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Keeping it real: How metaverses connect to the physical world

Metaverses are more than gamified virtual spaces — they’re a different way to live real life, says Metapolis cofounder Sandra Helou.

From the imagined universe of the movie Ready Player One to real-life ones such as Roblox and Decentraland, metaverses are often caricatured as game-like virtual environments in which participants can live alternative lives in faraway worlds that all too often look like future dystopias. 

Zilliqa, however, has an altogether different vision for metaverses. Early this year, the blockchain platform entered the metaverse space with Metapolis, a virtual space in which people can create digital products and economies using blockchain-based applications. 

“Our vision, obviously, is to bridge the gap between the physical and the digital,” Zilliqa Head of Metaverse and NFTs Sandra Helou told Forkast in a video interview. “While gamification is a core aspect of what the engagement could be, it’s not the core focus, because for us, what’s also important is that people who are looking at bridging the physical with the digital also need to belong and have their communities and their end user. They need to have a place pretty much to just interact and have communications with each other.”

Described as “the world’s first metaverse-as-a-service platform,” Metapolis was unveiled in Miami in April, and aims to become the base for multiple metaverses in which clients from all kinds of enterprises can build customized metaverse experiences accessible through the Web, augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) with unprecedented interoperability.

Helou said: “I guess a perfect example to make this easier for the audience to kind of grasp it is when using Shopify, you enter the e-commerce store that’s built on Shopify, you don’t actually enter the Shopify business … If everyone out there is building a metaverse on a different layer or with different standards, then chances are that engagement is going to be lowered. Because imagine if every time you have to visit a website you have to change browsers. Chances are you probably wouldn’t do that. You’d stick to what you’re familiar with and what you know.”

Metapolis’s core goal is to become an engagement layer on top of the physical world, facilitating interactions between metaverses and the real world rather than creating a purely virtual experience. Emblematic of this is the platform’s recent International Yoga Day in the metaverse.

“What we’re looking at doing is the exact opposite of replacing the physical world. If anything, we want to integrate AR technology into it,” Helou said. “When you go to a yoga class or when any individual goes to a yoga class, we want that experience to also transcend with them back into the metaverse of what they’re doing … It’s not taking people and putting them behind their screen. It’s telling them, ‘Go out into the real world, but at the same time have the ability to engage with the real world in the digital world’.”

But to bridge the real world with countless metaverses, there is still a long road ahead for Metapolis and other projects, particularly when it comes to security, regulation and accountability. Watch Helou’s full interview with Forkast Editor-in-Chief Angie to learn more about regulations in metaverses, the importance of digital identities, and where future growth in Web3 lies.

Highlights

  • A new iteration of networks: “Every couple of years, we were near the point where we would need to iterate to the next feature that would allow further engagement for people to interact and connect and engage with each other. So the reason for that is that as we expand and grow, it kind of becomes a bit static and stale, how people communicate with each other … Web3 requires a new iteration of the internet … which is exactly what we’re building over at Metapolis … Our core focus is to give a data-centric and fully customizable XR (extended reality) experience, which is accessible through Web, AR and VR. So we want to make sure that people can access this world, the metaverse that we build, through any medium that they want to build, connect and engage in.”
  • Security in metaverses: “Right now, people are still … exploring what the metaverse could become. And that’s happening through these gamified worlds. So technically, security has not played a very crucial part yet. But if we want to build a world that’s accessible, continuously on, always open, and build on engagement, then security plays a very important role. And I think that as more corporations — large corporations from different sectors of businesses such as banking, the financial sector, luxury, fashion and even education — as they start to venture more critically into what the metaverse will become, then obviously that will need to play a very big role and the security functions that they bring to their users.”
  • Regulation in Web3: “(Regulation) cannot be done by people who are still focusing on a Web2 and a Web1 vision, because the rules and ways of engagement in Web3 differ completely. The way I would interact with you through a website is completely different to how I would interact with you in the metaverse, and the rules kind of bend. They don’t stay exactly the same way. At the end of the day, I’m in a country and you’re in a country right now. We’re having this kind of conversation. But in the future, your avatar could be touching fingers with my avatar in the metaverse.”
  • Blockchain confirmation bias: “People had already kind of built that idea around, ‘Ok, so blockchain could equal money laundering, it could equal this and that’ … Realistically, if you think about that, that doesn’t really stem from a data point. Because if you look at the data that we currently have, the criminal, or crime within the blockchain space has actually gone down massively, I mean, previously from what it was … If people continue having this pre-perceived bias towards what Web3 or blockchain is, then it’ll be difficult to get from point A to point B, and, at the end of the day, I think we all need to understand that, 100%, we cannot make everyone happy. So there will always be issues somewhere or another.”
  • Avatars as digital identities: “The reason why the avatar linking to your digital identity is important for us is … besides the security issues, the ease and the ability to enter different industries and be able to complete and engage in tasks that you probably couldn’t in the physical world … Usually people are stuck in either a city or they’re stuck in the country that they live in, and if they want to venture out, they have to do an exchange program. Not everyone has the means to do that or the ability to even have that access. The same opportunities could belong to them and should. So for us, this is why the avatar plays an important role — because it’s a representation of who you are in the physical world, translated into the digital world.” 

