MetaWorld: An Update

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A screencapture I took last month from the new MetaWorld website (complete with a suspiciously realistic-looking avatar apparently taken from the MetaHuman project)

So many metaverse stories have piled up in my in-box since I decided to take a vacation from blogging (more or less) during the month of December. But one story in particular stands out in my mind, and therefore today I am providing you with an update on Dedric Reid and his MetaWorld project.

In May of 2019, I wrote a blogpost about a virtual world project called MetaWorld, where I aired some of the grievances of the investors of the first iteration of the project, and I expressed some misgivings about its current status. Dedric Reid, who is associated with the MetaWorld project, told me at the time that I had published “false information” about his project, but declined an opportunity to be interviewed about MetaWorld, and answer some questions and address some criticisms which had been posted on Reddit and a Road to VR report.

At which point I shrugged, moved on, and promptly forgot about the project. (By the way, you can find all my posts about MetaWorld here, including this one.)

Well, MetaWorld is back (with a brand new website and a brand new Discord server; its former website seems to be sold to new owners) and somebody has been actively uploading new videos of what this apparently brand-new virtual world is supposed to look like:

The brand new Discord server created by Dedric Reid, which has (or rather, had) a press channel filled with links to glowing press reviews of the previous iteration of MetaWorld project, dating from 2016 and 2017 (the quote at the beginning of the video I posted above was also from that time period). When I asked Dedric if he had any recent press to share, about the current iteration of the project, he assured me that it would soon be forthcoming, mentioning CNBC and CNN television:

Shortly afterward, I was informed that Dedric had deleted this entire conversation from the #Press channel on his new MetaWorld Discord server. (I tried to confirm this myself today, but I decided to leave the new MetaWorld Discord server of my own accord, and the Discord invite on the MetaWorld website is now either expired or invalid. Frankly, I don’t know, or even care, at this point whether or not this Discord still exists.)

The MetaWorld website was, for a short period of time, selling “passports” to access its metaverse platform, which I thought was rather odd (why would you need a passport if you already had an avatar set up?) Here’s a couple of screen captures I took before Dedric suddenly took the passports off his MetaWorld Marketplace:

Elite Pioneer

$30.00

• Exclusive Community Access
• Early Access to NFT Land Drops
• Early Access to NFT Marketplace Drops
• Land Broker Agent Support
• Specialized Community Role

The MetaWorld website also briefly offered for sale some virtual land NFTs, which were illustrated with pictures of lush forests and streams (these have abruptly been removed from the MetaWorld Marketplace as well):

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As for the avatars, well, this is a screenshot of the avatars page on the MetaWorld website (also screencaptured by me before it was taken down by Dedric Reid):

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The “avatars” in the MetaWorld project come straight from MetaHuman

So, MetaWorld is supposed to be this brand-new, high-quality virtual world, with such incredibly high levels of sophistication in its avatars, and such incredibly detailed landscapes—in both cases, levels beyond anything that is currently available on any working metaverse platform? And with the company (until recently) selling both “passports” and virtual land NFTs on its website?

Well, it just so happens that I have over 600 users on the RyanSchultz.com Discord server—truly passionate people who have experience with dozens of existing social VR platforms, virtual worlds, and metaverse products. People who endlessly discuss, debate, and argue about news and events in the ever-evolving metaverse and the companies building it! In other words, I have a crack team of metaverse bullshit detectors, and therefore, I shared some of these MetaWorld videos and pictures with them, to get their feedback on MetaWorld, before writing this blogpost. Here’s what they told me.

One person looked at the MetaWorld promo video I posted above and said:

Looks like your usual fare of Unity HDR pipeline tech demo. Looks nice but isn’t usable in the slightest for VR which is something of a requirement for anything claiming to be a metaverse or “the new world”. I buy a lot of landscape asset packs for Unity, it looks very much like the demo videos they make for those, e.g.

As you can see, they’re not doing anything special that stock Unity with some nice landscape assets can’t do. Also praise be to NatureManufacture for their stuff, it’s relatively cheap and very nicely done.

“A first of its kind 10,000 square mile simulation, MetaWorld is a simulated reality that continues to exist even when no one is around.” I ran a 16 sq. km megaregion on OpenSim for ages which fulfils that criteria, LOL. Looks like an attempt purely at exploiting FOMO [Fear Of Missing Out].

