Why an open metaverse economy might be coming soon

The ideal metaverse is open and interoperable, says Jamie Burke of Outlier Ventures. Here’s how blockchain gaming and NFTs are closing in on that future.

As Facebook and Epic Games pivot to ambitious metaverse projects and voxelated markets migrate onto blockchains, a shared virtual space that is beyond social media and online games is taking shape. 

Jamie Burke, founder and CEO of Outlier Ventures, sees the emerging space as a process leading towards a unified single metaverse, which can bring about unprecedented openness, interoperability and opportunities. 

“The metaverse is composed of many verses, and the idea is that the metaverse is this unifying thing,” Burke told Forkast.News in a video interview. “It’s this kind of metaverse, this meta-economy, which sits above all of these different instances of the metaverse, these verses.”

Outlier Ventures has been exploring metaverse since 2014, supporting Web 3.0 startups and developing an operating system, the Open Metaverse OS. In Burke’s vision, the ideal metaverse should be open, interoperable and not dominated by a single corporation, as it is not only a virtual world for players, but an integrated economy.

“In Ready Player One, this is the Oasis and a single corporation is trying to take control of that Oasis, control the rules of the game, control the rules of the economy,” Burke said. “And actually that’s really important because that sounds a lot like the web today, let alone some future place.”

“It’s a process of capture and control effectively, or the avoidance of capture and control,” he added. ”This is what feeds into our belief that we need a more open metaverse.”

Due to the dystopian potential of the metaverse’s economic significance, metaverse projects dominated by corporations can be faced with strong objections from the regulators. But open systems running on blockchains can be a more viable route.

“In a more open system — something more akin to Bitcoin that is permissionless — no government can stop that,” Burke said. “It actually is a truer definition of the metaverse, which I said in the beginning, is an economic system that enjoys supremacy to fiat-based systems.”

Interoperability is another vital feature of the metaverse. Users can transfer the value they accrue in any parts of the metaverse in the system, or exit the system with that value whenever they please.

“There has to be a degree of interoperability with other verses. otherwise, it’s just a virtual world. It’s actually excluded from the metaverse,” Burke said. “But if we take an example, if you look at Fortnite’s, so Fortnite today, I would argue, is not part of the metaverse. It is a closed world.”

Blockchain-based games, where players can transfer their assets as NFTs and trade them freely in a permissionless secondary market, or even borrow and lend against their gaming assets as collateral in decentralized finance (DeFi), is a step closer to what Burke sees as an ideal metaverse, and is growing in popularity thanks to this feature.

“You’ll notice that people spend five times more money in blockchain games than they do in non-blockchain games. And the reason is because they know that they can get a return on their investment, or at least they’re not just writing it off,” Burke said.

Watch Burke’s full interview with Forkast.News Editor-in-Chief Angie Lau to learn more about what the new world of metaverses, the role that blockchain technology is playing in its development, and the growing business opportunities in this booming space.

Highlights

  • Facebook’s foray into the metaverse: “Facebook is now saying they are transitioning into becoming a metaverse company, away from being a social media company. But this isn’t anything new. They’ve been undergoing this transition for a long time, of course, with their acquisitions in VR and Oculus. But of course, they’re also trying to launch [Diem], which is their own cryptocurrency. That’s no coincidence. They understand that there will be this economic system that is woven throughout the metaverse.”
  • Fortnite’s venture to the open metaverse: “Tim Sweeney, CEO of Epic Games — who also has a duopoly on gaming engines with the Unreal Gaming Engine — he himself has stated that he believes the metaverse needs to be open for all the reasons he’s a sci-fi nerd, as you would expect as well, that we saw with Ready Player One. He fears that when he’s gone, Epic Games could be an evil corporation and it could have power beyond the wildest imagination. And it will try to seize control of the metaverse. So he’s already talking about the open metaverse. He’s just raised over US$1 billion to make Unreal and Epic Games more open.”
  • Non-fungible tokens (NFTs) are now the economic layer of the metaverse: “But if we kind of focus on NFTs, because I think that’s more generally how people will invest in the metaverse, these effectively are collectibles in different media types and different forms. But ultimately what they do is they restore the idea that you can have something that is digital and scarce, which is ultimately the web broke collecting. It made anything that was digital close to free, or at least people expected it to be free.”
  • Why metaverses need interoperability: “Let’s say they get bored with the game and people always eventually get bored with the game. You can’t perpetually keep people locked in and entertained by a game. That could last for a decade. It could last for a year. It could last for a month. But ultimately they’ll get bored. And when they get bored, then what? Ultimately, in this case, all the value and time that they put into it is lost. They can’t transfer that out of that system.”