Transcript

Angie Lau: Imagine, if you will, a virtual world where you could be whoever you want to be, where no one is bound by which country, religion or sex they were born into, or which language they speak, or how they look — where you can jam with your favorite guitarist halfway around the world without getting off your couch or even attend a graduation ceremony in your PJs. There’s a lot of stuff that you can do in the metaverse. It promises all of this, and then some.

And today we talk to somebody who is spearheading one such ecosystem and explore really the possibilities and challenges that this brand new world presents. Welcome to Word on the Block, the series that takes a deeper dive into blockchain and all the emerging technologies that shape our world at the intersection of business, politics and economy. It’s what we cover right here on Forkast. I’m Editor-in-Chief Angie Lau.

And today — really excited about this, we’re in conversation with Sandra Helou, who heads metaverse and NFTs (non-fungible tokens) at layer-one Blockchain Zilliqa, and who is also a co-founder for its metaverse, Metapolis. Sandra, awesome to have you here into our metaverse right here called Forkast, and Word on the Block and all things blockchain. Great to have you.

Sandra Helou: Thanks, Angie. It’s great to be here. Very, very excited to be having this conversation.

Lau: Okay, tell us, first of all, ‘MetApolis,’ right?

Helou: It’s ‘MetApolis,’ yeah.

Lau: How do you pronounce it?

Helou: ‘MetApolis.’ Well, a lot of people pronounce it ‘MetapOlis’. Either way, it still works. It’s the end goal that matters, right?

Lau: It’s the end goal, but it’s the ‘meta’ that I think is the root phrase that anchors the Metapolis. Tell us about it. Why co-found this metaverse? What’s important in the metaverse to what you’re building at Zilliqa?

Helou: Sure. I guess the best way to answer this question is that initially, if we look at how, as humans, we’ve kind of progressed through the technology that’s available. Every couple of years, we were near the point where we would need to iterate to the next feature that would allow further engagement for people to interact and connect and engage with each other. So the reason for that is that as we expand and grow, it kind of becomes a bit static and stale, how people communicate with each other. So if you go back to what I guess a lot of people in the industry would refer to as Web1, then we evolved into Web2, and now here we are in Web3.

So Web3 requires a new iteration of the internet, or the next iteration of the internet, which is exactly what we’re building over at Metapolis. So, to give you a quick overview of what Metapolis is, we’re the first metaverse-as-a-service platform, so we operate as a mass. We’re built on a world-renowned technology stack and powered by a leading blockchain, which obviously is Zilliqa. Our core focus is to give a data-centric and fully customizable XR (extended reality) experience, which is accessible through Web, AR and VR. So we want to make sure that people can access this world, the metaverse that we build, through any medium that they want to build, connect and engage in.

Our vision, obviously, is to bridge the gap between the physical and the digital. It’s not at all to gamify the future of interaction. While gamification is a core aspect of what the engagement could be, it’s not the core focus, because for us, what’s also important is that people who are looking at bridging the physical with the digital also need to belong and have their communities and their end user. They need to have a place pretty much to just interact and have communications with each other. So that’s pretty much Metapolis in a nutshell, and the vision that we want to bring out to the market and to people.

