Editorial: Why Focusing Exclusively on Blockchain-Based Metaverse Platforms Ignores the Bigger Picture, and the Rich and Vibrant History of Social VR and Virtual Worlds

Have you also read: The Problem with NFTs: the Growing Push-Back from People Who Are Sick and Tired of the Current NFT Craze?

As I wrote a couple of days ago, I am angry—mostly about the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and our failures in dealing with it, both at the individual and societal levels. I’m also angry at myself for my own personal failings in navigating through these past two years of pain and chaos, trying to find a way forward in these unprecedented, heartbreaking, soul-destroying times.

But that’s not the only thing that has me irked, peeved, and annoyed me lately. So buckle up, because I have some opinions to share…I’ve been meaning to write this editorial for a long while.

A couple of days ago, I saw via a tweet that Cathy Hackl (a tech pundit who has dubbed herself “the Godmother of the Metaverse” in her Twitter profile) had been named Dean of something called the Repulic Realm Academy, which I had not heard of before. Intrigued, I began my investigation by visiting the Republic Realm website.

Featuring a trailer of footage compiled from various blockchain-based platforms (I recognized a couple, such as Decentraland and the Sandbox), the website states:

Developing the metaverse: Investment, development & infrastructure innovation across the global metaverse & NFT ecosystem.

Republic Realm is one of the most active investors in and developers of the metaverse real estate ecosystem.

We invest in, manage, and develop assets including NFTs, virtual real estate, metaverse platforms, gaming, and infrastructure. Today, we are among the largest landowners in Axie Infinity, Decentraland, The Sandbox and Treeverse.

We have holdings in 24 metaverse platforms and own over 3,000 NFTs. 

We develop our own metaverse real estate NFT projects, including:

• Metajuku, the first metaverse shopping mall with retail tenants and leases 
• Fantasy Islands, a luxury, master-planned real estate development in the Sandbox metaverse, and
• Republic Realm Academy, the first online university set in the metaverse and driven completely by tuition NFTs.

(“The first metaverse shopping mall with retail tenants and leases”? *cough*Second Life*cough*cough*)

Taking a look at the web page describing the Republic Realm Academy, you get the following slickly-produced, 40-second promotional video…

…as well as the following explanation of what the Academy is supposed to be all about:


What is Republic Realm Academy?

Republic Realm Academy is a series of online courses about the metaverse and NFTs. Courses will be taught by multidisciplinary educators hailing from some of the most prestigious universities in the world alongside top industry professionals in web 3.0 technologies. After completing the coursework, students will earn a certificate in Metaverse Technologies and become a permanent part of the Republic Realm Academy alumni network.

Renowned metaverse expert Cathy Hackl is the dean of Republic Realm Academy.

Why Republic Realm Academy?

Republic Realm Academy is a place for people to learn and collaborate about the metaverse and NFTs, built for the metaverse in the metaverse by metaverse experts. Republic Realm Academy makes highly technical concepts easy to understand.

Apparently, they have set up a virtual campus in the blockchain-based social VR platform Somnium Space, and Somnium Space CEO Artur Sychov himself will be teaching “a class at the Academy about VR and the future of the metaverse:”

Tuition for four weeks, which includes a “limited edition Republic Realm Academy NFT Tuition Badge”, which will “be your campus ID card and unlock all Republic Realm Academy resources and initiatives at the start of the term”, six online courses, plus “limited office hours with professors, subject to availability”, costs US$1,000.

Taking a good look at the entire Republic Realm website leaves me with a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. Here’s a sample blogpost from their blog, touting their “2021 Metaverse Real Estate Report”, with the following illustrations:

Image source
Image source

Notice anything interesting about what platforms are discussed, and which are ignored?

A relative newcomer to the concept of the metaverse would be forgiven if, after coming away from this website, believing that the metaverse solely consisted of platforms which incorporated blockchain, cryptocurrencies, and non-fungible tokens (NFTs)! And I, as well as countless others who have been working in social VR platforms and virtual worlds for literally decades, are starting to get a little pissed off at this myopic viewpoint (VRChat even felt forced to issue an official statement today).

More and more often lately, I am seeing the term metaverse being used ***ONLY*** to refer to blockchain-based platforms, and NFT-based virtual real estate, as if the previous quarter-century of metaverse history had never existed! (I take my start date as June 28th, 1995, when Active Worlds was launched.) Those of us who know better have been watching all this NFT metaverse madness unfold and grow steam since Facebook’s pivot to Meta, and now it seems as though the blockchain bros (and women!) have completely taken up all the air in the room.

Let’s face it: it’s to Cathy’s and Artur’s and so many other people’s advantage to sell (and yes, I deliberately use the word sell) as many people as they can on this frankly blinkered perspective on the metaverse—even to the point of offering thousand-dollar certificates for things could probably be learned just as easily from others for free! The overall messaging here is that the non-blockchain-based metaverse platforms which predate this boom in artificially-scarce NFT-based real estate are simply not worth bothering with or investing in.

I am officially fed up, and I think it’s high time that those of us who were the true pioneers begin to push back on this narrative. There’s a whole history of the metaverse which is being completely ignored, as if it never existed. And that’s wrong. There are valuable lessons to be learned here from those who went before, which are being forgotten in the current greed-driven gold rush of the NFT metaverse.

Enough is enough of this deliberately misleading view of what the metaverse is. What good is a “2021 Metaverse Real Estate Report” which completely ignores one of the biggest success stories of the past two decades, Second Life, simply because it doesn’t have NFT-based real estate which can be inspected via the blockchain? Or the absolutely incredible content creators working in places like VRChat, AltspaceVR, ENGAGE, NeosVR* and countless other successful platforms?

