By Virginia Valenzuela, Arts Editor
Red pill, blue pill; is this real, or just a dream? Is all that we see as it seems to be, or is reality only something we can feel? With so many new virtual environments on the horizon, the possibilities to create new communities, new connections, new experiences, loom in the spaces between our physical world and the digital one, evoking the same kinds of questions that first went mainstream in 1999. But today’s world is a different one. The internet has evolved, and so have we.
Matt Schapiro is the founder of imnotArt, a hybrid virtual-physical NFT gallery located simultaneously in the Island of Berlin in Cryptovoxels, and in Chicago, USA. The gallery hosts events and exhibitions, and features NFT artworks from around the world. But unlike many other event and art spaces that began in brick and mortar and then migrated online, imnotArt is metaverse-native. They’ve also been fully dedicated to supporting artists and providing a space for people to share work and hang out, which is why they have didn’t take commission on any sales for the first 15 exhibitions that they hosted.
Waking up in the Metaverse
I have never been much of a gamer, and I have barely skimmed the surface of the content being produced in online spaces like Youtube, Instagram, Twitter, or TikTok, but entering the metaverse was a breeze compared to the feeling of being pelted with messages, memes, and inside jokes that you only understood if you had been “plugged in.” There are a handful of simple controls: forward, backward, left, right, jump, and fly. (The last one, I have not yet figured out.)
But the biggest surprise was what I found when I clicked the link to enter Cryptovoxels for the first time. There were buildings with graffiti on the sides, galleries with digital artworks, an open sky, and one or two other people walking around, mostly dancing. It felt welcoming and expansive, like anything and everything was possible.
Schapiro had been exploring the metaverse as early as 2018, but it wasn’t until February of 2021 that he purchased a piece of land and began developing it. He spent some time in Decentraland, but it was when he found Cryptovoxels that the lightbulb went off.
We noticed that there was this amazing community being built within Cryptovoxels, and it wasn’t until I opened up the game that I saw that an artist had created a gallery. I clicked it, and with one link it just transported me to this gallery, and it blew my mind to see what people were able to create. To me it was a realization about the promise of what the metaverse can be.Matt Schapiro
To some people, the metaverse is a scary, amorphous place that only coders and gamers are welcome in. How do I get on? What do I do when I’m there? What even is it? These were some of the worries that I had, that quickly dissolved upon entering the game.
“Cryptovoxels, first, because there is no barrier to entry,” Schapiro told SuperRare. “It’s just one url click, one QR scan, and boom, you wake up in the metaverse, and we thought that was the perfect platform for us, as we are trying to bring people into this space, to have no friction and bring them right in.”
Inside the Island of Berlin
When I first heard Matt Schapiro talk about his experience of buying real estate in the metaverse, I thought, wait, how is that a thing? But just as individuals and companies can buy domains on the internet, they can also purchase land in this developing digital environment. Domains can be as cheap as $40 a year on WordPress, but land in Cryptovoxels has a floor of 1.7 ETH, or roughly $6,120 at the time of this publication.
The real estate prices in Cryptovoxels had kind of excluded or priced out artists who would have otherwise carved out a space for themselves. That’s where we saw an opportunity to build this concept of a community gallery where artists could submit their work, we could curate it, and every week we could do a show. So that’s how we got started in the metaverse and how imnotArt came to be, because at this point we had no vision or plan to open a physical gallery.Matt Schapiro
The Island of Berlin has quickly become one of the prime up-and-coming neighborhoods in the land of Cryptovoxels. Everywhere you look there are artworks to admire and social spaces in which to gather. And yes, there is tons of graffiti. Surrounding imnotArt there is ETH Men, a popular store with comic books and action figure collectables, a night club, and other galleries. “There were a lot of other people who were buying and developing land there at the same time that we were doing it,” Schapiro said, “so we think that Berlin is kind of like the art district, specifically around where we are. ETH Men is a project I’ve been familiar with since it launched back in 2017, one of the early NFT projects, and when I went in there it just blew my mind. It was the most amazing virtual retail experience I’d ever seen. It had a front desk, racks, it was like a real comic book store.”
Or as real as a computer-animated location can be. Cryptovoxels is voxel-based, which comes from the concept of building with squares. Popular comps would be Minecraft or Roblox, where users use blocks and other tools to build out their virtual worlds. This design is part of what makes building and exploring the metaverse a relatively natural experience for anyone who has spent time in digital spaces, whether it be browsing online or playing video games. “I think it’s an incredibly similar experience to games like ‘Second Life’ or even ‘the Sims.’ And even for people that are not natural gamers, I think the creators [of Cryptovoxels] do a great job of allowing people to enter the space because it’s a straightforward experience, and I think it’s going to get a lot more dynamic, a lot more virtual, with VR technology.” Which is something that many of us, native or not, are very much looking forward to.
The Perks of Being Metaverse-Native
NFTs are issued by contracts that exist on the blockchain network and that represent and authenticate a given work. (This application can and will spread to other items and commodities, both in the virtual and physical world.) Many of them are pieces of digital art, sculpture, and other images or visual concepts manipulated by computer programs. By design, they are metaverse native, which is part of why it has been so difficult to express their value to people who are not familiar with blockchain networks, let alone the environments that can be created with them. As Schapiro explained, they are not served best by a two-dimensional layout, such as appearing on a page on a website; rather, they require three- or even four-dimensional thinking.
