Editorial: Upon Reflection…

Taking a much-needed break from blogging has given me an opportunity to reflect a bit on my journey over the past three years, and ponder where I might go from here.

Photo by Joshua Earle on Unsplash

Frankly, I never expected to become a journalist covering the ever-evolving metaverse, with a growing audience; this blog started off as a tiny little niche blog, where I wrote about my (mis)adventures and explorations in Sansar. And everything that happened after that—writing about more and more social VR platforms, hosting the Metaverse Newscast show, focusing on freebies in my beloved Second Life—just kind of happened organically. I didn’t have any sort of plan; I just made choices along the way that led to this point.

But for me, the seeds for this journey were first planted in Second Life 14 years ago, which since its earliest days has been this strange and marvelous phoenix that keeps rising from the ashes, again and again, confounding and bewildering many casual observers who continue to predict (wrongly) its failure. Even a cursory glance at the official Second Life Community News feed (curated by the highly capable Strawberry Linden) reveals the absolute torrent of creativity that the platform has provided to so many people. Second Life is not going anywhere, honey.

Source: My Dark Fantasy

SL is a fully-evolved, vibrant, mature virtual world which has become the model which other metaverse companies have spent countless programming hours and (in some cases) millions of dollars to try and recreate, with varying degrees of success.

I think that the ones that have been the most successful (so far) are NeosVR, ENGAGE, AltspaceVR, VRChat, Rec Room and, somewhat to my surprise, three blockchain-based worlds: Cryptovoxels, Decentraland, and Somnium Space. And there are many other platforms slowly but surely building up their business, taking advantage of the unexpected opportunities presented by the coronavirus pandemic (one example is Sinespace, a company which is patiently and cannily playing the long game, and which is extremely well-poised to snatch Second Life’s mantle, if and when it is ever dropped).


And, during my break, I have been also thinking a lot about Facebook/Oculus and their impact on virtual reality in general, and social VR in particular. I have decided that, despite my new, personal boycott of Facebook products and services, I will continue to write about their upcoming social VR platform, Facebook Horizon, as it launches in public beta, probably before the end of this year.

I, like many other people, now absolutely refuse to have a Facebook account as a matter of moral principle. In August of 2019 I wrote (and yes, it bears repeating at length here):

In this evolving metaverse of social VR and virtual worlds, is too much power concentrated in the hands of a single, monolithic, profit-obsessed company? I would argue that Facebook is aiming for complete and utter domination of the VR universe, just as they already have in the social networking space, by creating a walled ecosystem…that will have a negative impact on other companies trying to create and market VR apps and experiences. The field is already tilted too much in Facebook’s favour, and the situation could get worse.

More concerning to me is that, at some point, I may be forced to get an account on the Facebook social network to use apps on my Oculus VR hardware. In fact, this has already happened with the events app Oculus Venues, which I recently discovered requires you to have an account on the Facebook social network to access.

Sorry, but after all the Facebook privacy scandals of the past couple of years, that’s a big, fat “Nope!” from me. I asked Facebook to delete its 13 years of user data on me, and I quit the social network in protest as my New Year’s resolution last December, and I am never coming back. And I am quite sure that many of Facebook’s original users feel exactly the same way, scaling back on their use of the platform or, like me, opting out completely. I regret I ever started using Facebook thirteen years ago, and that experience will inform my use (and avoidance) of other social networks in the future.

Yes, I do know that I have to have an Oculus account to be able to use my Oculus Rift and Oculus Quest VR headsets, and that Facebook is collecting data on that. I also know that the Facebook social network probably has a “shadow account” on me based on things such as images uploaded to the social network and tagged with my name by friends and family, etc., but I am going to assume that Facebook has indeed done what I have asked and removed my data from their social network. Frankly, there is no way for me to actually VERIFY this, as consumers in Canada and the U.S. have zero rights over the data companies like Facebook collects about them, as was vividly brought to life by Dr. David Carroll, whose dogged search for answers to how his personal data was misused in the Cambridge Analytica scandal played a focal role in the Netflix documentary The Great Hack (which I highly recommend you watch).

We’ve already seen how social networks such as Facebook have contributed negatively to society by contributing to the polarization and radicalization of people’s political opinions, and giving a platform to groups such as white supremacists and anti-vaxersThe Great Hack details how Cambridge Analytica used Facebook data without user knowledge or consent to swing the most recent U.S. election in Donald Trump’s favour, and look at the f***ing mess the world is in now just because of that one single, pivotal event.

