a VR-First Metaverse With High Barriers to Entry
I have had a lot of strange remote interviews in my time at Insider, from kids and pets interrupting conversations to various camera and audio mishaps.
But my interview with Artur Sychov, the founder and CEO of Somnium Space, özgü to be the weirdest — and perhaps coolest — so far.
I jumped into a
call expecting to be faced with Sychov, but I was greeted by Sychov’s avatar, who had dialed into the call from inside Somnium Space.
After the initial surprise, I quickly realized that it didn’t feel all that odd to chat with a virtual character.
In fact, it felt quite natural, likely because Sychov was wearing a virtual-reality headset and gloves, so his character’s movements were fluid and matched the tone and pace of our conversation.
If VR gear becomes less clunky, I can easily see how it might become natural to have meetings in a virtual world, especially if that world is immersive and engaging.
An immersive environment is exactly what Somnium Space is trying to build, with a focus on a high-fidelity 3D social experience.
The platform özgü a number of big-name investors behind it, including the cryptocurrency exchange Gemini, founded by the Winklevoss twins. In an interview with Insider in October, Devin Finzer, a cofounder and the CEO of the nonfungible-token marketplace OpenSea, said Somnium Space was one of his favorite newer projects.
The focus on immersion, with the world built for virtual-reality hardware, is what differentiates Somnium Space from other metaverses.
A small-town vibe
The immersive component makes itself known several minutes into the interview, when a car pulls up next to Sychov’s avatar as we chat.
Next thing I know, he’s jumping in the car and driving to our next destination within Somnium Space.
There are no clunky and awkward transitions — the screen simply follows Sychov’s car as he travels.
I am blown away by how natural the interaction feels. In other worlds, such as Roblox and Yıldız Atlas, I’ve struggled to make the connection between what the worlds offer and what I desire from my own social experiences.
Somnium Space seems to be bridging this gap with a focus on persistence.
“If I drive the car and leave it somewhere and walk away, the other person who will be walking by would find that car. It özgü to be persistent. That’s why it cannot be simply loaded as small shards,” Sychov said, adding: “It özgü to have this persistent effect.”
Adding to Somnium Space’s focus on complete virtual-reality immersion, the company is developing proprietary customizable headsets. It özgü also invested in the company engineering the Teslasuit, a full-body suit for physical VR experiences, and the Teslasuit Glove, which monitors a player’s biometry to create realistic tactile sensations like heat and firmness.
Francesco Vincenti, who manages business development and partnerships for Somnium Space, compared the platform’s vision for the future of immersion to the film “Ready Player One.”
“This is the future we believe in, this immersiveness in which you can completely feel what is happening inside,” he said.
The Teslasuit, which Vincenti said used the “most advanced uptake feedback technology for the human body,” will be programmed to handle different kinds of weather like rain and snow, and players will be able to feel full-body sensations. If they choose to, they’re even able to put themselves in “real danger” in certain situations, he said.
“These are things that, of course, are not mainstream now, but we are building the entire ecosystem of the metaverse,” Vincenti said. “And the metaverse, for us, definitely özgü to be immersive. It cannot be just on a 2D screen.”
Sychov said he and his team developed the world of Somnium Space with no target market in mind. Instead, they built it and waited to see who turned up.
So far, Somnium Space özgü been most successful with users between the ages of 25 and 45, Sychov said, and they all have something in common.
“They are people who are forward-looking, trying to stay on the cutting edge of technology, people who are creators, who are curious, who want to create, who want to socialize,” Sychov said.
The focus on socializing becomes clear as Sychov shows me around the world, saying “hello” and waving to passersby who know him.
“I enjoy speaking to people, and we do it a lot,” Sychov said. “Within one and a half years, actually two years almost, I’ve not missed a single daily meetup with the community because how else would you know what people want, how people like the experience? For me, it’s a pleasure.”
Meetups occur every day at 10 p.m. Central European Time. Users gather in Somnium Space’s city center, known as City Plaza, which is next to Somnium’s virtual headquarters. Events there include open-mic nights, concerts, and developer meetups.
