In “Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace,” Lawrence Lessig wrote about four socioeconomic regulators of society as being the law, cultural norms, economic markets, and architecture/code (i.e. technology). All of these four factors combine in order to dictate the larger dynamics of our society.

Part of what gets advocates of the blockchain so excited is that these cryptographic technologies are enabling new forms of exchanges of value economic, but also socially and politically. With self-governance systems and collective action mechanisms being formalized within governance systems in the blockchain, this is allowing for groups of people to take more control of their lives independent from the interests of large centralized institutions like corporations who are acting like monopolies.

The Decentralized Web Summit was a gathering of some of the most innovative thinkers in this larger movement to use blockchain technologies to help decentralize the Internet, and the gathering was deeply informed by Lessig’s four regulators of the Tech, Law, Culture, & Markets.

I talked with the architect of the gathering Wendy Hanamura about how she used Lessig’s framework to orchestrate a historic gathering of visionary architects of decentralization.

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ana-ribeiroPixel Ripped 1989 is one of the most ambitious and innovative VR experiences I’ve seen. It’s a multi-dimensional experience with 2D game within a VR game within an immersive story. You’re in a VR world set in 1989 while also playing a Game Boy-like platformer game at the same time. It uses context switching as a game mechanic as you have to try to hide your playing of the 2D platformer from the school teacher. It’s an immersive nostaligic adventure that teleports you back to school in the 1980s through a chiptune soundtrack inspired by the videogames of the 1980s. Their cutting-edge spatial sound design really sells being immersed in a world within a world, and provides the multi-modal cues to help guide you through playing two games at once.

Pixel Ripped 1989 started as an ambitious student project by Ana Ribeiro, and she perservered through the ups and downs of her chasing her dreams of releasing the game for over four years. The project got picked up by São Paulo-based Arvore to help with development and distribution, and it was finally released on July 31, 2018 after a long journey through many technological phases of modern consumer VR. I had a chance to interview Ribeiro at the SVVR Mixer at GDC where she was dressed in a cosplay outfit of the main character of Nicola complete with blinking eyelashes. We talked about her development journey, collaborating with composer Terence Dunn from the National Film and Television School, mixing the immersive sound design of a world within a world, the challenges of using the buttons of an Oculus controllers as a NES controller for a 2D platformer, and the value of chasing your dreams.

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Here’s the launch trailer for Pixel Ripped 1989

Here’s a biographical piece that Windows Developer YouTube channel produced:

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tom-impallomeniEach of the founders of TribeXR wanted to learn how to become a DJ, but they never got around to it. So they all went to DJ school, and they’ve been building virtual reality technologies to alleviate many of the pain points that slowed down their journeys of learning how to DJ. The number one blocker is not having easy access to the DJ hardware equipment that costs around $6000. They’ve created a virtual simulation of the hardware in VR with an audio processing backend, and now they’re collaborating with DJ tutors to create virtual apprenticeships and come with innovations in new models of immersive education. Their goal is to help aspiring DJs go from knowing nothing to being able to perform in a night club by being able to learn and practice a virtual DJ booth from professional tutors.

I had a chance to talk with Tom Impallomeni, co-founder and CEO of Tribe, at VRLA where I received a tutorial in VR for how to switch bass on a virtual DJ equipment. TribeXR has found a sweet spot of immersive education where it’s faster and easier to learn some tasks when there is an expert in the room guiding you on your learning journey. We talked about collaborating with hardware manufacturers, their Explain, Demonstrate, Mimic (“EDM”) model of immersive education, collaborating with professional DJ schools and tutors, experimenting with spatial metaphors that create visual synchrony to make learning a multi-modal experience, and the iterative process of collaborating with hardware manufacturers on hardware design and potentially designing intuitive spatial interfaces and capabilities within augmented reality.

