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The world as we know it was significantly shaped by the early explorers who characterized what we now know as the Age of Exploration. For better or for worse, this period saw the exchange of ideas and technology around the world, indelibly changing the shared reality of humanity. In the metaverse’s current stage of development, we see early explorers once again playing a critical role in shaping a new immersive future – one that blends physical and virtual realities.
Central to this new era of exploration is the concept of spatial property in the metaverse. Securing the rights to own, control and create new kinds of augmented and virtual reality experiences in virtual spaces has emerged as the way to make a claim in this brave new world. Ownership matters in both the metaverse and the real world.
That’s what Apple CEO Tim Cook said recently his opinion on why the metaverse hasn’t taken off yet: “I’m really not sure the average person can tell you what the metaverse is.” In some ways he is right. As we see competing companies give their competing visions for the metaverse, the average person is becoming more and more confused about what the term means.
No need to think about it; the metaverse is simply a 3D space for us to explore. What the metaverse will ultimately look like is not within the influence of any one company or founder, but will emerge from what individuals collectively create and do in this 3D space. An “open” metaverse does not involve a bet on a particular company’s vision, but invites the participation of all and allows people to take an active role in shaping it.
An open metaverse is essential because a new virtual world must lie outside the walled garden of any company. Regardless of the platform used to access the metaverse, users must be free to interact with each other and create and manage their virtual worlds or experiences. Involving people directly in the process of building these new landscapes can remove many of the reservations people have about participating in a closed metaverse. This is reflected in the share price of Meta, down 73% by 2022 while investors speculate that the company is wasting tens of billions in its attempts to “own” the metaverse.
Reinforcing reality, not escaping it
Speculation like this has cast doubt on the potential of the metaverse as a whole. It is the job of those in the industry to demonstrate the merits of these virtual worlds and show use cases in action that prove their usefulness and enjoyment. A prominent area for improvement is strengthening immersion in the metaverse. Rather than creating a cartoonish world to escape to, metaverses that attempt to bridge the gap between our virtual and physical realities by creating a digital copy of the world have a unique, more grounded appeal.
This version of the metaverse seeks to reinforce our reality rather than create an escape from it. The use cases are endless: from enabling companies to onboard employees remotely by giving them a highly realistic and visually accurate virtual tour of their new real-world office location, to mixed-reality music concerts that deliver the same experience in the same setting to virtual and physical attendees.
From web domain to social domain
Spatial ownership is the essential concept that enables an open metaverse and 3D digital twin of the Earth that is not built or controlled by a monopolistic entity. Spatial ownership allows users to own virtual land in the metaverse. It uses non-fungible tokens (NFTs), which represent a unique digital asset that can only have one official owner at a time and cannot be counterfeited or altered. In the metaverse, users can purchase NFTs associated with certain lots representing their ownership of these “properties.”
Spatial ownership in the metaverse is like buying web domains on the internet today. As with physical real estate, some buy web domains speculatively in hopes of selling the rights to a potentially popular or unique URL in the future. Others, on the other hand, buy to lock down control and ownership over their own little slice of the web. Domains are similar to prime real estate in that almost every business needs one, and many brands look for the same or similar names. The perfect domain name can help a company monopolize its market and get the lion’s share of web visibility in its niche.
These concepts can be applied to Web3 in the form of spatial ownership of virtual real estate. Similar to buying a web domain, users can become NFT landowners and own virtual land to manage their own unique experiences in the metaverse at any defined location. Early explorers in the metaverse are already buying and mapping the virtual counterparts of real-world locations, such as famous landmarks or popular hotel franchises. This gives them the right to publish or share content in these virtual spaces or choose to sell these locations to the owners of the original physical land.
Moving beyond a cognitive bottleneck
While skepticism will no doubt apply to the open metaverse built on spatial property, there are many reasons to be optimistic about its long-term popularity. Our brains are wired to process spatial information. Two-dimensional information represents a cognitive bottleneck that reduces the bandwidth and range of information our brains can process. We will inevitably move from the 2D internet to the 3D AR/VR metaverse simply because that is the path of least resistance in consuming information for humans.
Moreover, the success of the metaverse, as described here, does not rest on the shoulders of a single organization, but will be molded by users into the shape we collectively decide upon. So once again, we’re seeing the reawakening of the Age of Exploration, this time in the metaverse. It is the role of metaverse companies and platforms to give people the virtual space and tools we all need to create and contribute to mixed reality experiences that will define the next phase of our reality.
Diego Di Tommaso is co-founder and COO of OVER.
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