Lau: Metropolis is all about what we can experience.

Helou: I could probably go a step further and do something better and maybe we can host another session in Metapolis and your avatar can be presenting. This is the beauty of it. It’s that we can push boundaries and we can go as far as we want. We can definitely give a demo and some videos of what Metapolis looks like. I do want to make the point, though, again, that because we operate as a metaverse service platform, the experiences that the end user would interact with would be what our clients are bringing to market.

So I guess a perfect example to make this easier for the audience to kind of grasp it is when using Shopify, you enter the e-commerce store that’s built on Shopify, you don’t actually enter the Shopify business. And it’s exactly the same. The reason for that is — and we have a very good reason — that if everyone out there is building a metaverse on a different layer or with different standards, then chances are that engagement is going to be lowered. Because imagine if every time you have to visit a website you have to change browsers. Chances are you probably wouldn’t do that. You’d stick to what you’re familiar with and what you know. So we want to make it a very positive, engaged world that’s open for all and borderless. So we operate as a service that puts out the metaverses for our clients, brands and individuals that are looking at engaging with Web3. 

Another reason also that I really want to mention is because safety is at the core of what we do. We take on board everything that has to do with harassment, bullying, grooming. So for us, we believe that decentralization can exist with accountability. And that’s why it’s important for us that the avatar plays a very important role in the future that we bring out. And while not everyone has the same technological background to do that, our team comes from a very deep tech background. So it’s very trustworthy and everything is out in the open for people to ask questions and investigate more. They need to be.

Lau: I think that’s such an important aspect of it, because quite often you think about wanting to be in the metaverse and you don’t think about the security issues and all of those aspects. As you take that into account, how much are the corporates also mindful of those things, wanting to make sure that this is a safe environment for people?

Helou: I think right now we’re at that perfect border where people are still caught up in — dare I say — hype of what the metaverse is and what it could be. A lot of what we experience right now is still gamified worlds, so technically they’re not really engaging in what could become the next iteration of the internet that can be long-standing and continue into, I don’t know, maybe when we go to Web4 or what (Twitter co-founder) Jack Dorsey said, Web6 or Web5 or wherever he was back then.

So for us right now, people are still interested, and they’re still exploring what the metaverse could become. And that’s happening through these gamified worlds. So technically, security has not played a very crucial part yet. But if we want to build a world that’s accessible, continuously on, always open, and build on engagement, then security plays a very important role. And I think that as more corporations — large corporations from different sectors of businesses such as banking, the financial sector, luxury, fashion and even education — as they start to venture more critically into what the metaverse will become, then obviously that will need to play a very big role and the security functions that they bring to their users.

Lau: I note that Metapolis was unveiled in Miami … at the beginning of April, with more than 500 entrepreneurs and CEOs at the launch. So congratulations. What were they excited to see, and what were some of the brands out there that were looking to create more immersive digital experiences, that Metapolis potentially could see helping them create those experiences for us?

Helou: So for us it was a very big point of celebration. The number of people definitely exceeded what we had expected, because the interest was just so large and extremely high. What people were mostly excited about was obviously the immersive experience that we put on for them. We showed them how to actually live in the metaverse — what that could look like. We took them through a series of experiences, from the entry point up until the exit of what that could be, and what are the services and the features that Metapolis was bringing to the market.

Now, for Metapolis, we have been very, very careful about curating the partners that we work with. And we’re doing this for a reason — because for us, the core focus isn’t to go to market and make waves. We’re working very heavily behind the scenes on growing the technology and making sure that we build avatars and standards at the level that are expected and required. So we recently became a principal member of the Metaverse Standards Forum, and to us that’s very important because it’s bringing together all the large corporations, all the large organizations that people already know, and they’re very familiar with the name. But the beauty of Web3 is that it allows for innovators and tech entrepreneurs to enter the space and have discussions with these large organizations, and previously there wasn’t the access point that occurred. So now we have a very big role to play in the future of the metaverse and what it could become. So we’re very excited about that.

