The Power of Immersive Tech for NFTs
Over the past years, we have seen many attempts, some more successful than others, to integrate virtual (VR) and augmented reality (AR) (sometimes referred to as [extended reality (XR)](https://circuitstream.com/blog/xr-glossary#:~:text=X-,XR%20%2D%20Extended%20Reality,-Extended%20reality%20(XR) or immersive technologies) into this new wave of digital art.
These experiments took many shapes and forms, and given the fast pace at which both worlds are evolving, I found it complicated to have a clear conversation with NFT artists, collectors, or creators focused on their creative process, artwork, and the way they were communicating it to the outside world.
This article tries to bring some structure into this crazy and exciting world by breaking up the gazillion opportunities out there into digestible chunks that can help AR and VR creators understand how they could use their skills and knowledge to get their immersive mediums into the NFT world.
But first — what are NFTs and are NFTs a real thing or just a passing trend?
What is NFT?
NFTs are a relatively new phenomenon that took the world of digital art by storm. NFTs stand for “non-fungible tokens” and, among their many uses, enable the certification of the authenticity, rarity and ownership of a piece of digital content.
Imagine all digital assets with an index code. Just like companies tag their office chairs, computers, and products with inventory code, so does a digital image, video, or anything other digital item carries an identifiable, unique, and trackable code. If that sounds like similar to cryptocurrencies and blockchain technology, you're very close!
This sparked tremendous interest in the art world as it enabled artists and collectors to start buying and selling digital art on a wide variety of platforms also called NFT marketplaces. This topic is so broad that I invite you to do some autonomous research starting from this (rather humorous) article written by the verge encapsulating the power and madness of NFT and crypto art.
Why talk about the role of Immersive technologies within the NFT space?
Given their digital nature, it is not surprising the world of immersive technologies and NFTs collided leading to astonishing results and a flourishing of experimentations from “technical” and “less technical” creators that found new original ways to blend the two. Immersive technologies offer in fact new creative ways to tell stories making viewers or casual bystanders part of the user’s experience. On top of that, virtual reality can be a very powerful tool and provide VR creators a brand new venue to use their skills. So let’s try to bring some “order” and look more structurally at the many ways these two worlds overlap, connect and synergize.
Looking at the current NFT space, artists are leveraging immersive technologies in a wide variety of ways and it is sometimes tricky to understand what are the opportunities and where they would add the most value.
I consequently decided to group the main use cases drawing a parallel with the typical NFT lifecycle: the creation process, the format of the final product, and the way the product can be experienced or showcased. If we follow this simplification we end up with 3 clear ways in which every NFT could take advantage of immersive technologies:
- Artists use VR as a tool to create their artwork
- The end product could be an “immersive” piece of content
- How the NFT is showcased or experienced
Let’s now dive into each of the three different opportunities explaining what are the main benefits and why.
VR as a creation tool
This is undoubtedly the aspect that excites me the most. Virtual reality lowers the barrier to creation, transporting the process of creating digital art from a screen to space. Moving objects around is not done with a mouse but by stretching your arm and literally grabbing them.
Here's a little workflow video for you guys. Sped up a lot b/c of Twitter restrictions.
Would love to do some VR Twitch Streams soon. pic.twitter.com/02zxi8GfGs
— SuperNfty ⚡️ (@SuperNfty) August 23, 2021
Creating 3D shapes can feel like molding clay, laying a sheet of cloth in a zero-gravity space, stacking blocks on top of each other, brushing paint on a canvas and SO MUCH MORE. None of this requires months to learn and real-world skills can be ported to the virtual space. This also means that someone with a creative mind who is always stuck with 2D creation for the fear of the steep learning curve can start creating in 3D in a matter of hours. On top of that each and every tool, despite having its own look and feel, remains a “tool” and every creator can reinterpret its features to align with his/her own style.
The list of tools is rather extensive and varies in accessibility. Some require a powerful VR-ready PC, while some others run on a standalone headset. Another advantage is that the creation process becomes a distinguishing factor from other artists. Mixed reality is a powerful way to grab people’s attention and, even in this case, tools like Liv and Reality Mixer allow to record mixed Reality videos for some compatible apps just using a mobile device and no green screen.
