Into the Metaverse

Into the Metaverse
'Creation of My Metaverse' by Serwah Attafuah

Whether you like it or not, the metaverse is coming. An accumulation of a decades worth of technology, acronyms, controversy and debate, it’s a catch-all term for a consciousness shift from our known physical reality to an unknown digital playground—one with its own currencies, governance structures, creative aesthetic, and imagined identities. But as we design and build this lawless reality, is there any hope for regulating it along the way?

As part of Semi Permanent Sydney's Future State sessions, five innovators in the metaverse space (in partnership with Perion) appeared on stage to dismantle, discuss, and chart a path for the opportunities the metaverse presents, as well as the pitfalls we will have to navigate along the way. 
Video game presenter, streamer, and panel moderator Stephanie Bendixsen understands the problem. An avid player, observer and commentator in the gaming world, she watched as a proto-metaverse developed organically in online video game environments (like that of Fortnite or Destiny 2) before profit-driven developers began using NFTs as a way to exploit them.  It's one of the main reasons distrust has proliferated among the gaming community, and a good position to launch a conversation among its most sceptical audience.
But first, a few definitions: 
  • The Metaverse: A virtual-reality space in which users can interact with a computer-generated environment and other users.

  • Web3: An idea for a new iteration of the World Wide Web based on blockchain technology, which incorporates concepts such as decentralisation and token-based economics

  • Blockchain: A shared, immutable ledger that facilitates the process of recording transactions and tracking assets in a network. 

  • NFTs (Non Fungible Tokens): Cryptographic assets on a blockchain with unique identification codes and metadata that distinguish them from each other(most commonly known for verifying ownership of digital art).

Charting the opportunity 

When asked about where the metaverse has the most exciting potential, Meta’s Jason Juma-Ross summed up the panel response with a single word: everything. 

“This is probably going to impact all area areas of our lives over the next 10 to 20 years.”

Jason Juma-Ross

For For Deloitte Digital’s Emad Tahtouh, the frictionless, borderless nature of the metaverse is a foundation to improve the user experience of a range of different processes—describing his recent experience of buying a house as a good example of what Web3, blockchain, and NFT technology will solve: "The number of organisations and bodies you have to interact with, the ID checks, transferring assets and waiting days and days is crazy," he says. "We now have this generation coming up in the metaverse and they're the ones who are going to be driving change and forcing organisations to change their systems and their behaviours." 
Into the Metaverse
Stephanie Bendixsen
Anita Fontaine, who has built shared and mixed-realities as part of her practice for close to two-decades, sees a huge opportunities in the ability of the metaverse to solve for issues like mental health, wellness, and freedom of expression for marginalised communities. Hers is a vision of a world where people can come and 'try on' a new identity (like a goth) for a time, and where VR pharmacies administer wellness experiences with a neural impact not unlike a real life one. It’s a pursuit of the ultimate shared environment—one that is open, ubiquitous, invisible, seamless, and an improvement of how we experience the world today.    

A new art industry

For artists and creators like Serwah Attafuah, the NFT and broader Web3 space offered a way to navigate around the traditional gallery route and the high barriers to entry that come with it. After her vivid 3D and mixed-media works found a rapid following online, she was able to list and self-release them through platforms like Foundation until more established legacy platforms like Sotherby’s invited her to partake in their own NFT projects as well. She points to the NFT space as one that can empower emerging artists, particularly those from marginalised backgrounds and situations, to be in control of their creative freedom and finances at once. 

“It’s sick for a 300 year old auction house like Sotherby’s to come to Web3 artists and ask us ‘what do you want to do?’ We want to sell your work on your terms.”

Serwah Attafuah

Into the Metaverse
Serwah Attafuah
Platforms (like Foundation and Opensea) allow artists to list their work at significantly lower costs and fees than traditional gallery environments, and smart contracts (a way to describe a contract that is held accountable by blockchain technology) means that creators get a royalty each and every time their artwork is re-sold online. “I can specify if they hold the copyright or if I do” she says. “I can decide if any collectibles come with the piece. The smart contract can have anything in it, and to have that inside an artwork is really empowering as a self-managed artist.” 

“Ultimately it really does benefit the artist and it does benefit the individual as far as having that proof of ownership.”

