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Metaverse graphics aim for community and accessibility — Not realism

source-logo  cointelegraph.com 22 September 2022 13:28, UTC

Some may argue that the Metaverse has been around for years, as demonstrated by early gaming platforms, yet virtual ecosystems are now being embraced by almost every industry. A recent report from consulting firm McKinsey & Company believes that the Metaverse has the potential to generate at least $5 billion in value by 2030. McKinsey also found that investments exceeding $120 billion have been put toward Metaverse platforms this year, indicating that major growth is underway.

While notable, there is still the perception that most metaverse platforms are lacking when it comes to graphic quality. For example, Mark Zuckerberg was recently criticized for posting a selfie in front of the Eiffel Tower within Meta. Although Meta has already invested over $10 billion into building its metaverse, some have pointed out that Meta’s current graphics are lower quality than images that appeared in Second Life in 2007.

Second Life 2007. Metaverse 2022. pic.twitter.com/2JByEzk5eL

— Andres Guadamuz (@technollama) August 17, 2022

Metaverse graphics are aesthetic choices 

Although the mainstream has been quick to criticize graphics associated with various metaverses, industry experts note that image quality is intentional. A spokesperson for Linden Lab — the firm behind Second Life — told Cointelegraph that the content design and aesthetic choices that other metaverses make are usually stylistic:

“For instance, the blocky appearance of some Metaverses builds upon the modeling techniques first seen in Minecraft. This was a deliberate choice to not appear realistic.”

Echoing this, Yat Siu, co-founder and chairman of Animoca Brands, told Cointelegraph that graphical representations depend on the brand and the imagery of the Metaverse in question. “If you look at the visuals of Phantom Galaxies or Life Beyond you can see that the quality is both high, and that fashion can be experienced in a manner that is visually closer to what one might expect in reality.”

With this in mind, Linden Lab’s spokesperson mentioned that one key difference between Second Life and other metaverse platforms is its community’s focus on realism. “While there are 20 years of archived Second Life images scattered across the internet, you will see incredible quality our creators are delivering today — way beyond that of even newer virtual worlds or metaverses.”

Image of Le Jardin Des Tuileries in Second Life, uploaded in Sept. 2022. Source: Linden Lab

But, while realistic images may appeal to certain metaverse communities, other platforms are taking different approaches. For example, The Sandbox — dubbed as one of the most popular blockchain-based Metaverses — intentionally has boxy graphics.

Sebastien Borget, co-founder and chief operating officer of The Sandbox, told Cointelegraph that the platform chose voxels as the building blocks for its metaverse due to ease of use:

“Voxels are like ‘digital legos’ that require no user manual. Hundreds of millions of people already know how to work with voxel graphics (thanks to Minecraft) and this opens The Sandbox to a massive community worldwide.” 

To Borget’s point, Siu noted that the boxy, voxelized images in The Sandbox are not a visual limitation, as it is a style that allows for communal design. “People don't consider Lego as ‘lo-fi.’ 8-bit style or retro pixel art is another example of something that is trendy and fashionable because of what it represents,” he remarked.

Borget added that the graphics enable accessibility for creators of all ages and backgrounds, which is critical since he believes the Metaverse will largely consist of user-generated content moving forward.

To put this in perspective, Loretta Chen, co-founder of Smobler Studios — a Singapore-based multimedia design agency — told Cointelegraph that she recently partnered with The Sandbox to create a wedding reception in its Metaverse.

According to Chen, Smobler Studios used VoxEdit and Game Maker to build the wedding venue, which are two free software applications that can be downloaded from The Sandbox website. In addition to being accessible, Chen noted that she was pleased with the imaginary aspects provided by The Sandbox’s graphics. “We took creative liberty in some aspects. We would be remiss if we aimed to recreate an identical replica of assets with no imagination or element of fun.”

Image from the wedding reception recently hosted in The Sandbox. Source: Smobler Studios

However, some industry experts believe that high-quality images are crucial for ensuring engaging metaverse experiences. Jacob Loewenstein, head of growth at Spatial — a metaverse platform focused on augmented and virtual reality — told Cointelegraph that Spatial prioritizes high-quality graphics for a number of reasons:

“First, they help the user feel more immersed. Secondly, they help the user express themselves more fully. Finally, users that participate in the Metaverse’s economy expect virtual goods with premium graphical fidelity.”

Given Spatial’s focus on quality, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the firm is partnering with major fashion outlets, like Vogue Singapore, to bring metaverses to the mainstream. Graphic quality is also becoming crucial as the McKinsey report notes that 79% of consumers active on the Metaverse have already made purchases. 

At the same time, it’s important to recognize that user-generated content becomes more difficult to achieve on Metaverses focused on realism. For example, Ready Player Me is also working with Vogue Singapore to ensure that users can interact with realistic avatars.

Unlike voxelized images that may be easy to create with, Rainer Selvet, co-founder and chief technology officer at Ready Player Me, told Cointelegraph that Ready Player Me renders graphics in its avatar editor through the ThreeJS JavaScript 3D library.

Additionally, various cosmetics associated with the avatars are authored by 3D artists that include physically based rendering materials, which define how different assets should physically look in a game engine. Although this process is complex, Selvet shared that Ready Player Me will be open-sourcing its graphics library visage in the coming months to make creating easier for developers.

Avatars created by Ready Player Me. Source: Ready Player Me

Metaverse images will improve, but community remains key

Even though the quality of graphics is based on choices by metaverse platforms, improvements are being made as Web3 advances. For instance, Borget noted that The Sandbox is spending a majority of its resources on research and development to ensure the next phases of user experience. He said:

“Avatar expressions and emotions will make The Sandbox even more immersive and fun for users. And if you look at how The Sandbox looked two years ago, users will already be excited to see how it is different today, and how it may evolve in the next two years.”

Image of how The Sandbox appeared in 2018. Source: The Sandbox

While innovation is clear, technical limitations will likely slow development. For example, Selvet pointed out that software and hardware challenges remain, stating, “Many of today’s metaverse applications are predominantly browser-based, yet users want access to be frictionless.” 

As such, Selvet noted that the need for metaverse accessibility on devices other than gaming PCs is increasing. Loewenstein added that Spatial is particularly focused on bringing the Metaverse to both web and mobile, yet he noted that compute constraints have been problematic.

Fortunately, developments are underway. Loewenstein said, “Firstly, new processors are increasingly powerful, while being light and power efficient. Secondly, new APIs like WebGPU will, in the next 24 months, enable users to access the true power of their GPUs in web metaverse experiences. Thirdly, cloud rendering is becoming more available at a lower cost, while high bandwidth internet (such as 5G) similarly proliferates.”

Image of how The Sandbox currently appears. Source: The Sandbox

All things considered, metaverse development currently seems to be focused more on community building rather than imagery. “I believe we need to move past the expectation of a photorealistic meta-human Metaverse and look at what drives human interaction,” remarked Borget. In order to do so, Borget explained that metaverses should focus on ease of use:

“If we build a world that requires high end technology and skills to build and run, we’ll be leaving out most of the world’s population. However, if we instead focus on making creation and play highly accessible and engaging, we can make the metaverse a new, more level playing field.”