We can’t trust that Facebook is going to act in any interests other than its own profit. Facebook has way too much power, and governments around the world need to act in the best interests of their citizens in demanding that the company be regulated, even broken up if necessary.

Of course, Facebook is well within its corporate rights to insist that, henceforth, Oculus Go, Quest, and Rift users have to use Facebook accounts. Just as I am well within my rights to avoid providing another smidgen of personal data for Facebook to strip-mine for profit. It will be very interesting to see how more the consumer-privacy-oriented First World countries (such as Canada, and those countries within the European Union) will respond to the Facebook juggernaut.

I also have absolutely zero doubt that Facebook will continue to use every single lawyer, lobbyist, tool and tactic at its disposal to fight to maintain its market dominance, even as the Facebook social network continues to foster divisiveness, bleed users and lose advertisers. Believe me, Facebook would not have taken the unprecedented step of forcing Oculus device users to set up Facebook accounts if they weren’t afraid of losing the younger generations of users who have, thus far, resisted joining the social network their parents and grandparents belong to. (Of course, most of them are already on Instagram, which is owned by Facebook.)

It is relatively easy to bypass the tethered Oculus Rift VR headset and its associated Oculus Store ecosystem with competing PCVR products and services (such as the Vive headsets, the Valve Index and Steam). However, it is difficult—frankly impossible at present—to find a non-Facebook alternative to the standalone Oculus Quest VR headset. I have no doubt that the market will throw up a few capable competitors to the Quest over time, but Facebook has built up a huge lead, and it will be very difficult to unseat from its dominance in that particular market segment.


So, as you can see, I have been doing quite a bit of thinking while I have hit the pause button on this blog. I will continue to spend the rest of my summer on my self-imposed vacation from this blog, and no doubt I will have other thoughts, insights and opinions to share with you when I return, hopefully feeling more refreshed.

I feel that with this blog, after a few stumbles and setbacks, I have finally found my voice, and you will continue to hear it over the next three years, and probably far beyond that! Enjoy the rest of your summer! I will be back in September.

Photo by Jason Rosewell on Unsplash

Editorial: The Licensing of Wearables in Decentraland Could Lead to a Creative Bottleneck

Watching the various blockchain-based virtual worlds evolve, and comparing and contrasting their decisions on how they wish to operate with longer-established, non-blockchain-based virtual worlds such as Second Life, has proven to be quite interesting.

Many of the eager cryptoinvestors who have bought NFTs (non-fungible tokens) such as virtual land, avatar names, and avatar wearables in places like Cryptovoxels, Decentraland and Somnium Space like to tout that their possessions cannot be taken away from them, or censored, revoked or restricted by any central authority, even by the companies running the platform.

For example, they point out that if a user runs afoul of Second Life’s Terms of Service, they can have their account suspended and lose all their virtual possessions. In contrast, the adherents of blockchain-based virtual worlds claim that they can evade such restrictions by simply selling their items on the open market (one such example is the popular OpenSea collectibles marketplace).

Limited-edition wearables (i.e., avatar clothing) which are bought and sold on the blockchain are already proving quite popular both in Cryptovoxels and Decentraland, but the two platforms are taking distinctly different approaches in their implementation. While Cryptovoxels is using the open market approach already proven as successful in places like Second Life, Decentraland seems to be opting for a more restrictive licensing approach, which at first glance seems rather at odds with its “open, decentralized” advertising.

Forcing creators to sign licenses to be allowed to make and sell content, and having investors vote on who will and will not be allowed to create content, stifles the creativity of an free and open marketplace, and seems to go against the “decentralized” nature of Decentraland.

According to an announcement made Monday on the official Decentraland blog:

The creation of wearables for Decentraland is a complicated process requiring a lot of support. To ensure user-generated wearables look great and function properly in Decentraland we will need to make the tools to support this process.

It will take time to develop the workflow and build the equivalent of an SDK and Builder tool for wearables so during this process we will work with small teams of developers from the community that we are confident can deliver quality products and the feedback and communication we need.

Once the workflow is in place and the quality at the high level you’d expect, we’ll implement Stage 2 of the initiative.

This involves opening up the application to create wearables to the entire community. It will take the form of licenses being granted to teams and individuals by the community, through the DAO.

