A ‘hands-on’ view of the metaverse
Real Conversations podcast | S4 E7 | July 7, 2022
International serial entrepreneur, identifying up-and-coming trends, new business models, and turning the next big idea into a successful business, with over 25 years launching, leading and consulting businesses across the globe Banks’ primary focus includes tech, agri-tech and blockchain sectors.
The metaverse is coming and businesses need to be ready.
Dorian Banks, CEO of Looking Glass Labs which is currently building hyper-realistic metaverse ‘Project Origin’, talks about creating a foundation for the future and how these spaces will be used. Below is a transcript of this podcast. Some parts have been edited for clarity.
Michael Hainsworth: In popular imagination, the metaverse is all about consumers. Video games. Virtual concerts. But to Dorian Banks, the CEO of Looking Glass Labs, the bigger picture he sees is B2B. He’s building a platform that leverages Unreal Engine 5, once the domain of gamers and now the world building territory of Hollywood blockbuster films. The real power of the metaverse comes from combining technologies like smartphones and headsets, edge computing, and the 5G-Advanced networks that will leverage it all. Much like there’s only one web but millions of websites, Banks predicts forward-thinking companies will quickly stake their claim in the metaverse one way or another. And those that don’t, will be left behind.
Dorian Banks: I define the metaverse as a digital, do-anything-world of our real world. A space where you can go online via headset or your computer and become whoever you want and do whatever you want virtually.
MH: Why do we need this, though? It sounds like we've already got a lot of that stuff.
DB: We do have a lot of it, especially with online meetings during work from home, but this is a more advanced version of it. We're going to have a deeper experience, a greater experience. You can also meet with far more people. You can have corporate events, concerts, things like that.
MH: The idea being that Covid-19 taught us that we can work from home, but still be somewhere else.
DB: Yeah, exactly. The pandemic has definitely accelerated the adoption, or pushed towards the metaverse, which I didn't see coming for another five years prior to the pandemic.
MH: I have a webcam and a microphone, so I've got my teleconferencing calls and all that kind of stuff. Some suggest that this is a 2030 topic. It's not relevant now and you need new hardware. What do you think of that?
DB: Yeah, it might not be extremely relevant to everybody right now or in the near term, but we're preparing for when it is and that's what we're building for and what other companies are building for. We're building for that 2025 to 2030 span when there will be a higher adoption rate.
MH: So, the idea of being now, we're building that foundation kind of like how with web 2.0 we had incorporated eCommerce and all sorts of capabilities that were only available because we now adapted it too mobile.
DB: Yeah, exactly. It's a very early point right now in the metaverse space using NFT technology, block tape chain, and companies that are building now will be the ones to succeed, I think, in five years.
MH: Why is NFT? Why is blockchain? Why are these two technologies critical to the development of the metaverse in the first place?
DB: It's a Web 3.0 product, which is where you control your own identity and your own data as opposed to Web 2.0, where companies control you, or control your data. NFT and blockchain technology is the way of doing that. You're securing your own identity and your own assets.
MH: I suppose that's one of the biggest problems with the internet as we know it today. We really don't have any means of accurately chaining an asset, real or virtual, to an individual and we have real no way of ensuring that the person we're talking to is the person they say they are.
DB: Yeah, NFTs and block chain technology allow us to do that. They allow us to show that this particular digital asset is owned by this exact wallet, and whoever's controlling that wallet is the owner.
MH: So, if you're building the metaverse or a version of the metaverse for 2025, 2030, it reminds me of how the internet today looks nothing like the internet of 2002, or even 2012. What does the Metaverse look to you like over time?
DB: Right now, it's in a very basic format. You go on your computer, and you enter the metaverse, a very 2D experience where you put on an Oculus headset and see a bit more of a real version of these virtual worlds. Going forward we're going to see more haptic technology come along, maybe you're wearing gloves that provide feedback to your hands or you're wearing some type of shirt or vest which provides feedback. Then eventually we're going to start seeing eyewear that looks normal, but provides you an AR/VR Metaverse experience, not only in your home, but when you're out in the real world.
MH: It sounds to me, though, like building a metaverse in front of my eyeballs in 3D through whether it be a headset like the Oculus Quest or something more advanced than that, is going to require a shift in the way we get that content to my eyeballs. I don't want to walk around with a backpack with a personal computer attached to it. What role will the telecommunications network technologies play in bringing us this metaverse, this Web.30?
