Travelling in the Metaverse : Advocating for Diversity

Andrómeda Cyanüro
17 min readMay 25, 2023

May 25, 2023

Illustrated transcription (and transcreation) of a conference presented on 25th of May 2022 in Quebec for the Innovation category of WAQ (Web in Quebec).

Many thanks to the organising committee for the invitation!

Recording of the conference (In French)

📸 André-Olivier Lyra

Celia with short hair speaking, her right hand is in front of her she’s wearing a mic and she’s in front of the WAQ plateau screen

Hello everyone! I’m Célia Bonnet-Ligeon, co-founder of the “Agence Pizza”, and it’s a pleasure to speak today at WAQ 2022. Let’s embark on a journey together, during the next forty minutes I will try show you the Metaverse. I thank you all for joining me on this expedition.

Associating travel and the Metaverse may seem surprising at first glance. However, Guillaume Bijl presented a deserted travel agency at the MAC (Museum of Contemporary Art) in Lyon in 2020. Bijl presented a travel agency without human figures, thus deserted as if it was never going to habited. It’s evident that tourism is undergoing diverse transformations, encompassing the Metaverse as well.

Before venturing further, let’s agree to a definition of the Metaverse. This in order to see where we are going. According to its definition on Wikipedia, here are the four main characteristics:

It’s a virtual universe.

Persistent, meaning that it exists and evolves at all times, even when we are not connected to it.

It’s also a social space that allows us to interact with other users.

Finally, the Metaverse is presented as a future version of the Internet. Since its access methods are different from those of today’s web. We join it through 3D interactions or augmented reality modules.

What is often forgotten to mention is how much the Metaverse requires some kind of learning from us. When Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook (now Meta), presents his vision of the Metaverse, everything seems very simple. Interactions are smooth, users move by flying, and even pass through each other. In reality, the Metaverse that I know and have been exploring for over a year looks more like this:

Virtual worlds are filled with indication signs to teach us how to perform simple gestures. For instance, flying — which is a simple gesture in the Metaverse — turns out to be neither obvious nor intuitive. Every action in virtual reality encompasses the entire body, even if you move by flying with the joystick of your controllers, unfortunately, you won’t really feel like you’re actually flying.

On the other hand, you may find yourself in hilarious situations, especially when taking your first steps in a Metaverse. Interactions with the environment are omnipresent. You will regularly pass through the floor or other vertical or horizontal surfaces. This is what I liked during my discovery of Metaverse: this feeling of freedom and chaos at the same time, reminiscent of the early days of the web with forums.

Metaverse character in a welcoming position with their arms open

Indeed, another aspect of the Metaverse is its social richness. The quality of the relations is unlike any other; you can meet your friends, family, and colleagues there. With the advantage of an avatar that always has smooth skin and impeccable hair (and of course not a single staine in their hoodie). Furthermore, there’s the possibility to create new relationships, as in the Metaverse, anyone can come and talk to you as long as they are in the same virtual space. The encounter can either be pleasant or distasteful, especially since you have no idea who might be sitting behind an avatar. Even more so when the person across chose from the default options. In any case there’s no need to panic, if the conversation takes an unexpected turn, you can escape with a click to another virtual location.

The last type of interaction that can be confusing in the Metaverse is with objects. In this image, I would like to grab a log to put it in my fire, but I have to wait for the objects to load first.

Chimney loading in the Metaverse

Sometimes, it happens that the expected objects never load… Talking about the future of the Internet involves talking about Internet connection. The latter isn’t always reliable and can sometimes interrupt a session in the middle of a conversation, leading us to this beautiful error screen:

Error screen blakc background with white text a a little robot at the bottom

If I am showing you the difficulties of taking the first steps in the Metaverse, it’s because I am used to accompanying teams in their innovative digital projects. I created my own company ten years ago, Sirdar Électrique, which is my entry point for all these projets. I mainly work in the fields of culture, art, and education, with very different formats. Going from touch devices like Educatouch to online collaboration methods. Ranging from augmented reality like Vitrailloscope to Premier Trek’s conversational robot, and Virtual Reality.

