Going out for coffee is the best part of the day. She leaves her tiny apartment with her sullen roommates and goes to a cafe two blocks away. She customizes every order. Today it is cookies and cream and almond and vanilla foam, with a dash of green pistachio for flair. There’s coffee in there too, but it’s kind of beside the point. She orders the largest size, always iced.
“That’ll be $32.85,” the barista says.
Sure, the coffees add up, but it doesn’t even matter. What else is she going to buy? New York City was expensive before inflation spun out of control, but now it’s unlivable. She is a designer with a decent income, yet purchasing a home or a car is impossible. Even a grown-up piece of furniture feels out of reach. Not like she would have anywhere to put it, anyway. Her landlord is planning to raise the rent in two months, and she will probably have to move, though she has no idea where.
This work of fiction is part of CoinDesk's Metaverse Week
“So what’s the latest?” the barista asks. She has told him about her upcoming move, mostly because he’s one of the only people that she regularly interacts with in real life. His living situation is even worse than hers. He lives in an equally small apartment, but it’s a 90-minute commute away. She knows his working hours and plans her visits around them which sometimes feels a little pathetic, but he always seems genuinely happy to see her, even a little nervous sometimes. He’s tall with expressive eyes and has the best collection of sneakers she has ever seen.
“Right now my two best options are moving back in with my parents or leaving the city. But I have no idea where to go. So yeah, it’s not looking great.”
“Have you thought about buying land in the Iroverse?”
“It’s a world that came out last month, one of my good friends from college is a co-founder,” he says.
“What do you mean, a world?”
“A virtual world. Like a game.”
She has already lost interest in this conversation. She tried the whole metaverse thing a few years ago and didn’t get what the hype was about. At the time VR was still terrible, and she had to use her laptop keyboard to awkwardly move her avatar back and forth on a computer screen. She found herself wandering alone through pixelated, largely industrial landscapes. Where was everyone? She would be relieved to log off and return to her apartment, which was boring and alienating in a more familiar way.
She recognizes, of course, that a lot has changed since then. VR no longer sucks, for one. No more clunky headsets, now the hardware is as light as a pair of reading glasses. She has spent plenty of time in her little room hiking lush trails, playing tennis with strangers or soaring over mountains and rivers in China, just because that is something you can do. She has heard about buying and selling virtual land, but it all sounds complicated and unnecessary. She has enough problems in the real world.
She doesn’t really want to hear about the Iroverse, but she wants even less to go home to the roommates she hardly knows and their passive-aggressive gray cat.
So she asks, “You can buy land there?”
“I just bought my first plot,” he says. “It’s not that big, but it’s in an amazing location, and it’s enough to build on. I’ve already started working on the designs. My friend said he’d help. I’m going to be a homeowner,” he says with a laugh, but she can tell he is really excited.
“But … why?”
“Because I’m sick of the commute. And I want my own space.”
“But you can’t actually live there?”
“It’s an investment property. If Iro does as well as we think it will, I’ll sell it and buy a place in New York.”
“Wow,” she says, because she doesn’t know what else to say. She notices that a line has formed in the cafe. A woman behind her sighs dramatically.
“I guess I better go.”
There is a pause. Then he says, “I’ll be there tonight. Why don’t you come check it out?”
Now he has her full attention. This is the first time he’s ever suggested meeting outside of the cafe.
“Sure,” she says. “I’ll be there.”
It’s immediately clear that Iro is different. First, it’s easy to use. She puts on her glasses and boom, she is surrounded. Second, the designers are top-tier. The world is majestic, glimmering. She is in a green field with infinite space. There is dew on the grass and delicately colored wildflowers. Above her is a soft blue sky with a pale half-moon. As evening progresses the blue deepens, and the moon grows brighter.
She creates an avatar. She chooses a face shape, hair style and eye color that are close to her own. She dresses as carefully as she would for a date. After changing many different times, she chooses a white dress with clean, simple lines. The game suggests she add an oversized orange bag, even though can’t see why she would need a bag or what she would put in it. She considers adding a pair of sunglasses, then remembers that it’s night.
