Document spends an afternoon exploring Nuevo Norte, Meta’s attempt to foster cultural community
Recently, I heard about a new common denominator in the modern human experience: we’re all waiting for that email change our life! And soon after I started tossing the concept around in my mind, I got a taste of this transcendent and historic moment: an opportunity to conduct an interview in the Metaverse, with my own virtual reality headset to facilitate the process.
Depending on who you believe, it was an invitation to the next technological frontier. Much has been said about the place of virtual reality in our future, especially with the cover of Mark Zuckerberg heavy paris, with questionable effect. In October, the the wall street journal reported that, of all Oculus headsets purchased, more than half are not recovered after six months. According ViceMeta Horizon Worlds’ VR town square is made up of mostly empty corporate areas (read: three-dimensional advertisements), such as Wendy’s Buck BiscuitDome, built for a March Madness-themed brand activation of a month that was later dropped: Laments writer Samantha Cole, “I recently spent part of my afternoon throwing giant Baconators at a basketball hoop, and no one was around to see it.”
Despite these corporate relics, falling Meta stocks and a never-ending stream of complaints (elementary graphics, legless avatars, high cost of entry, uncomfortable helmets), I wanted to see for myself. After all, there are some optimistic parties, who wisely remind us that VR is not a revolution, but a evolution. I was scheduled to interview actor Jillian Mercado for the Metaverse Culture series – a collection of panels and virtual communities, whose overarching goal is to create “more accessible entry points into the future of technology, for communities which have historically been excluded”. They had already completed a few installments, alternately centering on black, female, Muslim, and gay creators. Mercado participated in third culturethe fifth and final chapter of MCS, which highlights the Latinx experience in a world called Nuevo Norte.
I may be easily impressed, but I was certainly touched by my first foray into Horizon Worlds. The headset’s controllers are set up so that when you put up a fist or a thumbs up, your weird, pale, digital hands eerily mirror every gesture. My real hands went numb as I tested this, settling into a secondary existence for the very first time. I was trying a world called “London Street”, or something like that. There was a chapel and a phone booth and a pub, where you could grab (but not drink) a pint of beer. I found a book, thrown in a patch of grass: great expectations, by Charles Dickens! Before I oriented myself, other avatars approached, floating in the air and chatting with me. I was surprised to hear their real voices and rushed to exit the app. This wasn’t the solitary experience of a video game – as my brain had first led me to believe – but a chat room? A social media site? Something completely different?
“The only representation I have is my own reflection. My mission is not to open the door, really. It’s to remove it. »
Nuevo Norte, which I explored soon after, is sunny and rather fanciful, unlike London Street. The world is the brainchild of multimedia artist COVL; it is named after the road where his family lived in Puerto Rico, before moving to Miami, and is partly inspired by each location. That means tropical greenery, brilliant blue seas, sandy beaches, floating islands and flying manatees. There are a handful of places to congregate, including Cafecito (a version of local Puerto Rican cafes, which COVL would frequent with its grandmother) and Discoteca (a multi-level dance floor channeling Miami’s salsa scene , whose sounds the artist would fall asleep in childhood).
I met Mercado in La Islà, the scenic entry point to Nuevo Norte. The phrase third culture (third culture) refers to the new customs and mores that emerge from a mix of generational family and nuclear family values - and I was interested to hear how this concept manifests for the actor, who was born in New York in a Dominican family. “My mom and dad definitely [imparted] the culture they grew up with for me and my two younger sisters,” she said. “I took this culture, you could say, into the future and beyond.”
Mercado began her career as a model, appearing in campaigns for companies like Diesel and Nordstrom, and posing editorially for Charm, Cosmopolitanand Posture Magazine. In her early days, around 2014, she was one of the few physically disabled professionals in the industry and part of an even smaller minority of wheelchair users. In 2019, she landed a role in Showtime’s The L word: Generation Q, playing Maribel Suarez – immigration lawyer, sister of Sophie Suarez, and by all rights, a fully developed character. Mercado has gained more screen time as the beloved reboot continues; in the show’s final season, she struggles with the desire to have a child with her partner Micah, played by Leo Sheng.
“The only representation I have is my own reflection,” she said in an interview for third culture‘s promotional docushorts. “I managed to break down barriers and open doors and opportunities for people. But my mission is not to open the door, really. It’s to remove it. »
Representation, especially on TV, is no longer hard to come by, but that doesn’t mean it’s good. Nielsen recently reported that, of the top 1,500 TV shows of 2021, 78% have “some presence of racial, ethnic, gender, or sexual orientation inclusivity.” However, according to one of the data giant’s diversity spokespersons, nearly a quarter of consumers still feel their identity groups are underrepresented. The characters are there, that’s for sure. But they’re written lazily, or inaccurate, or wildly formulaic, or they don’t have lines. Either way, there’s a demand for roles like Maribel Suarez and plenty of talented actors to step in, assuming they have the tools they need.
This may all seem unrelated to the Metaverse. But according to Mercado, virtual reality could be a tipping point. She thinks of people with reduced mobility, who cannot easily leave their apartment, let alone travel across the country. “I mean, you could literally do a wide network of casting calls,” she said. “I have a lot of friends who struggle with accessibility issues. Knowing that there is a space like this, where they can stay in the comfort of their home and don’t have to deal with structural elements that prevent them from being part of a community or living life, this changes things. »
“It is a tool with potential for power, whose capacity for good or evil mirrors that of the internet, that of social media and, of course, that of society as a whole.”
Right now, however, they are potential futures. Sitting with Mercado at a conference table in a fantasy world, I can definitely say, feels more personal than a Zoom call. We are nose to nose, we gesticulate, we complement each other on the details of our pixelated clothes. You can almost confidently read body language – facial expression, much less. There’s a lot to develop before a place like Horizon Worlds can usefully serve as, say, an audition room. The investigator facilitators reminded me, at least twice, that we were in the “switched phase” of virtual reality; the potential is limitless and quickly realized, but the factors that will determine its ultimate form are, in large part, the desires of the people who have access to it.
It is encouraging to hear that queer people, people with disabilities and people of color are at the table. It seems that Mercado’s experience with Meta – defending its own demands – has been overall positive. “I’ve always been very open about how I move around the world and how I can bring that to a place like this,” she said. His left hand is more flexible than his right, for example, making it difficult to use the headset controllers; troubleshooting with the Meta team quickly led to the realization that controllerless hand tracking (which allows users to navigate with little effort, select icons, and type with a pinched finger motion) would be better suited to Mercado’s capacity.
So far, I don’t think VR has dramatically changed anyone’s life. But in another decade, I’m sure it will. This does not mean that our social universe – work, school, nightlife, holidays, museums, parks, fashion shows, restaurants – will dissolve into the virtual. But it is a tool with potential for power, whose capacity for good or evil mirrors that of the internet, that of social media, and, of course, that of society at large. Do I think Meta should be the one leading the charge towards a VR future? Nope! The good thing is – as much as they’d like to be – they’re not. The lowercase-M the metaverse, Meta itself states, is not “a single product that one company can build on its own”. Horizon Worlds riffs on the much more popular VRChat, which also facilitates live virtual social interaction, but offers desktop-based options for joining, rather than restricting access to those who can afford to drop a few hundred on a decent helmet.
The faster virtual reality democratizes, the better; it is then that the control will pass concretely to the general public. Maybe there is a way to achieve this without turning the VR headset into a ultimate advertising platform, with the most captive public, but that seems to be where we are right now, as a global society. In the meantime, I’m happy for the input of creatives like Mercado, who will absolutely tip the scales in the right direction – or alternatively, create their own gorgeous corner of an indomitable beast.
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