While most of us have scarcely begun to grasp the idea of the metaverse, you have already been grappling with it in-depth for a while. How far have you already penetrated this new universe?
Niklaus A. Hodel: It’s a bit like the first mobile phones. We know that they’re coming, but we don’t know what form they’ll ultimately take. Through my work in fashion, I am currently heavily exposed to the metaverse; the industry is investing incredible resources into this potential new business sector. Outside of my work, I have rarely ventured into this parallel world. So I am still observing how things are developing more from the outside.
Simon Husslein: At HEAD in Geneva, where I teach interior design and scenography, we started a project three years ago that explored the new possibilities of designing spaces in virtual reality. At the time there wasn’t all this metaverse hype. The success of this project and my personal interest in immersive experiences gave rise to a wide range of topics that I’m now also focusing on developing with my own company. And yes, hardly a day goes by that we don’t put on the VR glasses that you need to be part of this universe.
They create virtual spaces where you can move around like in real life. Can you give us an idea of what’s that like?
Husslein: Unlike with an on-screen simulation such as you get with a PC, in VR glasses it feels like you’ve been beamed somewhere else. That makes a huge difference in terms of atmosphere. In the future, it will be possible to switch between different worlds of different providers, just as we now hop from one website to the next. There are many different reasons to be there: from games and virtual travel to professional applications such as meetings and schools. Actually, we’re already using virtual reality for meetings on interior design projects. For example, from my office in Zurich, I regularly meet up with staff from Geneva and Munich directly in the virtual spaces we’re working on.
What is the biggest challenge in building such spaces?
Husslein: For me as a designer, my main focus is on how the virtual space feels. We have found that in the long run, people feel more comfortable in spaces that appear abstractly virtual and are not faithfully modelled on physical architecture. Which is why our research is primarily in this area. But regardless of whether a place looks similar to what we already know or takes more of an abstract design approach: it always depends on the reason I want to be in there in the first place. Do I have a meeting there? Or do I want to show off my digital trainers at a virtual concert?
What am I supposed to do with virtual trainers?
Hodel: The trend towards more online presence in the form of meetings, shopping, gaming or social media, will have users beginning to think about how they want to present themselves digitally, or in the metaverse. How do I dress my avatar for a digital interview? How do I present myself when, through my VR glasses, I take a stroll with friends through a virtual New York in the year 2357? Virtual trainers can be both a part of digital self-realisation and a situational accessory, just like in analogue life. Husslein: So far, it’s all still happening on a fairly small scale. People who have been spending time in virtual spaces or have mined NFTs for longer now are extreme insiders. But that will probably change very soon. Just as the world changed with the internet or the dawn of social media.
“IN VR GLASSES, IT FEELS LIKE YOU’VE BEEN BEAMED SOMEWHERE ELSE.”
Will the metaverse replace physical reality to some extent?
Husslein: The metaverse will never be able to replace a walk in the forest. But that’s not the point, if you ask me. For older generations, it’s difficult to see virtual opportunities as equal to physical ones. Because we subordinate the virtual to what we perceive as ‘real’. It’s different for the next generation, they don’t judge like that. It will be utterly normal for them to decide which world to use, depending on what benefit they want. When this generation takes over one day, many things will change radically that we can’t even imagine today.
You have developed the first-ever watch NFTs for Beyer & FTSY8 Fictional Studios. What appealed to you about this project?
Hodel: We’re at the start of something really big and are experiencing a gold-rush atmosphere that’s extremely rare nowadays. On top of this, there’s my great personal interest in watches and the honour of creating something completely new for such a venerable company as Beyer, without any technical limitations. It has sometimes felt a bit like designing my own Christmas present.
Husslein: Carrying out a pioneering project for a strong brand is incredibly exciting. One aspect is no doubt that it lets you better understand the new possibilities; it’s the same kind of curiosity that led to us becoming designers. But it will be a while before I can wear my watch three-dimensionally in the metaverse and walk from the live concert to the next chat room with it on my wrist. On the other hand, it won’t be long before things will develop in this direction. What will then actually be hovering around us or attached to us, nobody knows today. Nevertheless, you get to work on these issues and try things out, struggle, make mistakes, invent cool things – and you activate the brain cells of a lot of people who are wondering: what the heck are you doing, does that make any sense? (Laughs.)