Emad Tahtouh 

Into the Metaverse

The broader implications

As we begin to discuss a change in reality and user experiences, there are broader uses, implications and themes emerging in this world too. Mitch Penman-Allen of PTE(play to earn) gaming company Perion describes how gamers from the Phillipines have been able to earn a living and participate in a domestic labor market they once had no access to. Attafuah mentions artists and musicians in her community who have used NFTs to fund entire tours, merch drops, and even find financial freedom in situations of domestic hardship. Juma-Ross points out how the lower barrier to entry for entrepreneurs will open up entirely new and experimental industries. And as a whole, this uncharted new world evens the playing field for those who couldn’t necessarily get a foot in the door. 

It is a chance for a little bit of redistribution of wealth. You look at a game like Fortnite, where people happily spend thousands on skins, and the money sits with the developer. Decentralised games allow you to distribute that. People want to invest in the game but they also want to invest in the economy.”

Emad Tahtouh

Into the Metaverse
Mitch Penman-Allen
Juma-Ross sees this as an inevitable progression of technology—from 2D media to immersive 3D realities and all that comes with it. “If you think about the way technology has progressed… it shouldn't be surprising that the next paradigm of this is going to be be much more engaging and much more immersive. The metaverse gives us body language, facial expression and spatial orientation of audio in a way that we don't really, really have right now. So hopefully this will make things a lot more human.” 
Into the Metaverse
Jason Juma-Ross

Addressing the challenges

Of course, the metaverse/NFT debate is a contentious one, with both sided having dug their toes in the sand. It’s a combination of fears both founded and speculative—of scams, security, exploitation and the unknown—and one that needs to be addressed for any collaborative future to take place. So how do we convince the masses that the benefits outweigh the possible consequences? 
“Every other day there's a headline on a massive exploit or hack” says Tahtouh. “There's phishing attacks, security breaches etc. I don’t think that’s a reflection of the technology, but the fact that it’s so new and developers are moving very fast and breaking a lot of things. We’ve had large institutions who did suffer exploits, but are now incredibly tough and secure.”

“People stop fearing things once it becomes ubiquitous. Explaining blockchain is really hard. But I’d love to know how many people can explain how an internal combustion engine or manual transmission works. We just ask 'does this go fast?' And if so, I’ll take it.”

Emad Tahtouh

Juma-Ross backs this with the understanding that building new technologies requires foundational principles—and the responsibility of todays participants will set the tone for what this new world is built upon. “We have to design and put the parametres in place now to encourage good behaviour from the outset” he says. “We need to do more research and think really hard about this and figure out what the right design principles are. Normally, user experience is designed for the individual user. When designing for metaversal technology, you’re also designing for the people around them. So you have this principle around design for everyone. It’s important to get that right up front.” 

“I don't think we should be ashamed of [releasing NFTs]. Everyone’s like ‘you should feel weird about making money off your art’. What’s up with that?”

Serwah Attafuah

Fontaine notes that while large organisations and brands have the capital to experiment in this space, the decentralised governance of most metaverse projects will be up to the broader community to steer. 
“It should be opened up and not dictated by one brand or another. We’re getting into a deep issue of brands and platforms controlling people’s minds—especially in terms of manipulation in advertising. We first need to have a conversation about our physical public space. It’s quite invasive seeing advertising so is it ok to have billboards everywhere? In the metaverse we need to figure out a way to protect these spaces and keep them pure and artistic and well intentioned and not for the sake of selling, which is what is happening now.” 
Into the Metaverse

Into the metaverse 

So where to from here? Do we accelerate towards a utopia of VR pharmacies, meetings in virtual forests, and gaming as a serious career path? Or do we slow it down and take some time to lay down the ground rules first. 
Back to that all-encompassing word of ‘everything’ and the ability of the metaverse to improve, diminish, or destroy todays processes altogether. For Tahtouh, the ability of Web3 to accelerate fractional ownership of assets, including property, is a huge interest area. For Attafuah, the blockchain’s ability to elevate a whole new artistic community—particularly from marginalised communities—is enormously beneficial both financially and creatively. For Juma-Ross, it’s in higher bandwidth channels for education, collaboration, social good, and entrepreneurship. For Penman-Allen, it’s bringing together a new communities who can succeed socially, financially, and creatively in ways never before thought possible. And for Fontaine, it’s the ability of the metaverse to power a new reality that brings us closer together in more intimate, expressive ways. 
“It’s really exciting to think about activism in these spaces,” says Fontaine. “We should be trying to think about using these spaces to help the world and stand up for something. Connected to that is the pressure of using these technologies for governments and solving that. Right now it’s a little blurry as to what’s going to happen in the future of making these technologies more sustainable, instead of burning through the energy it currently is. Right now, it’s not sustainable, but that’s changing. It could be scary. It could be exciting. But I choose exciting.”