Lau: Well, I mean, you describe Metapolis as the next internet. We know you’re aiming to launch a multi-chain wallet app in October, version two of your VR experiences in March of next year. What’s the upcoming experience that we can expect? What’s the roadmap?

Helou: We still haven’t really gone to market with a lot of what we have prepared and planned. And again, there’s a reason for that — it’s because we’re fine-tuning and just making sure that it’s spick and span and ready to go. We do have some very large announcements that are upcoming, and I believe everything you just mentioned is already visible on our website. So people who venture into the Metapolis site, they can see the roadmap that we’ve mentioned. We are and have worked towards that, and now we’re pushing the boundaries of it more and just taking it further than that. But I don’t want to overstep and give people insight before … our PR agency does that, so I’m just going to keep it all in and hope that they keep following the news.

Lau: Well, hey, our job here is to ask questions and find out before everyone else. In a way, we’re doing that right now … I want to talk about, really, the challenges in this space, and you hinted on it. There’s just a lot of security aspects that people might not be thinking about. How do you think about the role of regulators? How do you think about the role of policy in the metaverse? And how do you balance all of that as you build out Metapolis?

Helou: Sure. If you don’t mind, I kind of like to answer that in maybe three different ways. So firstly, I kind of want to tackle the perspective that people have about Web3 or blockchain in general. And it’s actually really exciting that this is one of the questions that you asked me, because I have recently just finished writing about confirmation bias and what that means. So, confirmation bias is how people perceive a belief that they have due to the initial or original information that they had gathered and built on it. If you look at the space, if you look at blockchain, some of the first news that started to attract attention was negative news. It was around money laundering. It was around, I think, Silk Road and a couple of other reasons, and other issues that kind of arise. People had already kind of built that idea around, ‘Ok, so blockchain could equal money laundering, it could equal this and that.’ And the reason why I’m bringing this up is that recently I saw a study that was brought out by Monash University in Australia that said that there would be harsher laws applied to people in the crypto space because apparently you need to be very smart to execute on a crypto problem.

So, realistically, if you think about that, that doesn’t really stem from a data point. Because if you look at the data that we currently have, the criminal, or crime within the blockchain space has actually gone down massively, I mean, previously from what it was. And a lot of people are now moving more towards being doxxed than being known. So as end users, thought leaders, action leaders and influencers within the space, they’ve been also pushing for more people to be more transparent in what they are building and what they’re bringing to market.

So I think as a community, a lot of people are asking for regulations to be applied without the regulators having to do it themselves, which kind of brings me to my next point, which is rules and regulations that need to apply within the metaverse and within the NFT space. This cannot be done by people who are still focusing on a Web2 and a Web1 vision, because the rules and ways of engagement in Web3 differ completely. The way I would interact with you through a website is completely different to how I would interact with you in the metaverse, and the rules kind of bend. They don’t stay exactly the same way. At the end of the day, I’m in a country and you’re in a country right now. We’re having this kind of conversation. But in the future, your avatar could be touching fingers with my avatar in the metaverse.

So who is going to be setting these laws and regulations? What actually needs to happen is that as actual leaders and as communities, we need to assess what are the fears and what are the concerns that people have. And a big part of these fears and concerns isn’t the engagement — it’s actually how this engagement is being monitored to ensure that there are no wrongdoings taking place. And I’m purely speaking about in the metaverse right now, which is why for us, again, it’s very important that the avatar is linked to your identity, because that digital identity will then be able to transcend from metaverse to metaverse, from platform to platform. And you would be able to interact, engage with a multitude of people from different countries, speaking different languages, without there being a concern over any wrongdoing. But at the end of the day, it all really just comes down to education (about) the space, because there are a lot of great innovations taking place. But if people continue having this pre-perceived bias towards what Web3 or blockchain is, then it’ll be difficult to get from point A to point B, and, at the end of the day, I think we all need to understand that, 100% we cannot make everyone happy. So there will always be issues somewhere or another.