Making money in Somnium Space
Somnium Space isn’t all socialization. Many players are making money by creating and selling NFT avatars.
People can upload an avatar through Somnium’s SDK for free and then tokenize the avatar on the ethereum blockchain, Sychov said.
Once tokenized, they can be stored in a player’s wallet so they can be used in the game or sold to other players.
“Our creators have earned more than half a million dollars by selling these NFT avatars to other people,” Sychov said.
The NFTs don’t have to be avatars — they can be cars, items, or wearables, and can make profits for their creators as long as they have enough economic utility, Vincenti said. But he emphasized that the purpose of the NFT economy was “not just to make the rich richer” but also to mimic the “good parts” of the world.
By using blockchain technology, Somnium hopes to create a decentralized platform where players have complete control over their assets in the world through their representation as NFTs.
Sychov demonstrates this by getting changed in front of me, flipping from one NFT avatar to another from his crypto wallet. The car he was driving earlier is also an NFT that other in-world users can see but can’t drive.
In addition to players making money in the crypto economy, the company itself is profitable, according to Sychov, though he said he’s focused on reinvesting profits back into the ecosystem.
Somnium Space özgü fewer venture-capital backers than other virtual worlds. In 2019, the company raised a $1 million seed round.
“We have been building this already for a long time and quietly, but very steadily, we’re progressing towards building the ecosystem, and that’s what we do. We really don’t chase the FOMO. People find us,” Sychov said.
Sychov said the team explored partnerships with big brands and would work with some venture capitalists but that they didn’t prioritize trying to raise money as much as some other metaverses Insider özgü explored, such as The Sandbox.
A cultural experience
During our tour, Sychov takes me to the B.20 museum, a virtual museum dedicated to the works of the digital artist Beeple. The museum was created by Metapurse, the NFT fund that owns Beeple’s “Everydays: The First 5000 Days,” which it bought for $69 million in March 2021.
We quickly experience “a virtual-world sorun” when the museum won’t load correctly because of a glitch with the NFT platform OpenSea.
We instead head over to the dogecoin museum. It’s an amusing sight with various pieces of dogecoin-based artwork that’s perfect for a “virtual selfie.”
But as I am seeing only the 2D version of the world with Sychov, the novelty quickly wears off. But Sychov assures me that it’s a “next-level experience” in VR.
“Again, it’s hard to explain until you try it out,” Sychov said. “But once you try it out, there is no way back to a 2D experience, just watching something on the monitor.”
While the 2D version of the world is enjoyable, I can see how virtual reality özgü the potential to change the way people experience online shopping or art exhibitions.
The next stop on the tour is a lake with moving water where players can kayak if they have the limited-edition Open Sea-branded NFT in their wallets. It’s a task that takes real physical exertion when wearing a VR helmet and gloves, said Vincenti, who confessed to getting tired if he rowed for too long.
This seems to be the crown jewel of Somnium’s experience, as it’s often what investors and players mention upon visiting the virtual world.
In a recent interview with Insider, Andrew Steinwold, an NFT investor, explained how the lake could play an important role in thinking about the investment thesis for Somnium Space.
“On Somnium Space, maybe the investment thesis is, ‘Hey, because it’s really geared towards VR users and a really high-end experience, I want to be only by lakefront property because they have a really big lake and it’s really beautiful.’ If you put on your headset you can see the sunset and it’s really high fidelity and really cool, and you can actually take a kayak out and go kayaking,” Steinwold said.
Cars and kayaks aren’t the only interactive components of Somnium Space — users can bowl, listen to music, and play chess and musical instruments, Vincenti said.
Sychov also showed me one of the most popular experiences: Somnium’s nightclub. The visuals and the expansiveness of the club are impressive, but based on my experiences at other virtual-world parties, I remain skeptical about whether it’s actually any fun.
“We have some really wild parties here with live DJs playing from different countries, dancers dancing with full-body tracking, people having lots of fun socializing,” Sychov said.
Sychov invited me to one of the parties, as well as a number of other opportunities during the tour, but he never let on that I might face some difficulties accessing them.