DB: The large urban centers with the new version of 5G, that's been rolled out in the United States for instance, it provides a massive amount of through put, very, very low latency. In those major cities that have 5G it'll be an okay experience just via your cellphone. In rural areas of course, it's going to be tougher on a normal 4G network.
MH: When we think about this from the perspective of, "I'm an organization. I hear that the metaverse is going to be a thing in the not-too-distant future and I don't want to be left behind." How do we as business approach metaverse?
DB: Yes, I believe every major brand in the world is already looking at a metaverse future or what that might look like for them. They've been hiring for it. Some have been acquiring and they've got to at least know that it's in their future and try to plan for how they will represent themselves in a metaverse or metaverses. I think that any brands that aren't looking at that right now are going to be in trouble in a few years.
MH: It sort of reminds me of back in the early days of web adoption, that there were companies saying, "What do I need a website for? This internet thing is going to be a fad."
DB: Yeah, I remember the early days too when you'd buy some type of technology and you think, "I want to update the drivers for this or the software," and you'd go to the company's nascent website, and they'd have no download ability for any of their software. You don't want to be in that position now because things are moving much quicker than they were 20 years ago.
MH: Then how do we explain to the corner office, the C-suite, that this is not just a buzzword? This is not something that is going to be a fly by night. This has staying power. This is the next version of the internet.
DB: Yeah, I would say you've got to talk to the C-suite and say, "Look at it from a customer perspective point of view or a marketing point of view, or really even a revenue point of view." Somebody like Uber Eats, for instance, can open up stands in various metaverses and sell directly to the consumer in the virtual world. Your burrito or pizza is delivered to you half an hour later to your real-life apartment. Those are the types of examples that I give out.
MH: Okay, but if I want a burrito, it's easy for me to go to my Uber Eats app, type "burrito" in and within minutes have a burrito to the house, why would I need to put a pair of goggles on to do that?
DB: Maybe you wouldn't go and put the goggles on specifically for that, but if you were a metaverse and you did want to order food and you're in a high resolution metaverse, you can go to look at the food right there and see, "Do I want to eat that? Is this a plate of food that I want delivered to my house?" You'll actually be able to see an almost real version of it in the metaverse.
MH: It sort of feels like building a new neighborhood. You can raise the ground. You can put up the houses, but eventually you're also going to see small businesses move into that neighborhood, larger companies as well, and suddenly it becomes a walkable neighborhood because it's not just the corner store that you have access to, but you've got access to your bank. You've got access to your Starbucks, all that sort of thing.
DB: Yeah, yeah, and that's exactly how I envision it happening for businesses. I use an example where if Tesla's going to launch a new vehicle, maybe you show up to an event in a metaverse and you get to see the vehicle release by Elon and there’s a 3D Elon, and you can hop in a model and rip around a track. It all looks like it would in real life. The only thing you might be missing are the g-forces from the acceleration in the corners.
MH: Oh, well then that's where the haptic feedback comes in.
DB: Yeah, exactly. You maybe will have some type of device that presses on your chest or your arms or something like that that could provide that feedback if that's something you're interested in.
MH: We're talking literally Ready Player One.
DB: Literally. Yep.
MH: I understand how maybe Tesla would want to be a front runner in the world of the metaverse because a $120,000 car purchase is not an impulse purchase for most of us. So, you really want to get a feel for it. You want to feel what it's like to be behind the wheel, press all the little buttons, that sort of stuff. But why would Maytag want to be on the metaverse?
DB: Yeah, so think of it as a consumer who has a Maytag washing machine and they've got some problem with it, maybe there's two lights flashing or it's not turning on, or something like that. They can show up, teleport to the Maytag office in the metaverse, maybe you talk to a customer service representative right there, tell them the model they have, and that person will materialize that exact washer right there in front of them, and you'd be able to point and go, "This light's flashing. This light's flashing or this little part of the door won't close." They can troubleshoot it in real time with you right there while you're looking at a virtually real washing machine right in front of you.
So, if you think about that brand experience, that advancement from the way you get customer service now via the phone or a chat window. This is like light years ahead.
MH: And I guess this comes back to the idea of critical mass, where you may not put on a VR headset or augmented reality glasses specifically to talk to Maytag or specifically to buy a burrito, but while you're doing other things in it, the more that are involved in a version of the metaverse, the more functionality it has for you as the end user.
DB: There's no question. I equate it to making a restaurant reservation. If you're sitting on your couch and you've got your phone right there, you can easily call the restaurant and make a reservation or if you're sitting in front of your computer you can open up their page and make the reservation via Open Table or something like that. It's the exact same analogy.