As we were figuring out how to display NFTs in our virtual gallery, it’s clear that you need to be able to display vertical, horizontal, and square NFTs. And so a lot of what we did in terms of curating virtual exhibitions directly translated into how we built the physical gallery: from the layout to the number of screens to the immersive concept. So yeah, it really directly translated, and I think to your point of what makes us different, there are a lot of places that go from the physical to the metaverse, and I think because we organically started in Discord, and in Cryptovoxels, in the community, I think people see us as community-native, metaverse-native.Matt Schapiro
Teleporting to the Future: the Open World of the Metaverse
The internet evolved and was integrated into our lives relatively slowly as compared to the speed with which blockchain has entered our vernacular. Invented in the 1960s as a way for institutions, namely government organizations and higher education, to share information, it wasn’t until January 1, 1983, that those separate computers were connected to a singular network. The birth of the internet in 1983 did not lead to an immediate boom. In fact, it was over 10 years later when the dot-com bubble took form.
Blockchain, whose foundations were laid by Scott Stornetta and Stuart Haber in the 1990s with their work on time-stamping digital documents through hash functions, came into its own in 2009 with the launch of Satoshi Nakamoto’s Bitcoin ledger. Within 10 years, 5,000 alternative blockchains have been created, many with numerous applications beyond peer-to-peer electronic cash exchange. Smart contracts, dApps, and NFTs are just a few examples of the potential that blockchain technology offers us in this brave new world of decentralized exchange of value and ownership.
And amazingly, even with a relatively small community of people who utilize and, dare I say, understand this emerging technology, blockchain has been able to evolve at a dazzling pace. The obstacle now is welcoming those crypto natives, as well as the wider pool of digital natives, into the metaverse. “The actual player base of these games is incredibly small,” said Matt Schapiro, “and it won’t be until people like us bring new people in that I think it really starts taking it to the next level.”
And what might that next level look like? Imagine an event taking place in your neighborhood. You can get up, get dressed, and mingle in the way you always have, enjoying the entertainment and chatting with your friends, both in person and, let’s be honest, via text. Now imagine that you invite those friends you’ve been texting to that same event with a url, and, because of the metaverse, they can join you virtually, enjoying the same entertainment and the same social experience, even though they live hundreds of miles away. Now imagine that the event hosts start airdropping NFTs into your digital wallet, sharing layer-two, or l2 wearables that you can put on your avatars, and posting QR codes that allow physical patrons to see a webpage on their phones, the same webpage that pops up on the virtual patrons’ computer screens. Maybe you buy a $20 t-shirt from the merch stand, and for an additional $5 you get a dad hat for your virtual self.
“There is a revenue stream that is being totally ignored by the classical markets,” said Schapiro. “It’s the same model that videogames went down where they realized that charging people $50 for a video game is not actually how to make the most money. What we want is the largest player base, and we want to be able to sell cosmetics and in-game digital items.” And the best part is, we’re already halfway there. Show me one person under 40 who hasn’t thought about, or actually purchased, something for a digital pet or avatar. More broadly, show me anyone who hasn’t “bought a song” on iTunes or paid for extra “storage” in their cloud. We already know how to buy things that aren’t tangible. Now is the time to make those purchases meaningful.
I think there are a lot of people that know the metaverse, who know that’s going to be the next big thing. There are a lot of speculators of land in the metaverse, but there’s not a lot of what I’d consider metaverse developers, people who are developing events and communities in the metaverse, and that’s what is so fulfilling on our end, and why we were able to take it to where it is now. We were developing reasons for people to show up to the metaverse. It is clear that it’s not just us who is going to do that, and it’s gonna happen whether imnotArt exists or it doesn’t, but we saw an opportunity in this moment in time to be a catalyst, if you will, to bring people to the metaverse or to at least be a part of that conversation of people who are developing inside of these worlds.Matt Schapiro
With higher attendance and deeper knowledge of these worlds, artists, writers, musicians, and creators of all kinds, will see their works gain visibility, appreciation, and sales. Academics, business leaders, and activists will see alternate streams of value and connection, bringing people of all backgrounds closer together than ever before.
What we’ve seen is that the community of the metaverse is incredibly diverse in terms of race, gender, and sexuality. It’s not like when I was in the space a couple of years ago when it was more male-dominated. I think the metaverse is different. I think the people who are realizing what’s possible, and the people spending a lot of time on it, it’s incredibly balanced, and the makeup of our community is balanced, and I think it’s a sign that we’re beyond the–and I say this with love, and including myself–the blockchain-Ethereum nerds who have been using the technology for the last couple of years. I really feel that it’s expanding out and it’s bringing in a really great audience of people who are seeing ways that they can be a part of these communities, make friends, celebrate their art, and share their NFTs.Matt Schapiro
So yeah, to answer the questions that opened up this discussion, this is as real as anything we’ve seen so far, and it is something that you can feel, just not in the traditional meaning of the word. Connections start with a feeling. Ideas start with a feeling. Success starts with a feeling. So grab that VR headset or that mouse or trackpad, swallow that red pill/blue pill cocktail, and log on. Welcome to the metaverse.