🌐 1 Minute in the Metaverse 🌐 Window Into the Metaverse
About the guest:
Phil Ranta has spent the last 18 years working at the intersection of social media tech and entertainment. Previously Head of Gaming Creators, North America at Facebook, he’s now the CEO of Wormhole Labs, which is building a live simulation of the real world generated by the power of the crowd and AI.
Let’s start with an introduction. You have a such a rich media background, I’d love to learn about how you did before and how it lead to your current project, Wormwhole.
I’m Phil Ranta. I’m the CEO of Wormhole Labs. We are a technology company that builds user-generated metaverses, so everything from the locations themselves, to the content within them, to the avatars — all are entirely created by the power of the crowd, and then are navigable for people to chat, shop, play, and so on.
Our first market right now is real estate. We’ve got a product for virtual open housing, with the ambitions to disrupt every industry that exists in the real world by providing a metaverse solution.
I’ve spent the last 18 years working at the intersection of social media tech and entertainment, mostly on bleeding edge technologies. So I went through the mobile boom of the early 2000s, with ringtones and wallpapers. Then, the YouTube boom, where I was one of the earliest employees over full screen and then the COO at Studio 71. And then I was early in the game streaming. And now, for the past year and a half I’ve been working on the metaverse and NFTs in blockchain. Who knows, five years from now I might be working in holograms or projections onto the moon (laughs). But for now, I’m very happy to be in web3.
That’s amazing. Witnessing every new disruption as it happens!
Follow the investment. That’s the secret of my career.
With Wormhole Labs, your goal is to produce a “replica of the real world”. Why do we actually need a replica? What’s wrong with the world as is?
In the future, there’s going to be many metaverses for many different things.
Right now, the dominant metaverses are built with DNA that backs into a game: Fortnight, Minecraft, Roblox, Decentraland. It feels like a game, but the play is social a lot of times. What we were trying to solve is: how do you have real world impact in everything that you do in the metaverse? The easiest way to do that is to literally build it on top of the real world. Whether you’re actually there in person and holding up your phone, and seeing AR elements — like a window into the metaverse — so you can get more information on a location. If there’s a party going on down my block, and I want to see if it’s cool or not before I get in my car and go over there. I want to be able to transport my digital identity there; to look around, see social media posts, see live videos, see broadcasts, chat with people that are there and say is this cool? What kind of people are there? Is this gonna suck? Should I take a shower for this?
It’s very valuable and something that we don’t have a solution for yet. So I’m the kind of social B2C front. Our goal is to kill FOMO. A lot of social media increases FOMO. I’m looking on Instagram, and everyone’s got such a cool life and how come I can’t participate?
One cool thing about metaverse technology is that you can have true participation.
You’re just sending an avatar instead of sending yourself because we can’t teleport yet. Eventually when we’re able to teleport maybe Wormhole technology will no longer be relevant, but we’re not there yet.
I want to be able to go to India and check out the location of my hotel before I go there and right now what solutions do we have for that? There’s Google Street View, which has beautiful imagery, but may not be updated. We don’t have any social aspects. Or we can track hashtags on social media, where anyone can put a hashtag on anything. So it can be hard to find exactly what you want.
With Wormhole Labs, we feel like we found this whitespace of being able to create the best parts of the metaverse on top of the best parts of social media, so that one can get real time information and communication based on space and time.
It must be very challenging — technologically — to build something like this. What are the main challenges that you’re confronting while trying to build something this ambitious and innovative?
Yes, it’s incredibly hard. It’s a lot of inventing. So we’ve got a lot of patents around this because we have to be creating things that don’t exist all of the time. The main technologies we’re using are bleeding-edge AR and LiDAR, as well as all new phone advancements in spatial capture.
However, we also want to be accessible on lower-end smartphones. We want this to be a perk, but not a cost of doing business or a necessity. So, at its most basic form, when you’re capturing an environment, it’s just using location based services on your phone. And just using cylindrical imagery, so that you can create an environment if you want, without having to have the newest iPhone or the best Google phone right.
Then we also use a fair amount of cloud anchoring and partnerships with avatar companies, APIs for social media or firms, a lot of existing chat and messaging technology.
Our goal is to invent what doesn’t exist, and then partner with what does.
We’re not here to build commoditized technologies. We want to move very fast, especially since as of July last year — when Mark Zuckerberg said the metaverse is the future — suddenly everybody’s running towards an area where we’ve been running for three years. Our goal is to continue making the experience as elegant and simple as possible.
You must also need tons of real-life data to make it all happen.
If we have 10 million people who are all walking around as avatars, creating live broadcasts and videos, and chatting with each other — it’s an incredible amount of data transfer.
A lot of it is about using ML and AI in order to surface the most relevant information. So that everybody’s phones aren’t being blasted with 10 million avatars that have to load every time. Let’s say you’re at Coachella, using Wormhole, and there’s also 10,000 people attending the festival. We’re not going to show you all 10k avatars or video feeds. Our goal is to show you the most relevant ones and then give you the option to be able to surf around to the others. That’s where we use more traditional social media like shelves and the ability to surface by friends, so that you’re not just inundated with information.
