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.

Notes from The Metaverse: A Glimpse into the Future of Work, with Charlie Fink, Cathy Hackl, Alex Howland, and Philip Rosedale, Held in VirBELA on May 13th, 2021

Charlie Fink (at podium) addresses an audience of over 160 avatars in VirBELA

Today, four well-known people in the metaverse shared a virtual stage in VirBELA to talk about how the metaverse will impact the future of work. (I was not in-world, but I did receive a special livestream link on YouTube to follow the proceedings at virbe.la/metaverse-stream, which I hope works for you as well. Here’s a second link if the first one doesn’t work: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iH6Lj1AKi3o.)

Author and columnist Charlie Fink was moderator, asking questions and guiding the wide-ranging conversation among the panelists:

  • Alex Howland, the founder and CEO of VirBELA
  • Cathy Hackl, VR/AR/XR columnist and author of the new book The Augmented Workforce, who used to work at Magic Leap
  • Philip Rosedale, founder of Linden Lab (Second Life) and CEO of the spatial audio firm High Fidelity

Some of the interesting things from the panel which caught my ear were:

  • Cathy Hackl stated that the “metaverse” is not just limited to Ready Player One, but also Pokémon GO (even though I personally do not agree that cellphone-based “AR” is true augmented reality). She doesn’t want to see everything in one walled-garden marketplace like Oculus. She works a lot in the crypto space and wants to support decentralization, such as the portability of avatars between metaverses.
  • Philip said that COVID-19 introduced everybody to the idea of virtual worlds, or shared virtual spaces.
  • Alex was an organizational psychologist who got his original idea for VirBELA to create environments for business leaders to learn from each other, practice leadership skills, and to observe behaviour.
  • Philip recognized Second Life when he visited VirBELA, and really enjoyed walking around the virtual campus. He feels there is still a lot of work to be done to build platforms which allow people to be creative together.
  • Cathy sees ROBLOX and similar platforms as entry points for new generations of virtual world users. Her 12-year-old daughter’s friend is already making money creating and selling skins in ROBLOX.
  • Charlie commented on the fact that VirBELA lets you “lean in”, as opposed to more passive video-based services such as Zoom.
  • Philip talked about real-life use cases of his new company’s technology, High Fidelity, stressing how the three-dimensional, spatialized audio is better than a Zoom call. The company offers an SDK so that companies can integrate spatial audio into their products. High Fidelity works within the browser, and the company is working on native clients for iOS, Unity, etc.
  • Philip feels that avatars are extraordinarily important, saying that Second Life has a $600 million economy, with one of the largest segments being avatar hairstyles! But facial expression and lip movement are not yet there, and we are not yet across the Uncanny Valley effect (where avatars can appear creepy). Cathy notes that her daughter really cares a great deal about how her avatar looks in ROBLOX!
  • Alex talked about the FRAME platform, which he launched to pursue WebXR, to provide people ease of access from a wide variety of devices. There are tradeoffs between ecosystems (FRAME versus VirBELA), and they are still experimenting and innovating.
  • Cathy feels that VR/AR/XR is incredibly important to the development of the metaverse, in giving an enhanced sense of presence, and impact the way which we engage with environments. She encourages people not to restrict their thinking to just being in a VR headset.
  • Charlie asked Philip or Alex to explain what Agora is (a toolbox to allow you to build audio and video delivery into platforms, which is used in Clubhouse!). Philip noted that if the pandemic has happened even a decade earlier, it would have had a much bigger impact without services such as Agora.
  • Alex said that they has recently hosted a bar mitzvah in VirBELA, among many other unexpected uses (like speakeasies!).
  • Philip says that things are never going to be the same after the pandemic is over. It has now been shown that virtual events can be successful. New technology such as High Fidelity, starting with virtual events, are going to have many applications in future. There are also important cost and environmental aspects to holding meetings such as conferences in virtual spaces.
  • Alex notes that his company builds a lot of custom spaces for clients, and he notes that there are different approaches to world-building (i.e. building your own versus have someone build it for you).
  • Philip notes that Zoom and similar videoconferencing doesn’t have a natural network effect. If communications do embrace virtual worlds, then that will have network effects (i.e. more people want to join bigger networks, an example being Facebook and, to a lesser extent, Second Life). We still don’t know how everything is going to play out in the marketplace. A lot of CEOs are wrestling with the fact that many of their employees do not want to come back into the office, and how to build corporate culture in that new environment.
  • Philip advocated for a stable, cross-platform identity (not tied to your real-world identity), that serves to make us accountable for our behaviour.

Well, those are my rough notes. If you missed the talk, use one of the two links up top to watch and listen. It was an engaging one-hour conversation!