If you are not convinced yet, did you know that many of these tools actually support multiplayer? Yes! You can meet with others and create in ways that would be impossible even in the real world. The choice is vast and in time the options are just going to expand.
Immersive experiences as a “content-type”
Regardless of the creation process being followed, the final artwork can exist in various formats. Currently, the majority of the artwork showcased on many marketplaces is 2D. That means images and videos, GIFs, and even looping videos of animated 3D models are ultimately “flat” products. Immersive and spatial content is a brand new category of content that enables interaction and engagement with the spectator in different ways (please note the stress on the word different).
Instead of being rooted in a static, unmoving screen, immersive and spatial content is:
Present in the physical space that surrounds the user (or at least gives that illusion to some extent).
I realize that this definition is VERY broad and can be VERY easily argued, yet it provides a good starting point to explain how digital artwork could be spatial and/or immersive (you can check out some exchange of thoughts on this LinkedIn post I created where many people chipped in with their own ideas).
Now that we have got definitions out of the way let’s start sharing some examples.
360 Images and Videos as NFTs
360 pictures or videos can be a very attractive form of immersive content. The actual file extension is identical to 2D content (e.g. jpg, mp4, etc) but the aspect ratio is 2:1 (this is often referred to as “equirectangular” format). There are several ways to create such compositions, from 360 cameras (like the Insta 360 One X 2 that is now rather affordable and lead to very satisfying results) to standard screen tools like Photoshop, to “in-engine” capture.
When I mention “in-engine” I refer to the ability to capture a 360 picture or video directly within the tool used to create the artwork. These are often game engines like Unity, Unreal or even Blender. VR creation tools also offer the ability to capture 360 images or videos like Tvori or Tiltbrush (here is an how to respectively for Tvori and Tiltbrush on page 8). @Natural_warp is one of the NFT artists pioneering this new format creating caleidoscopic abstract compositions.
In all honesty, I struggled to find NFT of 360 videos, and that left me rather surprised. Here is an example from @MITYAmusic using “in engine capture” for a music video. The 360 format seems to be still virgin land for the NFT world and I believe has a lot of potential for a couple of reasons:
It is a very flexible format that can be experienced on desktop or mobile (check out the video on youtube to understand what I mean)
Many of the worlds and spaces in the metaverse use skyboxes to literally fill the sky and the horizon. 360 images can be easily used as skyboxes and add a whole new dimension to the space customization that we have seen so far where the focus lies on the objects that populate the virtual space.(link to spatial tool to turn 360 images into skyboxes)
Augmented Reality NFTs
Let’s now talk about augmented reality. Technically any 3D file could be experienced in AR. Often the composition has some form of animation and the most common file formats used are FBX, GLB, and GLTF (of which only the first two support animation). On the other hand, the fact that you can view a 3D model in AR doesn’t necessarily qualifies your AR NFT as an AR tech experience. Let’s take the example of @SuperNfty. He creates digital collectible floating heads, and by every purchase you have access to a variety of file formats: an image, a GIF, and a GLB file.
Without much trouble, the GLB file can be imported into platforms like Sketchfab and viewed in AR but in essence, @SuperNfty is not selling an AR experience. Along with the usual “game engine suspects” like Unity or Unreal, creating and deploying an AR experience has become easier than ever. Some examples are Adobe Aero, Lens studio, Spark AR and more.
I started digging into this topic and realized that it is actually more complicated than expected (why am I surprised?). The closest example I could find is from @sndrv, a real veteran in this field who has actually created an unlockable code that must be used to access the filter created in Snapchat.