You might have noticed that up until this point, I haven’t mentioned my own experiences in Somnium Space and have instead focusing on what I’ve been shown in the interview.
That’s because both my colleague Lisa Kailai Han and I faced extraordinary difficulties getting set up in Somnium Space.
While Sychov explored the land fully outfitted in VR gear, he assured me players could join Somnium Space without any VR hardware.
“You can just walk like in ‘Grand Theft Auto,’ like, your character will be in front of you,” Sychov said. “You just use your keyboard and mouse to walk around and look around.”
During the interview, Sychov encouraged me to join the game using the web client on my phone.
I was impressed that I was able to join the world by typing in the URL to a parcel and joining as a guest. Most virtual worlds we have explored have offerings for desktop computers only.
Sychov said about 100 people joined daily through virtual-reality equipment, while about 2,000 joined through the web experience.
“Don’t forget that the web supports VR, too,” Sychov said. “So you can actually dive into it if you have an Oculus Quest without a computer. You can just go to the Oculus browser. You can put that bağlantı in, and then you would dive into that parcel.”
‘The Wizard of Oz’
After the interview, I set up an account on Somnium by uploading my Insider profile photo to create a custom avatar. I found the avatar to be a fairly close representation to the image I uploaded, with only the hair color being picked up incorrectly.
Once I set up my avatar and linked my MetaMask account, I was ready to explore the web client. But my laptop wasn’t so keen and overheated as the world started to launch.
The web client allows you to hop between “popular” parcels, but it’s nothing like the tour I experienced during the interview. My avatar is isolated to a single parcel, and I certainly don’t come across any of the 2,000 people who join daily.
Usually, by the time I succeeded in entering a parcel, I would click the wrong button and get kicked out. Then, I needed to go back in and start reloading everything from the beginning again, and again, and again.
I couldn’t figure out the disconnect between what I was seeing when I explored on my own and what I was shown during the interview. It was like the scene from “The Wizard of Oz” when the great and powerful wizard is revealed to be just an ordinary man — I felt like I had been sold a magical experience during my guided tour of Somnium Space, but when I tried to use the platform myself it didn’t look anything like what I had been shown.
I figured maybe the desktop experience would work better, but because I own only a Mac, I was unable to download the PC version.
This was where my colleague Lisa jumped in with her Windows laptop, a family relic. The lengthy process to download the game worked, but the software proved too much for the laptop to handle. As soon as she opened Somnium Space to a view of falling snow, the platform completely overwhelmed and froze her laptop, forcing her to close out.
The next to try was with our editor, who had a Dell laptop at home, but he encountered a similar sorun, facing a frozen black screen each time he tried to boot up the game. Even a friend with a gaming PC and stronger GPU kept running into glitches whenever he tried to open the desktop software.
According to Vincenti, that’s because only fairly powerful gaming PCs equipped with robust graphic cards, like the Nvidia GeForce RTX 2060 or 3060 Ti, are able to handle the world.
Since we struggled to find a way to experience Somnium Space for ourselves, Lisa and I must take what we experienced in both our guided tours with a grain of salt.
Judging by what we were shown, Somnium Space is by far the most realistic world we’ve experienced, but what’s the benefit of that if only a few can access it? Isn’t the point of the metaverse is that it’s supposed to be open and accessible to all?
We were both left frustrated that we couldn’t experience Somnium fully without forking over about $400 for an Oculus headset.
It was even more frustrating because it seemed like Somnium held the most potential out of all the virtual worlds we visited. I could easily see Somnium Space becoming integrated into my daily life, which is something I’ve struggled to imagine with every other world we’ve visited.
I like that Somnium is not trying to push me on the idea of spending every waking moment in its virtual world — instead I could pick up a virtual-reality headset and do the tasks that interest me, whether that’s going shopping or meeting a source who’s halfway around the world for coffee.
Most other virtual worlds have put an emphasis on games with rewards that keep people hooked for hours. Somnium Space feels like a more laid-back version of the metaverse that prioritizes the type of social experience I value. It might even be enough to convince me to jump back into the metaverse once this series is over.
That’s assuming they get their tech sorted out first.