Another person pointed out similar assets for the Unreal game engine:

I think those were just Unreal Marketplace assets, to be honest. Much easier to bundle together with MetaHumans, since it’s in the same engine.

Some examples of these asset packs can be found here and here.

Another member of my Discord pointed out that the MetaWorld avatars were taken from Unreal’s MetaHuman Creator software, sharing the following video:

If—if—such a metaverse platform truly existed, it would surpass any other product out there on the market in terms of visual fidelity. By far. Too bad there’s absolutely zero technical details of this ultra-high-end project on the MetaWorld website. Absolutely nothing to indicate that this metaverse is being built, no progress reports, zip, nada, bupkis.

Trust me, I scoured that website in depth (before before and after Dedric edited it). All I found were forms to recruit builders, creators, governors, and investors to the project (and the last two forms are identical). The builder and creator forms have checkboxes for people to indicate if they have Unity, Unreal, and/or SpatialOS experience, which sounds to me like they haven’t even settled on a game engine for their metaverse!

Unity, Unreal, and/or SpatialOS: Looks like MetaWorld hasn’t settled on a game engine for their metaverse yet

As I always say, past behaviour is a good (but not infallible) indicator of future behaviour. A number of people invested in the previous MetaWorld project circa 2016-2019 (they even had a kickstarter on IndieGogo), and unfortunately got nothing back. Now the MetaWorld project is back for a second go-round, with a new website, a new Discord, and a lot of YouTube videos (most of which Dedric has since taken down) purporting to show a suspiciously high-end, detailed metaverse and ultra-realistic avatars. Rinse and repeat?

But that’s not all. Oh, fat, faaar from it. This is where the story gets really interesting!

I already had a draft version of this blogpost written up, when I was approached by Aaron Souppouris, who is the executive editor for the tech news website Engadget, telling me that they were working on an piece of investigative journalism about Dedric Reid and his MetaWorld project. So I held off on publishing this blogpost, until that article was posted on December 10th, 2021 on the Engadget website:

The Engadget article about Dedric Reid and his MetaWorld project

The reporter, Jessica Conditt, is a Senior Editor at Engadget, and she did a deft job of handing Dedric’s ass to him on a platter! I’m not going to quote too much from this glorious takedown (you can go over to the Engadget website and read it in full), but here’s a bit of it:

Engadget spoke with 11 original MetaWorld investors, including people who were deeply involved in the community and often interacted with Reid directly. Many of these members asked not to be named, considering Reid had their personal information and they didn’t trust him to not misuse it.

After a few months of missed launch dates and hollow promises, MetaWorld members discovered Reid was using images from 3D model site TurboSquid to sell land and in-game items, and they said he changed critical details about the engine and development process seemingly on a whim. As people would ask for refunds in the original Discord server, Reid would call them trolls and delete their messages.

,,,

[The] demo, built before [MetaWorld prototype developer, Carleton] DiLeo left the team, is the only public proof that Reid’s MetaWorld has ever existed as an inhabitable virtual place. DiLeo went on to build his own simulated environment using Spatial OS, and he sold it in October 2018 to Somnium Space, which is an established, decentralized VR platform powered by blockchain. As part of that deal, Somnium Space offered a refund and land-exchange program for angry MetaWorld customers, in an effort to rebuild trust in VR development as a whole.

In October 2021, two years after Reid’s final message in the old Discord, a new MetaWorld server appeared. It had a fresh logo, links to his Clubhouse group, and the same pitch as before. A “passports” channel linked to a page where people could pay $10, $20 or $30 for “exclusive community access,” the opportunity to build MetaWorld, and early bidding on future NFT drops.

At the time of publishing, MetaWorld NFTs have raised 5,126 MATIC (around $11,000) since their launch on November 25th.

Yes, as it turns out, there is still a Discord server with over 600 members from the previous iteration of the MetaWorld project, eleven of whom agreed to be interviewed by Engadget, people who remember what happened the last time around, and guess what? They had a LOT to say about this new iteration of the MetaWorld project.

