A Primer on VR & the Blockchain: 20 Big Ideas about the Decentralized Metaverse

Kent Bye
Kent Bye
Aug 14, 2018 · 16 min read

Virtual Reality and the Blockchain are exponential technologies that are on a convergence path that will enable the dream of a fully decentralized metaverse. I just published 15 new Voices of VR podcast interviews about VR and the blockchain, and this article will be cover 20 Big ideas that will help you understand this cross section of VR & the blockchain.

I’ve conducted over 900 interviews since May 2014 tracking how VR & AR represents a paradigm shift towards spatial computing that will be making every domain of human experience more immersive and more interactive. I also just attended the Decentralized Web Summit where I did over 30 interviews with leading architects of the decentralization movement. There are many open questions and problems yet to be solved with creating fully decentralized systems, but the dream is that these technological systems will shift some fundamental economic & social dynamics and create new ways for people to govern themselves and come to collective decisions that work for a lot more people.

During the Decentralized Web Summit, I hosted a panel discussion VR & distributed system architects who are on the forefront of using blockchain technologies to create the foundations of a decentralized metaverse. We explored how the blockchain will help solve some difficult problems around identity & reputation, virtual currencies in virtual worlds, ownership & attribution, and provide a decentralized architecture so that the metaverse isn’t owned by a single corporation like I0I as depicted in Ready Player One.

But there are many underlying concepts about distributed systems and the blockchain that these 20 Big Ideas explore. Each item links to a Voices of VR podcast interview that explores the Big Idea in great detail, and it represents over 10 hours of podcast content.

If you enjoy this article and series of podcast interviews, then consider supporting my work through Patreon. Thanks & Enjoy!

1.) New Opportunities Come from Innovations to Lessig’s Four Regulators to Society: Tech, Law, Culture, & Markets

In “Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace,” Lawrence Lessig wrote about four socioeconomic regulators of society as being the law, cultural norms, economic markets, and architecture/code (i.e. technology). All of these four factors combine in order to dictate the larger dynamics of our society.

Part of what gets advocates of the blockchain so excited is that these cryptographic technologies are enabling new forms of exchanges of value economic, but also socially and politically. With self-governance systems and collective action mechanisms being formalized within governance systems in the blockchain, this is allowing for groups of people to take more control of their lives independent from the interests of large centralized institutions like corporations who are acting like monopolies.

The Decentralized Web Summit was a gathering of some of the most innovative thinkers in this larger movement to use blockchain technologies to help decentralize the Internet, and the gathering was deeply informed by Lessig’s four regulators of the Tech, Law, Culture, & Markets.

I talked with the architect of the gathering Wendy Hanamura about how she used Lessig’s framework to orchestrate a historic gathering of visionary architects of decentralization.

2.) Decentralization Could Possibly Fix What’s Broken about Mass Surveillance, Privacy, & Censorship

Brewster Kahle told me that the average of a web page on the Internet is 100 days before it either changes or disappears completely. Kahle realized that you can’t run a culture when you have no institutional memory, and so he started the Internet Archive in order to preserve our online cultural heritage that turns out to be extremely ephemeral.

But then the Snowden revelations came, which showed Kahle how the open web has been transformed into an engine of mass surveillance for governments. Then Cambridge Analytica happen, which showed how advertising platforms could be transformed into bespoke instruments of information warfare by hostile foreign nations. These issues of mass surveillance, privacy, & censorship illustrated to Kahle the dangers of the consolidation of power within centralized governments and corporations.

This motivated Kahle to do something about it. He saw how brittle online information can already be, but it’s even worse now with the rise of fake news, governmental censorship, and information warfare. Foundations including Mozilla Foundation, Open Society, Knight Foundation, MacArthur Foundation, and Ford Foundation asked Kahle what his “Moonshot for the Internet” would be, and his answer was to build the decentralized web.

The Internet Archive sponsored the first Decentralized Web Summit in 2016, and this second gathering in 2018 represents a critical mass of some of the most key architects coming together to build A New Internet™. The fact that this is the narrative focus HBO’s Silicon Valley was not lost on the crowd gathered a few weeks ago as creator Mike Judge was featured in the opening session talking about how fact meets fiction in his show.

