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A Closed Metaverse = Dystopia. Introducing the Open MetaverseOS

First things first — the Original paper can be found here: https://outlierventures.io/research/the-open-metaverse-os/

In Dawn of the New Everything, his seminal work on virtual reality, Jaron Lanier describes Virtual Reality as “the substitution of the interface between a person and the physical environment with an interface to a simulated environment”. In truth, this is only one of dozens of different VR definitions in this important book, but it is crucial because it raises so many questions.

How do we, as humans in the physical realm, interface with worlds that have been conjured from the imagination, where the laws of physics do not necessarily constrain us, and where governments no longer have control?

Dawn of the New Everything, written by one of the true pioneers of the field, teaches us a lot about how the human brain and nervous system perceive this new way of being. For example, how our visual field does not have to be continuous for our eyes to perceive it as such. Objects do not have to be contiguous or spaced at a realistic scale either. It turns out we are very good at compensating.

So much is different about this alternate reality which is rapidly moving out of the realm of science fiction movies like The Matrix or books like SnowCrash… one can’t help but wonder:

Is the Metaverse really like science fiction?

There is one area where our brains simply cannot fill the gaps at the moment, and that is the fact that these worlds currently exist in a patchwork of separate software environments developed by different companies, rather than the all-encompassing virtual world with which we are presented in fiction books and films.

If William Gibson’s often repeated assertion that “the future is already here — it’s just unevenly distributed” is more true now than it has ever been, then one could say the same about the Metaverse: it's currently way too fragmented.

In The Value Chain of the Open Metaverse, Packy McCormick likens this fragmentation to “walking around a city and changing outfits and ID every time you enter a new building”.

Proprietary technologies and separate business domains have created virtual spaces that, while they are shared, are completely separate from each other.

One corporation might offer a virtualized simulation of a wind turbine far out at sea, so that maintenance engineers can train without expensive trips offshore. Virtual offices provide environments for networking that are more or less simulations of real life. Game worlds offer fantastical escapism — at a price, as players are coerced into expensive purchases that remain locked within that game. And music megastars play to tens of thousands of fans in pretty much the same way they do in real life… it’s a brave new world BUT these closed systems are disconnected and that in itself limits the possibilities.

The global pandemic has hastened many trends that were already happening — and one of these is our inexorable migration into these shared virtual spaces where participation is not bounded by geography, vaccine passports or other constraints.

It's time to level up that game.

Introducing The Open Metaverse OS by Outlier Ventures

The Open Metaverse OS, a new research paper by Outlier Ventures addresses these challenges and lays out the technological and organizational infrastructure that needs to be put in place if the world is truly going to benefit from the huge potential of a decentralized virtual reality, instead of the patchwork of monoliths, each hoping to extract as much value as possible from us, like the reality of our current Web 2.0.

The paper poses the question: “is the Open Metaverse OS ready for prime time?”

The TL:DR is that it is not — yet — but the paper lays out exactly what needs to happen for this to be so. As the authors point out, if this digital reality is a mirror of our physical world, it needs a functioning economy, with all the components this implies. It may not be ready for prime time but NOW is the time for builders to get busy. It's time to roll up our sleeves, put our thinking hats on, and design the world we will all live in.

Web 2.0 and the game-worlds and cyberspace neighbourhoods within it have economic systems. But these are closed systems that do not interact with each other, with all the centralization that implies. For example, if you bought a house or a piece of furniture in Second Life, the game developer, Linden Labs, ultimately had control over the transaction of this property. In many ways, it was more like a leasehold. You had access to the object for the duration of your stay within the game and you may — with various caveats — have been able to trade it for fiat currency outside the alternate world, but the process was entirely controlled by Linden Labs.

Outlier sees a divide between centralized and decentralized platforms as one of the key differences between these competing visions: “There are at least two versions of the Metaverse we observe emerging:

  1. One dominated by closed platforms and Big Tech like Facebook / Oculus
  2. and the other built on open protocols leveraging blockchains like Decentraland.”

The diagram below, reproduced from their paper, captures where on a scale between closed and open, and hi-fi to lo-fi the main competitors currently sit:

Competing Metaverses — Closed vs. Open, Hi-Fi vs. Lo-Fi

A true Metaverse needs its own economy

In contrast, Outlier Ventures states: “we believe the defining characteristic of a true Metaverse is that it needs its own economy and currencies native to it, where value can be earnt, spent, lent, borrowed or invested interchangeably in both a physical or virtual sense and most importantly, without the need for a government.

The distinction of open and closed isn’t just limited to technology choices and the extent to which platforms embrace open source principles with their code and data but importantly whether they have a closed economy, within or across their own proprietary games, or whether they allow transferability of value outside their ecosystem, how that interacts with fiat based systems and to what extent they do or don’t control the monetary and fiscal policy of the underlying economy itself”.

It is one thing to speak on a theoretical level about native currencies within a virtual economy that interface with economies outside the ecosystem — and quite another to implement a technical solution for this.

Decentralized currencies were the first step towards having a common payment rail and macroeconomic system that could be fully interoperable; while the non-fungible tokens (NFTs) made possible by Web3 provide all the functionality that is required for registering ownership of assets and transferring value within a virtual world, and also outside it.

To explain this in the simplest terms, this means that one might be able to purchase an artwork or a digital sculpture within one world, and either display it in another world, or else trade it in a global liquid market external to either of these alternate realities — or even plug it into the DeFi ecosystem and use your asset as collateral for any number of new financial products.

Combined with Web3 solutions for self-sovereign identity, this enables commerce to flow freely within the digital world — and even in and out of the physical world.