This looks like an elegant solution but of course, poses two major challenges:
The content could be unlocked by every subsequent owner
The content is still "centralized" (on snapchat servers)
AR really has the power to augment our world in creative and meaningful ways and the directions that some companies like XYZ are taking is short of inspiring. Digital content will be on historical landmarks or at your favorite bakery and the upcoming wave of AR glasses is going to free our hands and unleash our imagination. Yet there is a clear disconnect at the moment between the creation and the blockchain but it will not take long before more integrations will pop up and trigger the interests of artists and collectors to this brand new augmented world. In that regard, Hololoot seems to be on the right track and promises a much more streamlined creation and distribution of AR-based NFTs.
Virtual Reality NFTs
Last but not least we have virtual reality content, and guess what? Same story: not much going on (are YOU even surprised?). I am a firm believer in the immense artistic and storytelling power of virtual reality and owning a virtual experience would personally feel unique and precious. I was expecting a multitude of VR experiences running on webGL or some smart ways to access executable files stored in the blockchain but instead, I found just three examples, some of which left me a little puzzled. A few months ago a Swedish developer named Fredrik Ekholm, auctioned an NFT of a VR studio on OpenSea but didn’t find any buyer (despite the sharp drop in price after one month the items was listed).
I then found another project on the YouTube channel of Alaistair Hume, a very talented Unreal Engine developer who created a very evocative space as part of his exploratory journey in the world of NFT ( I strongly suggest you to check out the video because it is a very well thought out reflection on the meaning of NFT). The NFT was never sold but you can check out the space he created, downloading the file here.
I kept rummaging through until I found something that I thought was VERY special. The first and only VR experience minted on Hic et Nunc by Michael Hazani. It can be experienced on the browser or using metachromium on PC VR. You can read more about the artwork here, and it felt like the light at the end of a tunnel.
Throughout this exploration, I certainly learned that NFT marketplaces play a key role in having digital immersive and spatial content legitimized and presented on their platforms. There is still a disconnection and this is a great opportunity for VR creatives to venture into a still virgin land.
Immersive showcase of NFTs
Immersive technologies are also a powerful tool to market and show your NFT from both a collector/investor as well as artist’s point of view. Unlike in the real world, NFT art is confined behind a screen, but thanks to the numerous platforms that appeared over the last years it is possible to create virtual galleries and explore them together to tell the stories behind the artworks, the artists or simply show your collection. This exploration can be often done in a VR headset or from your browser. Images, GIFs and videos are supported by almost all platforms.
Other types of content like 3D models, 360 images and videos are not broadly supported and require some tweaking and optimization. If we look beyond the NFTs themselves another important aspect to consider is the space in which the artwork is located. In a virtual land, walls, floors, ceilings can take any shape and form and adapt to the artwork to tell an even stronger narrative. Some remarkable examples are the spaces created by Metaxu studio who has been organizing exposition from NFT artists like eoin.
Another aspect to consider is that the interaction between artists and galleries has the potential to increase the exposure of the artwork via periodic and thematic expositions leading to interesting business partnerships.
If we look a bit beyond the gallery format I just described, the meaning of ownership in the metaverse could take many other interesting twists. Maddie's already allows monetizing NFT by creating custom physical merchandise and paying royalties to the original artist. A few months ago Maddie's announced a partnership with Ready Player Me giving the opportunity to bring a list of selected NFT as accessories to the avatars created by the renowned avatar creation ecosystem (now supporting over 180 apps). This means that it is not going to take long before NFT branded merchandise could hit the metaverse and shortly after as AR content is visible only through the rumored AR glasses being developed by Apple.
Let’s summarize all the stuff above in a couple of sentences and examples so that it (hopefully) sticks. How can you Supercharge your NFT with AR & VR?
- Use VR tools to create any type of content (from spatial to 2D). It is easy, has become more accessible, and you can do a lot of cool stuff with it.
- Create Immersive content. Unlike what I expected not many are doing it so you are up for a head start.
- Create virtual galleries to show any of your artwork, from GIF and pictures to any type of “immersive content”.
If you are still with me it means you found the content useful and I hope that is going to inspire you to explore these two worlds in brand new and exciting ways. There is a lot of knowledge around and I hope this article brought some structure and gave you an overview of how Immersive technologies could be used to supercharge the NFT world.
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