Read More: Living as NFTs in the Metaverse
She thinks she looks pretty good, at least until the barista appears beside her. His jeans are exactly the right cut yet still somehow inventive, and his red sweatshirt fits his digital frame perfectly. He is wearing high-top sneakers made up of golden light beams.
She feels like a loser.
“Those shoes …” she says. “I didn’t see anything like them when I chose my avatar.”
“Yeah,” he says. “The shoes are giveaways for participants in Iro’s first round.” His body language and facial expressions are remarkably similar to real life. She looks down at her sad white flats.
“Check your bag,” he says.
Her big orange bag now contains the same pair of sneakers, except in silver.
“Are you serious!?”
“Welcome to the first round. It was oversubscribed, but I got my friend to let you in.”
Iro’s first round only includes a few thousand people, namely friends and contacts of the founding team, as well as those who were quickest to sign up. Soon, the game will be open to everyone. Because the world is new and thinly populated, land is affordable. So after a couple days of exploring Iro, she decides to just go for it. A huge map looms in front of her. Some patches have been filled in where people have already claimed plots. The land in the center of the map is most expensive, and the prices go down as you move further toward the periphery.
The barista has a small plot right near the center. She wonders if he got a discount from his friend. She can’t understand why location would even matter – she can just teleport anywhere she wants to go. She trades some dollars for IVRS, the platform’s digital currency, and buys a little plot roughly near the upper right corner of the map.
Once the purchase goes through, she is surprised to feel a sharp thrill. She has always been a renter, putting her fate in the hands of NYC landlords. She never imagined she would have land of her own. The deed is on a blockchain, forever. She can do whatever she wants with it. No one can ever take it away from her.
She starts building right away. She wants it to be the total opposite of her NYC apartment. She chooses light wood, high ceilings, minimalist decor. Bright white walls. Iro offers some of the materials for free, but she uses her IVRS to purchase some extras, like a huge bay window. Through it, she can see a little body of water in the distance. She fully throws herself into the task. She finds an online forum about building in Iro and purchases some software to help her with the architecture.
Every minute that she is not working or sleeping she is building her house. She doesn’t even go to the cafe, because she can now see the barista in Iro. His own house is rudimentary, basically just a small, empty brown box with a bar and a turntable – a virtual bachelor pad.
Finally, she is done. The structure is sturdy, if not spectacular, and the roof is a little lopsided. But she doesn’t care. She has a small, two-story home. In her New York apartment, her view is of another little apartment just a few feet away. She can constantly hear the guy upstairs pacing back and forth, her ceiling vibrating from the impact. Now, she is barefoot in her brand-new master bedroom, looking out of her huge window at a vast expanse of digital nothing. She can’t remember the last time she felt this happy.
She leaves Iro to go make a sandwich. One of her roommates is working on his laptop at the kitchen table, his papers and empty coffee mugs covering the whole surface. He barely looks up when she walks in, just gives her a faint nod. She’s not even sure what kind of work he does. On the counter, his gray cat is looking at her in a vaguely confrontational way. She just smiles back. She is already building a life somewhere else.
She spends as much time as possible in her new home, walking barefoot up and down the stairs (there are stairs!) and planting a little rose garden in the front. The barista visits less often now because he started DJing on the porch of his house. She stops by one of his shows to find a small crowd has gathered, including some impossibly stylish female avatars. People are tipping him in IVRS, and a company even bought a small advertisement to post on the side of his house.
She still loves her house but is starting to realize there’s not that much to do there. The solitude and emptiness that first attracted her to her plot of land is now starting to feel a little bit desolate. She now understands the logic of land prices. Even though she can go anywhere in the world with a click of a button, social activity tends to be concentrated at the center of the map.
The larger problem is that her real-world landlord is still planning to raise the rent. And so far, all she has done in Iro is spend. She finds herself frequently exchanging dollars for IVRS, which she then spends on digital gardening tools or paintings for her walls. Her most extravagant purchase is a virtual horse, which also requires a stable and a lot of hay. The barista is making money in Iro, and she has to find a way to do the same.
