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Into the metaverse


Last year, Tana Serrano Marín decided to enter the metaverse. The family law attorney in southeastern Spain kept hearing about the vast possibilities of the immersive, 3D online world where everyone from gamers to harried parents seeking an escape interact via cartoonlike avatars. 

First, a guest speaker at her husband’s Rotary club meeting extolled the virtues of the metaverse. Then, a person on the district’s membership committee brought it up. And she watched with interest as brands and businesses adopted the technology to reach customers. Could it catch on with Rotarians? Serrano Marín and her husband decided to find out. 

They started dabbling with Spatial, a platform to create virtual spaces. As interest grew, they took the idea to district officials and lined up club officers. They attended an in-person training session, and the Rotary Club of Metaverso (metaverse in Spanish) was chartered 28 November with a membership roster of 14 women and six men. Most, like Serrano Marín, are from the city of Murcia, near Spain’s Mediterranean coast.  

“What makes thisplatform so immersive is that after just a few sessions, people identify with their avatars online and the experiences become personal,” says Serrano Marín. “It’s quite different from just taking part in a videoconference.”

Image credit: Kathleen Fu

So what’s a Rotary club meeting in the metaverse like? To find out, I planned a visit in January and got to work creating an avatar on Spatial. You can choose one that’s lifelike or experiment with a different look, as did the club member who appeared as Elvis in the meeting space. I chose the former option. 

When the meeting day arrived, I watched my avatar drop into a pink-purple room with a gaming vibe. I was greeted by club member Antonio Carrión Serrano, who acted as my guide and interpreter, as the club language is Spanish. On a computer, keyboard strokes allow you to move, but the skill can require some finesse. On my early attempts, my avatar appeared to walk through others. Another keystroke sent my avatar floating in air with strange motions that looked like swimming. 

Another quirk to the club’s meeting space is that there are no private conversations; everyone can hear you. But that allowed me to meet another newcomer to the metaverse who joined the meeting as a guest, Michel Jazzar, a past district governor from Lebanon. “This is my first time,” confessed Jazzar. “It is something new. As we say in Beirut, ‘New is beautiful.’” 

That people can attend easily from anywhere and fit meetings around busy schedules is a strength of the platform. Member Juanjo Morales Aragón, for instance, says he had heard of Rotary before but had not been able to join because his work schedule prevented him from attending an in-person meeting every week. “It is a format with an enormous capacity to give greater visibility without limits, making the Rotary experience available to everyone,” he says. 

Another plus is the fact that it is more immersive than videoconferencing, says Carrión Serrano, a 20-year-old law student and the son of club founder Serrano Marín. “This is a new concept, quite attractive to young people.”

So you’re ready to join the metaverse

The metaverse allows for a flexible club meeting format with potential to attract a young and diverse membership. But how exactly does one enter? 

Choose your avatar 

You can create your look in a platform like Spatial, choosing a virtual you that looks like, well, you. Some systems allow you to upload a photo of yourself to generate a look-a-like. Or you can change up your look entirely.  

Don’t worry about fancy gear 

The metaverse is best experienced with a virtual reality headset, but you can still get a great sense of what it’s all about from your computer or smartphone screen. 

Keep an open mind 

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us have gotten familiar with Zoom. And Rotary members have chartered e-clubs. The metaverse, proponents say, is just another platform with the power to connect members from across the world.

He is adamant that the metaverse is not a fad, noting that Nike has a space on a platform called Roblox where participants can play games and dress their avatars in Nike apparel. “There are a lot of big projects involving the metaverse. Businesses are here,” he says. “It’s a different way of viewing life. And it’s wonderful for Rotary to be here.” 

He led me into the Sala Paz (Peace Room), where posters on the walls discuss Rotary’s Action Plan, mission, and causes. At the far end of this long rectangular space, a walkway proceeded out over a sea of magenta water. The sky teemed with indigo clouds. I knew it wasn’t real, but I couldn’t avoid feeling that one false move would plunge me headfirst into a pool of lava. 

A virtual bell on stage rang to begin the meeting. I entered the Sala Paul Harris, an auditorium splashed in a deeper shade of purple. On the front wall, a large screen allowed people to share presentations. The auditorium sloped downward with rows of short square seats on either side of a center aisle. Eventually, I figured out how to click on a seat and sit. A regional expert discussed mediation and ways to settle disputes peacefully. Occasionally, applause broke out, sending streams of red hearts soaring into the air. 

Serrano Marín says that the club plans face-to-face meetups in addition to its regular virtual meetings. Members carry out service projects in the real world, like any other club. One of their first projects solicited contributions from 17 companies, which received advertising space in one of the rooms. The contributions were used to buy coats for 17 children in El Palmar, a village near Murcia. Serrano Marín says members also plan to explore causes they can address in the virtual space. 

At least one other club meets in this new domain, the Rotary Club of Taipei Metaverse, which chartered in June 2022 in Taiwan and has nearly 40 members. The idea seems to have appeal, judging from the enthusiastic comments from across the world on a Rotary Voices blog post that Serrano Marín wrote in January. And Jazzar, the past district governor from Lebanon, says his own district is discussing a similar club. “The metaverse is the future,” says Serrano Marín. “Rotary must be there.”

This story originally appeared in the May 2023 issue of Rotary magazine.

Rotary clubs operate around the globe and online, in a variety of formats. Which one is right for you?