This is just too simplistic a picture to paint, and if I have to haul myself up on stage in every single goddamn metaverse-themed room on Clubhouse to remind people, once again, that there is more to the metaverse that just the blockchain and NFTs, then I will.

Look, I am not opposed to the idea of a blockchain-based metaverse. I’m not opposed to NFT-based virtual real estate. I’m not even opposed to selling thousand-dollar courses to people! But I am getting rather angry that so many people are deliberately focusing on just one segment of the rich and vibrant history of social VR and virtual worlds, to the exclusion of all others. There are many ways to organize and run a metaverse, not just on the blockchain! And this perspective overlooks all the work that is being done on dozens of useful and popular metaverse platforms, which do not use cryptocurrencies and non-fungible tokens.

*Note that while NeosVR does have an associated cryptocurrency (NCR), it does not have NFT-based virtual land sales, a key distinction.

Somnium Space Will Be Moving to Version 2 of Their Client Software, and Celebrated the End of Version 1 with a Party!

On December 30th, 2019, blockchain-based social VR platform Somnium Space held a farewell party, both for both the year 2019 and for the first version of their client software. They are planning to launch version 2.0 of their software sometime early this year, which will feature full-body avatars, as opposed to the head-and-shoulders avatars currently available. (I had reported in October 2019 that they had already released version 2.0, but that would appear to be referring only to the virtual land, not the client software itself. I find it rather confusing!)

If you missed the party, there is video of the proceedings. Vivian Chazen (of The Hive VR) was the host of the event, which featured a live performance by the talented singer Luke Reynolds, and a speech by Somnium Space CEO Artur Sychov.

You can see me merrily throwing virtual snowballs at the start of this video!

Also, Artur says that Somnium Space will be releasing an Oculus Quest version of their client to landowners sometime in January 2020. I assume that this will eventually be rolled out to all users of the platform over the course of the year. Artur also tweeted:

Native MetaMask wallet integration [is] coming into [the] Somnium 2.0 PC client. Connect your wallet to Somnium account and browse your NFTs [Non-Fungible Tokens] including [the] latest contract and price details from OpenSea, and insert them directly into the Builder.

Looking forward to all these new developments!

Brad Laurie Interviews Artur Sychov about the Blockchain-Based Social VR Platform Somnium Space

Australian YouTuber Brad Laurie (a.k.a BlockchainBrad) has just published another in-depth interview with Somnium Space CEO and virtual world entrepreneur Artur Sychov, who has decided to embrace blockchain technology for his social VR platform. Brad’s YouTube channel focuses on various blockchain projects, and the 80-minute conversation is obviously mostly about blockchain, but it’s still quite understandable by crypto newbies like me!

The interview is quite wide-ranging, and Brad asks Artur about comparisons between Somnium Space and Second Life (still the most popular and economically successful virtual world) and Decentraland (another blockchain-based virtual world which is still in closed beta). Artur says that Linden Lab’s founding CEO, Philip Rosedale, has helped advise him on Somnium Space.

Also, unlike Decentraland, Somnium Space will be the second VR-capable blockchain-based virtual world to launch (after Cryptovoxels). Decentraland does not support virtual reality, and is unlikely to do so anytime in the near future. And the graphics in Somnium Space will definitely be a step up from the voxel-based graphics of Cryptovoxels! I am quite looking forward to seeing what Somnium Space 2.0 looks like when it launches in October or November of this year.

Brad asks Artur about Somnium Space’s “Live Forever” feature, of which I have been skeptical in the past on this blog. Artur explains that Somnium Space will offer to record everything you do and say in VR on your parcel of virtual land, and then apply AI to it. Artur says that if you die, you can then have this second version of you that your children and grandchildren can visit. He states that AI is progressing so quickly that within 10 to 15 years, it will be difficult to determine what is really you and what is AI. Upon questioning from Brad, he admits that nobody else has tried to do this before. (And I am still skeptical that this will work. The amount of data storage to save everything your avatar says and does over days, weeks, months and years will be quite substantial, and will likely become overwhelming to work with.)

Somnium Space is holding an Initial Land Offering (ILO) starting October 6th and running until October 13th, where 4,500 parcels of virtual land will be auctioned off in partnership with OpenSea. (Bidders will have to have a Ethereum cryptocurrency wallet like MetaMask.)

In every other social VR platform and virtual world to date, you are not allowed to transfer your avatar and purchases to other people as part of the platform’s terms of service (although Second Life does allow you to leave your avatar and its inventory to another person via your will). Artur talks about how the use of blockchain in Somnium Space will allow users who are banned from Somnium Space to resell everything they own to other people who can use it, at whatever prices the market will bear. This is quite a novel idea for a virtual world!

Brad also asks about the cryptocurrency to be used in Somnium Space, and Artur replies that they are working on finalizing the details on it. He states that they will comply with any current and future governmental rules and regulations on cryptocurrencies, trying to stay ahead of the curve.

Artur says that Somnium Space currently has a dozen software developers at work on the platform, with extensive in-house expertise on virtual reality and blockchain. And Somnium Space will soon release a version of the client for Oculus Quest wireless VR headset users.

You can follow Somnium Space on DiscordTwitterTelegram or Instagram. Artur Sychov also hosts an Open Mic event every Saturday at 22:00 CEST (Central European Standard Time) in the Somnium Space amphitheater, for users to learn more about latest development news and to have their questions answered by the CEO himself.

Somnium Space is available via Steam and downloadable from their website (the client software is free).

Editorial: How Much Freedom Does Blockchain Really Convey? Artur Sychov Talks About Somnium Space 2.0

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!