TL;DR Web-based Virtual Reality worlds combined with the blockchain-based consensus will create a ‘real’ Metaverse.
Before I begin my post, I have to admit that I’m totally fascinated by the Oculus Rift headset and the Virtual Reality experiences it enables. A couple months ago I’ve tried the DK1 for the first time and it totally blew me away – there were rough edges (DK1 is not a consumer device after all) but the overall quality of the experience was so magical that I became instantly converted.
I’m not sure how long it will take for VR headsets to become mainstream but one thing I’m certain of – people WILL want these experiences, VR is happening and is closer than anyone expects.
So if you’re reading this and you didn’t have an Oculus VR experience yet – then stop reading and try to find someone who can give you a demo. Virtual Reality has to be felt to be fully understood. You’re more than welcome to come back after your first Oculus session and my musings will make more sense to you then.
INTERNET OF (abundant) ‘EXPERIENCES’
Just like the Web enabled us to digitise information and allowed everyone to exchange it at almost zero cost, the VR technology allows us to do the same for ‘experiences’. There’s a qualitative difference between reading about a place, watching a video about that place and ‘being’ in that place. And if you tried Oculus you immediately understand how much more potent the feeling of ‘being’ can be.
Digitisation of ‘experiences’ creates a dynamic of abundance where previously there was scarcity. The best seat at the stadium is suddenly available to everyone in VR, experience of driving the latest sports car model or flying a jet – all available for free, to everyone to experience. And I’m just mentioning the most mainstream experiences.
What about a owning a house in virtual Tuscany…?
A Tuscany house is a interesting example as it is a flagship Oculus demo used for testing purposes. There’s nothing special about it – you can walk around the house, enjoy the view etc.
But the question I’ve been keeping asking myself lately is – “is there only one Tuscany house (there’s one piece of code defining it) or there’s thousands of Tuscany houses (as there are thousands of individual experiences of that house in VR)”?
NON-CONSENSUAL VIRTUAL WORLDS ARE LIKE DREAMS
What I mean by non-consensual is that during most VR demo sessions nowadays, users experience their own, individual version of virtual events in which they are the only character. Progression of events is relevant only to this particular session and user. There’s no continuity inside VR experience, no before & no after. Only the same scene, relived again & again by thousands of users in their own individual, subjective VR universes.
Experiences in non-consensual VR worlds are like dreams – they can be immersive & fascinating but at the same time are completely individual, subjective and limited to a single participant. No agreement with others is necessary to establish what happened. Some users already report that when they’re able to achieve presence in VR, it results in a ‘ghost town’ feeling (http://www.gamedev.net/blog/43/entry-2260394-vr-lessons-learned-so-far/) as there’s no one else around.
Because VR worlds are defined by computer code, they can be re-experienced again and again but every time a parallel experience is created and flow of events starts from square one.
To use our Tuscany house example – everyone has their own house, in their own, temporary version of the virtual world.
Majority of Oculus VR demos are now in this category but there an entire class of upcoming projects in the VR space – called ‘Metaverses’ – that will allow users to have shared experiences in virtual worlds.
CENTRALISED CONSENSUS IN VIRTUAL WORLDS
Of course, the question of ‘consensus’ is central to any Metaverse project. In a ‘non-consensual’ world I’m the only participant and can experience whatever I want.
In a VR space that is experienced with others we need to agree on a set of rules to determine what happened and in what order – consensus is necessary.
Massively Multiplayer Online (MMOs) games already solved this problem for their own game worlds. Consensus is enforced by the platform operator, who determines the actual state of in-game reality that each player sees on their screens. Player identities, item ownership, order of transactions, the issuance of in-game currencies are all maintained by a trusted 3rd party who makes up the rules, provides entertainment platform and charges money.
This works pretty well for games and it’s an extremely lucrative business with multi-million dollar game economies. That model most likely will be adopted for the first VR metaverses – whether that’s an Oculus Store, or other avatar-based virtual chat rooms & meeting places.
Centralised consensus model has many advantages, especially in terms of efficiency – but introduces a whole set of limitations and problems for open VR worlds. By definition such platforms will have to be contained and restricted in terms of VR experiences they offer and business models they use.
The middleman decides what experiences can be offered and most importantly, controls value flows that take place on the platform. An extreme example of that would be Facebook which socialises content production (everyone creates posts, uploads photos etc) and privatises value extraction (advertising money goes only to Facebook).
But if you tried VR, you already know it has way more impact on our psyches than anything we had before. The questions such as ‘what are we allowed to experience in VR’ , ‘who can decide what experiences others can have in VR’ , ‘who will benefit financially from the value created within the virtual worlds?’ are crucial questions we’ll have to answer in the coming years.
I doubt that a centralised, single consensus will be possible on these matters. Facebook is still debating whether images of nipples should be allowed on people’s newsfeeds so imagine the controversy when the politics of VR enters the picture.
DECENTRALISED CONSENSUS VR – THE REAL METAVERSE
I’ll cut to the chase now. I believe that VR metaverses will be the killer application of the emerging blockchain 2.0 tech (I’m specifically looking at Ethereum here).
Simon De La Rouviere did a great job describing why VR+blockchain make sense and I fully agree with him on that.
The blockchain is a perfect technology that can provide VR worlds with a consensus mechanism for virtual worlds that is independent of any third party.
Combined with open web technologies such as Web GL for in-browser 3D rendering, we’ll get powerful tools to design, distribute and experience virtual worlds with independent economies based on cryptocurrency.
Today, the blockchain provides a timestamped ledger for financial transactions – a consensual version of the transaction history. Tomorrow, it could keep a record of events that took place in VR worlds. In the same way it replaces the need for middlemen in the banking sector, it can replace the need for centrally controlled metaverse platforms in the VR worlds.
Your VR identity can be cryptographically verified in the same way Bitcoin ownership is verified today.
The virtual Tuscany house could change owners using smart property contracts and this change would be immediately visible to everyone in the VR worlds. In the same way that the entire altcoin space represents multiple versions of consensus and transaction history, the blockchain-based Virtual Realities could have competing versions of event history. If that doesn’t sound like Singularity, I don’t know what does
DAOs (Decentralised Autonomous Organisations) could suddenly get a very tangible 3D dimension in VR.
Various forms of consensus could be formed using smart contracts with multiple parallel realities. Virtual worlds with virtual economies could be boostrapped from scratch on a laptop by anyone in world.
It sounds sci-fi even to me writing these worlds now but looking at the open technologies that are already here or will soon be ( WebGL, Oculus support in experimental versions of Chrome and Firefox, Ethereum) I’m convinced that will be reality in the next 5 years.
Virtual Reality and cryptocurrencies are both very experimental fields and at their intersection lies Singularity
I’ll be blogging about them in more detail soon. But if you’re hungry for more – listen to the CryptoVR podcast where Wendell from Humint/Hive gives a great intro into these concepts.
Would love to hear your comments too!