Decentraland unites two of the buzziest emerging technologies (blockchain and VR) into one metaverse…but what does that mean in plain English?
These days it seems like the dream of the metaverse becomes more alive by the day. From live-streaming in Facebook Spaces to breakout raves in TheWaveVR to make-your-own-TV-show functionality in Flipside, the visibility of social interaction in the virtual space is at an all-time high.
Meanwhile, it’s been a banner year for blockchain technology and cryptocurrencies. If you’ve heard of it, it’s likely because of the runaway success of Bitcoin, Ethereum, and a host of other initial coin offerings (ICOs) that have made headlines.
Decentraland unites these forces into one virtual platform. And in doing so, it’s poised to craft a metaverse that allows us to “create, experience, and monetize [VR] content and applications” with a built-in economy that has real-world application. If executed successfully, this endeavor could be one of the more important developments in VR to date—and, at least as far as depth of research and planning goes, it’s got potential.
Back up! I don’t get blockchain.
You don’t have to be a blockchain expert to get how it will operate in a virtual environment; all you need is a basic understanding.
Blockchain is a distributed digital ledger that stores data across an entire network, making it publicly verifiable and unchangeable, rather than centralized in one location or with one party. For a deeper dive, here’s a beginner’s guide I wrote, a longer one for good measure, and an excellent infographic from Blockgeeks:
In laymen’s terms, this means that blockchain allows for the possibility of a legitimately democratic system and free market. In a typical network (speaking generally here—it depends on how it’s structured), the majority of the nodes (computers operating on the network) have to agree on any change made to the blockchain. This means that the possibility of hacking the system is exceedingly difficult—as is the prospect of any one party “taking control.”
Decentraland is built on Ethereum, which is a specific network with capabilities that include the creation of decentralized apps (dApps) and smart contracts. I’ll explain more about why this matters for Decentraland a little later, but you can learn more about it here and here.
How does blockchain help a virtual world?
The principle commodity of Decentraland, as you might guess, is land.
“Decentraland is an open initiative to create a metaverse,” said Decentraland Tech Lead Esteban Ordano. “I think that one of the key characteristics of it is that it’s decentralized land ownership based on a blockchain—a mechanism for consensus among strangers.”
People often reference blockchain networks as facilitating “trustless consensus.” This doesn’t mean that people don’t trust each other, it means the need to trust each other is basically done away with because of the inherent reliability of the system. It’s owned by everyone and no one simultaneously. This becomes especially important in crafting a persistent world that can’t be censored.
“It prevents censorship and changing the rules from the beginning,” said Ordano. “Once you have your land plot you can build whatever you want and no centralized organization or company can modify what you put there.”
Once you’ve purchased your land, it’s your choice what happens there. Decentraland Project Lead Ari Meilich cites this as a fundamental difference from any other social VR platform or virtual world.
“Because [other virtual worlds] are run by corporations, you have to trust that they’re going to be fair and that they have the best judgment with regards to changing the rules of the world,” said Meilich. “Because it runs on their servers and infrastructure that they own, they have the capability at any moment to change what’s allowed and what’s not allowed.”
This has economic implications as well.
“If there’s commerce inside the world they can manipulate the currency or levy taxes on all transactions,” said Meilich. “The idea with Decentraland was to build something that didn’t run on infrastructure that’s owned by us—it’s all decentralized. The model here is that the foundation is going to sell land initially to other people and it’s all going to work in a way where we’re not going to be intermediaries between user transactions. We’re not going to place rules regarding what they can or cannot do.”
The creators take this aspect very seriously. Recently, an infamous “Pepe” sculpture appeared in Decentraland—and others are already working on casinos, portals, museums, VR theaters, work districts, and more—none of this is being checked by the creators. Of course, an open world invites converging ideas and behaviors, which opens up the possibility of conflicts—whether in the shape of genuine dispute or trolling. Rather than dilute the purity of decentralization, the team sought to establish clear methods to facilitate conflict resolution.
