The DeanBeat: Why Neal Stephenson is starting a metaverse company 3 decades after Snow Crash
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It’s not often that you get to hear things from the horse’s mouth. In this case, I was able to do an interview with the guy who came up with the term “metaverse” decades ago. I feel like I’ve been waiting decades to talk to him.
Science fiction author Neal Stephenson recently announced he was teaming up with crypto entrepreneur Peter Vessenes to create Lamina1, a blockchain technology startup dedicated to the open metaverse, the universe of virtual worlds that are all interconnected, as first depicted in Stephenson’s novel Snow Crash, which debuted 30 years ago in 1992. I interviewed both Vessenes and Stephenson yesterday, just a day after McKinsey & Co. predicted the metaverse would be worth $5 trillion by 2030.
Tech leaders like Tim Sweeney, CEO of Epic Games have warned that we are in danger of having a closed metaverse if the big tech companies are the only viable candidates for building it. While Sweeney argued an open metaverse is a matter of enlightened self-interest, it feels like the open metaverse believers could use more help, considering some very big companies are likely to build what they want instead of the open metaverse. It’s a big issue, and it’s also why VentureBeat started its Metaverse Forum for thought leadership in the open metaverse.
So it is something special to see Stephenson step up and take responsibility for making the open metaverse happen himself. In our conversation, Stephenson noted that it’s better to take a constructive view than to start from a defensive position of trying to stop a closed metaverse. Stephenson had previously worked toward the metaverse at Magic Leap, which is making augmented reality glasses. But the company hit the wall on its consumer AR efforts and Stephenson was one of many people who left.
It seemed like Stephenson was going to keep writing sci-fi, but he crossed over to reality again with Lamina1, which is named after one of his recent works. His new company has advisers such as Rony Abovitz, former CEO of Magic Leap, and its strategy chief is Tony Parisi, a metaverse pioneer and advocate of 3D on the web. The point of entry for Stephenson and Vessenes is a new blockchain protocol, Lamina1, which they believe is required to help the metaverse meet its full potential.
Vessenes is known in the cryptocurrency industry for a series of firsts, namely launching the first VC-backed Bitcoin company (2011) and forming the Bitcoin Foundation (2012). Initial Investors in Lamina1 include Abovitz, Geoff Entress, Jeremy Giffon, Bing Gordon, James Haft, Reid Hoffman, David Johnston, Joseph Lubin, Patrick Murck, Matthew Roszak, Tihan Seale, Peter Vessenes, and Wu Ying.
Later this year, the company will start testing its protocol. Beyond 2022, the co-founders plan to seed a new immersive environment inspired by Stephenson’s novel, building infrastructure and releasing tools to support the work of third-party creators who want to build open metaverse experiences at scale.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview. And be sure to check out our enterprise metaverse event MetaBeat 2022 coming October 3 to October 4, and our GamesBeat Summit Next 2022 event on October 25 to October 26.
GamesBeat: McKinsey just came out with a report this morning saying they expect the metaverse to have a $5 trillion value by 2030. Does that just blow your mind?
Neal Stephenson: The whole thing kind of blows my mind. There are a few things we have to get done before we get to the double-digit trillions.
Peter Vessenes: Do you have that list anywhere? I want to get working on it.
Stephenson: I think I’ve got a Post-It here, yeah. But sure. We’re just trying to start with what we think are the fundamentals needed to start building in that direction. We have opinions about that. We’re trying to put those opinions into a workable form. Then, if people agree with us and think that we’re building good infrastructure, then they’re welcome to come and use it.
GamesBeat: I know you were at Magic Leap before, but this feels like one of your biggest attempts to help make the metaverse actually happen.
Stephenson: Magic Leap is an entirely different kind of project, which I enjoyed and found super fascinating. As you know, it’s an AR hardware company. Making content for AR is a fascinating challenge from which I learned a lot. Let’s put it that way. But obviously making underlying infrastructure to build a metaverse is a different kind of project.
GamesBeat: It does seem interesting that this whole open metaverse effort is getting a push now. I’m curious about what underlies it. Are there real concerns now that we won’t have an open metaverse? That a big tech company or someone like that will create something that won’t be open.
Stephenson: I’d hesitate to frame it as, “I’m concerned about something and I want to stop it.” That’s never a great way to begin a project, in a defensive frame of mind. I prefer to think of it in terms of, it seemed like a good time, with all the energy and interest in metaverse stuff, to try to do something constructive. That’s my focus.
Vessenes: I’m with Neal on that. My focus of attention here is on some long-term trends. I do think those trends mean that we have to at least build another set of rails, or allow people to take a railroad change off into a different direction if they want to. It hasn’t seemed to me like anybody is thinking big enough. It’s not a complaint about the open metaverse folks, either. There’s a ton of interesting projects, really quite a lot happening. But I think there’s just this weight of gravity. Modern literal titans are spending tens of billions of dollars a year to build something out. It may feel like a fait accompli. “I guess this is the metaverse we’ll have.”