Transcript

Angie Lau: Will our future be inside computers? How does blockchain unlock the decentralized metaverse and how will Web 3 keep us safe from a dystopic future?

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.News. I’m Editor-in-Chief, Angie Lau.

NFTs, DeFi, GameFi and cryptocurrencies, various blockchain applications are pointing towards a new world that exists beyond the physical world. And I’m talking about the digital realm. The innovation of virtual and augmented reality has led to this digital realm known as the metaverse, to become, or some may say already is a new reality.

With social media giant Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg sharing the company’s visions to pivot towards becoming a metaverse company, the virtual worlds may be setting up to take center stage and potentially collide. So let’s dive into this new universe and how blockchain unlocks perhaps the financial components in these alternate realities.

What’s the opportunity? What are the dangers? How should we be thinking about it today that sets us up for the future?

Joining me today is the CEO and founder of blockchain and Web 3-focused venture firm Outlier Ventures. He’s also the host of the Metaverse Podcast. Really pleased to welcome to the show, Jamie Burke. Jamie, great to have you on.

Jamie Burke: Hey, Angie, thanks for having me. Looking forward to this.

Lau: So we’ve created our own metaverse experience right here we are in our own virtual realm and we’re inviting people to share our space right now.

Hey, let’s talk about metaverse. Increasingly, people are hearing it in vernacular. It’s a term that is being tossed around more and more and more. But there are some real legs to this. So for the benefit of our audience, some of whom may already know what metaverse is, but some who don’t. What is a metaverse?

Burke: Actually, there isn’t really a consistent answer to that. If you go to YouTube or try to google, what is the metaverse or a metaverse, you’re going to get wildly different answers. And so I wouldn’t profess to have the answer. I have an answer. Mine is both rooted in — I guess — historically, how science fiction has referred to the metaverse. And is also grounded in what we’re seeing today as an investment firm as a VC, an accelerator, startups that are in their own way trying to inform or define the space.

So for me, there are some common themes. Firstly, I believe it is the metaverse — singular, not plural. The metaverse is comprised of many verses, and the idea is that the metaverse is this unifying thing. It’s this kind of metaverse, this meta-economy, which sits above all of these different instances of the metaverse, these verses.

So that’s the first thing. The second thing is that if you look historically at how the metaverse is referred to in science fiction — first in Snow Crash and then later in things like Ready Player One and other books and films — there are some common themes. So a lot of the attention for the metaverse and its definition are based upon technologies, convergent technologies. Is it VR (virtual reality)? Does it have to be a fully virtual experience? Is it AR (augmented reality) or is it something entirely different?

So for me, I kind of like a fairly vague definition because it gives me a bit of leeway. But broadly, the idea that there is this interface layer, which is comprised of innovations in both hardware and software, that can and probably will include XR (extended reality), which VR and AR fall beneath, but also technologies, of course now with hindsight, like blockchain. And so let’s just say it is a group of technologies that effectively converge into this interface layer to make reality like the physical world and virtual worlds indistinguishable. So that’s the first thing. And I don’t think it has to be any one pure version of that. It’s just that when do these things begin to bleed into one another?

The second thing, which I think is often overlooked, but is critical to our understanding of the metaverse and why it needs to be open is actually that it’s also an economic layer. And so if you look at Ready Player One, for example, it’s this idea that there is this economy that enjoys supremacy to the kind of nation-state or nation-states, enjoy supremacy to these fiat-based systems. And again, in Ready Player One, this is the Oasis and a single corporation is trying to take control of that Oasis, control the rules of the game, control the rules of the economy. It’s able to print money. It’s able to deplatform people. And actually that’s really important because that sounds a lot like the web today, let alone some future place.

And so, again, it’s an important distinction to think of the metaverse also as a process. It’s not necessarily a destination and it’s especially not a far-off destination, but it’s a process of capture and control effectively, or the avoidance of capture and control. And so this is what feeds into our belief that we need a more open metaverse.

Lau: For the sake of just understanding it very plainly and basically, through your description, there are various ways to look at it. At its most basic form, each one of us can exist and interact with each other in a digital realm, in the kind of way we’re doing right now which is really the most basic version. And technically, this is a virtual experience, hence so many and myriad definitions of metaverse.