Lau: The growth only can go so far if the experiences are positive. Once there are negative experiences that are even at an individual level, that concern, that hesitation, that apprehension really stops that growth. And I wonder what the role of the regulator is in the world of metaverse. Have you thought about that? Do you engage with regulators, and what might those regulators be concerned about? Is this a consumer protection conversation? Is this a goods and services conversation? What are the rails that you hope to engage in that allow people to feel like they can safely interact in Metapolis?

Helou: Yeah. I’d like to refer to this as kind of like a firework effect. Because when you set fireworks, they look beautiful and they light up the sky and you’re like, ‘Wow, this is amazing.’ But then again, they’re like starting off in different directions. And this is exactly what the space is like right now, because you have regulators that are talking about crypto, regulators talking about blockchain, regulators talking about NFTs, and regulators talking about metaverse. There isn’t one solid approach yet to how we can regulate the space and does the space need regulation? And, if we do it, who’s regulating it? Which is a very good question that you asked. Who’s regulating the space? Because is there a core body that is going to be doing that? And, if so, what is their background? What do they know? Where are they coming from?

So, to answer your question, I guess the best way to say it is, ‘Are we in talks with regulators?’ We are in talks with people who understand the space. So if we’re dealing with the music industry, we do talk to lawyers and regulators of intellectual property for music. If we’re dealing with luxury fashion, we talk to people who are aware of the luxury fashion industry and how to bring it into the metaverse. So everything we do is done legally and properly. And that’s because our goal is not only to protect a brand entering the metaverse — it’s also to protect the end consumer. But to kind of answer the question about the broader space, it’s a bit difficult for me because every country has its rules and regulations right now. There isn’t one unified body doing that.

So the space does need to mature, and that’s perfectly fine. And I think people need to understand that we’re still extremely early. I think when the internet first came out, people didn’t expect it to be where we are right now. This is the time now where we test. We go back to the drawing board, we test, we go back to the drawing board and we see what works, what doesn’t. And that’s how you build a beautiful future.

Lau: Amen to that … Sandra, I want to talk about how metaverse can really create immersive virtual reality experiences that enhance what we’re experiencing right now from Web2 to Web3 and beyond … Sandra, the thing about avatars, they can look like us, but they can look completely not like us, but reflect different parts of our personality or our interests. And that’s really kind of the exciting thing with virtual avatars, digital identity. It really seems to be at the forefront of Metapolis as you’re aiming to bridge each user’s physical and digital identity. Can you explain that concept a little bit to us, and why you think digital identity, online avatars are so important for metapolis and metaverse?

Helou: Well, if you look at Web3, you can’t really continue using your email to engage with other people — you need to kind of move on to the next thing, and the next thing is going to be an avatar. The reason why the avatar linking to your digital identity is important for us is, again, besides the security issues, the ease and the ability to enter different industries and be able to complete and engage in tasks that you probably couldn’t in the physical world, maybe lockdowns, maybe after-hours, or a multitude of things.

A perfect example — if you live in a country and you need to redo your driver’s license, you more than likely will need to travel back to your country, redo your license, and then come back, wait for it to be delivered to you. We haven’t gone fully digital across government organizations or even education yet. Another perfect example that I can give you is also when it comes to curating the education that we want. Usually people are stuck in either a city or they’re stuck in the country that they live in, and if they want to venture out, they have to do an exchange program. Not everyone has the means to do that or the ability to even have that access. The same opportunities could belong to them and should.

So for us, this is why the avatar plays an important role — because it’s a representation of who you are in the physical world, translated into the digital world. Now by me saying that, by the way, that doesn’t have to be the future for everyone. There are some people who sometimes like to hide behind an avatar, ironically. So for people who wish to do that, there will be other worlds for them where they can still gamify that approach and they can belong to it somewhere through a central end or a sandbox. But for us, because we want to bridge that gap and we want to bring true engagement and utility to our brands and our end users, that avatar plays a very important role in connecting the end user to its digital self.

Lau: Well, you’ve just opened the doors for what future applications could be. Obviously, there’s so much promise to that. What about the physical world? I note that you guys just had International Yoga Day in the Metapolis. Like, how does health and wellness work in the metaverse?