Celia’s character in the forest in the metaverse ivniting you to come with a ahdn gesture

Here I am, present through my avatar, in a virtual world that I created for the CREA Mont-Blanc (Center for Research on Altitude Ecosystems): 4810 pixels.

I created a universe with a small team of — only — two creative developers. We inaugurated 4810 pixels in December 2020, during a public event that brought together about a hundred remote participants in the ascent of a virtual slope of the Mont-Blanc massif.

4810 pixels Teaser

With this project, I learned that we can truly work together in the Metaverse. In the screenshot below, we are in the middle of a coordination meeting to define the shape of the directional signs, based on a photo taken in reality. The purple robot is Kévin Ardito, one of the two artistic developers, and the orange panda is Irene Alvarez, co-director of CREA Mont-Blanc. Interestingly, it was noticeable that we didn’t all have the same perception of proximity with our avatars. While Irene and I passed through others without caution, Kévin is one of the people who are more sensitive to preserving a safe space around him, even when interacting in virtual form.

Celia on stage presenting
📸 Annie Chénier
Screenshot of the 4810 metaverse landscape with it’s creators having a pannel organisation meeting

I also learned, through this project, that social interactions are real as long as access conditions are facilitated. This means having an usher ready to welcome participants, to explain how to move, speak, and interact with others, in order to engage in meaningful conversations. In 4810 Pixels, ushers were stationed on each alpine floor to guide the public, and researchers positioned a little further in the spaces were available to answer questions about ongoing scientific research.

Learning in the Metaverse is relatively complex because it involves different levels of mastery. Ranging from simple visits to creating fully personalised universes. Therefore, the desire to facilitate learning is pervasive. Tutorial settings are created by platforms to discover their features and encourage their use, such as the monthly contest organised by Rec Room to explore its Maker Pen creation tool. Often, communities themselves design their own tutorials, like Educators in VR, to encourage peer-to-peer creation.

Each Metaverse platform develops its own terms for similar features, such as teleportation to another location, which is a common functionality in all Metaverses.

Once the navigation notions are acquired, another problem arises: in the Metaverse, we do not always know where to go. Navigating in a 3D space changes a lot in our relationship to information. While gamers may quickly feel at ease in the Metaverse, others will need to adapt to virtual rules that do not exactly correspond to those of the physical world.

Again, Metaverse platforms will want to help us, for example by preparing welcoming spaces like the Genesis Plaza in Decentraland, which presents a selection of destinations sorted by categories: classic destinations on the left, events in the centre, and the most popular (i.e. most populated in real time) on the right.

Whether the navigation interface involves seeing Doric columns, rather obscure setting like in AltspaceVR or a map like in Second Life. In any case, I have very few clues about to where I am about to land. In the end, each Metaverse platform is like a new city to discover. Navigating such worlds can be described as leaving the train station, to find ourselves facing unknown landscapes. Like leaving the train in the city centre, we would look for clues to orient ourselves or follow the landmarks. However in the metaverse there signs are rare and will leave many places in the shadows that we might want to discover as well. So, we will stick to the recommended path provided by the platform, visiting the must-see landmarks, following the classic tourist routes for a day, two days, three days… until we get bored and want to explore other corners. Venturing so far into unknown places, getting completely lost in the Metaverseor as our dear Valerie Pécresse said <<perdus dans le metaverse>>.

And sometimes, by chance, we come across places in the Metaverse where we feel comfortable, peaceful, amusing, or unusual. Places that we want to keep and share, like a nice restaurant we share with our friends.

That’s why I co-founded Agence Pizza, a virtual travel agency that accompanies you on exciting journeys in the Metaverse. It’s time to introduce Nicolas Frespech, co-founder of Agence Pizza and a digital humanities teacher at the Fine Arts Academy of Lyon in France. We have been working together for five years in the artistic and educational field.