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Here are some clips of some lessons and DJ jam sessions from TribeXR:

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nathan-burbaElectronauts is a cross between a simplified DJ simulator and improvisational music tool from Survios that is launching today. It’s releasing with over 40 electronic songs that allows you to step into the DJ booth and control the flow of the music. Each song has been broken down into component parts in such a way that allows for the DJ to add and subtract musical instruments, but also add new looping melodies with a variety of different synthesized instruments. It’s been able to find the perfect balance of providing an underlying architecture of an pre-authored song while also providing the user a lot of their own generative agency to be able to explore, improvise, and control the overall flow of the song.

I had a chance to talk with Survios co-founder and president Nathan Burba where he talks about their journey towards democratizing DJing and musical improvisation, collaborating with musical artists, developing a customized Music Reality Engine™, and some of the VR design considerations of creating an intuitive and empowering experience for musical remixing. Electronauts was inspired in part by a documentary called RiP! A Remix Manifesto about remix culture featuring artists like Girl Talk. VR is helping to transform passive media consumption into active participation through remix culture that’s been simplified and made more accessible through the Electronauts user interface.

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Here’s a video of Electronauts produced by LIV:

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kaliyaKaliya Young (aka Identity Woman) has been working on digital identities for the past 15 years including helping facilitate the twice-a-year Internet Identity Workshop. These workshops lead to the Rebooting the Web of Trust workshops and the Decentralized Identity Foundation, which created a W3C specification on Decentralized Identifiers.

I had a chance to catch up with Young at the Decentralized Web Summit where we talk about the Decentralized Identifiers standards and the history of self-sovereign identity.

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I previously interviewed VR developer Alberto Elias about his work towards implementing self-sovereign identity for WebXR. He was previously named Holonet, but is now named Simbol. He released an A-Frame component for Self-Sovereign Identity during the Decentralized Web Summit.

I moderated a panel discussion at the Decentralized Web Summit about the cross section of VR and decentralized technologies including Simbol’s Elias, High Fidelity’s Philip Rosedale, Venn Agency’s Sam Chase, JanusVR’s James Baicoianu, and WebXR developer Andrés Cuervo where talked about how self-sovereign identity could used to seamlessly traverse different immersive locations on a decentralized metaverse.

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vint-cerf-marsVint Cerf is a co-inventor of the Internet, and he’s currently working as a Vice President at Google at their Chief Internet Evangelist. With all of the ethical discussions about the dangers of centralization of power and influence for censorship and surveillance, then this may seem like an odd choice for some people. But Cerf takes believes in creating an open and free Internet where access to information and knowledge is free and universally available, and there hasn’t been any viable alternative economic model implemented that could sustain the depth and breadth of services that Google provides. Decentralized blockchain architectures could change the underlying technological, cultural, and potentially economic norms, but Cerf is cautious and skeptical until there’s more pragmatic evidence of that. There are too many open questions around maintainability, reliability, scalability, economies of scale, and archivability of these decentralized architectures for them to be considered as a viable alternative to existing architectures.

I had a chance to interview Cerf at the Decentralized Web Summit to talk about his concerns and open problems that need to be solved with decentralized architectures. Cerf has been through many pendulum swings from centralization to decentralization and back again, and so he puts forth some compelling open questions and challenges to the larger decentralized community that need to be solved before the benefits of decentralized architectures start to outweigh all of the costs and uncertainties.

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There is also a lot of optimism and idealism that comes with the possibilities of blockchain technologies including new cultural norms and market dynamics, but Cerf thinks that there still some foundational economic dynamics that may not change when it comes to the concentration of wealth and power with economies of scale. Cerf weighs in on all of these open questions, what concerns him about the future of the Internet, and he defines some open problems for the next generation of decentralized architects to solve.

Here’s Cerf’s talk at the Decentralized Web Summit.

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antonHotdogs, Horseshoes, and Hand Grenades (aka H3) is an open-ended sandbox VR experience where you can play with a variety of exotic firearms. It’s a puzzle game where you have to figure out how to activate, load, and fire a huge range of different weapons. In real life, these guns have a wide range of inconsistent and non-intuitive features that makes for an overall frustrating and confusing user experience. This complicated user experience of guns is usually glossed over and oversimplified in first-person shooter games, but H3 transmutes these pain points into a compelling VR puzzle game where the reward of solving the puzzle is being able to shoot the weapon in a simulated environment.