But increasingly it’s almost like a platform where you can enter. It’s a digital realm. You can see digital illustrative representations of roads and homes and rooms and things like that in a digital way. We would interact with each other via avatars and or whatever we like. And we kind of exist and relate to each other in the digital realm. That’s one simple aspect. I guess, probably for a lot of people though, like, what are you talking about? But Second Life or Sims, that very early version of games that simulated the real world. It’s kind of like that, but in real-time, and then add on a layer of economic relationships and benefits. I guess that’s the way to see it. And therein lies the potential. 

Burke: Yeah, and as you say, you could argue and many do that what we’re doing now through Zoom is an instance of the metaverse. It doesn’t have to be this 3-D massively multiplayer gaming environment like Fortnite. It doesn’t have to require you to have VR headsets to go into this entirely virtual world. And it doesn’t have to be AR where you’re kind of layering on virtualness to physical spaces. It can be all of those things.

And I would actually argue that keeping a spectrum of technology, like the technological barrier to join and participate in the system, low is beneficial, especially if we think of this as an economic system. At the same time, you’ll have something like Oculus where you need hundreds, if not thousands of pounds for the headset. Actually, if you want to experience a lot of the content, you’ll need to tether it to a gaming PC. And so that’s prohibitively high for the average person to be able to join and participate in that system.

If you compare that to some of the more open worlds which are deliberately low-fi that we have in my world, my universe, the decentralized web and these kind of blockchain-based environments, you have something like Cryptovoxels, which is deliberately voxelated, pixelated worlds, a bit like Minecraft, but you can access them with a mobile phone. It’s a smartphone, and that still precludes the large majority of people on the planet. But the idea is that if you’ve got a smartphone and you’ve got an internet connection, you can join this economic system.

That’s why it’s really important that we mustn’t lose sight of the economic component, because often this stuff just thought, well, it’s a game, and it’s not that serious. But actually, if you think about the amount of time we’re now conducting economic activity, either directly or indirectly through these virtual instances, like how that economic system is composed is critically important and how open it is.

So it’s no surprise you mentioned in the intro that Facebook is now saying they are transitioning into becoming a metaverse company, away from being a social media company. But this isn’t anything new. They’ve been undergoing this transition for a long time, of course, with their acquisitions in VR and Oculus. But of course, they’re also trying to launch [Diem], which is their own cryptocurrency. That’s no coincidence. They understand that there will be this economic system that is woven throughout the metaverse. They wanted that to be the Facebook economic system.

Fortunately, regulators said, hell no, and that could be stopped because Facebook is a central corporation with shareholders and they need to be engaged with regulators, or be a cat-and-mouse type of engagement. Whilst in a more open system — something more akin to Bitcoin that is permissionless — no government can stop that. No government can control it. It actually is a truer definition of the metaverse, which I said in the beginning, is an economic system that enjoys supremacy to fiat-based systems.

Lau: I want to dive into that distinction a little bit more, the metaverse suggests holistic experience, what we’re seeing right now is a combination of different versions, also called metaverse, that are arising. And more and more metaverses are rising to the surface every day. New white papers are coming up. Some are blockchain-enforced, others are not. This kind of virtual experience — do you envision that we’ll see this combination of different expressions of the metaverse or a metaverse as they combine to each other, or do you think that one will kind of rise to the surface and dictate what our experience is like for everyone?

Burke: What I would say is the metaverse, again, in my definition is the unifying thing — primarily the unifying economic system. But it might also and it will have to include forms of universal identity, for example, an identity that is not bestowed upon us by a platform or a corporation. And so it will be the idea of portable identity and these kinds of concepts, again, that are effectively the DNA of Web 3 or crypto, which are sovereign identity, sovereign data and sovereign wealth. So what I mean by that is the idea that the user is in control of all three of those things and it may choose to engage with the metaverse through a particular platform or a particular world or a particular user experience, be that hardware and or software.

But ultimately, they can exit that system freely. They can transfer any value that they may have accrued in one world into another, into this open economic system. And so for me, that is the metaverse. Now, verses, instances of the metaverse may choose to have more closed, controlled environments. And so I would argue those that are completely closed to all of those things that I just mentioned are not actually part of the metaverse because the metaverse is the unifying thing.