Since the first lockdown due to Covid-19, Nicolas and I have developed the habit of meeting in virtual reality. We quickly realized how much we felt like we were really in the same room, or at least experiencing a shared experience of visiting, playing, or discussing in the Metaverse.

In Agence Pizza, we chose stage names borrowed from a Canadian TV series that features the adventures of an archaeologist around the world: I am Sydney, and he is Nigel. We have a virtual secretary, Claudia, who takes care of reservations. Our appearances change from one Metaverse to another: from Spatial to VRChat, from Cryptovoxels to Gather.

So, what exactly does the Agence Pizza do?

We select for you the best destinations in all Metaverses, to be discovered on the website; custom events and tours are regularly organised to help you take your first steps in the Metaverse.

Each destination appears as a card: it is categorised, with an illustration and a set of tags to give you an overview. If you are ready to visit the place, click on the “Visit” button and follow the instructions of the relevant platform.

Need help? Request assistance from our team with the hashtag #voyagepizza!

To date, Voyage Pizza lists nearly 80 destinations, all tested and approved by our team, based on very subjective selection criteria. You will find artistic festivals, art galleries exhibiting photographs, videos, sculptures, and other 3D paintings; you will visit real places that offer regular virtual programming, such as the Soda Studio based in Johannesburg, which provides a virtual reality headset to its physical audience to greet Metaverse tourists from all around the world.

You will also find places dedicated to mental health, inclusion, exchange, and listening. One of the powers of virtual reality is to allow people who cannot physically move to access public places or confide in strangers in a completely new way. Just like actual physical appearance is no longer the first impression you will make of each other.

You say, you prefer places to isolate yourself? You will find peaceful places for meditation and escape, including real places replicated in the Metaverse, such as Ellington American Park, which demonstrates how virtual immersion can positively maintain a connection with nature.

To find all these destinations and offer you the best selection, the Agence Pizza explores many places in the Metaverse, not always interesting ones — inevitably — and we don’t always know if we are allowed to enter them.

In this sense, our exploration practice resembles urban exploration otherwise known as urbex, which consists of infiltrating abandoned places, often illegally. Very often, in most virtual worlds I visit, there is no one else connected at the same time as me. I have plenty of time to look around, stroll peacefully, and observe all the little details of the world. Even to the point of feeling like I’m intruding on my host’s privacy. I have interrupted work sessions in the Metaverse because several users were connected in the same virtual space, making it more popular and more visible.

The possibility to move from one space to another, being surprised with each teleportation, comes from the creative explosion we are witnessing.

These possibilities in the Metaverse respond to a global need for diversity in the Metaverse ecosystem.

Recently, I read this quote by Pascal Guitton and Nicolas Roussel in an article about the questions the Metaverse raises :

Diversity, and therefore the choice between different Metaverses, is a necessary condition for both individual self-determination and collective sovereignty.

This realisation was amplified for me during the creation of the Second Lab: the first Metaverse of a municipality in France, developed for ERASME — the open innovation laboratory of the Métropole de Lyon. I created the Second Lab with the same team of artistic developers as 4810 pixels, and we inaugurated it in January 2022.

The Second Lab is composed of different spaces for creation, presentation, and discussion, about real locations in the Métropole de Lyon. Inventing this virtual space for a municipality raised questions about public services in the Metaverse. How should they be accessible to both the municipality’s agents and the citizens of the Métropole de Lyon, and beyond.

This aspect questions several cities, and regions around the world. We assist in the emergence of ambitions for a public Metaverse, such as Seoul’s announcement of Seoul Metaverse. Including a virtual public service set to launch in 2023, where avatar officials will provide the same services to Korean citizens as their counterparts in tangible offices. Similarly, cities like Helsinki have already revealed Virtual Helsinki, a public-oriented digital twin, with goals focused on tourism and commerce.

