[WATCH] New kids on the blockchain: Start-up looks to pave the way in the metaverse

Shiny happy architects: the Metaverse Architects team, led by Luca Arrigo (standing, first from left) and Sean Elllul (right, squatting)

Virtual reality’s growing sophistication is sowing the seeds for businesses that are starting to experiment with reaching audiences in the metaverse – the internet’s next iteration. And a start-up in Sliema hopes to be an industry leader in these services.

Metaverse Architects, the brainchild of Sean Ellul and Luca Arrigo, was incorporated in January 2022 after a rebrand from Decentraland Architects which was started in March of 2021. With augmented reality moving into smartphones and virtual reality hardware gaining more acceptance, the next step in technological evolution is looking more likely to be the metaverse – a form of ‘living internet’.

Rather than a singular technological space, the metaverse embodyies a set of experiences in immersive virtual reality worlds where people, using 3D avatars, can interact and exist.

Arrigo said the company started off with the mission to get virtual “land” and develop it in “any way possible”. The company has now evolved to become a one-stop-shop for everything metaverse.

Metaverse Architects implements customers’ vision on ‘virtual real-estate’, developing metaverse plots which users can interact with when exploring the space. The spaces can range from outlets where people can buy NFTs (non-fungible tokens), to interactive games.

“We try and cover every single aspect of the needs of our clients when it comes to the metaverse because the majority of clients we get aren’t aware of what the potential is, of what the business opportunity is like, what exactly they need to build,” Sean Ellul said.

“Most of our clients come in because they listen to the hype and they’re not sure how exactly they can enter. It ends with us building a whole system for them to be able to build a community with a revenue generating model, which is actually able to sustainably develop the space, so that it includes their community members into it.”

Ellul said clientele stem from a number of industries which include banks, celebrities, sports clubs, crypto companies, bitcoin mining companies, advertising companies and athletes.

“In truth there’s a space for every single kind of internet-based utility in the metaverse, because it is the extension of 2D interfaces into 3D immersive realities so there’s a space for anyone and everyone,” Ellul said. “Snoop Dogg for example hosted a concert in the metaverse. It’s one of the easiest ways to say, ‘alright, instead of a concert happening physically, or just physically, there’s a chance for everyone to be able to buy the ticket and join and meet fellow Snoop Dogg fans and listen to the concert in the metaverse’.”

He played down claims the technology will be unsuccessful as people will still opt for the “real thing”.

“It’s important to note this doesn’t disrupt the real world, it doesn’t disrupt concerts in real life, it disrupts Twitch, YouTube live, or Facebook live because seeing it on a 2D screen live is something we can do right now, but if you had to choose between seeing it live on Facebook and then actually entering the space live, while being able to physically walk in the space and interact with people over there, it’s so much better,” Ellul said.

A project which Metaverse Architects are working on together with Reporters without Borders is an uncensored library in Decentraland. They will be creating an uncensored library where citizens from countries with issues of censorship, can enter the space and access publications which might be banned in their respective country.

“It’s one of those ways in which we’re managing to empower people using the metaverse,” he said.

For the average internet user, Metaverse and blockchain technology might be regarded as a playground for the rich. This is not a total misconception, with non-fungible tokens (NFT) making headlines after selling for very high price tags.

A Bored Ape Yacht Club NFT, part of a collection of 10,000 NFTs, was sold for $1.1 million just last week.  But Ellul insists this is not the case for all blockchain technology. “I can give you an NFT right now for free that’s going to give you access to our property in the metaverse and you can experience it for yourself. So no, simply put, it’s not a playground for the rich.”

He argues that back in the 90s, access to the internet was much harder, due to the expensive hardware, with barriers to entry being more expensive, comparing the evolution of blockchain-based technology to that of Web 2.0, the WWW’s present iteration.

“Today even my grandmother has a phone and connects to Facebook every single day… Yes, there’s an aspect of equitability in it. If you want to but an $80 million NFT you need $80 million, but that doesn’t mean you require an $80 million NFT to participate in the metaverse,” he said.

Speaking on the funnelling of illegal money through cryptocurrency, and its use for illicit purchases, Arrigo said “there is a lot which needs to be done by governments and tax departments” in terms of understanding how the technology works.

“If someone is laundering money, that information is all on the blockchain. It’s all accessible and anyone can go in and see what those transactions are. Once you have coins or cryptocurrency which is dirty, it’s nearly impossible to get that out into the real world,” he said.  “Obviously just like with cash, there are always backdoors for criminals to make use of, but I believe that’s been the whole story of cybercrime since the internet has existed. It’s been criminals innovating, coming up with creative ways to get past the law, and society catching up to be able to tackle those issues.”

Karl Azzopardi gets ready to take the next step into the future, by putting on the VR set and explore Metaverse Architects’ ‘real estate’

Karl Azzopardi gets ready to take the next step into the future, by putting on the VR set and explore Metaverse Architects’ ‘real estate’

The experts’ views

Alexiei Dingli

Prof. Dingli is Senior Lecturer of Artificial Intelligence within the Faculty of ICT at the University of Malta

Technology is not ripe enough for the Metaverse today. We still require good and lightweight AR + VR glasses.

