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The advantage of virtual malls is that they won’t run out of space. A case in point is TheMall, which will debut later this year and will eventually have 100 floors and 100 million square feet of space.
Alan Smithson’s MetaVRse company has been working on TheMall for seven years. In an interview with GamesBeat, Smithson said he expects to launch the mall in the fourth quarter of 2022. It will be accessible on the web with no need for a download or an app or a special hardware platform. And it will use blockchain technology.
Smithson started working on the company with Julie Smithson in 2015 and incorporated the company in the spring of 2016. They assembled a team including Paul Konieczny, CEO; Walid Abdelaty, chief technology officer; and Stefanie Smith (formerly Ikea), president of marketing. They built an engine to run the mall on the web in 2020 and kept working on it, producing a second engine for this year’s launch with better graphics.
“Our goal is to be the No. 1 retail and entertainment destination in the metaverse and we believe that by starting with the familiar we can bring people that are not crypto natives,” Smithson said. “We were not focused on the crypto bro culture at all. We want to bring in just everyday people into this and it starts with video gamers and then goes out from there.”
I saw a demo of it and the images look pretty crisp. I logged in via the web on my laptop and it worked fine.
A demo of a motorcycle in a store had some interactive parts that moved. But you can still see the tradeoff of focusing on web content versus taking advantage of advanced game engines and special hardware from consoles or gaming PCs. TheMall isn’t designed for hardcore gamers in that sense, as it isn’t as interactive or realistic as an Unreal Engine 5 game.
“Obviously, this is not Unreal Engine because we’re running on a mobile browser. But one of the things that we’ll be introducing in version two is we actually figured out multithreading on the mobile browser. And so there’s a number of different really cool innovations that we had to create in order to make millions of polygons show up on a mobile browser without melting your phone.”
Smithson chose to target the largest possible audience on the web, which might use older smartphones or other non-gaming devices to access the place. TheMall will have digital goods you can buy as well as physical goods or digital-delivered goods.
During the past six years, the company has been doing a lot of training and marketing events as it built the platform. Then the metaverse became fashionable during the pandemic, as people longed for better ways to connect than Zoom video calls. Worlds like Decentraland, The Sandbox, Roblox, and Minecraft gained a lot of momentum.
But in contrast to those worlds, Toronto-based MetaVRse chose to focus on graphics that looked more realistic, rather than blocky, with more attempt to show what real stores and products would look like.
“Why do they look like they’re using graphics from the 1990s?” Smithson said. “We realized that we can do way better on the web. And so we set out to build our own kind of experience called TheMall.”
And while the web-based graphics still have their limitations, Smithson believes they are pretty revolutionary in terms of being used to create such a large space. The firm uses its own custom WebGL layer. And using one graphics trick, TheMall can display an object with 21,000 polygons as a one-megabyte piece of data.
This makes it easy to zoom in on data but still move around an object or zip around the mall. It targets iPhone 6 or later devices. Much of the art is being built internally with Adobe Substance.
“When fully built out, it will be 100 million square feet. And to put that in perspective, the largest mall in the world is the Mall of Dubai, and it’s 12 million square feet,” said Smithson. “So this is roughly eight times larger.”
The company will be selling about 70% of the 100 floors as non-fungible tokens (NFTs). Developers can then modify the floors and bring in brands and experience centers. About 30% of the floors will be sold to investors who can resell what they purchase, as the company wanted to create a liquidity option for floor owners.
“We didn’t want to have people not build anything on their floor because you don’t want to have a whole mall full of speculators,” he said.
“Our goal is to be the No. 1 retail and entertainment destination in the metaverse and we believe that by starting with the familiar we can bring people that are not crypto natives,” he said. “We were not focused on the crypto bro culture at all. We want to bring in just everyday people into this and it starts with video gamers and then goes out from there.”
You can view the mall in the third person or first person. TheMall is really a creation tool and a platform for a community.
“TheMall is our Fortnite for shopping instead of shooting,” he said. “Brands have the ability to create their own brand environments, exclusive events, or do drops of exclusive merchandise. They can mint NFTs, make interactive games, and measure success through time spent in the mall. There is a direct correlation between the amount of time a patron spends in a mall and the amount of money they spend within that structure, with the different vendors.”
Smithson hopes to work with brands to create celebrity experiences that are always changing. MetaVRse plans to use AI algorithms to deliver better personalization for shoppers. If you’re interested in cars, you can go to the floor with cars on it. It will give recommendations based on loyalty programs where shoppers can opt-in. (Smithson said it would comply with Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation).
“We’ll be able to have a standardized way for brands to create clothing items, and adorn the different things,” Smithson said. “We also want to natively accept the ReadyPlayerMe avatars. They do work in our system, no problem. We’ve fully tested them.”
And TheMall will have security protocols for better secure transactions.
“We will be Kronos compliant, which is pretty interesting,” Smithson said.
MetaVRse built its own avatar system from scratch, and it hopes to create a global standard for brands to make clothing, whether it’s things like wristbands, bracelets, necklaces, earrings, hair, accessories, shirts, jackets, pants, shoes, or belts. You can mint the avatar as an NFT. Each consumer will be able to invite 10 friends in at the outset.
“Our goal is to really create photorealistic products and stores, or as photorealistic as we can,” Smithson said. “Obviously, this is not Unreal Engine because we’re running on a mobile browser. But one of the things that we’ll be introducing in version two is we actually figured out multithreading on the mobile browser. And so there’s a number of different really cool innovations that we had to create in order to make millions of polygons show up on a mobile browser without melting your phone.”
TheMall’s low-code developer tools also make it easy to create a store and modify it after it has been created. The tool has a drag-and-drop interface. Developers can divide floors up into 10,000-square-feet stores. And stores can have videos running in their stores.
TheMall hopes to encourage good behavior by making sure the system is not completely anonymous. It can accept crypto payments using a vendor called Bitpay, which grants access to 95 different wallets and 15 cryptocurrencies. You can also pay with your credit card using Stripe.
“Brands have complete control over their design and we’re aiming for a brand-safe environment,” Smithson said.
For purchases made in the mall, MetaVRse is charging a 3% commission fee, in contrast to 30% for the App Stores. In that way, Smithson hopes it will be disruptive. And for developers, TheMall gets 3% of the lease fee. The starting price for a floor, with a million square feet, is 100 ETH (in the Ethereum cryptocurrency), which is about $300,000.
Smithson said the company is working on VR headset integrations. TheMall will have a personalized concierge that is still being built, and the concierge will have a personality that uses conversational AI. Over time the company hopes to add events like concerts, shows, and comedy shows. And it will bring in artists and influencers.
“Our goal is to be accessible everywhere and because it’s on a browser and it works on mobile and desktop computers it can reach roughly 7-billion compatible devices,” Smithson said.