(Unfortunately, you cannot join the old MetaWorld Discord server, as apparently all the admins are now gone, and all the old invite links have expired. Dedric himself has forgotten how to log in, and he has apparently asked to be let back in to the old MetaWorld Discord server, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the members of that particular Discord are not keen on having him return. They’ve already been burned once.)

Oh, but wait! It gets even better:

Reid is now selling virtual land and properties as NFTs on the Polygon network, and people are buying. Land tends to run from $50 to $600, payable in Polygon’s MATIC currency, while a “Piano House” costs $650 and seems to be available via cash payment only. The MetaWorld website claims just 10 of these houses will be minted and simulated.

“So much excitement, creative thoughts and passion for the future,” Discord user Clare Bratina wrote in the new MetaWorld server on November 25th. “Definitely backing the creators and looking forward to learning how to create in the metaverse and on metaworld.”

Every now and then in the new server, a random member will spam the channels with warnings claiming that MetaWorld is a scam, and Reid will deny it and delete the messages. Just like old times.

But wait, there’s MORE!

New users have been trickling into the new MetaWorld Discord server and Reid has been organizing its channels, most of which are empty. It’s mostly newcomers, but there are also a handful of folks from the old MetaWorld server floating around, tracking the similarities between the previous project and the new promises.

The new server used to have a “creators” channel where Reid shared images of Redwood trees and forest foliage going through the photogrammetry process, and one old-server user noticed artifacts on the pictures, where it looked like text had been Photoshopped away. This user found the original images on a website unassociated with MetaWorld or Reid, and Engadget eventually traced all the images in channel back to an 80 Level interview with environmental artist Willi Hammes of MAWI United.

Engadget spoke with Reid in November, when the creators channel was still live, and asked him what photogrammetry software he was using to build MetaWorld.

“I’m not actually sure,” he said. “I’m not working on the photogrammetry stuff. So I’d have to ask somebody from my team what they’re using to capture it.”

Original backer BenG found the original versions of many MetaWorld-related assets (source: Engadget)

Reid said he had a few freelancers working on the project, but he presented himself as the sole full-time creator of MetaWorld. Minutes after our interview, the creators channel disappeared from the Discord server, taking all the photogrammetry claims with it.

Other MetaWorld assets vanished around this time, too. Reid deleted and unlisted at least two YouTube videos after facing questions about their origins. One of them, called “Generative + Procedural Design Redwood Creek,” was a minute-long speedrun through the Unreal Engine 4 development process, showing the creation of a lush forest scene. It was published on October 31st. The MetaWorld logo was prominently displayed over the entire video, it started and ended with the URL for the MetaWorld website, and its description read, “Using a combination of procedural / generative Design and hand freehand design to construct MetaWorld Redwood Creek region.”

After establishing we were talking about the same video, I asked Reid point-blank, “So that video, that was you in MetaWorld making something?”

He was silent for seven seconds. “The video’s MetaWorld, yes,” he finally said.

However, the footage in question was originally posted to YouTube by a user named Nitrogen in March 2019, without any of the MetaWorld bits. The MetaWorld version was edited down and cropped in places, but it was the same video. Reid did not make it, nor was it an example of anything he had built in MetaWorld.

There’s more—much, much more, in glorious detail, with images!—in Jessica’s article. So please go over an read it in full. Aaron Souppouris, Jessica Conditt, and the rest of the team over at Engadget have all the receipts, sweetheart!

I’ll let someone from my small army of metaverse bullshit detectors have the final word here:

So they seem to have LAZILY slapped several asset packs together, added FREE MetaHumans characters (if they even did that, LOL). And now they are selling literal AIR to the fools who don’t do enough research.

Aa always, I urge anybody who is going to invest in such projects to do EVERY. SINGLE. SCRAP. of their homework, and do proper due diligence before investing a penny. Don’t be swayed by videos of highly realistic scenery and avatars alone; ask questions about exactly HOW they plan to build their metaverse. Ask detailed questions and expect detailed answers!

As for Dedric, I have heard that he has made himself rather scarce lately. I also hear he’s also been largely absent from the social audio app Clubhouse, where he was actively shilling for MetaWorld in October and November. Wonder why.

