Decentralizing the Metaverse
First of all, what is a “metaverse”?
Wikipedia gives a simple and clear explanation: “[A metaverse is] a network of 3D virtual worlds focused on social connection.”
Let’s analyze the keywords: “Network”, “3D”, “Virtual worlds”, and “Social connections”
This is a key element. There is no MetaVerse if there is no network. The “Internet” is born as the “network of networks”: it’s the connection of computer networks around the world into one entity. In the same way, the “metaverse” should be the connection of 3D virtual worlds around the internet into one entity. A connection of many different, independent, unique 3D virtual worlds able to work together as well as independently.
As an analogy, let’s think about how in the early days of the internet users would host their webpages on their computers at home or at their workplace, and would jump from one website to another thanks to hyperlinks. In the same way in the metaverse, users should host their 3D world independently, and travel from one 3D world to another through “portals”, which means, underneath the UI, standard protocols as HTTP was for the worldwide web.
Yet, in the metaverse, while users travel between independent and self-managed worlds, their avatars can maintain their look, identity, and assets thanks to underlying layers such as blockchains and decentralized storage systems.
We need to re-decentralize the web and build a decentralized metaverse. When the internet was decentralized, we used to visit independent and self-managed websites and exchange emails through self-hosted and independent mail servers. Now 90% of the world’s email accounts are managed by a few companies (Gmail, Outlook Live, Yahoo, etc), and the few websites people visit are on a handful of hosting companies (AWS, WordPress, Go Daddy, hostgator, etc).
If we lose the “network” part of the metaverse definition, we may end up with a unique virtual world managed by a single company, where users’ interactions are moderated, users are banned by bots, everyone must follow imposed rules, be subject to limitations, and freedom of speech is limited.
Let’s not confuse 3D with “Virtual Reality”. Virtual Reality is an immersive way to experience a 3D world, but a 3D world can also be visited using a simple computer monitor. There are several levels of definition in 3D worlds, from a pixelated Minecraft to a high definition Fortnight.
3D, and Virtual Reality, are nothing new. Initially adopted by the army for simulation and training, VR helmets have also been adopted in psychiatric treatments and for gaming. I was personally involved with VR in the early 90s, first as a VR videogame user (see photo below) then as a developer for a VR psychotherapy system.
Today it is very cheap to purchase a 3D headset, and it can even be built with cardboard for free (just need a mobile phone). So, let’s clarify that the metaverse, as in 3D worlds, is accessible on the flat screen of your computer without the need for dedicated hardware but, for those that want the full immersion in a 3D world, today the tools to experience it are easily accessible.
Another way to experience items from a 3D world is to mesh them with the real world through augmented reality applications. It is possible, for example, to augment items from the metaverse into a physical desk when looking at it through a mobile phone or an AR visor. Alone or with others.
We can think of a “virtual world” in many ways. Dungeons & Dragons, for example, a tabletop role-playing game, is a “virtual world” where players interact. Computer managed virtual worlds have existed since before the internet, with text-only interfaces, as games on Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) accessible via dial-up by many users, just not all at the same time.
The first well-known multi-user 3D virtual world, with its own economy, was “Second Life”, released in 2003. While the main purpose of multi-user virtual worlds is in the majority for gaming, the use of multi-user virtual environment worlds (MUVWs) for learning has been gaining popularity in education since the mid-2010s. Many more use cases and deployed solutions have followed, with tools to build them and publish them on the Internet.
OpenSimulator, whose source code is released under a BSD License, is an open-source 3D virtual world server. It is free to download, and once deployed can act as an independent 3D virtual world or, using an extension, users connected to it can visit other OpenSimulator installations across the web, making it a nascent distributed Metaverse.
There are other platforms that use blockchain and smart contracts, which are more focused on selling “virtual land” in their “virtual world”, and IMO are slowly becoming a bit centralized places: Decentraland, The Sandbox, Somnium Space.
The marriage of the 3D virtual world with the blockchain has been unavoidable and has brought many new possibilities to the users. Blockchain, and with its cryptography and NFTs, allow the singularity of digital assets, and this opens the doors to serious business in the metaverse, where all elements are digital. Not only can we be sure, through digital signatures, that the person behind a familiar avatar is who they claim to be, but we can purchase and resell digital items.
If IRL (in real life) someone is happy to pay big money for a branded product, say a Rolex watch, it is mainly for 3 reasons: they like the item, they know they can resell it for a value, and they may want to show off owning it. Now, thanks to the marriage between Blockchain, NFTs, and metaverse, those luxury brands can sell virtual items, making them original pieces, allowing the person that purchases them to resell them at a value, and letting them show the item off on the metaverse. Worthy of note is the adoption of 3D virtual worlds by art galleries and museums, where digital art can be exposed and thus purchased by visiting users in the form of NFTs.
The possibility to visualize and analyze an item that doesn’t exist in the real world is a plus to justify entering a 3D virtual world with other people. Is it the virtual representation of the planning for the development of a city or the interior design of a house, surgery on a virtual patient, the social use of 3D virtual worlds has been a very useful tool in business and in learning?
Yet thanks to 3D multiplayer video games, kids today meet up in a 3D virtual world to play together and discuss the game in a voice chat. The COVID-19 pandemic has surely accelerated the adoption of virtual worlds to facilitate remote workers, a way to be at the office while staying at home. We are now at a point where the cultural revolution around the use of technologies for socialization may well see us meeting friends for a “virtual” dinner at a restaurant table in the metaverse, where we can interact in a far better way compared to today’s social networks. We can share not only thoughts, but also items, places, and interact in games and activities.
Isolating a group of users into a single place is not going to help the popularity of that 3D virtual world. As the ecosystem grows, different parts of it are managed separately in respect of a common protocol, to come together only when needed. Ideally, we will manage what is ours in our own server, our identity and with it our avatar. Now, this comes as a service, for example for our avatar. For digital items, the blockchain will be the way we control what we own in the metaverse and sell it if we wish to do so.
It is the social aspect that makes the metaverse what the definition says it is. With many 3D virtual worlds interconnected, and the freedom to visit those that welcome us, bringing with us our identity and our assets, cryptographically secured, then we can decide to spend an afternoon with a friend at the fireplace for a chat, follow a science lecture at a university, go listen to a concert in a theatre, consult the biggest library in existence, hold a business meeting, visiting several metaverse servers, where we can interact with people and AI bots from any part of the planet, in the comfort of our home.
A network of 3D virtual worlds focused on social connection.
I am working for a layer one platform for the metaverse ecosystem…