After two years of lockdown and travel restrictions, we were finally able to attend South by Southwest (SXSW) in Austin, Texas again. The world has changed over the past couple years—especially when it comes to tech. At the last SXSW, virtual reality was on everybody’s mind. This year. all eyes were on the metaverse and Web3.
Web3 and blockchain: A decentralized network
If you’ve been following tech news lately, you’ve probably heard about the buzz surrounding Web3. In its earliest days, the internet was home to websites created by individual users. Soon, companies, schools and other institutions joined in the fun, setting up their own websites. After that early phase came Web 2.0, which was driven by the philosophy that user-generated content should take center stage. Now, anyone can publish their thoughts online, even if they don’t know how to write code. It sounds like a noble idea, and Web 2.0 has certainly contributed to the democratization of the Internet. But we’re also starting to see the downsides. Big powerful tech companies like Google and Facebook now dominate the web.
Web3 promises to make that different. It leverages blockchain technology to set up a decentralized network. And that network doesn’t belong to the big tech companies. It belongs to all of us. It won’t fully replace Web 2.0, but it does open up some new possibilities.
Who owns the metaverse?
Another hype that’s at least as big as Web3 this year is the metaverse. Sometimes the two terms even get mixed up with one another, but they’re actually two different concepts which are—at most—indirectly related. The metaverse consists of virtual worlds, in which users become part of a digital experience. Virtual reality, that old buzzword from a couple years ago, is an important part of this. What the user experiences is actually being inside a virtual world. It’s an idea that’s been around for a while. But technology has now evolved to such a point that we’re getting closer and closer to bringing these kinds of experiences to life.
So, what exactly does the metaverse look like? Well, it depends on who you ask. And Facebook has certainly only added to the confusion by deciding to rename its parent company Meta. It seems that Mark Zuckerberg wanted to stake his claim to the metaverse. And during a digital interview with Daymond John from Shark Tank, he even shared his thoughts on the matter. Even though the conversation seemed a bit rehearsed, Zuckerberg did speak freely about the technology. The way he sees it, things are moving in the right direction, but universal technology isn’t quite there yet. The same goes for equipment like headsets.
A different metaverse
During SXSW, we also heard some dissenting opinions on the metaverse. Raggie Fils-Aimé, until recently Head of Sales at Nintendo, said he was a big believer in the metaverse, but thinks it will serve only one purpose: gaming. He also said he doesn’t expect Facebook to lead the way when it comes to developing the new technologies that the metaverse requires. “Facebook itself is not an innovative company,” he noted with a laugh during an interview at SXSW. Facebook is building its metaverse primarily by taking over other companies or expanding on existing ideas.
We also heard some critique of Meta’s vision from Scott Galloway, entrepreneur and professor of marketing at the New York University Stern School of Business. In his view, the future of the metaverse will depend a lot more on innovative audio technology than on visual technologies. A company like Apple, says Galloway, is uniquely positioned to help build a metaverse. Their AirPods, for example, have a lot more potential than VR headsets. In the end, Galloway says he sees a future that looks quite like the movie Her with Joaquin Phoenix: a world in which audio is what brings artificial intelligence to life. In that sound-driven metaverse, we can access information, place orders and create personalized experiences. If you’re worried that this AI will make human beings redundant in many ways, well... that should come as no surprise. After all, Google already proved that to us back in 2018 with its demo of Duplex, a virtual assistant that can book a hair appointment for you without anyone even suspecting that they’re not speaking to a real human.
NFT's for the masses?
The rise of blockchain has also accelerated the boom in digital art. The blockchain is a decentralized system that gives value to digital objects. You’ve probably heard about it in relation to cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Ether. But now the blockchain has produced a new object of value: the non-fungible token (NFT). These are proofs of authenticity, which make it profitable to trade in digital goods. Many clever digital artists have already started to cash in.
During this year’s SXSW, Mark Zuckerberg made news when he announced Instagram will start supporting and selling NFTs. It might be the first step towards NFTs going mainstream. Until now, the market has been too complicated to be accessible to people without a tech background.
NFTs could very well be the next big thing for Meta, which has already started focusing on shopping in recent years with Instagram.
Real or not?
NFTs are a welcome development in the art world, which has long been interested in new techniques that protect ownership rights to digital artworks. At the moment, anyone can create an NFT. This makes it difficult to find out if it’s authentic or whether the artwork has been stolen. Adobe is now working on its Verify platform. This will contain extensive metadata for digital artworks and can also operate on the blockchain. Programs like Photoshop and Illustrator, as well as camera apps, store the original artist’s metadata. This data contains a detailed history of the artwork. In photography, for example, the metadata records who shot the photo, which settings they used, and where was the photo taken. If the artist edits the photo in Photoshop or Illustrator, each step of that process is recorded in the metadata too. That entire history is merged with verification from various social platforms and the entire record is publicly available for anyone to view. After all, it’s easier to prove when an artwork is authentic than to prove that it’s fake or stolen.
Showing off luxury NFTs
Professor Scott Galloway predicts that major luxury brands will soon be storming the market for NFTs and cryptocurrencies. Brands like Chanel or Gucci may start creating their own tokens in limited numbers or with limited availability. Each owner of these tokens will be entitled to special benefits, like access to the brand’s luxury products, both physical and digital. Now, in addition to a high-end Gucci bag, you might also receive an exclusive NFT version that you can show off in one or more metaverse environments. The scarcity and exclusivity of the token will drive its value even higher. Technologies like this could make luxury brands the most valuable companies in the world, says Galloway.
inclusivity and accessibility
With so many slick new technological breakthroughs taking the spotlight, it’s important to not overlook some other trends that are making a comeback. Inclusive design was once again in focus this year, partly because of changes in legislation. An EU law requires that all digital platforms of government agencies become fully inclusive by 2025. This means that the platforms must be usable by everyone with or without disabilities.
Many platforms have already become more inclusive, but there’s still plenty of room for improvement. One trend is for tech companies to partner with nonprofit organizations that support various groups of people living with disabilities. It’s also important to point out that inclusive means much more than just accessibility. It also means designing for people of different cultures or backgrounds. And many tech companies are starting to realize that truly inclusive design starts with hiring a diverse team of developers.
SXSW was action-packed this year. We got to see lots of new technology, in-depth discussions about how we should use those technologies, as well as many opinions (mostly critical) about what the future may look like. The biggest takeaway for us is how important it is that we do not lose track of the human values when putting these technologies to use. Technology alone will not determine the way the future unfolds. Developers play a big part in that too. In the end, technology needs to stay focused on improving humankind.