UPDATE 2:12 p.m.: Medhue, who is an active content creator in Second Life, Sansar, and on other metaverse platforms, has this comment (I do have his permission to quote him):

Interesting read Ryan. I’d be a little bit weary trusting creators on your discord. There are different levels of creators, and unless they have worked in all engines, they won’t really know what is possible. Unreal is not Unity. Unity handles phone and tablet games well, but they don’t even compare to Unreal when it comes to realism. Yes, you can get similar results, with a lot more work, but not quite the same, as Unreal’s lighting is next gen compared to Unity. So, any talk of what is and is not possible, is moot unless they know the engine being used. Right now, it is totally possible to create an ultra realistic world in Unreal for VR. Any talk of not being able to do that in VR is BS. High quality or not. It’s all about how it is done. I have no doubt this guy pushing this world is not a good actor, but again, any talk of you can’t do this or that, is totally BS, especially as a reason not to believe something.

Good points, thank you Medhue! I can assure you that Dedric does not possess the skillset to do this, and there’s no “team” here, either—it’s just Dedric.

Engadget Interview with Ebbe Altberg: Why Linden Lab Decided to Sell Sansar

On March 27th, 2020, the Engadget website published what is probably the most detailed interview yet with Linden Lab CEO Ebbe Altberg, in which he explains the thinking behind the company’s decision to sell their fledgling social VR platform, Sansar, and focus on Second Life.

It’s clear that one of the strong messages that Ebbe wanted to send out with this high-profile industry interview is that Linden Lab is now in a strong, profitable position as a company. Here’s an excerpt from that interview, which I would encourage you to read in full:

So why did Linden Lab sell the platform? In short, the company wanted to be profitable and Sansar wasn’t making enough money. “We incubated Sansar,” Altberg explained. “We got it up and going. It’s fantastic technology, but it’s still [got] quite a way of runway [before it can] become a cash-positive.”

Altberg said it was ultimately a “strategic decision” to sell Sansar and give the development team a chance to branch out on their own. “I’m super stoked that we’re able to find a way for them to continue the journey,” he explained.

First, though, the company needed to find a buyer. It considered “a bunch of different paths,” according to Altberg, which included some larger owners. In the end, it settled on Wookey Project Corp., a little-known startup that wants to create “a new generation of online AR/VR experiences,” according to a Linden Lab press release. Altberg describes the company as a “really scrappy investor type of player” who wants a challenge and is prepared to let the Sansar team drive its own agenda. Wookey’s CEO also lives in the same town as Altberg, which probably helped seal the deal.

And (yes, I have to say it), I first drew attention to Linden Lab’s essential dilemma in a blogpost I wrote two years ago:

I think that Ebbe Altberg and his team at Linden Lab can’t win no matter what they do. If they continue to throw too much time and money at Second Life, Sansar will suffer and they’re betting the future on Sansar… Yet if they try to promote Sansar…folks who are wedded to Second Life get upset. Or people will say that SL is “being actively starved and strangled”.

Linden Lab was trying to juggle two completely separate projects, at completely separate stages of development, and was finding the juggling to be a bit much. Like Philip Rosedale found with High Fidelity, Linden Lab discovered that all the time and money they had poured into a social VR platform, in hopes that users would flood in, was a cash drain that put the entire company in danger. In the end, something had to give, and that something was Sansar, which, under the circumstances, makes perfect sense.

Sansar now has a “really scrappy investor type of player” who will try to turn the platform into a profitable endeavour, and Linden Lab can go back to what they do best: keep Second Life humming smoothly along as the reliable cash-cow it is, at almost 17 years of age. I’m quite sure that Philip Rosedale and his original team at Linden Lab back in 2003 never dreamed that SL would enjoy the long, successful life that it has had!

However, I will put on my prognosticator’s hat and issue a prediction: Wookey will go all-in on Sansar, and they will do their absolute damnedest to aright the Good Ship Sansar, which has been listing badly of late. (Go ahead. Call the metaphor police. I dare you,)

But Wookey isn’t going to stick around forever if Sansar fails to take off a second time. The number crunchers at Wookey already have a deadline in their head. I give them two years, max. If they haven’t turned a profit by then, Wookey will sell Sansar in turn, or shut it down.

Clock starts now.

Image from the brand new Wookey website