Developer Anton Hand makes research trips to Las Vegas, Nevada in order to have an embodied experience of firing some of these rare and exotic weapons so that he can better simulate them within VR. This level of attention to detail and fan engagement has allowed H3 to cultivate an entusiastic fan base that Hand describes as a sociologically-fasincating microcosm of society that spans the full political spectrum.

At GDC this past March, I had a chance to have a wide-ranging conversation with Hand debating the ethical implications of simulating guns in VR, the underlying economic system of capitalism, and whether or not decentralized technologies like cryptocurrencies could viably change the power dynamics and inequities of our society. Spoiler alert: Hand is not a fan of unbridled techno-utopianism, and so he recontextualizes these debates around ethics in technology to the larger sociopolitical and economic context. The full backstory that’s motivating Hand to create an open-world, sandbox environment for play and exploration with guns is a fascinating story, and this conversation just scratches the surface of what H3 really is and what has made it such a successful project in VR.

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This conversation happened on March 20th, just a couple weeks after the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting happened in Parkland, Florida on February 14th, 2018. It was also after Stanford’s Jeremy Bailenson published an op-ed on CNN titled If a possible mass shooter wants to hone his craft, don’t hand him a virtual boot camp. Hand and I debated this topic on Twitter, which set the context to have a much deeper and far reaching conversation that spans ethics, economics, politics, culture, the limits of technologically engineering systems to change some of these fundamental aspects of the fabric of our society, and the role of governments when multinational corporations are amassing more power and influence than any singular government.

This conversation also happened a few days after learning that that Cambridge Analytica sold psychographic data mined from Facebook in order to conduct targeted information warfare on the US democratic process. This kickstarted some deeper questions about the role of ethics in computer science that mirrored by some of the ethical discussions happening about AI as well as the larger gun control debate in America. Any human-created technology can be used for good or for evil, and it’s an open question for how society will deal with the ethical dilemmas that are brought up with technologies ranging from AI, VR, and guns.

Hand and I cover a wide range of topics, and what’s clear from recently attending the International Joint Conference of Artificial Intelligence conference is that there are an increasing number of organizations making ethical declarations about technology and that these types of discussions require a cross-disciplinary team of politicians, economists, philosophers, and lawyers in order to go beyond the limitations of a purely algorithmic or engineering implementation mindset that technologists use to think about these deeper issues.

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james-baicoianuThere is a lot of promise of a decentralized metaverse built on top of the open web, but the idealism of that promise isn’t yet matching the quality & stability of experiences from centralized, native applications built on top of Unity or Unreal Engine. WebVR is still waiting for it’s official WebXR release on Chrome, and so the existing implementations have hit or miss support on the available WebVR browsers from Oculus, Samsung, Firefox, and Supermedium. JanusVR is a social VR application built using a JanusVR Markup Language that compiles down to WebGL, and they’ve been on the forefront of implementing the latest decentralized web technologies. I explored through JanusVR’s Vesta portal hub and while some of the cheesy low-fi graphics felt like the early days of the World Wide Web & Geocities, it also felt like I was immersively exploring the nascent beginnings of the decentralized metaverse built on top of open standards.

I had a chance to talk with JanusVR developer James Baicoianu who talks about JanusVR, some of their decentralized web infrastructure, some of his social experiences from JanusVR, and the work that he’s doing with Internet Archive in order to bring some of their classic Internet Arcade games into an immersive METAcade.

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I was able to explore JanusVR on a number of different platforms, and it definitely performs better on a proper VR PC compared to the mobile VR client for Oculus Go, which was a pretty laggy experience. There is a huge difference between getting something to work and having it always “just work.” JanusVR is on par with the rest of the WebVR community at the moment in that it is still really in the early days of dealing with inconsistencies, performance issues, and generating compelling content. JanusVR does actually have a pretty robust curation site called Vesta, which is also a physical site that autoloads new sites as you walk down different aisles of trending sites, popular sites, and new sites.