However, the foundations are being laid as we speak. So the issue is not whether we will live in the Metaverse or not in the near future: that’s a given. The issue is whether we can manage to engineer a good Metaverse. With the Internet, social media (and most technologies) it was the other way around – first we create the technologies, we start experiencing problems and countries start legislating (where possible and before it is too late). The Metaverse will lead to bigger problems so we should tackle them from now. Of course, it won’t be easy but we should be cautious and not just let the big companies dictate.

Humans are not designed to be plugged into a machine for hours. Our sedentary life is already causing a lot of deaths and this can only increase with the Metaverse. On the other hand, as the virtual world becomes increasingly indistinguishable from real life (with technologies such as NeuroLink), migration into the virtual world will become inevitable.

Remember, this will be the only escape, if not, the only existence for some people. Hence why it is important to work on shaping society even before the Metaverse emerges.

Of course, I don’t want to sound negative because I believe that the Metaverse will offer a lot of advantages, but I prefer a cautious approach whereby governments and big companies engineer together the world of tomorrow. One which increases opportunities but reduces the negative side effects of technologies.

Vanessa Camilleri

Dr Vanessa Camilleri is an academic at the Department of Artificial Intelligence, Faculty of ICT, University of Malta. Her expertise is in the area of Human Computer Interactions, with a specialisation in Virtual Worlds and Serious Games

The Metaverse is not something that belongs solely to the future. In 1992 author Neil Stephenson’s sci-fi novel Snow Crash described his vision of a virtual-world-based Internet. From then onwards we have seen the emergence of a number of virtual worlds in which characters could live, work, socialise, and practically carry out activities as though they were in the real world.

In Snow Crash, the author describes the character’s different roles as he switches from the real to the virtual world. Zuckerberg hinted at this as well as he showed, during his exposition how it would be possible to display diverse avatars in the Metaverse according to the situation.

Again this is not a new idea – the concept of “alts” or alter egos in the virtual world has been researched for quite a few years, and having avatars represent who a person wants to be in a specific virtual situation has been used for decades, both in game virtual worlds as well as in social virtual worlds such as SecondLife.

I have experienced this myself as I have inhabited a few of the same virtual worlds in different instances. What Meta’s Mark Zuckerberg is promising is an added glamour to an experience which is not that novel, and which has been happening for a number of years.

Personally I find that the Metaverse, in its diverse forms can indeed offer an enriched communicative experience.  What worries me are two things: the first is the readiness of the mass of the population to take this up, and difficulty to access resources which include VR devices, which may create a bigger digital divide than there already is.

The second more worrying issue, involves ethics. Even though there are movements at an international and European level to facilitate ethical guidelines, structures and protocols, we are still at the infancy stage when it comes to implementing ethical practices.

In these past few years Facebook has been at the centre of a number of controversies concerning its use of personal data, privacy as well as the manipulation of people’s behaviour through information misuse in incidents concerning elections, inciting violence and even genocides.

Therefore opening up the platform to a potentially more immersive (with all its ramifications) Metaverse, may have its consequences on the quality of life of people unless good ethical practices are addressed.

Abdalla Kablan

Dr Abdalla Kablan is a serial entrepreneur, and award winning fintech expert. He specialises in the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning in the design of complex financial systems

The Metaverse can be described as the successor state of the internet.

If we think about today’s internet as a virtual two-dimensional (2D) space where you can produce and share content, create value and connect with anyone anywhere, then the metaverse may be thought of as a virtual three-dimensional (3D) space where you can do everything that you can do in today’s internet while being fully immersed (through VR/AR) in that space exactly as you would be in the real world.

With VRs’ virtual realistic graphics-driven nature, users will be able to interact, connect, transact and create with others. Simply put, existing in the metaverse is the equivalent of living ‘inside’ the internet.

This could open the possibility of the creation of new economies, new possibilities, and also new threats/problems. Unlike the internet, the VR immersion would trick the human brain into releasing the same chemicals (endorphins, serotonin, dopamine) the same way as you would in the real world, which will make it more natural and more realistic for humans to inhabit than the internet. It’s a virtual environment where you can interact with people in a digital space. It is going inside the internet instead of just looking at it!

Many people think VR is for video gamers. but this is not necessarily a bad thing. I come from the generation where we played Pong, Space Invaders, Super Mario and Sonic The Hedgehog way before we started using Google. Game technology has always preceded mainstream tech. The same applies to VR: it is simply a gateway into the metaverse.

But what would happen to your brain when it’s tricked into thinking that these were real things in nature, with people who are just as alive and interactive? This will potentially pose various ethical and philosophical questions that will need to be addressed.

And one of the metaverse’s predicted properties will be that it is always on, in real-time, while the internet today is mostly designed for asynchronous use, such as YouTube videos. The metaverse will also have massive parallelism, with no limit on concurrent users. In today’s internet it’s hard to allow more than 1,000 people on a live zoom call. It’s a technical problem. The metaverse should allow for a much bigger number of users to interact simultaneously in one space.

And finally, the financial element: how will ‘value exchange’ and ‘transacting’ happen? This can be tricky without an established payments infrastructure. This will lead to a situation where decentralized ledger technologies or blockchains will actually be the most practical, if not ultimate, solution for exchange and storing value in a virtual world.

The opportunities for economic growth will be immense, as this is literally creating a new world where users will interact, transact, own, exchange and share economic value.