new guy), but it was fine — the meeting would take place outside at the Tower’s base.
It struck Toby as odd to have the meeting outside next to the Tower, but Nina and Charles were always fiddling with their magical toys, so it seemed likely they had some new sorcery to show off.
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Toby moved to the edge of the platform and began working his way down the stairs carved into the canyon’s face. A hawk flew past him about twenty yards out, circling above trees and peering into the lengthening shadows for signs of prey. Toby silently cursed his manager’s weird obsession with “setting the mood” — it would be so much better if they could all just drop straight to the Tower’s base, instead of this pointless five-minute hike down. But whatever; he’d be on time.
By the time he arrived at the base of the Tower, it was fully night on the valley’s floor, and he could see a tiny sliver of sun peeking over the lip of the canyon above. So he was about a minute and a half early — nailed it. Charles, Nina, and Thomas had all arrived ahead of him and were arrayed in a semicircle around the fire when he emerged from the shadow of a large oak and joined them in the soft firelight.
He kinda had to hand it to Charles — the short walk down from the platform had actually calmed him down and helped him focus. The sound of the water in the river rushing by, the croak of frogs and chorus of insects, the winking fireflies, the gentle rustle of leaves, and now the flicker and crackle of the small fire; it was all remarkably effective at helping him mentally settle in for the two-hour meeting ahead.
The instant the last glimpse of the sun disappeared behind the canyon’s edge, the low murmur of conversation went quiet as everyone turned to look at Charles. Charles moved forward a few steps toward the fire, the fine, gold-leaf pattern embroidered down the front of his dark green robe sparkling in the flames.
Dude is always so over-the-top with this stuff, thought Toby. Look at that insane half-lion, half-human head; the massive mane; the ridiculous lion teeth; but the icing on the cake has to be the giant anime greatsword slung across his back. Really?
“Alright, let’s get started,” said Charles, in a deep, leonine voice that actually did sound ancient and wise to Toby, despite how silly he found the whole “Aslan as head of regional sales” bit.
“Nina will be running meeting ops for us tonight,” Charles said. “Nina, can you reset the room and get last quarter’s numbers up?”
Nina nodded silently, closed her eyes, and bowed her hooded head while placing her hands together in front of her in a posture that suggested prayer or meditation. Toby heard the faintest clack-clack of a keyboard from somewhere far away — an echo from some distant world — as Nina’s long, crimson cloak whipped in a slight gust of breeze and a golden sphere appeared above the fire at eye level. The sphere quickly ballooned outward until its perimeter encompassed the entire group, then it winked out of existence.
As the dimly glowing skin of the sphere had passed over him, Toby heard all the sounds of the forest around him recede into the distant background, to be replaced by the muffled coughing and shuffling characteristic of all meetings since the dawn of time.
Nina then turned her cloaked form to face the wide wall of the Tower that loomed up into the heights about twenty feet from the fire. Every time he saw the massive artifact, Toby was always taken aback by the level of detail in it — every one of its tens of thousands of stones had been carved with a unique set of runes. The stretch of the wall they were facing was mostly grey stone, but leafy vines with multicolored, faintly luminous flowers of different sizes snaked up from the grass in a loose network of browns, greens, reds, yellows, and blues.
As a collection of some 25,000+ unique, human-made stones, the Tower had been incredibly expensive. But Toby’s department had scored the composite artifact — it was an entire collection, really — along with a bunch of IRL Aeron chairs and a few IRL desks, in a liquidation sale when the Theil-backed digital art marketplace that originally commissioned the Tower had imploded in the wake of a massive rug pull. The Tower’s library held many secrets, and they had only just begun to learn what this legendary object could really do.
As Nina bowed her head once again and began to concentrate, the vines leaped into motion and scurried to blanket the wall in front of them under a thick cover of dark leaves. Small, glowing blue flowers sprang forth out of the leaves in rectangular columns, framed by a large square of glowing white flowers. It was a bar chart, and thankfully one that was going up and to the right.
Toby estimated Nina had spent at least half a day in the Tower’s library learning to do this kind of thing. It was cool and all, but it was really better than the old screen-share-floating-in-space? Toby had his doubts.
The meeting dragged on as everyone gave their updates, and Toby sipped tea to stay awake. Every now and then when he started to zone out, the sharp chirp of a distant bird or the snap of a branch from within the dark forest would bring his mind back to the meeting.
Like Nina, Thomas was able to make the Tower’s vine network bloom and blossom with all manner of charts, graphs, and subtle animations. Charles was visibly pleased at all this, smiling with his stupid giant lion teeth as the Tower’s leaves crinkled with motion and Thomas rambled on about conversion rates and ARPU. Charles, for his part, was dressed head to toe in black leather armor, and every visible inch of his flesh was a T3-style molten metal that reflected the colors from the Tower wall and the dance of the campfire’s flames.
When Toby’s turn came, he just summoned a flat media rectangle right over the face of the tower wall and did a screen-share like the lamer he was. He had come dressed as Default Robot, Orange Theme, but in the glow of the campfire and of the luminous blossoms on the wall, the avatar still looked pretty great.
The meeting was almost over as Toby worked his way through the results of the most recent split test. He could tell the time was almost up because the fire had died down considerably, and in a few minutes, it would be nothing but glowing embers. He didn’t want to be the guy who had to scrounge for firewood to keep the meeting going another ten minutes, so he hurried through the last part of his update.
When Toby finished and handed the meeting back off to Charles, there was still a minute’s worth of twigs burning in the fire. Nailed it again! thought Toby.
Charles quickly gave the team their action items as the last of the fire faded. Then they all winked out of existence, one-by-one, leaving the remaining embers to smoke and smolder in silence beside the grey, rune-covered stones.
We’ve all seen the Metaverse videos with the legs on the avatars and the graphics that look like they’re from Second Life. There’s no shortage of things to make fun of in what Zuck and Co. have shown off, so far. There’s also no shortage of proprietary lock-in to worry about — do we really want Facebook… er, I mean, Meta controlling the metaverse?
But the problem I really have with the Metaverse as conceived by Meta is that it’s the virtual equivalent of a cubicle farm. I know, there’s an auditorium and some other non-cubicle spaces, but overall Meta seems to be offering a vision of virtual work where we all gather together in spaces that the 3D equivalent of Zoom backgrounds — interchangeable wallpaper that works best when it goes unnoticed.
What I tried to do with the short story above was to suggest a vision of virtual work where the environment actively contributes to the tasks at hand. Sundown signals the start of the meeting, and the campfire acts as a timer that gives constant but subtle and natural-feeling visual cues to the participants about how long the meeting has gone on.
The inward-facing cameras can detect when a participant is starting to zone out, and can gently pull them back in with some environmental sounds. There’s a massive digital structure made of tens of thousands of NFTs that doubles as a clever data display.
We can and should do a lot more with the metaverse than just have lame gatherings in soulless, quasi-sci-fi spaces that essentially reimplement the modern office in digital form.
With the metaverse and VR, we have a chance to re-think how we gather together in a way that hasn’t happened for… millennia, maybe? Somebody, somewhere, will get this right, and whoever does will be richer than Zuck.
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