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A Week in the Metaverse: Miami Art Week 2021 Reviewed

Energy was high throughout the City of Miami last week, though planning and execution were scarce.

A Week in the Metaverse: Miami Art Week 2021 Reviewed
Photo: Matias J. Ocner/TNS

Key Takeaways

  • Crypto Briefing visited multiple blockchain and cryptocurrency events that swamped Miami for its annual Art Week festival.
  • The overall theme of DCentralCon and NFT BZL was confidence that blockchain, NFTs, and the Metaverse could change the world.
  • Our time at the conferences reaffirmed what we already knew—that wonderful ideas are terrific, but planning and execution are key.

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Crypto Briefing explores the NFT and Metaverse events coinciding with Miami Art Week 2021.

On the Ground at Miami Art Week

Miami in the winter months is a magical place. For those of us used to more frigid climes between the months of November and March, the Magic City becomes a veritable wonderland. A sunny 75-degree day greets each visitor in the morning with the cheery disposition of an outright huckster, evoking a feeling in each of us that here, in this land of fair weather, beautiful passers-by, and expensive sports cars, anything could be possible. 

And indeed, to the folks that flooded Miami last week for any of a number of tangentially-related blockchain and crypto conventions, anything might as well have been considered possible—and in some cases, inevitable, depending on who you were talking to. No matter which way we turned, every presenter and sponsor at the main crypto events Crypto Briefing attended in Miami was utterly convinced that their own product, whether it existed yet or not, was going to be an inevitable success, regardless of whether or not the right amount of planning and preparation had gone into it. Such considerations are secondary when you’re changing the world. 

A Brave New World 

Last week, thousands of art and crypto enthusiasts flooded the city for a variety of events centered around Art Basel, an international art fair organized in Switzerland, Hong Kong, and Miami Beach. The synergy was apparent to all attendees, given the meteoric rise of NFTs over the course of 2021 and the emerging utopian narrative surrounding artists in blockchain. Finally, it is said, artists can leverage the technology of blockchain to monetize their works in a fair way. As with virtually every other area of human endeavor, blockchain technology has revolutionized the human impetus toward creation itself.

The main draws for the blockchain crowd in Miami were DCentralCon, a public exhibition of new and established crypto projects, and NFT BZL, a one-day gathering of art and non-fungible token enthusiasts more thematically related to the overall Art Basel motif of the week. The mayor of Miami, Francis Suarez, spoke at NFT BZL, both to promote the city as the emerging cryptocurrency capital of the United States and to boast his conviction that Art Week in Miami would see the highest volume of NFT sales in the history of the planet. Suarez, who recently made headlines by agreeing to accept a paycheck in Bitcoin, is as bullish on the space as they come, even going so far as to publicly share plans for a “Bitcoin yield” to city residents and to talk openly about the possibility of eliminating city taxes. It was that kind of confidence that permeated every square inch of the city throughout the week, especially wherever the blockchain crowd found itself coalescing. 

Confidence was particularly high-flying at DCentralCon, the larger of the two major crypto conferences. There was no shortage of teams endorsing their world-changing, vastly revolutionary, nothing-short-of-paradigm-shifting projects. From Metaverses to push notification services to play-to-earn video games that don’t quite exist yet, every booth at DCentralCon promised to usher in a new era of technology and culture. 

In fact, if anything was consistently true about each of the infinite variety of projects we spoke with, it was the idea that a new world was not just on the horizon, but that it was already here.

A Logistical Nightmare

Awash in a sea of wanton optimism and grandiose promises, the team at Crypto Briefing set out to separate the wheat from the chaff. We spoke with teams representing several projects over our days in Miami, with varying degrees of confidence in their potential success. 

Our first task was making it inside, which turned out to be no small feat. As we stood in long, glacial lines just to get our press passes, we marveled at the plight of the paying guests, whose lines stretched around the perimeter of the convention center parking lot. Once inside, the logistical problems of the event became even more apparent—only one small snack stand was available to feed the thousands of conference attendees, and the coffee ran out by 10:00 AM both days of the event. In a strange way, the apparent lack of planning mirrored many of the blockchain projects we would see during our time in Miami: big on ideas, but short on execution.

The first and most prevalent presence at DCentralCon was that of Bitcoin Latinum, the primary sponsor of the event and purveyor of “the next-generation, insured, asset-backed cryptocurrency.” As we approached the entrance to the venue, we noticed that the Bitcoin Latinum conference presence was defined by rows upon rows of beautiful women in revealing leotards, each one adorned with the Bitcoin Latinum logo and sporting strategic cutouts in the wardrobe. To say the overtly sexist marketing strategy was a little on the nose would be an understatement, not to mention the wanton theft of Star Trek intellectual property. Still, it caught our attention, which might have been their main aim.

Inside the conference hall, Bitcoin Latinum boasted a similar presence. We pressed on, however, as crypto journalists do, to assess what meaningful projects we could find. At one point during our exploration, however, we noticed that one of our team members had splintered off from the group to an undisclosed location. Eager to keep our crew intact, I gave him a quick call to let  him know which booth we were at. “OK, I know where that is,” he said. “Be right there.”