My experience with Bitcoin is that that’s absolutely not true. Bitcoin engaged with institutions with much more money than that very successfully. If we build something that people want, if we give them an opportunity, there’s a lot of awesome stuff that can be done. This is total green field, is how we’re thinking about it. There’s so much to do. The people who are joining and coming along are really excited to go and build. We’ll give people a place to do that and see what everyone does with it.
GamesBeat: How did you both come to the conclusion that blockchain would be essential here? Why did that have to happen first to get to a metaverse?
Stephenson: Let me give the big picture answer, and Peter can maybe get into the details. It’s implicit in almost everything I’ve written, beginning with Snow Crash, that none of it happens without some kind of decentralized way of transacting business. I can retcon that into Snow Crash. But Diamond Age, it’s actually part of the plot. The plot of Diamond Age doesn’t work unless you have that. That’s because by that point I was talking to people who were doing crypto and thinking about how to send money around and compute in a distributed way. Cryptonomicon and the Baroque Cycle and REAMDE are all themed on that basis.
GamesBeat: So the people who stopped reading at Snow Crash are missing the boat?
Vessenes: That is the best book marketing campaign ever!
Stephenson: My take on it is that in the economy at large we have fiat currencies and we have payment systems that work pretty well for exchanging money. We also have cryptocurrencies and systems that work on that. It seems reasonable that the metaverse will also have both.
Vessenes: If people are going to have things that are valuable, they’re going to want to capture that value somehow, make money from it, and sell it. We want to track things like ownership. You could just say that I’m from the Bitcoin Foundation and all I have is a hammer, which is decentralized ledger tech, and there’s some truth to that. But we were talking before about Second Life. I would argue that if Second Life had had a more open economy–I don’t want to layer any particular money system on it. But if the economy had been more open, up to and including people having some ownership in Linden Labs, I think Second Life would have been a lot bigger.
That’s not a complaint. It was built in an interesting way for a company at the time. But we know now–there’s some social technology that the crypto industry has developed around getting massive numbers of people around the world to collaborate and do things. One thing they need is the ability to buy and sell and trade and program digital objects and stuff like that. To us this is two generations ahead of anything else in the world, in particular because–neither Neal nor I has any temperamental interest in running a company that owns all that data or controls it or has to decide who gives what to somebody else. For us it’s just a perfect fit. There’s another system that allows programmability, community governance when it’s needed, and takes care of all this for people. That’s a great baseline.
GamesBeat: I’ve seen that there’s been a lot of skepticism toward blockchain, particularly coming from gamers and game developers. Up until about December I thought everybody was going to be on board with this notion that blockchain was a stepping stone to the metaverse. But we’ve almost seen a grassroots level of resistance popping up. I wonder how we can get past some of this to a point of people understanding that decentralization should be good for them in the long run.
Stephenson: I’ve been following, over the last winter, the heated discussions on Twitter between crypto advocates and NFT boosters on the one hand and game devs on the other. I spent enough time working with game engine technology in the last few years that I think I understand where the game devs are coming from. You can’t simply take your lightsaber from one game and drag and drop it into another game and have any kind of a satisfactory result. It doesn’t work on an engineering level. It breaks the artistic coherence of the game it’s being dragged into, even if you could make that work.
Those are points that I think are sometimes overlooked by the hardcore crypto advocates who want everything to be on the blockchain and want everything to be interoperable. To game devs that feels like it’s in the category of not even wrong. Just total idiocy on an engineering level. But more than that it can feel disrespectful to game devs, because these people are artists trying to create coherent works of art. They put a lot of effort into achieving that coherence and that beauty. It feels like that’s being overrun.
This is a somewhat deep topic, but I would say that there are ways to–let me just get this all out and you can edit if you want. The process of moving a game object from one game to another requires a lot of work. It changes the look of it so the art direction doesn’t clash. You have to do engineering work. You have to change blueprints or scripts or however your game is wired up so that the object behaves correctly inside the other game. That’s not even getting into the topic of whether it makes sense artistically, in terms of narrative coherence in the game.
For the last one, I think that this makes a lot more sense in mashup-style games than it does in exquisitely crafted, coherent narrative games. A mashup game would be something like Roblox or Minecraft or Fortnite. In Fortnite it’s fine if you have John Wick running around with Iron Man. Whereas in Assassin’s Creed or something like that, the mashup thing isn’t going to play over there.