Helou: Health and wellness is probably one of the most exciting industries for me because I think as more people move towards remote work, you’re going to notice that there’s going to need to be incentivisation applied on how you can keep them active. I’m personally massively into health and wellness and how that can connect. So we’re not looking at replacing the physical world — if anything, we want to make it better. When you go to a yoga class or when any individual goes to a yoga class, we want that experience to also transcend with them back into the metaverse of what they’re doing. Me, my identity — if it’s linked to my avatar, if I go and complete a bike ride right now, I could level up my avatar and I can unlock certain features into, let’s say, a gym membership that I had applied for. If I go to travel, if I go on a tour and I do over 30,000 steps, I don’t know where I went to do that, but I could also unlock some features that could give me VIP access, that could give me discounts, that could allow me to interact with other people and other communities.

So in fact, what we’re looking at doing is the exact opposite of replacing the physical world. If anything, we want to integrate AR technology into it. We want to make sure that you’re able to benefit in both worlds, because to us there shouldn’t be a disconnect. Right now, when you look at a book, the engagement is there because you’re reading the words and you’re taking in a story. But if this book can be brought to life through an experience that you can walk through in a city that’s built around each chapter, can you imagine the integration of the level of engagement that people can actually bring to life? I mean, it’s mind blowing. And to be honest, for me, this is where the excitement lies. It’s not taking people and putting them behind their screen. It’s telling them, ‘Go out into the real world, but at the same time have the ability to engage with the real world in the digital world.’

Lau: It — almost in an odd way — enhances by gamifying to a degree in the metaverse what you should be doing in real life. As you were explaining the health and wellness, I imagine every insurance executive in the world’s ears are probably perking up. Talk about how to directly reward your customer and bring down their premiums because they don’t smoke, they’re healthy, they exercise, and it’s all verified. The future is what you’re building right now. So what can we expect to see that’ll be meaningful for us in a couple of years time?

Helou: I think if you look at the technology that’s coming out, the speed of innovation that’s happening across a lot of projects is crazy. You go to bed and then you wake up the next day and there’s already a million projects that are saying, ‘Oh, we’re innovating this and we’re doing that.’ There’s no minute of rest in the space. And that’s beautiful.

I think for me, the main excitement comes from when mass adoption starts to slowly occur across various industries, and people realize that this technology is going to improve their life because, just going back to the example that you gave a lot of people here, that there’s going to be cardiac arrest happening for people just purely sitting down on their computers. But again, it’s the exact opposite, because the more you engage with the physical, you have the ability to unlock the digital. And that’s if strategy is done right for any industry that’s looking to enter the metaverse. So technology is growing massively and the abilities that we can bring to market are beyond anything that anyone could imagine across many verticals.

Even yesterday I was reading an article — and again I want to mention Australia — that in New South Wales right now they’re rolling out a structure level where they evaluate the reliability of a building, meaning that you have a building score to know where the products are from. Is the building safe? And it’s all done on blockchain — it’s all verified on blockchain, just like you get a star rating when you buy a washing machine or a fridge, now you get a star rating for buildings that you can belong in. So the future is actually allowing for people to interact and engage with each other in a way where they can be more precise, more considerate and more healthwise-focused in decisions.

So if anything, rather than looking at the space with your fear mask on, look at it with an open perspective. Because not everything that sounds bad is actually bad. Sometimes all you have to do is just educate yourself and talk to the right people who are actually out there doing it, because that’s all it takes. Just communication, collaboration and education.

Lau: I love that. And also just taking that individual responsibility that you, too, can participate. This is a world that we’re all building right now. So if you feel it could be better, this is that opportunity right now. The world is our oyster. Sandra, thank you for bringing us inside this world that you’re creating for everyone and how everyone can also participate. It’s fascinating to hear, really, at the base level what we’re probably all going to be experiencing in the decades to come. It was a real pleasure having you on. Thanks for being our tour guide.

Helou: Thank you so much, Angie. It’s been a pleasure.

Lau: And thank you, everyone, for joining us on this latest episode of Word on the Block. I’m Angie Lau, Forkast Editor-in-Chief. Until the next time.

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