Web 1.0 was mainly text and search engines. Web 2.0 introduced social networks and multimedia consumption. Now we are witnessing the rise of Web 3.0. How does it affect our real-life experiences?
Integral to the Web 3.0 ethos is the idea of metaverses — immersive digital worlds reflecting our daily routine or even introducing novel experiences. Imagine yourself picking an NFT outfit and teleporting to your friend’s virtual property to fight side by side in a multiplayer battle — just like in Ready Player One or joining your colleagues for a work meeting. Or dining with your family living far away. But none of these scenarios will be possible if we don’t reach metaverse interoperability.
Metaverse interoperability — what is it?
A common misperception is that the metaverse is an entirely new concept. In reality, this is the next step in the evolution of the internet we use now, offering virtual reality or augmented reality extensions of 2D content to achieve a more authentic user experience. And just as there are myriad websites, there will be many worlds in the metaverse, developed for different kinds of infrastructure — programming languages, game engines, hardware like VR headsets, or blockchains to facilitate payment and ownership.
This blockchain implementation is arguably the main difference between the metaverse and today’s ecosystems like Roblox or Warcraft. The metaverse must provide sufficient economic incentives for creators and developers to come up with new content and for users to buy it. Blockchain is an ideal solution — an immutable and transparent ownership system via non-fungible tokens (NFT), rewards in the form of royalties and native tokens, smart contracts to keep the economy running, and many other use cases. Even your digital identity in the form of an avatar can be verified and secured via blockchain.
But what are the benefits of decentralization if virtual worlds are to remain walled gardens? As Scott Galloway from New York University phrased it, why buy clothes if you can’t wear them out of the store? Interoperability is a crucial characteristic for the metaverse, and here is how we can achieve it:
A single wallet to store and operate native tokens and other digital assets. Avatars, gaming collectibles, land ownership claims, governance rights — everything must be able to be transferred seamlessly from one world to another. In the MetaFi economy, such operations should go painlessly. Interoperability of the avatars. Just as a real-world passport allows you to travel between countries, NFT or other forms of Web3.0 identity verification will let users retain their persona while switching between virtual spaces.API and data interoperability. Different worlds utilize various infrastructure, like application programming interfaces and developer kits, and they must share access in order to facilitate technical connection and effective data analytics. Ideally, data can be stored on shared cloud centers, which would be the next level of metaverse interoperability. Universal smart contracts. Rights and obligations must be honored regardless of the world in which the user resides. Besides, simultaneous use of smart contracts from different worlds may allow for building functionally innovative decentralized apps.
How to implement metaverse interoperability?
While it’s relatively easy to achieve software connectivity — after all, we’ve been in Web 2.0 for some time — cross-chain operations are much trickier. Different blockchains, such as Bitcoin and Ethereum, use different protocols, meaning that data transmission between them is impossible. However, the bridges — algorithms that adjust data to the standards of another blockchain, solve this problem.
Take the example of wrapped tokens. An algorithm (or a custodial entity) receives your BTC using its Bitcoin wallet, then mints the same amount of wrapped Bitcoin (wBTC) on the Ethereum blockchain. The price of wBTC is pegged to the cost of “real” Bitcoin: once you want to convert back, wBTC is burned, and the deposited BTC is released to your Bitcoin wallet. Effectively, you get an opportunity to invest your Bitcoin in decentralized finance algorithms on Ethereum. These bridges can connect sovereign blockchains, mainchain to sidechain (Ethereum and its decentralized apps), or even different standards (ERC-20 and ERC-721 NFTs).
Current risks for the users
Still, bridges today are very far from perfection. Firstly, they expose users to the custody risk — a risk that an obligation wouldn’t be honored, and you will be unable to withdraw the funds. Secondly, even trustworthy bridges may face a lack of liquidity or create excessive centralization — something Vitalik Buterin is wary of. Finally, even decentralized and algorithmic solutions can fall prey to hacker attacks. Recently, over US$1 billion was collectively lost to attacks on Solana’s Wormhole, Axie Infinity’s Ronin and Nomad alone.
Other areas of concern that deter interoperability are privacy and legislation. For instance, if two or more connected worlds reside in different jurisdictions, what is the exact set of know-your-customer and personal data rules to apply? Or what is the audit process for a new virtual world that wants to join the metaverse?
Of course, these teething problems and concerns are not unusual for a burgeoning novel industry. Nevertheless, until they are ironed out and regulations become universal, this state of affairs will slow the sector down.
Metaverse interoperability is an integral step of its development. It will greatly enhance the user’s experience and significantly spur corporate investment into the ecosystem. However, the current state of affairs in both technology and legislation implies that interoperability is still far from being achieved.