As a founder of a project like Wormhole, would you say you’re extending the already existing metaverse, or piloting some new use cases to show that it should be a thing?
This is a wonderful, operative question. Whenever people are buzzing about the metaverse, I always ask: “Great, what metaverses are you in an hour, two, three a day?” And the answer, if they have one, is always a video game.
Then I ask: “Are you using it for social navigation and meeting people in the metaverse-style way? Or are you building and shooting?” For most people it’s “building and shooting”.
When we say the metaverse is not there, what we mean is — it hasn’t hit the tipping point yet.
My mom’s not on it. And it’s not like kids aren’t considered cool unless they’re in the metaverse, like it is with Instagram or TikTok.
But what has been laid down is a wonderful foundation for a lot of more niche communities, which we see already in Decentraland and The Sandbox. The homes for web3 NFT enthusiast, crypto enthusiast. It still feels like a game but you can display your NFTs and you can build cool stuff and you can buy land. It feels like the basis of a really interesting community. Likewise, there’s tons of kids that are going into Roblox and Minecraft to socialize.
I would never say the metaverse doesn’t exist to them because they are very much going into a metaverse for “metaverse reasons” when they come back from school.
However, is it really useful? Is it a must-have? Is it something people are going out and buying hardware devices to optimize their metaverse experience? Not really, not yet.
But I’ve never been afraid to go too early into a market. For all of the successes I’ve had in markets. I’ve had a long list of failures by being too early. But what I can always say proudly is I’ve never been too late to a market. So, if for example, I’m here and I’m learning and I’m inventing around the metaverse, but the world just isn’t ready for it yet. It’ll be here when the world is.
Let’s zoom into the community aspect of the metaverse. From what you said, it seems like you think that social media as we know it is not working. If you were to speculate on how the metaverse would impact the social fabric of society, what would you say?
The number one thing that I would love to get rid off is the dominance of feeds. If you look at all these problems we have, from kids getting depressed by going onto their social platforms, because they’re just unable to break through the algorithm and get likes, all the way to how we are killing democracies by surfacing the most unworthy content, because it’s more clickable — it’s all algorithms and feeds that are doing that.
Isn’t there a way to have a more human-like, a more empathic way of using social media?
To me, that’s the same social dynamics that instinctually we want. We want to go places, we want to meet people there, find communities that are around the same affinity groups as us. I don’t think that we actually want greater and greater connectivity, I think we want more and more specific connectivity.
And the way you get more specific and your connectivity is by making the ground rules like: “I’m going and I’m seeking and I make it easy to seek what I need”, rather than “I’m being hit with all the content in the world” and let ML figure out exactly who I am and what I need. Because they’re going to miss nuance.
What I want is for somebody to look somebody’s avatar in the face — like the digital version of looking somebody in the face — and then try to have a toxic conversation with them. That is going to be much harder, right? It’s easy to do in feeds. Because it’s parasocial. I’m throwing mud, and if they throw mud back — it’s asynchronous.
With avatars, it feels more like a phone call, or a 1–1 chat. It’s gonna be way harder to have that level of toxicity. What I want to build in this revolution is the ability for users to be more empathic to people of other cultures and other languages.
Because instead of being afraid of other cultures, they can literally tap down into that location, and have a conversation with somebody who’s in a different country than them or from a different life experience with them.
I want to see people before they go to experience a thing, or be afraid to experience the thing to be able to tap down and feel like from the ground level, they understand what that thing is, right? I think a lot of people are missing a lot of experiences out of fear of experiences. And if they were able to feel like they were experiencing it in some little way that will hopefully encourage them to go out and live a life in the real world instead of just leaning more and more into a digital or artificial world.
When you talk about avatars being helpful in increasing empathy, do you think they necessarily have to be embodied in a VR environment — what is that famous feeling of “presence” — for the impact to actually be felt?
I struggle with the concept that everyone’s going to run home from work and put on a VR headset, and that’s going to be their social life.
I love my Oculus quest, I used to work at Facebook and love the Oculus team. But, I feel nauseous after 15 minutes after using a VR headset. I don’t know if that’s ever going to be solved. If I’m moving too fast, or especially if I’m going up a ladder, immediately my stomach turns.
I don’t know if you need to be fully encompassed inside of a world in order to feel that presence. I think there’s lighter touch ways to feel presence. Right now, I think it’s mobile-first, on the road to being AR-first, with some sort of wearable device or something that can occupy some part of your vision that can layer a digital world on top of the real world. Or make it very easy to jump in and out of a fully immersive digital world, through some sort of screen projection on glasses or something where I can jump in and out of it very easily. So I don’t feel nauseous and I don’t feel separated from the world, I don’t feel like I’m going to step on my kids because I’m doing this while walking around in my home.
I think that that’s ultimately a good thing. Because I really do fear a matrix type world where we’re plugged into an artificial reality. I don’t think it’s healthy for the body, I don’t think it’s healthy for the mind.
