Stepping out of a bright-pink Bentley in front of Paris Hilton's Beverly Hills mega-mansion, I instinctively check my sleek blonde bob.
Over my shoulder is a brand new Gucci handbag, my white T-shirt emblazoned with one of the hotel chain heiress's famous slogans – 'That's hot' – which I've bought specially for the occasion.
It's New Year's Eve, after all, and I'm here to party the night away with hordes of other glamorous revellers – and even newlywed Paris herself.
Only the truth is that I'm not really here at all – not in the way you might imagine.
I'm sitting in my kitchen 5,500 miles away in north London.
And the Paris World I'm visiting is entirely virtual, an internet-based creation that plays out only on my computer screen.
Some claim this is the future of human interaction: three-dimensional virtual reality worlds online that open up business and socialising opportunities, unique celebrity experiences and even virtual clothes shopping to everyone, at the touch of a button
My clothes and the Gucci bag are digital, only ever to be 'worn' by my personal avatar online, even though I paid for them with real money on my credit card. The rented Bentley is the product of a web designer's computer pixels.
Welcome to the brave new dystopian world of the metaverse, which is already drawing in hundreds of millions of young fans across the globe.
Some even claim this is the future of human interaction: three-dimensional virtual reality worlds online that open up business and socialising opportunities, unique celebrity experiences and even virtual clothes shopping to everyone, at the touch of a button.
Billions are now being invested in the creation of these worlds by tech giants such as Microsoft's Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive of Facebook – now renamed 'Meta' – because of the enormous profits to be made.
It might sound bizarre, even incomprehensible, but here in the metaverse anyone can buy cars, houses, land and entire wardrobes of designer clothes, shoes and accessories that don't exist beyond the screen.
No one can drive the £2,500 digital car or a £3,000 virtual moped that were both for sale on New Year's Eve – yet the money involved is all too real.
Canny celebrities such as US rapper Snoop Dogg and Ms Hilton are thought to be making substantial sums from fans who pay for the privilege of moving an avatar around virtual worlds, attend online events and concerts and purchase a bewildering variety of virtual products.
Luxury brands have spotted the extraordinary opportunities these worlds offer, too. Last May, Gucci marketed digital 'spaces' in an online 'Gucci Garden' so users could 'try on' and buy limited-edition digital clothes. None of the products existed beyond the screen, yet Gucci Garden says it had 19 million visitors in just two weeks.
Other brands include Balenciaga, which has hired a 'chief metaverse officer' to develop a virtual clothing line, Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger, Nike and Adidas.
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Mail on Sunday reporter Tali Fraser (left). Tali Fraser's digital version (right)
But reinventing yourself online with a fantasy lifestyle and the accessories to match is only the start.
Zuckerberg has bet £7.4 billion developing a sophisticated 3D 'reality' in which people can immerse themselves for business or pleasure. And Gates, who is already creating virtual reality offices, believes these will replace Zoom calls and video conferencing within the next two or three years.
He plans to introduce the 250 million users of Microsoft's Teams video- calling software to these virtual offices, where your avatar could take centre-stage in the meeting, dressed in designer gear, while you sit in bed with your pyjamas on.
Companies have already made this step, with consulting firm Accenture developing its own virtual office, nicknamed 'the Nth floor', where staff can hold meetings and have coffee breaks together.
Inevitably there are concerns about safety, bullying and sexual behaviour. One Meta user claimed their avatar was groped by another.
Meta has pledged to work on security. But worries are prevalent – particularly because users are predominantly young. Age checks are not universal although some sites say users must be at least 13.
One leading platform, Roblox – which hosts Paris World – told the US authorities that more than half its users were aged under 13 in 2020.
Another metaverse, Decentraland, has terms and conditions emphasising that a parent or guardian must review them with their child and agree to 'accept full responsibility for that child's use of the site including all financial charges'.
The Center for Countering Digital Hate, an online monitoring group, says the metaverse 'is a haven for hate, pornography and child grooming'.
My experience of getting started in this online world was easy, although the process varies from site to site.
For Roblox and Paris World I simply downloaded an app on to my iPad. I chose an avatar, then it was all a bit like a computer game.
Some platforms recommend virtual-reality headsets and glasses to fully immerse yourself, but I did without – the technology remains expensive and the headsets are heavy.
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I furnished myself with a shiny blonde bob for £1 and the T-shirt, which cost £2. As I may not ever own a Gucci bag in real life, I happily spent £10 on a virtual Gucci Horsebit 1955 shoulder bag. Gucci and Roblox are understood to share the profits from anything spent by users
It was free to enter Paris World, although the avatar designs seemed more dated and chunkily designed than the slick, modern computer game animations most people will be used to.
(Some other platforms work with more sophisticated avatars, such as the one I created with a selfie on the Ready Player Me website, pictured right.)
I furnished myself with a shiny blonde bob for £1 and the T-shirt, which cost £2. As I may not ever own a Gucci bag in real life, I happily spent £10 on a virtual Gucci Horsebit 1955 shoulder bag. Gucci and Roblox are understood to share the profits from anything spent by users.
Tempting as it was, I ruled out spending £200 on Gucci's digital version of its Dionysus bag.
While it would supposedly be mine for ever, I couldn't put my lipstick – or anything else for that matter – inside it, or show it off to my real-life friends. All I could do would be to place it on my avatar's shoulder.