JanusVR has been making a lot of user experience innovations when it comes to navigating the metaverse with bi-directional portals, URL-based navigation, making it easier to create immersive content through a declarative markup language, and making WebVR content available across mobile VR, PC VR, and 2D web browsers. The technical achievements of JanusVR are impressive, and I suspect that the overall user experience, performance, and consistency will improve over time.

There are a lot of open questions when it comes to how the metaverse will work, and JanusVR will be on the forefront of trying to figure out things like user interfaces, virtual currencies, navigation, and how to have portable and self-sovereign identities that can seemlessly interface with VR communities like High Fidelity.

Some of these open questions include whether or not WebVR sites should progressively load objects where the world is slowly assembled around you, or if it is a better experience to have a loading screen and only enter a scene once it’s been fully loaded completely rendered. JanusVR progressively loads pages which works great on the 2D web, but I felt that it breaks presence to have a world assembled around you piecemeal. There are also many open questions for how exactly portals between sites should work. For example, when you go into a new world, do you automatically to see the portal back to the world from where you just came from? Or should you enter the world without any trace of how you got there? JanusVR leaves a portal in new scene to the previous space, but I found that this occluded the new world in a way that broke presence. These are many of these types of questions that JanusVR is helping to elucidate through building a working implementation. There are a many implementation options that need to be experimented with before these types of lower-level questions become a part of the open standards for how WebVR will build interfaces between immersive worlds.

Overall, I’ve been impressed with the range and breadth of technical implementations from JanusVR, and they’ve made the process of immersive website creation more accessible to a wide range of creators. Some of the JanusVR sites give me a low-fidelity, early Web/Geocities vibe, which I’m sure that we’ll some day look back on with fond nostalgia. So in that spirit, I’d recommend exploring JanusVR’s Vesta portal hub just so that you can mark what the early beginnings of the metaverse feel like.

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erin-teagueThe YouTube VR application just released some social viewing features as well as finally released a version for Gear VR, although there isn’t any specific updates on if or when there will be an Oculus Go or Oculus Rift version released. When I asked Google about this, a YouTube spokesperson said, “We want everyone with a VR headset to be able to experience YouTube VR, and we’re working to bring it to more VR platforms in the future.” I take this to mean that Google is trying to get a native application of YouTube VR released for the Oculus Go & Oculus Right, but that there must be some sort of lower-level technicial or logistical issue or more likely some sort of competitive or political blocker that’s been either been slowing it down or outright preventing it. But having a Samsung VR application is a step in the right direction.

Julia-Hamilton-TrostI had a chance to catch up with the YouTube VR product lead Erin Teague and Google VR/AR Business Development & Content team member Julia Hamilton Trost at Sundance 2018 where they were talking about some of their latest content initatives, VR180 camera, YI HALO VR camera, livestreaming different events in VR, how YouTube vloggers are experimenting and pioneering new immersive genres that are emerging on the YouTube platform.

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sylvia-xueni-panOne of the recurring themes that was coming up at the IEEE VR academic conference was how VR is starting to catalyze interdisciplinary collaborations between different academic fields including computer science, social science, neuroscience, and cognitive psychology. I talked with Dr. Slyvia Xueni Pan at the IEEE VR 2017 conference after she had organized a panel on virtual social interactions with Dr Antonia Hamilton, Prof Anthony Steed, Dr Laura Fademrecht, Prof Jonathan Gratch, and Dr Marco Gillies.

Pan has specialized in generating expressive virtual characters in order to create an empathic social interaction in virtual immersive environments. She talks about how VR creates ecological validity and experimental control in order to research social interactions ranging from mimicry, gaze, racial bias, subconscious reactions to blushing, and exploring variations of the rubber hand illusion. She also talks about how VR is facilitating cross-disciplinary collaborations between computer scientists and social psychology researchers.

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