Her business idea arrives, as they often do, by accident. The barista is taking a break from his set, and they meet at a new independent cafe in Iro, next to his house. The cafe is cute with bright cushions and a breezy outdoor patio, but the coffees themselves are crudely drawn. Just white cups with inky liquid inside. She feels the owner missed a critical detail.
“No one would buy this on the outside,” she whispers, so the cafe’s owner won’t overhear.
She raises her hand, and a pencil appears in front of her. She draws an elaborate beverage with swirls of brilliant pink and sparkling ice cubes. She adds creamy white foam and tops it with a bright red strawberry.
“That’s it,” the barista says, watching her draw with his wide avatar eyes. “You could totally sell that as an NFT.”
“Think about it: A strawberry latte that you can keep forever.”
She starts making drinks and sells them outside his house while he DJs. She wouldn’t have thought there would be so much demand for immutable lattes, but there you are. People love them. She adds matcha and chai and even fruit smoothies. Each beverage is one of a kind, and she finds herself scrambling to meet demand. A constant flow of IVRS enters her wallet.
It helps that Iro has entered its second round and is now open to more people. New users rush in every day, and now there is a waitlist for round three. The map is no longer empty: Houses are sprouting up everywhere, though her neighborhood is still relatively quiet.
A famous rapper buys the property two doors down from the barista, attracting a swarm of fans to the area. The music carries down the street so whenever the rapper performs the barista opens for him, although the rapper never actually agreed to this. The barista’s little house now features various ads by companies that want to capitalize on the location’s traffic. This all benefits her too, as she sells most of her drinks at his shows.
The problem is, she hardly sees him anymore. When he DJs, she can’t even reach him through the dense crowd. Only once she gets close enough to say, “hey,” but he doesn’t hear her. Or maybe he does, but he is too distracted to respond.
She misses talking to him but doesn’t have time to dwell on it. Her business is taking off, buoyed by various tailwinds. IVRS is now listed on a variety of exchanges. Journalists are dazzled by the beauty of Iro’s landscape, just as she was on her first visit, and articles are appearing in America’s biggest publications. Celebrity actors, athletes and singers are sweeping in, spending millions of dollars on property and pushing up prices all over the map. The price of IVRS is up over nearly 1,000% since she first moved in. It feels a little frenzied, but the value of her home is skyrocketing, so she is not about to complain.
But then. One day she notices a woman carrying a gorgeous caramel-colored beverage, except it’s not one of her designs. She zooms in on the cup and sees the logo of the most famous coffee brand in the world. It turns out this company has bought prime real estate smack in the middle of town. She sees ads everywhere. The company has hired a team of world-class designers to create every kind of beverage imaginable. They are also constantly airdropping free drinks and initiating complex rewards programs.
She doubles down. She hires more designers, buys better software and invests in a more vivid and wide-ranging color palette. She also purchases a ton of ads for her drinks, but it’s not even a tiny fraction of what her competitor can afford. As she is fighting for the life of her small business, she can hear the distant sounds of her phone, as her real-life clients ask, where are you, what is going on? She is now only working part-time on the outside and is considering quitting for good.
But she can’t, not yet. She needs all the income she can get. Iro is starting to feel just as expensive as the world she came from. She has now converted so many dollars into IVRS that her bank account balance flashes red. She has already told her landlord that she is leaving but has absolutely no idea what her next move will be. She is sleeping only two to three hours a night and when she runs into one of her roommates in the hallway, he seems almost concerned.
“You OK?” he asks, though it’s not exactly a question.
“You know, just hustling.”
He gives her a faint nod and then goes into his room and quietly shuts the door.
The barista is hustling too, so much that he is not even answering her messages. She goes to see him DJ and waits until the crowd thins out. He is slumped over his turntable, exhausted. Now he has to compete with some of the most well-known DJs in the world. She starts making her way over to him, but then a flash of cobalt catches her eye, and she abruptly stops. There is a familiar logo on the door frame behind him. It takes a minute to register because she can’t believe what she is seeing. The barista has sold an ad to the massive coffee chain that is crushing her business. She has been sending him frantic messages for days, so he knows how hard it has been. She feels so betrayed that she can’t even move. She logs off for the night.
