I have joined the Decentraland project as an advisor! Here’s why.

The ‘Bronze Age’ Decentraland Genesis Tile

I’m a big proponent of decentralized systems. Before I finished my degree I wrote one of the first multi-platform serverless real-time collaboration systems using Java RMI and presented it at the first JavaOne, in 1996. My PhD dissertation at Trinity College focused on this topic, and in particular Overlay Networks (this article I wrote for IEEE Internet Computing is still a reasonably good introduction to that topic). I’ve spent most of my career building these types of systems — or systems that help communities operate in this way, even when the service is not itself decentralized, as was the case with Ning. And even then Ning’s early architecture was a p2p network of microservices instead of a traditional hosted application stack. Keep in mind this was 2005, when the word ‘microservices’ had not yet entered the common lexicon — we were one of the first companies to run microservices at scale. That architecture (with evolving implementation) got Ning from launch to 100 MM accounts and hundreds of thousands of online communities.

I also believe that over the next few years we are going to see radical changes in how applications and interfaces are built (see my previous article “5 reasons why VR Interfaces will not be rectangles with lists floating in space” among others) along with a shift away from standard 2D interfaces and toolkits to 3D engines. With my work on n3xt, I am focused on what that will look like for personal information and group collaboration. But this coming wave will require new systems in many different areas. One of those areas is 3D content creation, hosting, and distribution in a virtual world that can provide connections and context.

VR and AR will drive a lot of 3D content creation. And just like today people share photos (Instagram), long-form writing (Medium!), and other types of content and events, they will want to share 3D content they have created, or just things they like. This isn’t discussed frequently, but there’s no doubt in my mind 3D content will find its place in that list. This is one of the fundamental things that Decentraland aims to support and fuel.

Decentraland is a shared, decentralized virtual reality world that anyone can participate in to access or publish 3D content. It introduces a new Ethereum ERC20 Token as a virtual currency called Mana that can be ‘burned’ to acquire Land, the virtual asset that supports content hosting in the virtual world.

Users are direct owners of their land and content, and they are free to connect and transact without intermediaries.

Why Now?

We’ve seen our share of distributed systems over the years, but it’s undeniable that centralized systems, now commonly referred as ‘the cloud,’ dominate the Internet landscape. There are many reasons why this is the case, such as slow Internet access speeds, in particular upload speeds, and the fact that centralized systems are easier to maintain and build. One of the fundamental issues hindering adoption of decentralized architectures has been that every new distributed system had to build up its own system of trust, which is a big challenge that hinders the creation of strong network effects. This is why most P2P use so far is centered on things that don’t require trust — like sharing on Bittorrent. Skype is the one notable exception for a P2P system deployed at scale, and even it has seen its market share reduced by centralized services.

So what‘s different this time around?

Why can I say with confidence that we have a better shot at establishing many new types of fully functioning, large scale distributed systems now than we’ve ever had?

The answer can be summer up with two words: Blockchain technology, which was first successfully implemented and deployed at scale with Bitcoin.

That’s right: the work done in the last few years around blockchain is a fundamental step in the evolution of a truly distributed, resilient Internet.

Enter The Blockchain

While much is being discussed of the financial aspects around tokens and cryptocurrencies, not as much is being said in the press about the original reason why there’s a lot of interest in this stuff. Possible access to funding plays a part, sure. But it’s far from a key driver.

For most of us that have been thinking about using blockchain technology to build applications, the appeal is something else: That you can use the blockchain to execute trusted transactions in any environment. That is, even if the parties don’t know (or trust) each other, each can still trust that the transaction itself is what everyone thinks it is.

This is the key point: blockchains can provide a basis for fully decentralized applications and systems that can support virtual economies as well as trusted transactions of other types without forcing the parties to use a central authority to establish that trust, which is what we do when we move money between banks, for example, or when we ask for a driver’s license to prove you are who you say you are.

Those instances are perfect examples of transactions in which trust of the central organization is implicit because we don’t really think about it. But that’s what they are. And every time someone fakes a driver’s license or improperly gains access to your bank account we are seeing the negative effects of centralized systems.

Decentraland’s Mana token is a great example of the kinds of uses that we are going to see emerge around blockchains. In addition to providing the basis for Decentraland’s economy, the Ethereum blockchain also provides a verifiable ownership ledger in the form of cartesian coordinates for each tile that a participant owns, and a reference to obtain content from a peer-to-peer network to present at that location in the virtual world.

There is still much to be done, but in Blockchain-based trust architectures we now have the ability to create functional alternatives to systems that previously could not operate effectively without centralized control, and Decentraland is going after one of the important problem spaces in this area. I am looking forward to contribute to the project and help in building its nascent Virtual Reality world.

For more on Decentraland you can check out the whitepaper, the site, or get in touch directly by joining Slack or Telegram channels and by subscribing to the newsletter.

A Window To A New World