As I ponder about Agence Pizza, I wonder about its status in the years to come. Upon delivering the Second Lab, we spent a considerable time documenting our work and, more importantly, training the ERASME teams so that they could modify their virtual spaces themselves. Making them independent of us or any other service provider. This exchange was facilitated by the creation tool we chose, which is Mozilla Hubs, the open-source 3D web service by Mozilla, known for its web browser Firefox, for example.

In designing the Second Lab with the teams from the Métropole de Lyon, we clearly addressed the question of possible uses. For this Metaverse the goal was to participate in co-creation events (hackathons) in a hybrid mode. Second, to prototype, train, and transfer skills to other teams around the world, but also to inspire connected participants to imagine future services for the Métropole de Lyon. Our support engaged both artistic invention and technical expertise.

With Agence Pizza and the concept of travel agency in the Metaverse, we take this issue a step further. Today, we are contacted by journalists and companies alike, who are interested in the Metaverse and ask us to decipher this new universe for them. Tomorrow, will Agence Pizza be an education service for media or digital literacy, part of a national or European program? Only time will tell, and in order for the Metaverse to remain attractive, it must preserve its diversity.

Today, it is the creatives, the artists, the architects, the designers who are taking upon themselves the labour of educating, inventing, and amplifying diversity in the Metaverse. It is artists, curators, gallery owners who are creating bridges between real life, digital art, and the Metaverse, for example by organizing virtual openings in Art Gate VR. And also artists like Patrick Moya, who have been inhabiting the Metaverse for fifteen years. Because evidently the Metaverse existed before Facebook’s announcement. Taking different forms like Second Life, and even earlier in the collective imagination from Anglo-Saxon science fiction literature.

It is educators, educators, visionaries, and developers like Evgeniya Simmons who are inventing the service offerings of the Metaverse. Imagining, for example, a virtual cruise ship on which real travel agencies could initially present their trips.

When you meet a world creator like Evgeniya, she enthusiastically takes you to visit other places she has created. That’s how she teleported us to her coral reef, where she imagines setting up underwater diving agencies. The most fascinating thing is that I truly feel like I have met this person, who lives in New York and whom I may never meet in real life. Her avatar is simple, but I would surely recognize her on my next visit. Regardless of her appearance I would recognize her hairstyle or dress pattern, because I have met her once and heard her voice. Ultimately, maybe it’s not necessary to personalize your avatar with ultra-stylish accessories sold as NFTs? Even though it’s a good idea to wear your best outfit at Metaverse Fashion Week…

I can recognize who is who between Nicolas and me in this photo, even though we both chose the same avatar of a small canned tomato.

Screenshot of 2 characters of canned tomatoes with the writing Good Tomato with red and white and a smiley face

When I choose the appearance of my avatar, the colour of my clothes or skin doesn’t really matter in the end. I know that my identity will be revealed by their aspect like my voice — my vocal imprint. The way I move my head, whether I look at my interlocutor or not, whether I move my hands or not while speaking. This would be the telltale sign regardless if I interact as a tall woman with Claudia in my handbag on Second Life, a cyborg-eyed space uniform in BigScreen. Or even with blue hair and a bindi on my forehead in Horizon, which is the first image you had of me when reading the WAQ program.

Celia’s Avatar int he WAC programme presentation. Character with short blue hair and a bindi, wering a jean jacket and a hoodie in a virtual living room.

You might have expected me to really have blue hair and a bindi on my forehead, and I’m curious to know if you would have recognized me with that avatar in the Metaverse, now that you’ve heard me speak and seen me move throughout this presentation.

As we are slowly approaching the landing phase, I would like to conclude this journey into the Metaverse with the Agence Pizza. I would like to highlight three points of vigilance, three risks, that I perceive for the future of Metaverses — not to mention the environmental risks of energy consumption, which is a real issue but for which I lack comparison elements with other co-presence solutions (organizing a meeting, a party, a trip).