MH: So then, what are some of the early success stories in this wild west style land grab of the Metaverse?
DB: I'm not sure there are any real success stories yet. It's still so new. Some of the metaverse have been selling land, actual properties, that have been trading for thousands of dollars. So, maybe they've had some early success in generating revenue, but I wouldn't say that there's any brand success yet, but I think by the end of this year there will be.
MH: What type of industries do you think are going to be those early adopters on that bleeding edge?
DB: I think you're going to see a lot of tech, a lot of lifestyle companies that sell limited edition clothing, things like that, even Gucci's dropping NFTs now. They're accepting crypto at four or five of their stores in North America now. You're going to see these brands that want to set themselves in the forefront of technology hopping in.
MH: What role does the NFT, what role does the block chain, these types of technologies, play in building the Metaverse?
DB: NFTs and blockchain technology, that's digital ownership. I can prove that I own that 3D robot suit that I want to wear in a metaverse. So, I'll enter a metaverse that will look at my wallet and it'll see what NFTs I own, and it'll see which ones are compatible with their version of the metaverse and it'll import and allow me to say, "Put on that robot suit in their engine or drive a particular car or spaceship." Those were all things that were held as an NFT in my wallet.
MH: It sounds to me like identity management is a critical component to web three, whereas when we had web one, when we were getting the internet with things like email, it didn't occur to anybody that we would need to build in protections for things like spam and it took us recognizing that we were missing that identity component that prevented people from spoofing who they claim to be. It feels like we're resolving that type of problem with Web 3.0.
DB: Yeah, web three is a control of your identity and prove your own identity, prove what you own digitally, and that is the big jump from Web 2.0 where you're basically a Google login or a Microsoft login and they controlled your identity, or in Web 1.0, say the AOL days, copy serve days, where you were just in a walled garden, and they just controlled everything.
MH: We should probably talk about those walled gardens because the metaverse in and to itself seems to be an umbrella term for a lot of individual metaverse experiences from different organizations.
DB: Yes, you could look at them as walled gardens or different metaverses as we tend to think of it. There's going to be low resolution metaverses for places with lower bandwidth and less competing power. There's going to be specific metaverses, say, for sports or music or concerts, and then art metaverses, gaming metaverses, and you'll go to whichever one suits your fancy for that time or maybe you're just stuck in one all the time.
MH: Okay, so that's the consumer side of it. That's our end of it, but what about from the business perspective? If I'm a company, a business, small, medium-sized enterprise, maybe a large corporate like you Maytag, etc., how do you establish a foothold in the metaverse when, as we've just pointed out, there are a whole bunch of different platforms that all fall under the umbrella term of metaverse?
DB: Yes well, metaverse being a very "it" word right now or a hyped term, I would say. There's a lot of people announcing they're doing metaverses, they're going to build one. Eventually it's going to fall out to where there's a dozen or something like that I believe. We've had some merges between like-metaverses, or some just go away. The brands will migrate to the one, or ones maybe, that suit their brand. So, one that maybe is controlled a little bit more where there's not a lot of trolling and is remaining within the law. I think you're going to see brands migrate there.
MH: This isn't a case of Web 2.0 or Web 1.0 where companies went, "Oh, we need a website." Companies aren't going to say, "Oh, we need a metaverse." They're going to partner with another organization that is the platform of choice for that particular use case.
DB: I think the majority of brands will do that. They will migrate to a metaverse that already exists, and they'll set up shop there, so to say. I think there will be some major brands that try and build their own and still not sure how that's going to work, but I know some that are.
MH: So, it's not a case of I buy a VR headset. It only works with one metaverse, not another.
DB: Yeah, exactly. Most VR headsets you can plug into anything right now, especially if you're technical, but eventually you'll be able to go to all different metaverses via different headsets or viewing platforms.
MH: So then for a business looking to make a move into the metaverse, what's the most common misconception that business has about metaverse?
DB: I think number one, even before that, they don't believe it's going to be important or relevant to them, which I do believe is wrong. The other misconception is that it's going to be extremely costly and technical and difficult to do, whereas some brands have already entered it by buying virtual land and getting ready to set up shop.
MH: What do you make of that land grab, based upon the fact that we just finished about the fact that the metaverse is an umbrella term for a lot of different platforms?
DB: Yes, people, I think consumers especially, are looking at metaverse land as ... They're comparing it to real world land where there's a finite amount of it and they want to get in early and ride the wave of appreciation, or value appreciation.
MH: Which doesn't make sense to me because hard drives are infinitely fillable. You can have more of them.