So there has to be a degree of interoperability with other verses, otherwise, it’s just a virtual world. It’s actually excluded from the metaverse. But if we take an example, if you look at Fortnite’s so Fortnite today, I would argue, is not part of the metaverse. It is a closed world. What I mean by that is that a single corporation, Epic Games, owns and controls that world. They choose what value can be created in it. They choose the T’s and C’s. They can remove you from the platform. They can restrict the economic activity you can carry out, and they expressly prohibit you from being able to transfer value outside of that world. How that translates into reality is you end up with millions of users that invest a lot of time and money into this world, buying skins, earning skins or any weapons, things that, if you’re not a gamer, might seem kind of silly, but to these people are often their primary form of wealth. It just happens to be digital and context-specific to that game.

But after that, let’s say they get bored with the game and people always eventually get bored with the game. You can’t perpetually keep people locked in and entertained by a game. That could last for a decade. It could last for a year. It could last for a month. But ultimately they’ll get bored. And when they get bored, then what? Ultimately, in this case, all the value and time that they put into it is lost. They can’t transfer that out of that system.

But actually, more importantly, the value in that world is not recognized outside of that world. It is not recognized by the existing financial system. So, somebody can have a million dollars worth of digital skins in Fortnite, but they couldn’t go to a bank and say, ‘Hey, this is collateral. I’d like to get a loan on a physical house.’ You’ll be laughed out of the bank.

So they’re actually financially excluded from the financial system proper. And so actually. It’s a real bummer for everybody involved. Now, that’s not just picking on Epic Games. That’s true of almost every other closed environment because their nature is that they want to create what’s called as a ‘moat’ and kind of venture parlance or startup parlance. They want to trap users in because that increases the value to their shareholders.

But actually what’s starting to emerge is, if you look at alternatives to that, so blockchain-based games where I can do all the things that I can do in Fortnite, perhaps not with the best UX yet because it’s still very nascent, not the same level of experience. But I can play games, I can earn value. But whatever value I create on that platform will be held in a wallet on that platform. But I can transfer that value those assets as NFTs, non-fungible tokens, as opposed to fungible tokens which are currencies and the non-fungible tokens because they’re unique digital assets. I can transfer them into a wallet off-platform. I can freely trade them in the secondary markets, in a permissionless secondary market. And I can even borrow and lend against them as collateral in something that’s called DeFi, which is decentralized finance.

So that’s already happening. And there’s a consequence to that already happening. You’ll notice that people spend five times more money in blockchain games than they do in non-blockchain games. And the reason is because they know that they can get a return on their investment, or at least they’re not just writing it off.

Lau: There are liquidity opportunities.

Burke: Exactly. And it’s no surprise as a consequence that Tim Sweeney, CEO of Epic Games — who also has a duopoly on gaming engines with the Unreal Gaming Engine — he himself has stated that he believes the metaverse needs to be open for all the reasons. He’s a sci-fi nerd, as you would expect as well, that we saw with Ready Player One. He fears that when he’s gone, Epic Games could be an evil corporation and it could have power beyond the wildest imagination. And it will try to seize control of the metaverse.

So he’s already talking about the open metaverse. He’s just raised over $1 billion to make Unreal and Epic Games more open. And with our accelerator, for example, they’re already investing and giving grants to projects that are working in a more open metaverse. And they’re doing that because he recognizes it’s A, going to be good for business — as I said, five times more money spent in blockchain games than none. But also he recognizes that if he doesn’t embrace a more open metaverse, it will be the dystopic outcome that science fictions predicted.

Lau: Yeah, it’s just this aggregation of power in a singular, centralized entity. We’re already experiencing that in the real world. And when that happens, there are revolutions, there are evolutions, and then there are migrations to another universe. I would argue that metaverse, do you think, is an opportunity for people to express themselves outside the real world and really explore these deeper issues of relationships, of economic independence, of also shirking away from the middleman? Or do you think it’s just going to mirror what we have here? What do you think is happening right now in terms of the current state of the metaverse revolution? How is it looking like from your perspective?

Burke: I think we need to be realistic. So there’s a great book called Master Switch, I think by Tim Wu, and he talks about these kinds of cycles of bundling and unbundling of paradigms, technological paradigms, especially in the context of I.T. and the internet. And so, the idea is that one technology will come along and it will disrupt a particular paradigm, it will unbundle these kind of moats that have been built by monopolies. But then this bundling happens again and you end up with monopolies or duopolies.