The DAO (short for Decentralized Autonomous Organization) is a relatively new mechanism to allow Decentraland’s investors to vote “on the policies created to determine how the world behaves: for example, what kinds of wearable items are allowed (or disallowed) after the launch of the DAO, moderation of content, LAND policy and auctions, among others.” (More information on the DAO can be found here.)

I have seen a lot of virtual worlds come and go in my time, and one thing that I can tell you is this: imposing any kind of licensing on the creative process can lead to a creative bottleneck, and potentially drive away content creators.

One reason that Second Life continues to be the most commercially successful and popular virtual world, is that Linden Lab had, very early on, decided to create a free and open market, where creators could set up stores and sell their content to whoever was willing to buy it, retaining the rights to their creations and earning income.

Linden Lab has never licensed stores or creators in Second Life, and never will. The workload associated with such an enterprise, in a market with many millions of items for sale, would be impossible to scale upwards as the economy grew. Yes, Linden Lab will step in if a DMCA copyright complaint is received from a competitor, and they will also shut down stores which sell illegally-copied content when it is pointed out to them, but otherwise, they very wisely stand aside and let the market decide what people want.

And while stores open and fold with astounding regularity in Second Life, the fact that they have approximately 900,000 regular monthly users means that they must be doing something right (even if it was all a happy accident which to date still has not been replicated by any other platform). Those virtual worlds that look on with envy at SL’s success, and wish to snatch that mantle of success for themselves, need to pay attention to what works, and what doesn’t.

It would appear that, going forward, Decentraland will be focusing on a licensing process for all avatar wearables, letting its investors vote, instead of letting anybody who wants to, simply create and sell avatar clothing and accessories for the DCL marketplace. While some see this as a necessary effort to impose and refine a high-quality workflow, others see it as a means to restrict market access, and reward those who have the deepest pockets and the best connections. (Some commentators have complained about the opaque process by which the initial five wearables creators were chosen.) Time will tell who’s right and who’s wrong here.

As I see it, Decentraland already has some daunting obstacles which stand in the way of attracting and retaining your average, non-crypto virtual world user to their platform: the many steps required to set up a crypto wallet and purchase ETH and convert it to MANA; the need to purchase even things as basic as a username; and the prohibitively expensive virtual land, its price driven up by speculators. Placing licensing restrictions on who can create items such as avatar wearables could become another such obstacle.

Decentraland should study the history of its competitors carefully, to glean a few pertinent lessons on how to run and grow a virtual world. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel here, folks.

Photo by Jon Cartagena on Unsplash

Exploring (and Building) in Cryptovoxels

While I was home sick with a cold this past week, I spent a little time wandering around Cryptovoxels (which is very easy to do, since it all runs in your web browser). Here are a few pictures I took on my travels:

The Rose Nexus Gallery (blogged previously here)

There are already quite a few impressive builds, including this huge sphere, guarded by a couple of massive heads:

You might not know that Spidymonkey kindly gave me a parcel of virtual land to build on in Cryptovoxels (thanks, Spidymonkey!). He even went so far as to create a three-dimensional version of my profile picture to place on it!

And (after a bit of troubleshooting), I was able to build my first creation on my own land. My first wall!

You can choose different designs for your blocks, and you can delete previously placed blocks to make things like windows:

The way that Cryptovoxels handles colour is interesting. Essentially, you have to buy colour using cryptocurrency (or have it gifted to you). According to the documentation:

Color is a limited resource in Cryptovoxels. Any land owner can build in black and white and greyscale for no extra cost, but if you want to use color voxels or color images, you need to add some $COLR. There are three ways to get $COLR.

– Build something cool and get $COLR as a reward
– Purchase $COLR from Uniswap using Ether
– Have someone in-world add some $COLR to your parcel to say thanks

(And yes, before you say anything about my building skills…I’m a blogger, not an architect. Be kind.)

UPDATED! Cryptovoxels and Decentraland: More Money Is Being Exchanged for Blockchain-Based Assets Than You Might Suspect

You’d be surprised by the amount of cryptocurrency changing hands for blockchain-based digital assets like virtual land and avatar wearables
(image by WorldSpectrum from Pixabay)

I have been observing the goings-on of what I consider to be the top three blockchain-based virtual worlds (Cryptovoxels, Decentraland, and Somnium Space) for quite some time now. I find it endlessly fascinating.