“What we envision for conflict resolution is that a lot of people are going to pool larger plots of land together and have their own governments, and each of these districts is potentially going to have their own rules to resolve the disputes they may have,” said Meilich. “To do this we are partnering up with Aragon, which is another blockchain project who provides infrastructure for organizations to have governance.”
In other words, particular parties will be able to establish rules for themselves on the block that automatically maintain community standards—but none of that will be “enforced” by the Decentraland team.
And of course, nobody can tamper with land that you own other than you.
“The only person that has the ability to change the content of the land is the owner of that land,” said Meilich. “We think that most people are going to allow others onto their land, but with regards to the content, nobody has the power to change it unless they own it.”
So how does one go about participating with Decentraland?
MANA and LAND
To directly participate in Decentraland, users need MANA, the token of the virtual world. MANA is “burned” to claim LAND, the digital land asset.
In other words, MANA is the money you use to purchase LAND. So how do you get MANA? And how much MANA is required to buy a piece of land?
“Basically anybody can use any cryptocurrency to purchase MANA, and once you have MANA you can burn 1000 MANA to claim one piece of land,” said Meilich. “It has to be adjacent to land that already exists in the world.”
That last bit is important. Users can choose when to burn MANA on LAND, but the parcel they purchase will be, by default, next to existing land. This helps foster growth by building community. In the event that a given user wants to buy a different plot of land at any point, Decentraland has partnered with district0x, a secondary market where users can sell land, receive MANA, and buy new parcels of land (whether that be new land or land purchased from another user).
To generate value in land ownership, the total amount of land has been limited.
“The land is finite at any moment, but it’s also expanding,” said Ordano. “We are insuring enough MANA to buy about 2 million land plots initially, that’s going to be increasing by about 8% per year. We wanted to make land scarce because if you could buy any amount of land, it’s at odds with exploring the world and finding different experiences by different people.”
Meilich added that this retains a high bar for user experience in Decentraland.
“If there were no barrier to entry of acquiring land, there would be plenty of wastelands, and that would create a bad user experience because you would be wandering around not finding anything of interest,” said Meilich.
“The only person that has the ability to change the content of the land is the owner of that land. We think that most people are going to allow others onto their land, but they may be able to charge an access fee. With regards to the content, nobody has the power to change it unless they own it.”
There are three ways for users to gain MANA. The first, which is currently underway, is through the Community Vision Program. 700,000 MANA tokens (or 700 land tiles) are available through the program—which are given to participants who contribute thoughtful ideas on the Decentraland Slack and Telegram channels. These payouts will be distributed following the token sale—the second method of gaining MANA—which begins August 8. After the crowdsale ends, the network will run an ongoing “Continuous Token Sale,” to aid in growing Decentraland by 8% every year.
For those wanting to invest in Decentraland, this crowdsale will be the best place to start. As mentioned previously, it begins August 8, and ends either on the sooner of August 16 or at the $20M cap. Early adopters are rewarded in the form of a discounted price. On August 8th, 1000 MANA (1 LAND) will cost $24 USD, and increase in cost each day through the end of the sale.
This post from Decentraland offers more information on the terms of the crowdsale, as well as vesting and token distribution.
How do I start building?
Decentraland’s world editor is a Unity plugin that connects to the local Decentraland node, allowing users to create 3D content with a familiar game engine directly within Decentraland.
Meanwhile, the Decentraland browser is the interface through which users can visit different places and interact with other users. As explained in this post, the browser has four built-in features to make interaction and creation intuitive for users:
- P2P network (for text messaging, audio conversations, positioning, avatars, items, and more).
- Micropayment System, (an in-world economy).
- Land-Management Interface (creators can build experiences and apps without leaving the browser. Within Decentraland, users can develop, buy, rent, and sell virtual estate.)
- Scripting Language (for landowners to program experiences they want to offer other users).
Here’s a breakdown of how users can publish their first title in Decentraland:
For more extensive information, you can read the Decentraland white paper along with other posts on the official blog.
Editor’s Note: VRScout in no way endorses Decentraland, the ICO, or any other cryptocurrency investment, all of which have significant inherent risk. Seek advice from a financial advisor as well as do your own due diligence before considering investment.
Image Credit: Decentraland