The VR news website VR Focus did a good profile on Somnium Space co-founder and CEO Artur Sychov at the recent Gamescom 2019 conference in Cologne, Germany, where he talked about the upcoming Somnium Space 2.0 update and shared a few shots of what it looks like:
As I have mentioned before, Somnium Space is planning to integrate blockchain as part of their social platform, stating on their website:
In the VR Focus video, Artur describes what he sees as some of the benefits of blockchain:
As I said, there are two ways you can do it: either we have a centralized approach like any other game in the world including Second Life, which has 500 million dollars revenue per year, or we do it decentralized. And centralized means, as a company, we hold all the information about all your items, all your belongings, on our servers. The only problem is, for the player… if there is anything happening, so you work hard for years and you earn some items and money inside the game and you own avatars and everything, but once you get banned for any reason… your items are gone. You are not in control of your belongings. On the other hand, a decentralized economy, a blockchain economy, allows you to own those items on the token and we as the company have no way how to influence that. For example, you own an avatar, it’s on a blockchain token, you can go and sell it on the open market and if we decide to ban you… you can still go and sell your avatar on the free market, and we have no influence over that, so we cannot stop you to do so and that’s the power of the blockchain. We have decoupled the economy from Somnium as an operating company, and we give this power back to the users.
Now, this all sounds wonderful, but I do wonder if Somnium Space is going to run into some serious technical issues when they try to implement this truly decentralized plan. Decentraland is an example of a blockchain-based virtual world that promised a decentralized implementation, a promise on which it has not yet delivered. Saying that you own something like virtual land on the blockchain is one thing, but if the servers providing access to your land are centralized (as Decentraland’s servers are right now), that proof of ownership is meaningless if they decide to shut the service down at some point in the future. And the same thing applies to Somnium Space.
But that’s not the only concern I have. In this video, Artur says that blockchain could be used as a way to evade a ban from the company, citing the example that a blockchain-based avatar could still be sold on the free market, outside the control of Somnium Space.
Let’s examine this idea more carefully. Since this was filmed during a conference in Germany, let’s say you create an avatar that breaks Germany’s strict laws banning denial of the Holocaust. (For example, an avatar holding a large picket sign claiming that the genocide of 6 million European Jews, as well as millions of others, including gypsies and homosexuals, never actually happened.)
First, are you claiming that avatar representation on your platform will be completely decentralized, that is, distributed over multiple servers worldwide over which the company has zero control? The technical implementation issues would be enormous, I would think. I can’t think of a single social VR platform or virtual world that has been able to do this (and if I am wrong, somebody please correct me).
And second, what happens if the German government knocks on Somnium Space’s door and insists that the Holocaust-denying avatar be completely banned from Somnium Space accessed from German computers, in accordance with their law? Facebook is just one example of a company that has fallen afoul of German Holocaust denial laws.
Or let’s look at this with a different example. What if your avatar were a sexually explicit one, being used for child pornography purposes? I think you will agree with me that any social VR platform which gives such complete, unfettered freedom to avatar creators is going to run into many serious legal problems from a variety of jurisdictions around the world.
All being on the blockchain means is that you can prove you own something. Period. It doesn’t confer the freedom to do whatever you want, possibly running afoul of corporate policy and global laws. And I would be cautious of any company that makes these kinds of promises, especially in these wearying days of relentless blockchain hyperbole. There’s lots of breezy talk in the cryptocurrency and blockchain community about concepts such as “decentralization” and “ownership” and “freedom”, without a lot of serious thinking about the consequences if such a vision were to be fully implemented. We need to have those discussions, too.
I look forward to exploring Somnium Space 2.0 when it comes out. The early teaser shots look wonderful, and I think that moving to full-body avatars is a great idea. There’s lots of good ideas in Somnium Space, but I am a little concerned (and a little skeptical) about some of the blockchain-related promises being made in this video. Sorry, Artur! Please don’t take this personally. You know I will point out potentially problematic issues on this blog when I run across them, and Somnium Space is not the only blockchain-based virtual world I have criticized. You will remember that I also gave you a hard time with that whole “eternal life” promise you made last year. You just need to reign back on the promises a bit, until the technology catches up 😉
So, what do you think? Please feel free to leave a comment below or, as always, you are welcome to join the freewheeling conversations and debates about social VR and virtual worlds taking place on the RyanSchultz.com Discord server, the first cross-worlds discussion forum!
Thanks to Artur Sychov for the heads up on the video!