Do you understand this NFT hype?
Hodel: My father regularly sends me articles about sneakers and the price trend of particularly rare and sought-after models: sneakers in the business section of the NZZ or on the cover of “The Economist” – that was unthinkable a few years ago. It’s not all that different with NFTs: they’re a reflection of the present. Even in a thoroughly digitalised world, status symbols are needed. And status symbols are always most exciting wherever people spend a lot of time, which today means on the internet. I imagine that one day we’ll all have a digital wallet containing, among other things, our NFTs, which will be publicly viewable. One of the very first NFT watches could become quite valuable in such a collection. Similar perhaps to the Renaissance tower clock in the Beyer Clock and Watch Museum.
With which of your watches did you first think: “I have got to make that”?
Hodel: “The Nocturnal”. Or as I like to call it unofficially: Chronosaurus. The idea was to create a hybrid between a living organism and a machine for the wrist, in the style of the distinctive and slightly exaggerated game aesthetic. The luminous time display shimmering through the skin, the gold bracelets and diamonds on the ankles: “The Nocturnal” unites the entire Beyer universe of tradition, watchmaking artistry, the understanding of jewellery and a touch of the exotic from the in-house museum.
Husslein: I started with the clock from the film “Pulp Fiction”. For me, this film scene is absolutely iconic. We named the clock “The Hanoi”. The clock “The Continuum”, on the other hand, was drawn with a single, unbroken thread – and that from start to finish wearing the VR glasses, i.e. in the virtual space, where I could walk around the enlarged, three-dimensional clock while drawing. “The Pocket X” completes the circle for Beyer from the first pocket watches sold over 260 years ago to the present day: I would actually love to have such a gem with only four digits that display the time – preferably in physical form.
“ONE OF THE VERY FIRST NFT WATCHES COULD BECOME QUITE VALUABLE.”
With you, Mr. Hodel, it’s all very technical and playful. And yet one can’t help thinking: actually, these ideas are almost feasible.
Hodel: Almost like in the past at the Geneva Motor Show, when there were all these fantastic prototypes whose innovations suprisingly always took a little longer to get ready for series production (laughs). The “Solarograph” is powered by solar cells in the sub-dials, has no wearing parts and has a power reserve of three months when fully charged. It is my interpretation of sustainability. With the “Multigraph”, you can control seven complications by turning the bezel. The hands jump to the correct position depending on the function. In the real world, a mechanism of this kind would probably make a watch at least as thick as a Swiss army knife.
Were there any crises when designing the NFTs? Where did you get it wrong?
Hodel: I love watches. But it wasn’t until I was designing it that I realised how absurdly high the precision and perfection are that we are used to as a watch standard. Dial, lugs, bezel, hands, the materials: it took quite a while before it all came together for me. Unlike with any other object of daily use, a micrometre makes all the difference to a watch. “The Nocturnal", on the other hand, was drawn in five minutes.
Husslein: It wasn’t at all easy to free myself from the technical specs for real-world watches and approach the matter with an open mind. It was only later on that the thought occurred to me: I could make it even more extreme! I want pink! I want neon! Hodel: We are both used to designing for existing brands and varying the language in their DNA. It’s not easy to break free from that. It helped me to imagine Mr Beyer opening a box in the curiosity corner of his museum, taking out the chameleon – and astounding the visitors.
If you could pick out an NFT watch from this collection that is not your own: Which would you choose?
Hodel: “The Hanoi” by Simon: I grew up with “Pulp Fiction”. And anyone who has ever received or inherited a watch from their father knows its incomparable emotional value. Which is what this scene is about. That’s why the message is so powerful. And now this clock is no longer just a film prop, but an object that can be bought.
Husslein: I’ll take the chameleon. Because it stands out from the collection and says: so much more is possible in the digital world than we can even imagine at the moment.