Many are thrilled at the prospect of a Metaverse with its virtual worlds that can be used to play online games, but also to train surgeons in 3D organ models and enable students to visit recreated villages in amazingly revived ancient Greece.
Many also assume that blockchain technology will play a major role in the Metaverse, along with other emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and virtual reality (VR). But, is using the blockchain really a foregone conclusion?
Stanford University professor Jeremy Beilinson recently moderated a panel for the World Economic Forum with some of the world’s leading thinkers on the Metaverse and blockchain. Beilinson, founder of the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford, told Cointelegraph: “The first question asked to the panel was ‘Do we need a blockchain for the metaverse?’” “The consensus was that the Metaverse could exist without a blockchain.”
For example, Bailenson showcased leading metaverse company Second Life, founded in 2003, which has 70 million existing accounts registered and adds 350,000 new accounts each month to its online multimedia platform. Beilinson said Second Life has developed “a robust economy where digital assets are bought and sold.” Second Life’s typical GDP is about half a billion dollars each year. And the world works powerfully without the use of blockchain.”
Could the next iteration of the internet exist without blockchain technology? asked Tonya Evans, a professor at Penn State University’s Dickinson School of Law. “Yes, it can,” she told Cointelegraph. After all, distributed decentralized ledgers and crypto-secured assets — including smart contracts — are just one part of Web3 technology, along with artificial intelligence, 3D printing, virtual reality, augmented reality, the Internet of Things (IoT), and more.
Exclude it at your own risk
But, while deleting blockchain technology is possible, it is still a mistake. “Metaverse without blockchains is likely to get the ball rolling for Big Tech,” Evans added, and that would come at the expense of the same people Web2 left behind – “the same people that a truly decentralized network can empower.”
Yonatan Raz-Fridman, founder and CEO of SuperSocial — which develops games for the Metaverse — agreed that blockchain technology is not strictly necessary. “No, you don’t need a blockchain to enable the Metaverse,” he told Cointelegraph. There is no prior reason why you can’t create avatars in 3D and play games using closed platforms, like Second Life.
But Web3 is arguably a backlash against FAMGA companies — Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, Google and Amazon — with their privately owned platforms, and Raz-Fridman predicted that companies like Meta would have to compromise on the issue of interoperability if they expect to be involved. This means allowing the avatar to move freely from one Metaverse project to the next – with all their digital clothing and jewelry. As New York University marketing professor Scott Galloway said recently:
“Why buy clothes if you can’t wear them outside the store? Why buy a Birkin bag if you can’t show off in the Metaverse?”
Consumers are now demanding the Web3/Metaverse more so than depicted in Neil Stevenson’s 1992 novel Snow Crash, added Raz Friedman, “where everyone owns their digital assets and is free to bring them with them as they move from one place to another.”
Artist depiction of the Metaverse in Snow Crash. Source: Sefort.
Interestingly, novelist Stevenson himself is the co-founder of the recently launched metaverse project Lamina1, “which will use blockchain technology to build an ‘open metaverse’ – open source and decentralized,” the Washington Post reported.
It’s all about people, places and things
Metaverse is an elusive term – different parties define it differently. Most agree, however, that it includes immersive 3D virtual worlds with plenty of gameplay and role-playing. For his part, Bailenson finds it useful to divide the Metaverse into people, places, and things. In each of these areas, he sees a potential role for blockchain technology.
“People are figurative characters, the bodies we wear as we immerse ourselves in the digital world,” he explained to Cointelegraph. Here, blockchain technology can provide “encrypted DNA” that “ensures a person is assigned to a person on the avatar.” For example, it can be used to ensure that no one can hold ten avatars at once or to enable another person to “take my avatar on a fun ride”. Bailenson added:
“While one of the obvious applications of blockchain would be to check clothes and jewelry for an avatar, I have always believed that the killer application here is documenting and verifying human animations.”
Places, in Bailenson’s concept, are specific regions in a network of the virtual world. For the Metaverse to work, the world must be “constant: it exists, even when you are not, and consistent: if you buy a plot of land within 1 kilometer of a Snoop Dog, you cannot move far from the base