DB: Yes yes, and you can always create more digital land I suppose. The metaverses that are out there right now have all announced a finite amount of land for their particular one.
MH: You've got project origin. How do you describe it to your mom?
DB: Yes, our metaverse project origin built on Unreal 5 is a very high-resolution digital world. You can enter, meet up with your friends, look at art, do social things, go to concerts, all via headset or your computer screen.
MH: The use of Unreal 5 is a very specific decision you've made?
DB: Yeah, very specific. We've decided to go extremely high resolution because we're more of a social and art based metaverse as opposed to gaming or something like that.
MH: So, what makes it high resolution?
DB: Unreal Engine 5 is extremely high res, tough to differentiate from real life and fact when you're experiencing with a headset. It has unlimited polygons, so basically you can represent the real world right in front of your eyes virtually.
MH: As I understand it, Nanite is that underlying technology where as in the past if you wanted to create an object like a car, it had a certain number of polygons that made up the look of that car and you were limited by the computing power to be able to generate those polygons, whereas now with Nanite you can infinitely zoom in and it just continually cashes and pulls in the necessary data to just get higher and higher in that resolution.
DB: Yeah, and that Nanite technology basically works around ... It's only going to deliver you the information that's really relevant to you right at that moment. So, whatever's in your exact view plane is only information being delivered to you, which is a new way of doing it. That's why they can get this incredible resolution.
MH: I can imagine once you combine that sort of thing with 5G and edge computing, you're looking at recreating the real world virtually.
DB: Yeah, I was in a virtual world the other day with a headset on and I had to scratch my neck. It was itchy. I put my controller down on the desk in front of me and I heard a bang and I'm thinking, "What was that?" I pull off my headset and I realized I'd set the controller down on a virtual table.
MH: Right. Yeah, I've had similar experiences with Quest. There are games you can play, and you'll hide behind a virtual barrel so you don't get shot at and if you're not careful, the immersion is such that you might actually lean in and lean against a barrel that doesn't exist and find yourself on the floor.
DB: Yeah, you've definitely seen some videos online about that person running into their own TV or directly into a door or wall. It's definitely something you got to be careful.
MH: So, using Unreal Engine 5 to build Project Origin, Meta on the other hand is going very cartoon like while you're going very realistic. How do you balance look and feel with functionality?
DB: Yes so, Meta or Facebook, they're going with this more cartoon imagery as you mentioned. I think that's really just due to their audience. They have a lot of audience in the non-high broadband world, so they need to deliver an experience that they can get to those people. We've specifically focused on extremely high resolution because that's the type of world we wanted to build. We want to build one where you can see art in infinite polygons, as you said.
MH: I guess it's kind of like how PlayStation would go super high resolution, but Nintendo went more cartoon like because that's what their audience was looking for.
DB: Yeah, exactly. It's who you're trying to bring in. We're not trying to bring in the entire world into ours. We're trying to bring in people that are specifically looking for this ultra-realistic experience.
MH: What's the unexpected lesson that Looking Glass Labs has learned from building Project Origin?
DB: I think that everybody building a high resolution metaverse has run into the same issue, and that's how many people can you get into one area. Right now, to hold a concert in a high resolution metaverse and have 50,000 there, is just not possible. You just can't render it with the computing power that exists right now. That needs to get overcome. Right now, it's easy to bring in a thousand or something like that, but to really push it to where everyone, you can have as many people as you want in a scene, that's the issue.
MH: What's the advice that you provide an organization that's looking to stake a claim as it were in the Metaverse?
DB: I'd say have a staff member or staff follow the metaverse story right now and start thinking of how they're going to establish their brand in the future in one, or as Adidas has done, and others, is acquire an NFT blockchain company. Adidas purchased artifact studios, the Digital Sneaker Maker and that's how Adidas is approaching their entry.
MH: I can imagine building an effective metaverse presence, you're going to need partnerships. You're going to need collaboration. You're going to need ecosystems.
DB: Yeah, you're going to need all those things. You're also going to want to bring in other people that have a name maybe, and have them build in your land, build on your metaverse so that they can bring along their followers, and that's how you get a critical mass.
MH: Let's talk about the role that an NFT is playing in the metaverse because when people think of NFTs they think of a multimillion picture of a monkey.
DB: Yes so, NFTs can have any real value from zero to millions of dollars, but as far as their use in the Metaverse, when you enter most metaverses, you'll have to connect your NFT wallet, and it will scan your wallet and look for what NFTs you own that are compatible with that metaverse. They'll show up in your world and you can put on that 3D robot suit or your angel wings, or whatever that NFT is that you've got, and that's how NFTs are going to be used in the metaverse.