10 minutes elapsed, then 15. At around the 20-minute mark, I began to wonder what might have happened to him. And so, like Yeats’ falcon, I began turning and turning in the widening gyre, slowly circling outward from our rendezvous point and expanding my view as I went. 

There he was, deep in conversation with one of the Bitcoin Latinum women. 

I approached and clapped him on the shoulder. “How’s it going, buddy?” 

“Good, good!” he said through a goofy smile. “I was just talking about Bitcoin Latinum.” 

“Oh yeah?” I said. “What did you find out?”

“Not much,” he said. “But I’ve been asking a lot of questions.” 

I glanced sidelong at one of the women. She smiled. It was her job. 

“Like what?” I asked.

“You know, standard stuff: is it its own blockchain? Is it a fork of Bitcoin? What sort of consensus mechanism does it use? Stuff like that.”

“I see. Did you get any good answers?”

“Not really,” he said. I looked at one of the women, who said, “We don’t really know the answers to that kind of stuff.” 

“Right, of course,” I said. I took a brief look around to see if anyone resembling a developer stood at the booth, but, seeing nothing but the same smiling faces, I thanked them for their time and led our guy away, explaining that the hired models were likely not the people to talk to if we wanted to know any technical details about a project.

He agreed, though he looked utterly unpersuaded. 

“It’s Just a Fantasy”

Metaverse projects were wildly popular across Miami throughout the week, and there seemed to be a general consensus that a hybrid digital-physical world, characterized by virtual and augmented reality, cryptocurrency, and NFTs, is just around the corner. The rebranding of a certain famous social media company to emphasize its new strategic direction toward the Metaverse acted as a major catalyst in October that gave many skeptics confidence in the future of the space. And the Metaverse bulls were out in full force, particularly from the world of video games. 

We spoke with Gala Games, one of the biggest names in blockchain gaming, which has a number of ambitious projects on the horizon but currently boasts only one playable game. Nevertheless, the NFTs for Gala’s forthcoming projects are already available for sale for those eager to get in on the ground floor. Perhaps the most anticipated titles from Gala include Mirandus, a fantasy RPG, and Spider Tanks, a mech-themed combat game in which players pilot walking robot “spider tanks,” which are exactly what they sound like, in open battle.

We also spoke with representatives from Star Atlas, another hotly-anticipated NFT-based sci-fi game that doesn’t exist yet. Star Atlas looks like it could be promising should it ever come to fruition. The project, which we’ve covered in the past, will be a space-themed grand strategy game in which players captain deep-space vessels to explore an open world of planets and galaxies in order to discover in-game assets. Star Atlas uses the Unreal 5 engine and promises to be a visual delight, something that may help propel interest. Still, it’s yet to release a minimum viable product, and there has been speculation that it never will

One company that has shipped some product was Epik, a licensing firm that specializes in placing intellectual property into games, including some in NFT form—but not developing games themselves. Speaking with Owen Ma and Darren Smith, the respective co-founder and VP of Product at Epik, we were able to peer into the world Epik is helping build. Epik has placed privileged IP in over 300 games from small and large developers alike, initiating crossover interest between established brand customers and straightforward gaming enthusiasts. For example, players of the popular gambling game Casino World might recognize the familiar, haggard face of Willie Nelson adorning recent advertisements because, thanks to Epik, players can now choose Willie Nelson-themed avatars, adorn their avatars with Nelson-themed clothing and accessories, and construct Nelson-themed buildings and venues within their virtual worlds.

Some projects, however, have placed greater emphasis on the real world. At NFT BZL we spoke with Matt Sanders, also known as M. Shadows, the frontman of metal group Avenged Sevenfold, about his enthusiasm for NFTs and about the band’s forthcoming plans for tokenized fan materials. Their upcoming NFT project, Deathbats, will feature the standard NFT fare of cartoon JPEGs, as well as a number of real-world perks for holders. Fans have a chance a getting an NFT with a special trait that includes free tickets, VIP passes to Avenged Sevenfold concerts, or access to exclusive meet-ups. As a major rock band with millions of fans, Avenged Sevenfold is actively leveraging its access to its fan community in order to educate followers about blockchain, cryptocurrency, NFTs, and all the possible benefits that accompany them. 

The Suspension of Disbelief

Metaverse projects weren’t the only examples of teams willing to exist within a fantasy world that may or may not have anything to do with reality. Indeed, we also spoke with Secret Network, a protocol dedicated to preserving privacy on the blockchain and expanding privacy-preserving techniques in order to allow apps to employencrypted inputs, encrypted outputs, and encrypted state, meaning [Secret] can enable groundbreaking new use cases for smart contracts and decentralized applications.” Beyond their presence at the convention, Secret Network also took a brief promotional role at a reasonably wild party the first night of the festivities, at which an intense hype man took the stage amid lasers and bass to ask the crowd, among other provocative questions, “Who here thinks the government ought to be able to look at our fucking money?”