That’s always been true. There’s a good argument to say it might be no different this time. I would argue that by the metaverse, adopting open-source protocols and technologies that we spent a decade building in what we refer to as Web 3, which effectively is crypto-based networks, derivatives of Bitcoin, like Ethereum. These things have baked into them, principles — these principles I mentioned around the sovereign individual — and they automatically prioritize the user and the supremacy of the user over the platform and as a consequence, platform shareholders. Now, that doesn’t mean platforms won’t exist. If a platform is able to bundle up these technologies and give an experience which has supremacy to others, then they will rightfully accrue value.

But again, the difference is that whatever that experience is, the user can always exit that system and they understand the rules of that system because they’re auditable in the smart contracts that underpin them in the rules of the protocol that coordinates that network. And that’s not true with most platforms. Most platforms like Facebook, who reads the Ts and CS? And even if you did, they can change them. They are mutable. So we’re talking about a fundamentally different paradigm. 

Lau: And you’re already addicted to the platform.

Burke: Yeah. And it’s very difficult to exit.

Lau: And exactly, you can’t exit it. You don’t feel like you want to and so you’re just forced into it. Otherwise you lose your network of friends.

Burke: Exactly. The other question was around identity. So identities are an interesting one, like who are we or who can we be in the metaverse? So I was doing a panel recently the other day, and I’ll note that you managed to get me to not wear a black T-shirt today. But I was on the panel, and we were talking about identity and there are now digital wearables. People can buy digital clothing to express themselves in the metaverse.

Now, an interesting fact, and I learned this through one of our portfolio companies, which is the world’s first metaverse, first couture brand. So they only make digital clothing, at least for now. And they have an interesting stat, which is one in four physical clothes bought in the U.S. by women are bought purely for social media. So they are bought to be worn only in things like Instagram. They’re not bought to be worn out and often they get returned after they’ve been worn in the Instagram shoot.

So you think about how wasteful that is. So there’s a very strong argument that one in four clothes for women in America might as well be digital items of clothing, which for me was a really interesting fact. But the question was posed to me — because I always wear black T-shirts, I’m like in our little world, I’m relatively famous for it — somebody said, ‘But do you wear black T-shirts in the metaverse? Like, if you have an avatar, you have a character.’ And I don’t, interestingly enough. 

So they were kind of probing, ‘Well, why? Why is it in the real world you only wear black T-shirts?’ And in the virtual world, I actually have a crazy avatar, which is like a crypto shaman. It’s about as un-black-T-shirt as you could get. And so the question was why. And I have to really reflect on that for a minute. Why is my identity and how I express myself different in the metaverse than it is in the physical world?

And the kind of answer that I arrived at is in the physical world, I’m pretty utilitarian. I don’t want to think about it. I want to put it on. I want to be consistent. Whilst in the metaverse I’m playing around with how I express myself. It’s easy for me to change a garment. And actually there’s an argument which says your digital wardrobe will be infinitely greater than your physical wardrobe because you’re constantly going to be expressing yourselves in different contexts, in different instances. Your identity is going to be much richer, much deeper, much more multifaceted, because in the metaverse I can be anybody and everybody.

What I would close off is, when I was first trying to create a custom avatar to go into virtual worlds, I initially got a 3D rendering of myself, my body — never do that, by the way. It’s an awful experience to see yourself 3D rendered. So I did that. I was like, ‘Jesus, I actually don’t want to look like how I look in the real world.’ And I ended up getting this avatar which looks nothing like me.

So, again, it’s interesting because in the metaverse, it actually causes you to reflect on identity. And in a way, you kind of break free from the constraints of, I guess, routine in the physical world.

Lau: I can envision Anna Wintour right now in her Vogue universe trying to figure out how to get into the metaverse and like style tips for avatars. It really shows that there’s just so much opportunity, the social expressions, how people value different things. And there’s no doubt various businesses and industries will be disrupted by metaverses. video games. And it could be argued that, the metaverse is going to really change how business is done. Where do you see the inclusion of blockchain here? How is blockchain going to open up the metaverse economy?

Burke: I would actually say I don’t think the metaverse is necessarily or inherently disruptive. I actually think that if approached in the right way can enhance existing businesses. So, for example, a lot of luxury brands began to look at the metaverse during Covid because selling physical clothes was no longer a thing or not to the scale that they were used to because the supply chain, because of demand. And so they began to look at, ‘Well, how could we create digital goods?’ And of course, they’re more profitable. They are more sustainable. There are many reasons why if you’re a fashion brand, you would look to be creating digital lines. Of course, that’s an enhancement of an existing business model.