You might not be aware that all three worlds have assets for sale via OpenSea, which is the world’s largest marketplace for digital goods, including collectibles, gaming items, digital art, and other digital assets that are backed by a blockchain like Ethereum (ETH for short). According to their FAQ, there are over four million items on the OpenSea market, but according to one of my sources, it’s closer to 10 million now.

When discussing these worlds, you will hear the term Non-Fungible Token (NFT) thrown around a lot. An NFT is a unique, distinguishable, indivisible blockchain-based asset which has some sort of monetary value, usually denoted in a cryptocurrency like ETH.

The classic example of an NFT is Cryptokitties, a passionate phenomenon which utterly baffles me. (Then again, I have never understood why breedables became a thing in Second Life, which is the closest non-crypto analogy I can give for NFTs.) The information contained within a non-fungible token is unique to that token, like the colour and design of the stripes on a Cryptokitty, or the location coordinates for a parcel of LAND in Decentraland. This means that one non-fungible token can never be simply swapped, or exchanged, for any other token. Each is unique.

Cryptokitties for sale on the OpenSea website
(and no, I still don’t get the appeal)

All three of Cryptovoxels, Decentraland, and Somnium Space have both virtual land and virtual items as non-fungible tokens. And you might be as surprised as I was today when, out of idle curiosity, I investigated and discovered just how much money is trading hands per week in these virtual worlds!

Here is a screen capture of the trading volume of the past seven days for both Cryptovoxels and Decentraland, two virtual worlds which have consistently appeared in the OpenSea top 5 list by trading volume:

US$54,000 trading hands in a week is nothing to sniff at (although I suspect significantly more money is still being exchanged in Second Life on a weekly basis). I can now begin to understand how Cryptovoxels’ lead developer, Ben Nolan, can work full-time and be supported financially by his platform! There’s some money to be had here.

In fact, the distributed nature of blockchain ledger-keeping allows anyone to see at a glance how well (or poorly) sales are doing on any blockchain-based platform. Unlike Second Life sales volumes, which are considered confidential, proprietary corporate information by Linden Lab (aside from the occasional statistic tossed out on anniversaries), you can’t hide the information; it is available to anybody who wants to look at it!

(You might be interested to know that the 7-day trading volume in the third blockchain-based platform I mentioned up top, Somnium Space, is about 7.9 ETH, which works out to US$1,134. I am willing to predict that investment in Somnium Space will increase during 2020 to a level comparable with Cryptovoxels and Decentraland. They simply have too much potential to be overlooked, given their planned feature set.)

So do not be tempted to dismiss the blockchain-based social VR platforms and virtual worlds so lightly. People are already avidly buying and selling virtual land, and virtual items such as avatar wearables!

Cryptovoxels wearables (including a sword, a cellphone, a baseball cap, and a boombox) for sale on the OpenSea website

Am I tempted to participate in these markets? Absolutely not. Blockchain/crypto still seems like voodoo medicine to me. My major achievement last month was to successfully transfer a minuscule amount of ETH from one crypto wallet to another, to cover the transaction fee (or “gas”) in order to set up a custom username on Cryptovoxels! (Yes, like Decentraland, you gotta pay. But not as much.)

But it is fascinating to watch all this from the sidelines, nonetheless.

UPDATE Jan. 11th, 2020: Jin has alerted me to a brand-new resource by OpenSea, called The NFT Bible: Everything you need to know about non-fungible tokens, which is an excellent starting place for the newbie to learn all about non-fungible tokens in much more detail than I have covered here.

There is also a bar chart in this section of the report that shows you the top non-fungible tokens by trading volume over the past six months:

The market for non-fungible tokens is still quite small, and somewhat harder to measure than the cryptocurrency market given the lack of spot prices for assets. For the purpose of this analysis, we focus on secondary trading volume (i.e., peer to peer sales of non-fungible tokens) as an indicator of market size. Using this metric, we estimate the current secondary market to be roughly $2 – $3 million USD in volume per month. In the last six months, the following projects led the charge:

In this “top ten”, the red arrows point out the trading volume for:

  • Decentraland (roughly US$1.5 million in trading volume)
  • Decentraland Estates (i.e. parcels larger than a single piece of LAND; about a quarter of a million dollars in trading volume)
  • Somnium Space (approximately US$250,000)
  • Cryptovoxels (also approximately US$250,000)