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The metaverse was dying. Some said it was already dead. Then along came Apple.
On Monday, the tech colossus unveiled its Vision Pro headset, a cutting-edge, immersive mixed reality device the company claims will single-handedly usher in a new age of “spatial computing.”
In its exhaustive, meticulously staged, 46 minute roll-out of the device, Apple did not once use the term “metaverse.” It made no reference to the blockchain, nor did it delve into the Vision Pro’s compatibility with tokenized digital assets (NFTs)—an obvious use case for a device designed to bring virtual objects to life. It instead painted the headset as a natural extension of the iPhone or Mac into the third dimension.
Within Web3 circles, though, the signaling was unmistakable. Apple could frame the product release however it saw fit, but the most valuable company in the world was coming to the metaverse.
“It's a virtual reality headset that they're not calling ‘virtual reality,’” Danny Greene, who oversees the Meebits NFT brand at parent company Yuga Labs, told Decrypt. “It’s not so dramatically different from what Meta has been building and talking about—but it's being positioned differently.”
If Apple was following fellow tech giant Meta down the rabbit hole into a future, immersive version of the internet, though, you wouldn’t be able to tell by the reactions this week from metaverse advocates.
When Facebook changed its name to Meta in 2021 and soon after dedicated tens of billions of dollars to metaverse infrastructure, the move was met with vitriol and outright hostility from many decentralization-minded metaverse builders. Web3 creators have long dreamed of developing a virtual utopia in which corporations will be finally forced to relinquish control of user assets and data.
In no uncertain terms, many such builders—“open metaverse” advocates, as they call themselves—saw Meta’s ambitions as an existential threat to their decentralized dreamscape. One Web3 executive, Axie Infinity co-founder Jeff Zirlin, painted the struggle of open metaverse advocates against Meta as a “battle for the future of the internet.”
And yet, this week, many Web3 builders hailed Apple’s announcement as an extremely positive development for the metaverse, one that appears poised to contribute much-needed legitimacy to the very notion of the metaverse as a viable technological reality.
“With this product, Apple is creating a mass adoption bridge to the metaverse,” Brian Evans, who runs Web3 venture studio BDE, told Decrypt. “Web3 could now become a household term as digital assets become that much more accessible.”
Other open metaverse proponents expressed similar enthusiasm.
“This is 100% a good thing,” The Sandbox metaverse game co-founder and COO Sebastien Borget told Decrypt, “for The Sandbox and the open metaverse.”
Yemel Jardi, the Executive Director of Decentraland—another prominent decentralized metaverse gaming platform—echoed that sentiment.
“I'm really bullish on what this means for the industry,” he told Decrypt. “The open metaverse needs to be based on hardware. We want to have better hardware.”
But these are the same platforms that have routinely railed against behemoths like Meta, which would seek to act as gatekeepers of the metaverse experience. The defining quality of an “open” metaverse is that digital assets—virtual dresses or swords or data—can flow freely in and out of them, as NFTs or digital collectibles that live on the blockchain, not any one company’s platform.
The antithesis of that model would be the current status quo for gaming: any assets you buy in Fortnite, for example, can only live within Fortnite. Many have feared that Meta would erect similar, virtual proprietary walls around its metaverse.
Apple has signaled a potential, if not tenuous willingness to allow on-chain assets to flow through apps living on its devices, though the company has made no commitments regarding the guidelines of its yet-to-debut visionOS App Store.
After years of resistance to apps that integrated NFTs, Apple finally formally permitted the trading and purchase of NFTs in iOS applications last fall, with a major caveat: Apple would levy a whopping 30% tax on any such transactions, just as it takes a cut for other types of in-app purchases.
That decision was met with widespread condemnation by the crypto community. Apple’s guidelines currently state that apps may not “use their own mechanisms to unlock… cryptocurrencies and crypto wallets.” Developers working on NFT-based iOS apps have had to effectively abstract away crypto elements and bundle the fees into asset prices.