But I had a chance to talk with Kahle about the underlying motivation for why he wants to build a decentralized web, how the Internet Archive wants to help create a web that’s more self-archiving and resilient to censorship, but also what he’s doing personally to support different decentralized web initiatives including building a decentralized version of the Internet archive at DWeb.archive.org.

3.) Monopolization of Communication Networks is Fueling a Battle Between Creating Safe Online Spaces and Censorship of Free Speech

There’s a tension on the web today between creating a safe space to be online versions the costs to censorship and free speech. Spam, bots, trolls, harassment, hate speech, and terrorism are on the frontlines of making the web an unpleasant place to hang out, and so every online platform has to make a decision for what their terms of service are going to be be in order to foster a certain culture that makes it bearable to spend time there.

The issue is that our online platforms are communication have been increasingly consolidating into just a handful of companies including Facebook, Google, Twitter, etc. Without a plurality of places online that people are using, then this monopolization of communication networks has the effect of the enforcement of these terms of service be interpreted as forms of censorship and free speech.

Not only that, but these same major corporations are either directly collaborating with governmental mass surveillance programs, or the weaknesses of the third party doctrine as applied to the Fourth Amendment means that any information that you provide to a third party has “no reasonable expectations to remain private.” Sharing data means no secrecy, and therefore no privacy in the US government’s eyes.

The ACLU disagrees with the government’s assessment that any data shared with a third party is no longer private, and they had a small victory in the Carpenter case that went to the Supreme Court that indicated that the third doctrine shouldn’t be a blanket application to all online data, and that it needs to be looked at on a case by case basis.

I had a chance to talk with the Jennifer Granick who works at the ACLU as Surveillance and Cybersecurity Council about mass surveillance, the third party doctrine, and the debates around free speech and censorship are complicated by the monopolization of communication networks and with governments colluding with technology companies in order to censor information online. The legal lines between free speech and tyrannical governmental control creates a number of slippery slopes that has lead the ACLU to some surprising legal battles.

4.) Surveillance Capitalism is a Means to an End for Universal Access to Knowledge: Change Vint Cerf’s Mind

There are many open questions for the decentralized web like the scaling and maintenance of it, but perhaps more concerning is figuring out the economic incentives to make it all sustainable. Vint Cerf is a co-inventor of the Internet, and he’s currently working for Google as their chief evangelist for the Internet.

I had a chance to talk to Cerf at the decentralized web summit where companies like Google were seen as the epitome of all of what’s wrong with the downsides of privacy, surveillance capitalism, and the consolidation of power and influence on the web. But yet, the underlying mission of Google is to provide universal access to the world’s knowledge.

It’s arguable that Google’s existing business model is the most efficient way to provide free access to knowledge around the world, ot at least there haven’t been a lot of counter examples or proof of concepts done that are nearly on the same scale as Google. That’s the challenge that the architects of a new vision of the new decentralize Internet have yet to figure out. Do you have a viable answer? There are many experiments at the small scale that are trying to prove out some new cryptoeconomic primitives & cultural behaviors. If there are some viable proofs of concept, then this could help change Vint Cerf’s mind about some of the fundamental challenges of the Decentralized Web and provide a model for a more equitable future where the universal access to knowledge could be viably sustained.

5.) Government Regulation Could Accidentally Lead to Permanent Regulatory Dominance & Monopolization

Cory Doctorow is a science fiction author, a co-editor for Boing Boing, and consultant to the Electronic Frontier Foundation. He’s been closely tracking the relationship between Tech, Law, Culture, & Markets, and he is seeing a concerning pattern. It’s possible that some of the legal regulations that were meant to protect online users and copyright holders could actually lead down a path of creating a barrier to entry to competitors that results in a permanent regulatory dominance and monopolization.

Doctorow talked about these complicated dynamics in his closing keynote at the Decentralized Web Summit, and I had a chance to talk to Doctorow about some of his ideas ranging from adversarial interoperability, compulsory blanket licensing, and a free market of algorithmic collecting societies that could do a better job at figuring out who to pay better than the algorithmic copyright cops who are figuring out which free speech to suppress.

6.) The VR Blockchain Alliance is Implementing Protocols for Identity, Currency, & Ownership

High Fidelity and Janus VR announced in March that they were creating a Virtual Reality Blockchain Alliance in order to determine the protocols for the global interoperability of VR.