The other thing is that I think this is more of an opportunity to build new experiences than to try to retrofit interoperability into existing experiences. I think the metaverse is an opportunity. We’ve been working with the team at Shrapnel on some ideas around how smart contracts could be structured in such a way that the game devs and artists who have to do all the actual work of adapting an object to move from one experience to another actually get paid to do that work, if they choose to do it.
Vessenes: The part that seems most true to me is that these will be new experiences, new types of creativity. Jonathan Blow will never make a mashup metaverse game, and we wouldn’t want him to, because he’s such an artist. There’s something beautiful about his games. That’s great. He should keep doing that. On the creative side and the interoperability side, there’s a lot of good fun that can be had in a crazier world. People writing about the metaverse instinctively intuited that long after Neal. Ready Player One had this very mashup vibe, where there’s a lot of culture from different histories that people all mashed together, and that’s fun. It’s written as fun in the book and I think it’s fun to read about. Vernor Vinge, in Rainbows End, that was very similar. There’s all kinds of iconography that people pull in.
I see this in a lot of engineering. It’s not unique to game engineers, hating crypto. A lot of engineers hate crypto. Many times the complaints are from people who don’t have an appreciation for how powerful it is to give a bunch of different kinds of people a way to connect something. They say, “I can write a faster database than Bitcoin. I don’t understand.” My reaction to that is, “Well, until this week Bitcoin was worth a trillion dollars, so there’s probably something to understand there.” If you dig in, it’s complicated, but it’s very interesting. But I think there’s some of that, “I don’t want that world in my world. I don’t like it. I’m uncomfortable with it.”
GamesBeat: It does feel like the ideal metaverse is one where the artists get their rewards, and it also feels like the tech industry, in the way it’s structured now, is not a place where that happens.
Stephenson: The hardest thing in the world, I’ve discovered, is getting people to write checks to make content. It’s amazingly hard. Even in companies that are predicated on generating content. In general, the bigger the company and the more money is at stake, the harder it is. I was discussing this yesterday with Reid Hoffman, who’s one of our initial investors. He was pointing out that if you’re in a company that’s managing hundreds of millions of dollars of shareholders’ money, these are important decisions. When you begin rolling the dice on an art project, there’s a lot of people who are going to have opinions about that. A multiplicity of opinions is not the right way to do art.
GamesBeat: The tough thing is going to be when AI does all the creation and somebody has to figure out who owns it.
Stephenson: That’s actually a point that Jaron Lanier and I have been talking about in the last few days. I think he brought it up on stage at Consensus. When Dolly produces a cool work of art, it’s doing that by drawing upon pre-existing images that have been probably looked at and classified by humans. It seems like the human who created the image to begin with deserves some credit, but not only that, the people who looked at it and classified it and applied metadata to it, they’re also contributors to that product. This relies on setting up what Jaron would call value chains.
We’re working on a very similar idea with the Shrapnel team, which is that in any kind of aggregate creative work, where a bunch of people from different disciplines have had to contribute at different times with different inputs, it would be nice if we could keep track of who did what and have some kind of a waterfall that would distribute some of the value back to all of the contributors. There are ways to do that in the world of fiat currency and traditional contracts. That’s how Hollywood works, or doesn’t. But it also seems like these value chains could be an opportunity to do interesting things with smart contracts.
GamesBeat: What comes next? What does your road map look like?
Vessenes: We’re a blockchain and a metaverse company. There’s a lot to do. We’ve had an amazing response. A couple of thousand people popped into our Discord for the first few days, which was very good, especially because we’re not a crypto company that’s giving away anything. We just said, “Come join us and do this hard thing with us.” There’s a whole community angle. Getting to know the community, helping wrangle them, seeing what they want to do. That’s going to be ongoing. Of course we’re going to raise some money. We had a friends and family round, but we’re off and raising some money.
There are two tech components. There’s getting out the first beta net or test net of the chain itself, so that the crypto engineers can start playing with it and tell us what they think of it and start pointing their existing stuff at it. And then on the spatial side we have the spatial road map. We’re still hammering it out exactly, but the very first thing is likely to be a dev kit that would plug into Unreal and Unity and let them talk to the chain. That will give us a bridge to start turning on some stuff for people who want to turn it on. Object ownership, object provenance.
We talk about Lord of the Rings a lot because we’re huge nerds. But like, why is Glamdring so good? It’s good because it survived the goblin wars. It was like a baseline sword that survived. If you apply that to digital objects in games, even just being like–this skin in Fortnite has won 600 first-place finishes. There’s a lot of digital provenance types of support we want to give creators at the start and see what they do with it. I could go on. But we’re hoping that by the end of the year, people will be able to play a good third-party triple-A game where that developer has decided some of the state of that game will be kept on our beta net. It may be objects. It may be NFTs. It’ll be up to the developer to decide. But that would be our goal for the end of the year.
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