A young couple moves in next door. Now, when she looks out of her huge bay window she sees directly into their yard. If that weren’t bad enough, the couple buys an expensive-looking cat that spends most of its time skulking around outside. For some reason the new animal’s code sets off her horse, who neighs in anguish every time the cat passes by. So now she has to reach into her IVRS wallet yet again to construct a fence that hides the cat from view.
Her drinks are still selling, but she’s had to diversify her menu and now makes cocktails as well. She hires more people to help. The cost of materials is high, and she is barely breaking even. Her one solace is at least she has her house.
But even that investment feels insecure. Her property has value in Iro, and in Iro alone. If the game fails, it will take her house down with it. Iro life is as vibrant as ever, with new celebrities entering by the day, but the platform’s currency gives cause for concern. When she can’t sleep at night, she finds herself refreshing price charts. IVRS is all over the place, sometimes falling 20% to 30% in a day before bouncing back up. Once it’s driven down by a minor hack, another time it’s a U.S. government regulator calling the metaverse a “bubble.” Most alarming, sometimes the price drops for no reason at all.
One early evening, under a rose-gold watercolor sky, the barista reappears. She can see him standing on her porch. He knocks on the door, but she doesn’t answer. She is still upset about the ad and his weeks of ignoring her. She knows he’s been having a hard time too, but at that moment she doesn’t really care. How could he leave her alone in this crazy world? Since she won’t open the door to talk to him, a chat bubble appears above his head.
“I need to talk to you,” the text says. “Please.” She is tempted to ignore him, but his body language has an unusual sense of urgency. He is pacing back and forth very fast on her porch. She reluctantly sends a message back.
“What is it?”
“Meet me on the outside, at the old cafe. I’m already in your neighborhood.”
“Can’t we just talk here? I have a new product line dropping tomorrow.”
“No,” he says. “We can’t. Meet me on the outside.” Then he vanishes. He has logged off.
It is a strange request. He quit his job as a barista ages ago, why does he want to meet at that cafe? She can’t remember the last time she saw a coffee that was actually drinkable. She starts to wonder if something is seriously wrong. She logs off and goes outside, blinking in the sunlight. Somewhere in all of this summer has arrived.
He is already at the cafe, sitting at one of the outside tables. He bears no resemblance to the sharply dressed DJ waving to a sea of fans. There are dark circles under eyes, his skin is so pale it is almost translucent, and he is wearing ill-fitting sweatpants and a stained white t-shirt. He barely makes eye contact.
"Listen," he says, "I shouldn’t be telling you this. No one knows. The founding team is a mess. The CEO has like three other projects and one of them is about to be investigated for fraud. Get out now. Do it today."
He stands up. "I have to go," he says and starts walking.
“Hey,” she calls after him, like she does at his shows. But this time he stops and turns around, if just for a moment.
“Thank you,” she says.
She goes home and puts her house on the market. It sells immediately. IVRS is way down off its peak, but the house still sells for exponentially more than the purchase price, when Iro was a ghost town. As soon as the coins land in her wallet, she converts them into dollars.
Three days later she signs a one-year lease for a new apartment. It’s still far from home ownership but the apartment is clean and bright, and there are no roommates, no cat, just her.
Two days after that, Iro’s CEO is arrested in California. The price of IVRS crashes by 80%.
She’s relieved that she got out in time. But she knows that she’ll never make it in this city, and also that she doesn’t have to try. There will always be another game.
She texts the barista: “So where’s the next world?”
He sends her a map.
More from CoinDesk's Metaverse Week series:
Rather than letting players port weapons or powers between games, non-fungible tokens will more likely serve as building blocks for new games and virtual worlds.
Fundamentally, the "metaverse" is a game – one with real consequences and opportunities.
The possibilities of the metaverse are presumably limitless, but is there anything you can do there right now?
The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.