I had a chance to talk to the co-founders of Janus VR and High Fidelity about how the immersive experience of VR will be driving innovations in blockchain technologies. Technologies like self-sovereign identity will enable the seamless transfer of embodied avatar representations from one VR world to the next.

High Fidelity is experimenting with High Fidelity Coin (HFC) that is a Stable Coin pegged to a consistent exchange rate through the creation of new currency in order to encourage the use of HFC as an actual in-world currency rather than a speculative asset as most cryptocurrencies are being used for.

We also talk about the importance of verifiable digital asset ownership, authorship, and attribution in the context of virtual worlds. The Virtual Reality Blockchain Alliance will also be working on collaborations between different virtual worlds in order to better define the different protocols that will lead towards the decentralized metaverse.

7.) The More You Give, The More You Get: Yin Currency Dynamics of Cooptition & Ecosystem Cultivation

The threat of forking a blockchain project is a catalyst for cooperation, which means that there are many parallels between the blockchain and open source development dynamics. It also means that the value of a blockchain project comes more from a vibrant ecosystem of participants who are exchanging value with each other.

There are many new cryptoeconomic primitives that are pointing towards gift economy and “yin currency” dynamics where the more that you give away, then the more that you get.

Will there be new economic behaviors that are revealed through the unique blend of Tech, Law, Culture, & Markets? Do the economics of cryptocurrency tokens allow for a more equitable redistribution of wealth? What’s a more sustainable method for funding and cultivating open source software development? And can you actually get more value with the more value that you give away?

These are all questions that Joseph Poon is setting out to answer through a number of experiments with his new Handshake.org project just recently announced.

I had a chance to talk to Poon at the Decentralized Web Summit about some of the theory and philosophical concepts that he’s exploring around coordination mechanisms, group dynamics, and collective action decisions. He’s exploring how technology (algorithms & code) works in relationship to human incentives (economic market), social dynamics (culture), & coordinating group dynamics (governance models).

8.) Virtual Worlds Change Resource Restraint Dynamics & Could Foster A Renaissance in Open Source Culture

Virtual assets don’t follow the same resource constraint dynamics as objects that require physical materials. Science Fiction author Cory Doctrow explores these gift economy dynamics in a novel titled Walkaway, and I talked to him about how some of these gift economy concepts could be applied to group dynamics and experiences within virtual reality.

9.) ICOs are Disrupting VC Funding & Ethereum Coopetition is Challenging VC Unicorn Dynamics

ICOs are disrupting late stage venture capital. Shawn Cheng was working at the Vayner/RSE VC, but now he's working with Ethereum co-founder Joe Lubin's Consensys where he's helping to manage a portfolio of over 40 blockchain companies. Cheng talks about how the coopitition ecosystem dynamics of blockchain companies is completely opposite to how VC thinks about value creation. Supporting a unicorn companies can make or break a VC investment, and the entire VC-industry has been aimed towards hitting these home runs.

Value creation for a blockchain company is more about the cultivation and nurturing of an entire ecosystem that can't always be reduced down to a single number. This is part of why Lubin is reinvesting his money made off of being a co-founder of Ethereum into so many of these blockchain projects that are trying to develop these different ecosystems.

I talk to Cheng about how the trends of blockchain decentralization are leading to open source software, open protocols, open networks, being permissionless, censorship resistance, and how immutable, malleable, accessible data is leading to a free market of innovation in the blockchain ecosystem.

Whereas "Web 2" focused on enterprise companies that added value, but consolidated power and influence, the "Web 3" is more focused on the individual being able to contribute and add value and participate.

There are many idealistic and optimistic potentials for the future of the blockchain, but there are also many open questions and challenges around scaling, creating viable long-term infrastrucutre management, and whether or not all of this will change the fundamental dynamics of the consolidation of wealth and power.

10.) Virtual Land is Infinite, but Attention is Limited. Decentraland uses artificial constraints to create market dynamics

I talked with two of the co-founders of Decentraland a few weeks before their ICO last year talking how how they’re using the blockchain to sell virtual land (via non-fungible token) with their own cryptocurrency (via fungible tokens). They are creating artificial scarcity in order to empower the owners of virtual land to be able to resell their virtual parcels. This conversation covers an overview of the underlying concepts of some different socioeconomic experiments that Decentraland is exploring.