Imagine being able to run a branded store that looks exactly the same in a multiplicity of different virtual realities, right down to the shop fittings and the goods within each. Your customers can wander into your shop and make a purchase, confident in the fact that the ownership of the item is registered on a decentralized network, and that they have possession of the asset and can monetize it, even if the company that created the world in question goes out of business.

If we see this decentralization and economic autonomy of individuals within the Metaverse as the ultimate goal, then there need to be so many different elements in place that it is hard to list them all in a meaningful way.

The graphic below, reproduced from the Outlier Ventures paper, makes sense of all the components that are necessary to create a compelling and hyper-real experience within a virtual world:

From the end user’s point of view, it is the hardware (games console, computer) and the game software that runs on it that is important, while the world builder/provider is more concerned with the hardware or cloud infrastructure on which the services run, and the software that *is* the world. However, in the middle, we have a variety of in-world assets that are necessary to replicate the economics, environment and narrative of the physical world, such as avatars, marketplaces and currencies.

It is noticeable that the table above simply lists the elements that need to be in place before a world can offer an experience that is analogous to the bricks-and-mortar, flesh-and-blood universe that we are used to, rather than offering solutions. We know we need currency and we know we need a way of identifying that someone’s avatar truly represents who they purport to be, but we don’t know how to get there yet.

It is the parallel development of the decentralized economy, and of Web3 technologies in particular, that allow an Open Metaverse to develop and flourish.

Without Web3, we do not have access to portable assets that retain their value outside the bounds of a particular environment, we do not have a way of proving who we are without handing over vast quantities of personalized data to services from where it can be stolen, and we do not have an overarching payment system that plugs into financial infrastructure in the real world.

Without a framework for implementing a form of governance that does not involve governments, we are thrown on the mercy of corporations (such as the games developer in Ready Player One) to mete out their own brand of justice and retribution, so a type of decentralized governance where one’s influence is not limited by the size of one’s bank balance is also necessary.

In The Open Metaverse OS, Outlier helpfully presents the concept of the Web3 Toolbox, with its five pillars representing:

  • Decentralized Finance (DeFi),
  • Non Fungible Tokens (NFTs),
  • Decentralized Governance,
  • Decentralized Cloud Services (to enable the environment to operate without censorship or interference)
  • Self-Sovereign Identity.

As well as neatly encapsulating the tools that need to be in place before we reach our destination, these five pillars also form a useful checklist to evaluate virtual worlds that claim to be decentralized or open.

Without all these elements in place, there is inevitably extraction or value capture at work, and the participants in the world become the product, rather than willing partners in this huge technological-evolutionary journey.

If we return to the Anatomy of a Virtual World diagram that we saw earlier, it is easy to see how elements from the Web3 Toolbox can be applied to each of the components in order to give us all the pieces in the jigsaw.

Hence we can see how NFT marketplaces, data marketplaces and decentralized exchanges can exist outside a particular virtual world, yet at the same time form an integral part of the overarching ecosystem that is currently being birthed.

Here's how everything fits together:

The Open Metaverse OS — Explained

In many ways, it is easier to see how digital value such as NFTs and data tokens can flow in and out of each world. But it goes beyond that.

At some point on the road towards our virtual future, we need to minimise the friction between the digital and the physical, and to allow real-world items to interface with these spaces that exist within the boundaries of our computers and our imaginations.

Boson Protocol solves the automation of Digital to Physical redemption

Technologies such as Boson Protocol provide the means for customers to buy the virtual representation of a product in store in the knowledge that its physical counterpart will be delivered. Hence collectibles, artworks and any other artefact can be mirrored in the digital world and the real-world.

As Outlier Ventures states: “Digital to Physical redemption: beyond purely digital sovereign virtual assets, new specialised protocols like Boson Protocol solve the digital to physical redemption problem, by representing physical items as NFTs which can be redeemed in the real world without the need for intermediaries. Enabling decentralized autonomous commerce across the metaverse and blurring the distinction between virtual and physical.”

This interface between our virtual and physical selves, enabling us to move frictionlessly between the digital and the real world is critical to get right — and transferring our assets, currencies and possessions between these worlds is an essential part of this.

For we must remember that whether we are interacting with others — whether virtually or in person — we are always the same person, with the same state of consciousness.

Jaron Lanier points out in Dawn of the New Everything the paradox that it is the digital world, seemingly removed from our physical selves, that can in fact reveal what makes us truly human: “Virtual reality peels away phenomena and reveals that consciousness remains and is real.”

It is only when we have this interoperability and the possibility of transferring value and possessions between virtual worlds and between the virtual and the physical world that humans will be able to take the next significant leap in evolution and we will start being able to talk in any meaningful sense about The Metaverse instead of simply a series of generic self-contained metaverses.

It is at this point that the Open Metaverse will begin to challenge the likes of Fortnite in scale and ambition.

Useful links / resources

Direct link to the Open Metaverse OS report: https://gateway.pinata.cloud/ipfs/QmNmJcLc9Me7LERSh5shJmkgEeddFzcn4L1pTeMjT5fXqE/OV_Metaverse_OS_V5.pdf

https://www.notboring.co/p/the-value-chain-of-the-open-metaverse

https://www.wired.co.uk/article/metaverse

Dawn of the New Everything by Jaron Lanier

About Boson Protocol

Boson Protocol’s vision is to enable a decentralized commerce ecosystem by funding and enabling the development of a stack of specialist applications to disrupt, demonopolize and democratize commerce.

Let’s build an Open tokenized economy together.

Lastly, if you’re a decentralization enthusiast, please follow us here, on Medium. We will post frequently about our dCommerce journey and would love to hear your comments!

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Rhian Lewis

Rhian Lewis

Technologist, #Ruby, #blockchain & #cryptocurrency. Co-developer #altcoin portfolio tracker CountMyCrypto. Author of The Cryptocurrency Revolution