June 1992: American writer Neal Stephenson publishes Snow Crash, a dystopian novel in which the term ‘metaverse’ is coined. Fast-forward 30 years and here we are, watching the metaverse erupt out of the imagination and evolve into a real-world concept.

William Newton

William Newton

No longer residing within the gamers’ domain, the metaverse has emerged as a more complex, interrelated synthesis of reality than previously thought. In the metaverse, it’s possible to experience a digital simulation of normal life. It’s a land within a land, allowing users to live, work and play together while exploring different regions in real time. And yes, you can buy property there.

Investment in virtual space is soaring. With Snoop Dogg’s virtual mansion inspiring a $450,000 sale of the ‘plot’ next to the rapper’s virtual home, there’s big money, big names and big ideas involved – and it’s all about to get much bigger.

Pop culture has been quick to reap the benefits of the metaverse. In music, a record 12.3 million people logged into the virtual world Fortnite to watch rapper Travis Scott ‘perform’ in 2020.

Visual art is also experimenting with virtual worlds – the Serpentine gallery recently hosted a multi-layered project alongside artist KAWS. The exhibition presented works in both physical and augmented reality, allowing audiences to experience the exhibition in person or virtually via Fortnite.

But this is more than just an arty trend. Virtual real estate is gaining traction and it’s making noise that real estate cannot ignore. It was reported that real estate sales in the ‘Big Four’ virtual worlds (Decentraland, Somium Space, Sandbox and Cryptovoxels) reached $501m in 2021 and could top $1bn in 2022.

We often talk of ’the office of the future’, but does that place physically exist?

To purchase ‘land’ for virtual development in Decentraland, for example, investors select from one of 90,000 16m x 16m plots. Payment is made with MANA, a crypto-token specific to the game. Land purchases are recorded as non-fungible tokens (NFTs – non-interchangeable units of blockchain data) a form of digital ledger used for sales or trade.

Looking to commercial real estate (CRE), we often talk of ‘the office of the future’, but does that place physically exist? As shopping digitised to become ecommerce, the way we work is rapidly digitising in a similar fashion. How will that affect our future place of work? In another 30 years, perhaps ‘going to work’ will mean logging into the metaverse to access your virtual workspace, chatting beside the virtual watercooler and discussing business over imaginary flat whites.

In truth, I doubt we’ll see a sector-wide transition to the metaverse. Just as the Kindle didn’t replace the book, it’s unlikely the metaverse will replace reality. Instead, it will enhance hybrid working or facilitate fully remote models. Imagine a gamified, dynamic version of Zoom that simulates the serendipity of real life and allows for effective creative collaboration.

It’s up to the real estate industry to remain ahead of the virtual game. How? By envisioning a future in which it is standard practice for physical assets to have a digital duplicate residing within the metaverse, providing an omnichannel experience to enrich the ways in which users engage with a building.

William Newton is president and managing director of WiredScore