11.) Decentraland is a Grand Experiment of Decentralization in VR. There's MANY open questions to be explored & answered

Decentraland is a grand experiment of bringing together decentralized blockchain technologies and virtual worlds. Decentraland ICO raised over 26 million dollars, but it wasn't without controversy where 5-9 whales came in to buy up all of the tokens within 35 seconds of the launch.

The big open question now is whether or not the current owners of these virtual plots of land can be able to create an integrated, WebVR-enabled, experience of a virtual city that can justify the speculative prices of more than $200,000 for some parcels of virtual land.

Decentraland is a grand experiment for many different blockchain technologies and governance models, but it's also going to be adding an immersive & embodied layer into many other blockchain technologies that are otherwise just a virtual abstraction of cryptographic mathematical formalisms representing value exchanges. Whatever happens, there will be many lessons to learn from these early experiments of blending blockchain technologies with immersive VR worlds.

Here's an update on Decentraland in this interview with Trevor Waldorf.

12.) Self-Sovereign Identity has traction & will change how you will verify your digital identity

Kaliya Young has been thinking about the challenges of digital identity for over 15 years, and she’s been running the Internet Identity Workshops for nearly as long. There have been a series of W3C standards for digital identity that have been created, and Young walks through the major Self-Sovereign Identity concepts and metaphors to start to understand how all of these decentralized identity systems fit all together.

13.) Simbol is bringing Self-Sovereign Identity into VR

Alberto Elias’ Simbol (formerly Holonet) is working to bring all of the Self-Sovereign Identity standards into virtual reality. He’s recently released an A-Frame component, and I talked to Elias last Fall talking about why he believes dreams of the decentralized metaverse is providing some compelling catalysts to integrate decentralized identity standards within virtual reality.

14.) VR requires A LOT of data, and distributed P2P file systems like IPFS could provide the backbone of the Decentralized Metaverse

The decentralized metaverse will require the transferring of A LOT of data. Distributed, peer-to-peer file systems like IPFS could provide the backbone of the decentralized metaverse.

I talk with David Dias who is one of the developers of IPFS about how they've been able to transform your web browser into distributed file system node, how Filecoin could create an incentive mechanism to support a robust decentralized file system and mesh networks, why content deliver networks aren't of much use if a region doesn't have a viable ISP network, and the challenges of making a peer-to-peer file system more robust and reliable.

15.) P2P Mesh Networks Could Contain Exclusive Virtual Worlds in the Decentralized Metaverse

Janus VR has been implementing an IPFS distributed file system option for creators for the past couple of years. I talk to "Taco Dog" who was the catalyst behind helping to architect the protocol foundations of the decentralized metaverse.

He has also been experimenting with building mesh network hardware like a fashionable necklace that contains a WiFi router, SD Card, and the mechanism to be able to enter into a shared virtual world together. This mesh network node was inspired by dead drops from the information security world where there would be a physical way to transfer digital information in such a way that couldn't be tracked online.

This type of physically-constrained network could provide the basis for exclusive VIP virtual and augmented reality worlds that could only be accessible by having access to the physical location where it's located. Or these types of distributed, P2P mesh networks could also provide the basis for more secure back-channel communications within these virtual worlds.

I had a chance to talk with "Taco Dog" about his passions of helping to architect the decentralized metaverse, information security, and the archival of physical event spaces using photogrammetry + a depth-sensor camera on a Tango mobile phone.

16.) JavaScript Emulators allows you to run Entire Computers in Your Browser, & This Will Power the Decentralized Metaverse

The fact that your computer browser can now safely run a computer program within the context of JavaScript program will have huge implications for how the decentralized web works. I talk with Janus VR’s James Baicoianu about his collaboration with the Internet Archive’s Jason Scott in order to bring old video games into an arcade with virtual reality. The fiction depicted in Ready Player One is coming to reality, and it can all happen withing your web browser.

17.) VR + IoT Edge + GDPR could lead to an explosion of data portability that leads to the Engineering of Contemplative Insights

Samantha Matthews Chase calls GDPR - General Data Portability Regulations rather than data protection. GDPR has forced many companies to make over a decade's worth of our data available to use, and Chase sees this as a goldmine that can be mined for insights into ourselves.