MH: It sort of brings us back to the idea that Web 2.0 didn't really have an ownership component or an authentication method to ensure that you are who you say you are. NFTs will play that role and the block chain will play that role in Web 3.0 and the metaverse.
DB: Yeah, and it also allows you to take your owned assets between different metaverses as opposed to being, say, a walled garden where you've purchased a pair of digital Levi jeans that can only be used in that specific metaverse, or that specific world. This is you take your stuff with you as you move around.
MH: I can just imagine some people thinking, "That's ridiculous. Why would I want virtual goods, pay real money for virtual goods?" But I think that ship long ago sailed. You can just look at Fortnite as a perfect example where people are willing to pay real money for virtual things.
DB: Yeah, really, it's been going on forever, especially if you even think back to the early World of Warcraft days where you would get virtual gold or virtual silver and you'd be able to buy things in game with it and your character would accumulate these, or your account would accumulate these digital assets that suddenly became quite valuable.
MH: Right, we had an entire industry born out of that, of people playing the games and then handing over those characters to other people so they could pick up where they left off.
DB: Yeah, and the interesting part about that concept now is with NFTs and block chain technology, you can actually show someone that you own those things before you do that asset transfer as opposed to five or six years ago, you'd go to transfer an account and you might not be able to prove that it's yours and you've got a scammer taking money from you.
MH: Can we have the metaverse without NFT?
DB: Sure. Sure, they'll be a version of a metaverse, more of a digital world concept, and maybe a walled garden. I think it's really the direction that Facebook is going more in, where once you enter there you're in their world and they control their digital assets internally.
MH: How concerned are you that we're creating these walled gardens in the first place?
DB: Some of them will be walled gardens, or very maybe more closed, but there's going to be a lot of open metaverses where anybody can show up. I think there's even an Open Metaverse Project going on right now where they're trying to build it in 100% open world.
MH: Then how do we avoid the hype about the multiverse blockchain, NFTs, when building a business case for our organization getting involved in the metaverse platform?
DB: Yeah, of course it's a very hyped word right now, metaverse, NFTS, and blockchains, all that right at the forefront of technology talk right now. But at the end of the day, we've got to look past that. Businesses have to look past that and start planning for their future in this space otherwise they're going to get left behind in a branding and marketing and even sales sense.
MH: I wonder if the biggest stumbling block, or the biggest hurdle to metaverse adoption right now, is hardware?
DB: It's definitely one, especially for high resolution metaverses. You're going to need a very good hardware, PC or Mac or headset, and you're going to need a good broadband pipe. For the more pixelated or lower res metaverses, you’ll be able to deliver those down a 3G pipe or better to a much lower grade or lower powered PC.
MH: It sounds to me though, that if you combined metaverse technologies with 5G-Advanced for ultra-low latency communications and high bandwidth along with edge computing, that this is where I slide on a pair of sunglasses that happen to be AR compatible, and now I'm walking through the real world that is metaverse enhanced.
DB: Yeah, that's kind of the rumor for Apple's upcoming headset or glasses, is that they'll be more of an AR experience where you'll be able to wear them and see the space literally around you, but you'll get it enhanced digitally from a metaverse info flow. You'll actually be seeing two different worlds at once.
MH: But that's rumored to be a $3,000 piece of kit. It feels like we're rebuilding the digital divide.
DB: Like every new technology, it starts off quite expensive. Eventually it gets more realistic in price, and maybe newer versions of it come out that are more accessible.
MH: All right, so the cocktail party question, what's your favorite metaverse use case that would get your mom going, "I need in on this."
DB: I'm not sure my mom's a good candidate for this.
MH: No, isn't our mom collectively and generically, the perfect example because once mom gets in on it, then that means that we're all in on it.
DB: Sure, sure. I think that something like virtual cooking classes is a great one where you can actually walk into a kitchen in this metaverse and learn from a virtual Martha Stewart and you're going to be standing over there right beside her and you're going to have real trouble differentiating that from real life. She's going to look at what you're doing and how you're chopping haphazardly and correct you right there, or maybe you're going to learn a whole new recipe by Julia Child or something.
MH: Okay, I only have one last question. It sort of feels like a variation on ‘gif’ versus ‘gif.’ I've been saying ‘mĕ-taverse’. You've been saying ‘mā-taverse’.
DB: Yeah, even in our office people say it both ways.