“Apple had a problem with crypto from day one,” Phillip Shoemaker, Apple’s former App Store director, previously told Decrypt.
If the Vision Pro were to become the dominant means by which people accessed the metaverse, Apple would have ultimate say—through control of the apps featured in its visionOS App Store—on what degree of decentralization was permitted within that novel virtual space.
Any number of factors—a rapidly souring U.S. regulatory climate for crypto, for example—could easily compel Apple’s leadership to expel on-chain assets from the visionOS App Store. And there would be no way for Web3 builders to fight back. Not on the Vision Pro, at least.
Some Web3 metaverse builders, like Justin Mellilo, are navigating such potential issues by ensuring that their metaverse platforms are never Apple-exclusive.
Mellilo is the co-founder and CEO of Monaverse, a decentralized metaverse platform and social media network. While he’s excited about Apple’s announcement and plans to bring Monaverse to the Vision Pro, he’s also cautious about making his startup dependent on Apple.
When it comes to technology, Apple is the trendsetter
This is more than just a product, it is the start of a new culture.
Mass adoption for Web3 is around the corner.
— Dimitri (@DimitriDotEth) June 5, 2023
“We're definitely looking forward to continuing to remain web-accessible,” Mellilo told Decrypt. “And I think that's really, really important for decentralization.”
But what if Apple is right? What if this week really was the dawn of the spatial computing age?
What if in just a few short years, accessing a metaverse on a flat screen is as absurd and clunky a premise as ordering an Uber on your desktop computer? What if being the only person in your friend group without a Vision Pro becomes as cumbersome and annoying as being the only texter in a chat without iMessage?
Therein lies the ugly double-edged sword of Apple’s sensational splash into metaverse waters. Many Web3 creators, coming off a dismal year of widespread metaverse disillusionment, appear to be counting on the Vision Pro to reinvigorate excitement in an immersive internet.
But the more that excitement settles around Apple, the more “spatial computing” becomes synonymous with “Vision Pro,” just as “smartphone” got eaten by “iPhone,” the more unfettered power Apple will have to decide exactly how decentralized it wants this future version of the internet to be.
Some open metaverse advocates, like The Sandbox’s Borget, believe the Vision Pro will be so indebted to Web3 apps and blockchain-backed experiences that Apple will have no choice but to embrace the technology.
“The more [Web3 use cases] there are, the more Apple will be forced to recognize the importance of true digital ownership of their assets by their users along the way,” he said.
Apple's Vision Pro headset is a game changer for creativity and social connections in the metaverse. 👀
With virtual Avatars seamlessly bridging digital and physical realms, interactions can extend beyond channels like the metaverse, social media and gaming platforms.… pic.twitter.com/y3WB4ZU2bW
— The Sandbox (@TheSandboxGame) June 6, 2023
Borget’s thoughts appear well-represented in crypto circles, if initial reactions to the Vision Pro are any indication. We may need you, Apple, but you need us. The sentiment is certainly a shift from the idealistic rhetoric of the early Web3 movement—which at its core dreamed of loosening the grip of centralized Web2 tech titans on market shares and user data by creating a constellation of new products and projects controlled by users themselves.
That future hasn’t quite panned out yet—not, at least, on a mass scale. Maybe to get to that future, some concessions may have to be made to the behemoths. Maybe you need a Vision Pro to get the public to the metaverse. And who could have made the Vision Pro but Apple?
“What is so powerful about crypto and blockchain is the idea that it's trustless, that there doesn't have to be an intermediary,” Meebits’ Greene said. “But when you're using headsets created by a centralized company that’s invested 10 years of research and hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars, there's going to be some sort of give and take.”
Maybe the Web2 giants won’t be crushed by the Web3 revolution. Maybe they’re along for the ride, at least for now. But Web3’s key advantage over Web2 was always being there first. “We’re so early,” the reassuring crypto slogan goes.
It’s not early any longer. A $2.8 trillion company is knocking on the door. And once you let it in, whose house is it really?