She's been looking at how the combination of VR and edge devices on Internet of Things and are going to catalyze a lot of data collection about ourselves. Who is going to own that data? And what can we do with it?

These questions have driven Chase to investigate the protocols around Self-Sovereign Identity, and to experiment with how all of this data can be remixed into chatbot art projects that can archive our identities and digital representations of ourselves. And perhaps all of this data can be used beyond the generation of psychographic data profiles and advertising, and maybe it'll be able to provide some genuine contemplative self-reflection to help us understand more about ourselves.

I talk with Chase about believes that there may be many market opportunities for this type of "Insight Engineering" that could come from the data mining, processing, and virutal spatialization of all of this data.

18.) Rather than mining mindless crypto-puzzles, why not use GPUs to render a photorealistic Metaverse with Otoy's Render Token?

Jules Urbach wants to create a photorealistic metaverse. He's been working on rending technologies to render digital lightfields, and Otoy's Octane renderer is used everywhere from baking scenes in Unity's real-time game engine to rendering the opening scene of HBO's Westworld. At GDC, Urbach announced a 100x speed-up of rendering enabled by AI and machine learning, which will potentially make the real-time rendering of photorealistic scenes possible. Otoy has already figured out how to use the GPU to distribute the rendering processing, and they also recently announced the ERC-20 Render Token in order to distribute rendering to the army of GPUs miners who are using their technology and power to solve cryptographic puzzles.

I had a chance to catch up with Urbach at GDC, and he always has something to blow my mind. He talks about Lightfield Labs' Digital Lightfield Walls, which will literally make the Holodeck possible. The possibility of having a lightfield display that renders lightfields at the right density would literally provide a window in another world, and it could be perceptually indistinguishable from actually being transported to another world.

19.) WebVR & WebAR will provide the open standard foundations for the Decentralized Metaverse

WebVR and WebAR are the protocols that is going to power the Decentralized Metaverse. This post aggregates the 20 interviews on the evolution of WebVR and WebVR that I’ve done since May 2014. WebVR and WebAR have been generalized as WebXR since AR builds on top of the VR protocol foundations. WebAR and WebVR will represents an exciting renaissance of independent and avant-guard art that leverages the affordances of the open web. The series of 20 interviews tracks some of the pioneers and architects of these open standards.

20.) VR provides an immersive experience that will catalyze implementations of different blockchain technologies for identity, currency, & ownership

I facilitated a panel discussion at the Decentralized Web Summit that brought together some of the leading virtual reality creators who have been integrating blockchain technologies and creating the foundations of the decentralized metaverse.

We cover how VR provides a compelling application for identity and avatar representation, how the self-sovereign identity W3C specifications could help with that, how virtual currencies are being integrated into VR worlds, the process of digital asset tracking and ownership, verifiable claims and how those could help create reputation networks, and some of the biggest challenges and open questions facing these architects of the decentralized metaverse.

This VR & Blockchain panel discussion at the Decentralized Web Summit features Alberto Elias (Founder, Simbol), Samantha Mathews Chase (Founder, Venn Agency), Philip Rosedale (CEO, High Fidelity), Andrés Cuervo (Software Engineer, WebXR Artist), and James Baicoianu (Principal Engineer, JanusVR).

Conclusion

Hopefully you enjoyed this tour of the cross section of virtual reality and blockchain technologies. There are many more questions to be answered, but with all of the problems of centralization that are becoming more and more clear, then I see that there are going to be more and more people looking for technological solutions that can help to shift the underlying dynamics of how technology, culture, law, and markets are all tied together as socieconomic regulators onto society.

If there is an underlying commonality between VR and the Blockchain, it’s that they’re both empowering people to transform from being passive consumers into active participants. Decentralized networks rely upon the relationships of people, and the dissassociative effects of technology have resulted in people being more lonely, isolated, and unhappy. There’s a potential that some of these decentralized systems that can connect us together in ways that is more supportive of fostering community dynamics.

If you enjoy this article and series of podcast interviews, then follow me on Twitter @kentbye and consider supporting my work through Patreon. Thanks!!

Kent Bye

Written by

Kent Bye

Producer of the Voices of VR and Voices of AI podcasts. http://voicesofvr.com