Boos abounded. 

Struck by this exhortation, I kept it in mind as I approached the Secret Network booth the following day. Drawn by curiosity surrounding what I perceived to be a fairly remarkable statement to make in a public venue—but also by the promise of a free t-shirt—I approached a young and eager-looking gentleman at the booth and struck up a conversation.

“So, tell me about Secret Network,” I said, innocently enough. 

With the utmost optimism, this young man went on to explain to me that Secret Network could keep all my transactions, trades, staking positions, and so on completely secret from the outside; that, unlike public blockchains, once funds were moved into Secret, they were all but invisible from the outside.

“Fascinating,” I said. “But tell me, a user would have to move their funds into Secret Network from another wallet, correct?”

“That’s right,” he said. 

“So, for example,” I continued, “if I wanted to use Secret Network, I would have to send funds from an external wallet, which might be public, to a Secret-compatible wallet, which would then hide my funds, transactions, staking positions, and so on from outside observers. Is that right?”

“Exactly,” came the reply.

“I see,” I said. “So from the outside, an observer of the public blockchain would simply see that funds were moved to a new location, but they wouldn’t be able to see what’s going on with them from that point onward. In other words, it would just look like the money disappeared. Is that fair?”

Hesitating a bit, he replied, “I think so.”

“Ah,” I said. Then, having worked through the series of propositions that got me to this point, I asked the question that was really on my mind.

“So what happens when the IRS sees that a pile of money has just disappeared into thin air, unaccounted for?”

The young man paused. Then he continued, “I’m actually kind of new here.”

“I see,” I responded. “Well, thanks very much for your time. Mind if I grab a t-shirt?”

T-shirt in hand and questions more-or-less addressed, I left the Secret Network booth, wondering if that last question had ever come up among them.  

Confidence Games

Behind the scenes at Crypto Briefing, we talk a lot about the tension between fundamentals and pure sentiment when assessing blockchain projects. It’s generally agreed upon, though, that while both play a role in determining a project’s overall success, it is ultimately the fundamentals that should be taken more seriously. 

At events like DCentralCon and NFT BZL, however, sentiment reigns supreme. With so many projects lacking even a minimum viable product at this stage, it’s easy to take each pitch with a whole shaker of salt rather than the requisite pinch. If every one of the products we encountered in Miami turned out to be as revolutionary as promised, we’d find ourselves living in a world that’s not only radically different from the one we’re used to, but one that’s virtually unrecognizable.

Still, there is something to be said about offering the benefit of the doubt, even where one is skeptical—not buying in completely from the very get-go, but a simple willingness to reserve judgment until more is known. While the young man at the Secret Network booth probably took my questioning as somewhat hostile, I hope he also noticed that I was willing to extend the benefit of the doubt. I wasn’t asking about financial reporting considerations as a “gotcha” question—I genuinely wanted to know what the thinking behind this problem looked like. The fact that he wasn’t prepared with a straight answer, however, told me that whatever thought had gone into this particular matter, no one had bothered to share it with the whole team. 

* * *

In Herman Melville’s final novel, The Confidence-Man, a mysterious figure aboard a New Orleans-bound riverboat approaches a variety of passengers wearing disguises and engages each of them in extended philosophical debates about the importance of confidence in one’s fellow human beings. Confidence, he argues, is the essential binding force of society—human beings must trust one another in order for civilization to function at all, let alone flourish. Parrying away all arguments against trusting others, let alone strangers, the Confidence-Man closes each interaction by asking for money, sometimes under the guise of charity, sometimes promising investment returns, and sometimes merely by appealing to pity. Some give him money, others refuse, but the pitch is always the same—have confidence in me, because I assure you, you can trust me. 

Confidence-men were everywhere in Miami last week. Whether or not there was an actual product, a discernible roadmap, or even a coherent team all took second place to an overwhelming sense of confidence that electrified the venues. Blockchain was here to stay, it was universally agreed upon, and its capacity to change everything was all but inevitable. The last piece of the puzzle for all these projects was the buy-in. 

And none of that is to say they won’t. In Melville’s novel, we see a number of characters exploited by the eponymous silver-tongued charlatan’s willingness to play on their confidence, but what makes the novel so intriguing is the fact that his arguments often hold water. Confidence is necessary for society to function. It is necessary for business ventures to be successful. And most directly relevant to our purposes here, it is absolutely indispensable for any functioning blockchain product. Even in the wake of being duped, to lose confidence in each other is to lose the ability to engage meaningfully with one another. 

It should be apparent to every attendee at last week’s events in Miami that a healthy dose of skepticism is more than welcome in the blockchain and cryptocurrency space, and that a lot of projects may not stand up to the strictest scrutiny when pressed. But hostility is not the correct attitude with which to approach them: curiosity, willingness to listen, and an open mind are all necessary to be able to see what is good in the world. But that doesn’t mean we should leave our faculties of critical reflection at the door. When all else fails, trust your judgment.

Disclosure: At the time of writing, the author of this feature owned BTC, ETH, and several other cryptocurrencies. 

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