I then bought a £23 Royalty Pass, which gave me unlimited access to all VIP areas, cars and even jet-skis. Everything online is displayed in digital currencies such as 'Robux' and the crypto currency Ethereum.
Product prices change constantly, as do exchange rates.
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Among the array of virtual goods for sale in the metaverse are an Abyssus sports car – which can’t be driven – and Gucci handbags, which will never adorn an actual shoulder. The Horsebit 1955 bag can at least also be bought in real shops for about £1,200. But the ‘limited edition’ car will only ever be the stuff of dreams. Is this worth paying for?
Moving my avatar around, I visit a virtual version of Santa Monica pier – complete with ferris wheel – where some of Paris Hilton's three-day real-life wedding celebrations were held in November, when she married a venture capitalist.
It turns out that, in truth, Paris Hilton is still on honeymoon and her digital version is 'joining' us from a beach on the Maldives.
I take a virtual helicopter ride, and even take my avatar dog – part of the Royalty package – to view Paris's hacienda-style $350,000 [£250,000] dog kennel.
Chatting to fellow party-goers involves typing messages through a keyboard, although this is one aspect of the technology that is rapidly improving. It's fair to say my conversations are brief.
Even Paris herself – or whoever was representing her behind the screen – appears to say 'hello' to her guests before taking to the stage for a live DJ set.
Paris – in the flesh already estimated to be worth £200 million – is said to charge £750,000 to spin records in real life, so I console myself that this virtual performance is probably a snip. Compared with what Snoop Dogg charges, it most certainly was.
The Snoopverse hosts a collection of more than 20,000 cars, a recreation of his Californian mansion and a venue for live concerts on a platform called the Sandbox. But, astonishingly, to enter would have cost just under £2,000. At least Snoop Dogg is honest. Joking with the US comedian Kevin Hart, he recently admitted: 'I don't know s*** about it but I am getting this money.'
Instead I try Decentraland and attempt to buy a virtual car. The cheapest cost one Ethereum – equivalent to more than £2,500. There were art galleries, too – and this, perhaps, explains part of the appeal. Online investments are booming as owners hope to see their digital art appreciate in value as the market grows.
This is the driving force behind a current boom in digital art – works which are bought with cyber currency and only exist online. One digital artwork for sale in Decentraland featured Doctor Who cybermen and could be acquired for £1,000. I declined.
Even auction house Sotheby's has its own building here, a replica of its New Bond Street headquarters, which is currently hosting a Banksy exhibition. It is reported to have made $100 million in digital art sales so far.
Had I been a gambler, my avatar could have joined a digital version of Texas hold'em, where the cards are dealt by a frog dressed in a tuxedo. For real money, of course.
As Sotheby's success suggests, extraordinary sums are already being made. The 40 million users of Roblox – which hosts Paris World – claimed it was expecting to earn more than $1.5 billion in revenue last year
Decentraland will host a 'fashion district' created by Andrew Kiguel, a businessman who owns 50 per cent of a virtual real estate company. He paid $2.5 million for 116 pieces of virtual land on which it will be sited.
In the real world, that sum could buy a five-bedroom period property with acres of land in the most lucrative parts of the country.
Kiguel was inspired after seeing Decentraland host a four-day metaverse music festival with 80 artists and 50,000 virtual attendees in October.
PwC, one of the big four consultancy firms, has bought virtual real estate.
Many question the wisdom of buying virtual possessions.
But just like cryptocurrencies, some say virtual belongings – from houses to land to artwork, or even limited-edition Nike trainers – could end up being valuable, or at least increasing in value, just like in the real world. They could then be sold online to other users.
As Gucci's chief marketing officer Robert Triefus says: 'We have proven to ourselves through these collaborations that the virtual world can create a very significant new revenue stream.
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Last May, Gucci marketed digital 'spaces' in an online 'Gucci Garden' so users could 'try on' and buy limited-edition digital clothes. None of the products existed beyond the screen, yet Gucci Garden says it had 19 million visitors in just two weeks (File image)
'People are willing to pay good money for digital collectibles, and to have a second life in the metaverse.'
There is potential in other areas too, tech companies say.
Remote surgery, for example, is already possible, but, via the metaverse, surgeons could appear as avatars in operating theatres across the other side of the globe. Machine training could take place in a safe environment without accidents.
But not all of the tech giants are in favour. Critics include, perhaps surprisingly, former Twitter chief Jack Dorsey and Tesla boss Elon Musk. Both believe this is yet another bid by tech companies to assert dominance by taking control of our future interactions.
Musk argues there is no 'compelling' reason for the existence of the metaverse, while Dorsey has appeared to mock Zuckerberg's Meta venture by agreeing with a tweet that branded it a 'dystopian corporate dictatorship'.
Jeremy Dalton, PwC's head of virtual and augmented reality, told The Mail on Sunday he recognised that it presented both an 'enticing and frightening' prospect for the future as every eyebrow raise, head nod and lip curl could be tracked by technology to provide companies with data and insights into your behaviour.
For the moment, the future success of the metaverse – as long as the profits roll in – is guaranteed.
But users should perhaps take note of the fate of those whose lives become too entangled in virtual reality, as described in Neal Stephenson's dystopian novel Snow Crash, which created the idea of the metaverse.
Continuously connected to the online world with portable terminals, goggles and other equipment, its inhabitants are nicknamed 'gargoyles' due to their grotesquely hunched, pale appearance. In today's version of the metaverse, they'd be considerably out of pocket, too.