Perhaps where it begins to get a little bit disruptive is ultimately the function of a blockchain is to allow for a means of peer-to-peer economic exchange of value. So it has the ability to remove an intermediary from a transaction. Now, that doesn’t mean that will always happen because you still might need an intermediary to perform a particular function in that transaction. But ultimately it’s possible. The theory goes that blockchains will disrupt all middlemen. And I don’t think that’s necessarily true. Again, if you can provide value and I do believe platforms, especially from the user experience, can make blockchains usable. But if we look at the NFT marketplaces, because they’re a living example of how blockchains are playing out in the context of, say, selling digital art, and of course, this is now extending to gaming, they are extending to music and other forms of media.

But effectively, if you look at something like SuperRare, which effectively is like a digital art platform and marketplace, if you look at something like Nifty Gateway, which is primarily around digital art, but it does other media forms, it does audio and rich media. 

Ultimately, I can buy an NFT on any of these platforms. It’s effectively minted. It’s created. Birthed onto the blockchain via this platform. But once I bought it on that platform, I can keep it on that platform. In some cases, I can even continue to trade it and sell it on that platform. But I can also move it off-platform. I can move it freely into a wallet that I control. There’s nothing to do with the platform. And as I said, I can begin to do all of these things. I can sell it in the secondary market, et cetera, et cetera.

So that already exists, and pretty much every NFT marketplace subscribes to that level of interoperability, because if they didn’t, people wouldn’t buy things on that platform because they would have less value. They are only valuable on that platform. And so, again, I think that extends to gaming. But more generally, if we move away from thinking of just the consumer of these things, like I’m a collector of art and we think about it from the creators’ perspective, there is also empowerment from the creative side.

So as a creator, this now enables something that I refer to as direct to creator. So as a creator, I can mint this asset on a platform. Depending upon the platform, or if I have technical competency myself, I can actually program the rules of how people can interact with that asset in perpetuity, including things like royalties where they can sell it, how they can sell it, what they can do with it, what utility it has. I am in control of those rules, the logic that governs this asset.

If you think about that, that is pretty much emancipation for the creative class. Most of the creative class to date has been reliant upon intermediaries that govern how they can financialize their creative work. And they control the distribution channels through which they can engage with their fans, collectors or users. Now, NFTs, effectively they allow for this direct economic feedback loop and form of engagement.

And for me, that’s revolutionary to the creative industry. So I would propose that generally, these things are transformative or additive, but especially in the creative economies where we have these very outdated models. This is a revolutionary form of kind of creative emancipation.

Lau: I totally agree. That is actually one brilliant example of one industry, one business that is going to be deeply impacted. It already is, quite frankly.

Now, from a creator’s perspective, as you’ve expressed it, how about through investor’s perspective. If we were to keep an eye on to tap into the metaverse as investors, what should we be keeping an eye on? What are the opportunities and what are the businesses that are most interesting to develop, in your view?

Burke: There are two ways of answering now. The first one is generally, so why would you invest in an NFT, for example. Broadly in a blockchain-sense, there are two types of assets you can invest in. There is fungible and non-fungible. Fungible is more like a currency. You don’t really care which Bitcoin you’ve got. Every bitcoin is equal — to a degree. In a non-fungible case. These things are unique, that provenance is important. And this applies to pretty much every other use case than currency, especially in a digital context.

So broadly, there are those two types of assets that you can invest in. And many economies in the metaverse are actually based on both and sometimes is an interplay between them. But if we kind of focus on NFTs, because I think that’s more generally how people will invest in the metaverse, these effectively are collectibles in different media types and different forms. But ultimately what they do is they restore the idea that you can have something that is digital and scarce, which is ultimately the web broke collecting. It made anything that was digital close to free, or at least people expected it to be free. They just kind of consume it without really thinking about it. You think about the relationship to music and how that’s changed. People just stream it. They don’t want to pay for it generally. Specifically, they don’t care about an album. They don’t care about the album cover. It’s kind of free and it should be consumed.

Now, of course, we’ve benefited greatly from the distribution, the kind of global instant distribution of the web, but it effectively broke anything of that digital having any value and certainly anything you’d want to collect because why would you collect it? Now because we can have something that is digital and scarce, it can be collected and because it can have provenance, that story of the asset, its lifecycle becomes important, too. And so we’ve now restored collectability to the internet and to media assets in the internet and also the idea that they shouldn’t necessarily always be free. Maybe you should pay for things that are digital. Why shouldn’t you? 