And already, I feel like, you know, there’s a lot of issues that come with feeling like people are too immersed in doing things that aren’t real, because as soon as they’re thrown back into reality, whether it be drugs, or gambling or addiction to social media, or addiction to porn, or addiction to any of these things, that are taking them away from their real lives, it always has bad consequences.
I want people to want to be in the real world. Because you need to be healthy, you need to move your body, you need to, like you need to hug someone. I feel like this is something that’s so deeply instinctual inside of us that I want to imagine an AR future more than a VR future when it comes to media consumption, which is hours and hours a day. And I don’t think there’s putting that genie back in the bottle anytime soon.
As these new social dynamics and platforms emerge, how will that affect the creator economy, and the relationships between creators and their social media communities?
With every new technology, new creators become dominant.
With a few exceptions, like Mr. Beast, who’s just an algorithm crusher — he’s gonna figure it out whether he’s on LinkedIn or YouTube, because he just has that mindset.
The good thing about it is a lot of really new creators, especially in the art space, who are not great at talking on camera, but are just creating beautiful things: architects, CAD designers, digital designers like Beeple. These people are finally getting paid what they deserve. It used to be that, if you didn’t have a paintbrush, and instead you had Photoshop, you were gonna make 2% as much if you were equally as famous. And now that’s changing, and I love it.
It’s finally going to be the time of the true tech nerd creators. Developers as creators. Developers are wizards of the modern day.
And finally, they’re gonna get their due in terms of creating cool stuff in a decentralized way and getting a lot of people brought in.
The bad part about it is a lot of these creators are realizing very quickly that their time might be up, or that the attention of their audience is moving elsewhere. They’re gonna have to learn a lot of new stuff in order to hold on to that. But I think that it’s great in terms of the ones that are building true communities, because
web3 and metaverse have a lot of really big advantages to building really great communities. The people who are actually community-minded are more likely to succeed, while those who are more clickbait will struggle.
This is not something that hit that tipping point where there’s an avalanche, YouTube and Tiktok are still dominant in the creator community. You don’t need to have an NFT collection in order to do well — right now a lot of creators are falling flat on their face doing NFT collections because they’re not learning the game before they do it — but you don’t need to build your own club into Decentraland in order to stay relevant, it’s going to be a bit of a slow roll. This is the time where creators either learn and participate in the creator economy, or they make millions of dollars where they’re at right now. And then they’re like child stars of that boom and become insurance salesmen. We’ve seen that happen time and time again. Both ways are fine. Communities change all the time. You either get on the boat or you don’t.
It’s a difficult balance to strike for a lot of creators. Between staying “authentic” and nurturing the community in the long run, while at the same time adapting to the attention span and clickbait problem.
Oh, certainly. A lot of creators don’t know why they’re famous. And that’s okay. Right. Like, I think that a lot of famous people don’t know why they’re famous, they hit that they won the lottery, and they did the preparation, and they’re famous now. And they’re like, I gotta hold on to this. Right. But I think the easiest thing to say is I love my community. What a lot of them are actually talking about is they’re conflating fans and community. There’s a very big difference between the two though. Communities are self-sustaining: they’re social relationships, not parasocial relationships. They are people who will go and seek you out. It’s not something that’s algorithmically surfaced. Fans are someone who will put your picture up on the wall, they’ll watch your stuff, but they don’t necessarily talk to other fans. They generally have a lot of other fandoms, and might then move on and become fans of something else.
Communities are hard to break. Fans are easy to lose. Creating a true community is hard work. To do it, you must cultivate relationships among your fans — on Twitter, Discord, etc. — not to talk to you, but to talk to each other.
That’s very rare, but in web3 it’s also the single most valuable thing. In order for the metaverse to work, you need people to want to congregate around these little clubhouses. A lot of creators will learn very quickly that they don’t actually have a community, they’ve got fans, and that’s not worth as much.
What would you say is next for the metaverse? Let’s say in the next 5–10 years?
The metaverse is going to be a much slower roll than pundits would have you believe.
I think that gradually people are going to get used to being avatars, communicating as avatars, solving one simple problem at a time through new technologies, and slowly integrating into these communities, so that they can actually learn the game of the metaverse.
How do I move around? How do I chat with people? What do I tap? What are these new hardware devices?
Then slowly, through these education portals through these social portals to the shopping portals, will start to rise this community of the metaverse where instead of people going on to their Facebook or their TikTok or their Twitter feed all day, they will realise that they’re doing something with more presence and ownership and decentralisation and governance, where they’ll feel like they’ll be able to be in god mode on the internet and go wherever they want and be whoever they want to be in really interesting ways.
When you say 5–10 years, I think that’s probably more accurate than when people say we’ll be in the metaverse next year. I don’t believe that’s true. But I do think that smart people are going to solve one simple problem at a time, like any of these technological advances, until you look back and say: “Wow, 10 years ago, we were staring at feeds and now suddenly, I’m putting on these glasses and I’m able to see all this information in more and more relevant way.” It happens slowly, but then you’ll go: “Oh my gosh, how far we’ve come!”
About the series: 1 Min in the Metaverse is a LinkedIn original that explores the metaverse through the eyes of those building it! Each interview comes with a 1-min sneak peek of key ideas, as well as a full version long read.