To work for everyone, the Metaverse must be decentralized

In his monthly crypto tech column, Israeli serial entrepreneur Ariel Shapira covers emerging technologies within the crypto, decentralized finance (DeFi) and blockchain space, as well as their roles in shaping the economy of the 21st century.

What’s in a name? A whole metaverse is what one could be led to believe when looking at the buzz around Facebook’s recent transformation into Meta. In reality, of course, there is more to the new name than that — there is also the whistleblower scandal, alongside the previous controversies tarring the company’s image, as well as the encroachment of rivaling social media platforms that are more popular with young people.

But, if Facebook’s rebranding is easy for skeptics to dismiss as a PR stunt, the same does not go for the Metaverse, simply because entering it requires more than a public announcement. Besides Facebook’s own intention to pour $10 billion into metaverse-related projects just this year, Microsoft is building out its own metaverse and rolling out 3D avatars for teams. Earlier in April, Epic Games, the gaming giant behind the teen favorite Fortnite, raised $1 billion for its metaverse efforts. A lot of big players are revving up their engines to race into the Metaverse, and money tends to make things happen.

For now, though, it remains unclear what exactly money can make happen in this specific case, because it seems unclear what the Metaverse will actually look like. Most of the commentators imagine it as a VR/AR-heavy interface for online interactions with other people and online services alike, the sleek futuristic tech we see in movies like Ready Player One, where users navigated the online world donning 3D avatars. In building a virtual universe where anything can happen, Facebook and Microsoft surely flexed their creative muscle with those 3D-rendered business meetings, right?

But let’s imagine, if only for the sake of the argument, that this will really be something worthwhile: a man-machine interface comprising of a whole range of technology stacks to change the way we interact with the universe of connected devices. We put on our augmented reality (AR) glasses — Facebook’s already presented a pair, not unlike those Google had to scrap — and our home transforms into a tropical island hub where we can hang out with friends from all around the world and access not only websites but entire experiences and work in the same virtual space as the AI-enabled tools helping us do the job. Our virtual avatar can traverse the real world too, projected onto the glasses of other users based on the location we set. In this way, we enjoy the live feeds from the available cameras or even have more or less good viewpoint projection calculated based on that.

Does all of this amount to a full-fledged technological revolution? Even with our imagination at full speed, it is still hard to tell. Would you rather be reading this article from a sheet of virtual paper that you can fold into an origami crane or put on the wall of your virtual home, not from a computer or mobile screen? If not, then the Metaverse may not be as earth-shattering as its architects may hope it would be. But then, who knows. In ten years’ time, the metaverse may become as omnipresent as mobile phones today.

What is for certain is there is colossal work to be done in bringing implementing this. Future Metaverse dwellers need VR and AR solutions to go in and new platforms and protocols must emerge to bring the disjointed Metaverse shards together into one seamless experience. And, I am pretty certain that unless we want the Metaverse to be as bottlenecked and surveillance-ridden as today’s internet, the Metaverse must live and breathe decentralization.

Related: Decentralization vs. centralization: Where does the future lie? Experts answer

The blocks that hold the world

The blockchain is, first and foremost, a database. Databases are not necessarily interesting in themselves, but what is interesting is what you can build around them. Ethereum is the best example of that, fundamentally working for a sprawling ecosystem that incorporates gaming, finance, digital art and many other spheres. There is no central authority, the governance is community-driven and there is no surveillance either — in the sense that a crypto wallet is anonymous even though the transactions are auditable on the blockchain.

It is crucial to make sure that the same principles lay at the foundation of the Metaverse, simply because without that, it will open up a whole new venue for the same questionable business practices we see today. Here is just one example: You used to own CDs with copies of movies but you don’t own the shows on Netflix. Imagine not owning your avatar, your representation in the Brave New World, either. Why not use NFTs as a token that would prove your ownership over a specific virtual mask on a database that’s not owned by anyone?

Related: We haven’t even begun to tap into the potential of NFTs

NFTs could be used for other purposes in the Metaverse, as their key function is authenticating and proving ownership over digital assets, which can obtain a (quasi-) real-world value. For example, OVR, a VR/AR NFT project, uses NFTs to grant users control over augmented reality in specific geographic areas after tapping crypto to incentivize thousands to take pictures of various locations for its virtual mapping of the world. Sandbox, a startup building a metaverse of its own, takes a similar approach, allowing users to build up its virtual world and monetize their creations. On today’s internet, you as a user barely own anything. In an NFT-powered metaverse, you will be a stakeholder.

Here is another example of how the Metaverse could amp up the existing predatory practices. It’s no secret that many digital industries from mobile games to ecommerce websites sell off visitors’ data to third-party vendors for marketing purposes. Now, imagine shopping in a VR e-store, a 3D rendering of a regular store with “Add To Basket” buttons hovering over goods on the shelves. Now, remember, you see all this through the VR headset. In other words, the system knows where you were looking at any given second. Imagine the marketing potential here. Throw an AI into the mix and you get a system that tailors the e-store layout and ad placements for every visitor at the expense of privacy, of course. Should this data be stored locally — not in big-tech data centers — with only its hash sent to the blockchain, the users will be free to choose if they want to monetize it or retain it for themselves.

Related: The metaverse: Mark Zuckerberg’s Brave New World

Crypto is also all but set to become a major payments option for the metaverse. The same way the metaverse is supposed to make the world smaller by bringing it into your VR/AR glasses, crypto is by definition transnational. It pioneered the principles of decentralization and anonymity, and these principles will be key for an internet of tomorrow, hopefully, more privacy-minded than that of today. And the established market cap and usership that it has today make it a medium of exchange that can become universal across metaverse platforms and protocols. The alternative is to either use fiat, which would immediately bring nation state borders and fiscal policies into a world where they don’t belong, or have every platform issue their own isolated digital pseudo-currencies, which would result in a segregated virtual space.

Fundamentally, should the Metaverse ever come into existence as an interface defining our interactions with machines, centralization would leave it in the hands of only one company — the singular gatekeeper between the users and everything novel that the technology could bring (again, if only for the sake of the argument). The gatekeeper will be able to dictate the standards and policies not only to users but to developers as well, cementing itself as the dominant player in the field. By now, we should have learned the lesson that monopolies, as well as oligopolies, work only for the one actor holding the reins while smothering innovation and denting the user experience. Blockchain and decentralization are antithetical to such plights — and this is why they must be at the core of the Multiverse.

This article does not contain investment advice or recommendations. Every investment and trading move involves risk, and readers should conduct their own research when making a decision.

The views, thoughts and opinions expressed here are the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect or represent the views and opinions of Cointelegraph.

Ariel Shapira is a father, entrepreneur, speaker, cyclist and serves as founder and CEO of Social-Wisdom, a consulting agency working with Israeli startups and helping them to establish connections with international markets.

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