Lau: Yeah there’s value there. Absolutely.

Burke: Or at least the creator can set the rules of that. The creator can say, yes, this is free or it’s free in certain instances or actually, no, in this instance, you should pay for it. So that’s kind of some of the general principles. Now, how that then plays out is, of course, we’ve seen early part of 2021, this boom in NFT art, with the Beeple sale and everything else that happened afterwards. Auctions at Sotheby’s and Christie’s.

We’re now seeing that extend into what are called generative art. Where effectively, you kind of have editions of collectibles, but they have rarity built-in. So there’s some kind of like gaming element where you need to figure out as a community the rarity in this trading that starts to happen as people discover traits that might be more rare. And this is now also translating into, gaming items, virtual land. So people are creating virtual land in these worlds. And you can be a virtual realtor and speculate on the value of a particular state. And so, we’re seeing all kinds of value created.

Lau: I kind of want to jump into that. You coined a phrase or a definition called MetaFi, where the metaverse meets DeFi. Share with us this idea of how these two worlds and two functionalities, one in DeFi, blockchain-enabled transactions, and then the metaverse. You mentioned real estate. Where do you see MetaFi — as you’ve coined it — going?

Burke: First, I have to give credit to Rumi Morales who is one of the partners at Outlier. She actually came up with the term MetaFi. But as a consequence of us as a firm trying to understand how you value assets in the metaverse and what types of assets will be most quickly leveraged or put to work as collateral in DeFi — crudely DeFi being borrow and lending. And if you look at DeFi today, it’s primarily being borrowing and lending and kind of yield on stablecoins or wrapped Bitcoin, fairly narrow forms of assets and collateral.

In DeFi a lot of people are talking about, well, how do we bring in different types of asset class into DeFi. Asset classes that might be yield-bearing or that might be linked to real world assets? And all of that are great. But one of the challenges with that is you begin to have to touch the existing financial system in the U.S. and many other jurisdictions. These things — especially that income bearing, they have the ability to have rights where you can vote in DAOs — they begin to look a lot like equity and effectively securities.

And therefore, they can’t really exist in their purest form in DeFi inherently because of the counterparty risk. Like institutions will not trade these assets in DeFi. So I believe that will be solved for over a longer time horizon, through many different innovations around how do you perform KYC and AML in DeFi. Sounds impossible, but we already know several innovations that are working on that, probably not for this show. It’s probably a show in its own right.

But the point is that most people are looking at growth in DeFi and honestly, it will happen. But it’s going to be 10 years away. So what we’re saying is, ‘Well, what are things like right now that are already digital forms of value that can be permissionless, can exist in DeFi like today?’ And actually, when you look around the web, there are lots of forms of digital value that could become collateral into DeFi and be financialized.

For example, social media at the moment, there are many forms of digital value in social media like influence, which are very difficult for the influencer to monetize. Maybe they might get a sponsorship deal or whatever it is, but they can’t directly monetize reputation in a purely digital sense. Well, what if that reputation could be tokenized somehow, in that process gamified, so I could actually use this kind of quantified reputation in a digital form as credit scoring in DeFi? The fact that I could put my reputation down as collateral in DeFi in order to get better rights. 

Now, that sounds really complex, but it’s really not. And you don’t even necessarily need the platform to give permission to do that because you can create derivatives, you can create a representation of that value that lives off the platform.

Lau: Now we’ve just really come back full circle to define what is the metaverse, and it’s not distinct environments that are closed off. Indeed, it is the expression of how we engage in a digital sphere with each other virtually and really excrete value, economic value. I love what you did there, Jamie. You brought it back full circle, brought it back to the metaverse. And this was so insightful. I truly appreciated you sharing and really diving deep with us on not only what the metaverse was, but all the opportunities that exist beyond the real world. So thank you so much for joining us on this latest episode of Word on the Block.

Burke: Thanks for having me on, Angie. And I appreciate everything you’re doing. I’m a big fan of the show.

Lau: Thank you, Jamie. Thank you. And thank you audience as well for joining us. And we hope that you’ll return for the next in-depth, insightful conversation right here on Word on the Block. I’m Forkast Editor-in-Chief Angie Lau. Until the next time.

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