First risk: cultivating the same garden over and over again

I am referring here to walled gardens, which are closed gardens that in the digital world refer to platforms that have very little interaction with other external web services. In order to control as much as possible what happens on their platforms, especially with regard to advertising content. If each Metaverse targets a certain type of user, personalizes its interface, its interactions, it’s precisely to reach its specific audience. This is evident on platforms like RecRoom that target younger audiences by basing all their interactions on playful forms.

This “new Internet” is approached from the perspective of brands that position themselves in a marketing segment, which has become a territory within the Metaverse : each brand chooses its economic partner. Spotify chooses Roblox, NBA chooses Rec Room, Carrefour Group buys land on The Sandbox, Coachella festival sets up camp on Fortnite, and so on.

Why invest so much in a virtual space? According to a Gartner study published in early 2022, one in four people (25% of the population) could spend at least one hour a day in the Metaverse by 2026.

And is this audience that we are trying to capture not actively participating in the game of brands, taking sides for one or the other Metaverse platforms? Are we so used to being brand ambassadors on the web and social media that we no longer allow ourselves to be just tourists, who wander online without giving our opinion, without rating with five stars, without personally engaging with the tool we use?

Personally, I believe more in the need for interoperability standards between platforms, the circulation of content from one platform to another, and when I say content, I also mean users as virtual bodies. That’s why I created the Agence Pizza : to offer a diversity of destinations across all existing Metaverses, and not just promote the hotspots of a single platform.

Second risk: Lack of imagination

When Meta promotes its Builder Bot, an artificial intelligence that is supposed to create a virtual universe with simple voice commands, it seems very revealing to me that Mark Zuckerberg chose the cliché of a beach. Obviously, the robot will create a white sandy beach with palm trees and a tropical atmosphere. When in reality there’s a myriad of ways to imagine a beach! The danger of Meta’s vision is that it can render our imagination completely stunted, in a time we actually need to strengthen it. And it’s quite difficult in the end to find places in the Metaverse that are invented for the virtual world, and not just a reproduction of a real place.

Once again, creators are essential to our balance in the Metaverse, because they are the only ones who can imagine crazy universes like this labyrinthine house that houses Bernie Sanders and his mittens.

Third risk: Disappearing overnight

If I connect to a platform where some universes are no longer accessible, how can I project myself into a sustainable future with the Metaverse ?

For the launch of the Agence Pizza, we chose the date of the European Heritage Days and a very symbolic place: the Ouvroir. This virtual universe was imagined by Chris Marker in 2008 on Second Life, with the help of a developer. This world can disappear at any moment if the rights holders of Chris Marker do not realise the importance of preserving this place. The Ouvroir is part of our digital heritage, and if we create new virtual spaces in the Metaverse , we must also think about how to preserve them.

In memoriam of Alt Space VR

In the Agence Pizza, we selected selfies as a method of archiving. It allows us to keep a record of my visit to a place, who I was at that time, and under which avatar I connected. It’s also a way to preserve the memory of a shared good moment, a meeting. Not only that, but it’s our travel journal, which we export from the Metaverse to circulate it on other online platforms, social networks, and of course the Agence Pizza website.

We have come to the end of this journey, and I hope I have inspired you to travel with us again. I invite you to visit our website, choose a destination, and go there. Even if you are not equipped with a virtual reality headset, as most destinations are accessible from your computer, sometimes your gaming console, or even your mobile phone. If you don’t know where to go, ask Claudia for help or pick a business card!

Then come back to to write us a comment and tell us about your stay. And why not share a little selfie? We remain available with the hashtag #voyagepizzza.

Thank you for your attention !

Transcreated by Andrés Cortés, Célia Bonnet-Ligeon and proofread by Andy Fidel



Andrómeda Cyanüro

Pluridisciplinary artist working on the different status of artistic reception. Questioning epistemology and phenomenology to make practice and theory closer.