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The world as we know it was shaped significantly 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 across the globe, indelibly altering humanity’s shared reality. In the current developing phase of the metaverse, we are seeing early explorers once again play a crucial role in shaping a new immersive future — one that blends physical and virtual realities.
Central to this new age of exploration is the concept of spatial ownership in the metaverse. Securing the rights to own, control and create new types of augmented and virtual reality experiences within virtual spaces has emerged as the means to staking a claim in this brave new world. Ownership matters in the metaverse as in the real world.
Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook, recently stated his view on why the metaverse has not taken off just 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 vying corporations provide their competing visions for the metaverse, the average person is increasingly confused about what the term means.
There’s no need to overthink it; the metaverse is simply a 3D space we can explore. What the metaverse ultimately will look like does not lie within the influence of any one corporation or founder, but will emerge from what individuals collectively create and do in this 3D space. An “open” metaverse doesn’t involve a bet on a particular company’s vision, but invites participation from everyone and enables people to take an active role in shaping it.
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An open metaverse is essential because a new virtual world should lie beyond any company’s walled garden. Regardless of the platform used to access the metaverse, users should be free to interact with one another and create and control their virtual worlds or experiences. Involving people directly in the process of building these new landscapes can eliminate many of the reservations people have regarding participating in a closed metaverse. This is evidenced by the share price of Meta, down 73% in 2022 as investors speculate that the company is squandering tens of billions in its attempts to “own” the metaverse.
Enhancing, not escaping, reality
This kind of speculation has cast doubt on the potential of the metaverse as a whole. It is the job of those in the industry to demonstrate the merit of these virtual worlds and show use cases in action that prove their utility and the enjoyment that can be had. One prominent area for improvement is bolstering immersion within the metaverse. Rather than creating a cartoon-style world to escape to, metaverses that attempt to bridge the gap between our virtual and physical reality by creating a digital copy of the world hold a unique, more grounded appeal.
This version of the metaverse seeks to enhance our reality rather than create an escape from it. The use cases are endless: from enabling businesses to onboard employees remotely by granting 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 alike.
From web domain to social domain
Spatial ownership is the essential concept that makes possible an open metaverse and 3D digital twin of the earth that is not built or controlled by a monopolistic entity. Spatial ownership enables 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 can’t be forged or modified. In the metaverse, users can buy NFTs linked to particular parcels of land that represent their ownership of these “properties.”
Spatial ownership in the metaverse can be compared to purchasing web domains on today’s internet. As with physical real estate, some speculatively buy web domains hoping to sell the rights to a potentially popular or unique URL at a future date. In contrast, others purchase to lock down control and ownership over their own little portion of the web. Domains are similar to prime real estate in that almost every business needs one, and many brands will look for the same or similar names. The perfect domain name can help a business 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. Like buying a web domain, users can become NFT landowners and take freehold of virtual land to control their own unique experiences in the metaverse across any defined location. Early explorers in the metaverse are already buying and mapping the virtual counterparts of real-life locations, such as famous landmarks or popular hotel franchises. This grants them the right to publish or share content in these virtual spaces or to choose to sell these locations to the owners of the original physical land.
Moving beyond a cognitive bottleneck
While skepticism will undoubtedly apply to the open metaverse built on spatial ownership, there are many reasons to be bullish 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 the scope of information our brain 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 the consumption of information for humans.
Furthermore, the success of the metaverse, as described here, doesn’t rest on the shoulders of a single organization, but will be molded by its users into the shape that we collectively decide upon. So again, we are seeing the reigniting of the age of exploration, this time in the metaverse. It is the role of metaverse companies and platforms to lend people the virtual space and tools necessary for us all to create and contribute to the mixed-reality experiences that will define the next stage of our reality.
Diego Di Tommaso is cofounder and COO of OVER.
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