Last year, the word "metaverse" sparked panic among Facebook''s CEOs, declaring his company''s intent to go beyond its social media offerings and to develop the next big thing.
The metaverse is the digital world''s greatest asset that promises an environment to work, entertain, create, and consume. Real estate prices have increased in this digital world that has seen top brands, personalities, and even banks rush to make their presence felt. However, a few months after Facebook''s major shift and rebranding as Meta, there is not much happening in this world.
Daniel Sturman, the Chief Technology Officer at Roblox, was speaking at the University of Illinois, where he studied computer science from Urbana-Champaign and a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science from Cornell University.
In an interview with IE, Sturman presented his vision for the metaverse and his role as CTO.
Roblox has been in the works for over a decade. Did you ever think it would be more powerful than a game?
Daniel Sturman: As we''ve developed Roblox, we''ve always thought of it as more than gaming. We''ve thought of it really about this concept of 3D experiences in which individuals simply come together to do almost any activity. Now, you''re seeing a lot of things we''ve already done over the past few years with concerts on our platform.
Graduations and even birthday parties have been held in some universities online. During COVID, we created a mock-up of our own headquarters so that teams could join, coordinate, and collaborate.
Things like concerts and brand interactions have started to kick off on the platform. The whole concept was really just recreating type of arbitrary 3D experiences and allowing individuals to have fun with them.
In this wave of the metaverse, many corporations are now attempting to create these experiences for their customers. How is Roblox approaching this?
I think the term Metaverse grew up with Neal Stephenson''s Snow Crash in the early 1990s, and that before we could do it, the concept that we''re building something similar was obvious from the start. I think everyone at Roblox has read it at some point, some even before they join the company.
It''s not that we were focused on recreating someone else''s vision. Rather, it was about this unique way of interaction, which is more than just a 2D text feed. In this world, there are a lot of things you can do, and when you add physics and graphics to the mix, it becomes much more immersive.
I''m not certain that people started using our metaverse before, but that we always knew it out there. It''s simple, it felt a bit broad for what we''re talking about, and we were kind of focused on the specifics of what we were doing at the time. I think you''re understanding how you''re making the metaverse as part of the immersion, and how an avatar really is inspired by the experience you''re trying to create.
I''m not certain there''s a good or wrong way to do it. Roblox''s way of doing it is by focusing on infinite choices on what your avatar is. So the participant may choose what they want to look like in collaboration with the experienced creator.
For example, your avatar will be different in a rock concert than, let''s say, in a wild west simulation game. So, today, we have introduced a new avatar clothing management system. It''s possible with technology, where you can first have very custom bodies, and all of the items in our shop can be a layer on it.
This is a substantial benefit from other avatar systems where you have clothing items designed in tandem with bodies. Instead, we have allowed creators to come in and create items, none of which are provided by Roblox. We enable users and content creators to mix and match and put constraints to get the exact experience they desire.
We believe that users must be given plenty of choices on how they want to appear in the metaverse. At Roblox, we tend to think of everyone on the platform as a creator, and your first act of creation is usually your avatar. We therefore offer quite a variety of choices on what you can look like.
Are these avatars the best representations of ourselves we can produce? In a digital world, the bleak digital forms are floating around.
Yes and maybe no, as well. It depends on what you''re doing an interview. Perhaps you want to be in something not crazy, but in something more expressive, right? There are times when something similar to a suit is a no-go.
I think it all depends on the environment you''re considering. Even if your environment makes sense with legless avatars, and your technology can, on the other hand, drive that expressiveness one way or another. I do not think there''s one size fits all when it comes to avatars.
If my avatar does not look like me, how do individuals know they are intercessoring with the real me? How do we authenticate individuals?
I''d rather say that your avatar will be used as a result. I believe there are other methods to do that, especially if a person is a prominent celebrity or in some ways. I believe there are ways to utilize social features of the platform to verify identities if there is a need for it.
If you''re the real Taylor Swift on the platform, it might be a blue checkmark or something similar. Or even if I''m the real Dan Sturman, not anyone special, you know, there''ll be social networks where I can confirm my identity.
We must be very cautious about people''s privacy and the security of their data, according to me. It''s something that is just evolving, but needs to be approached with caution.
Do you think social media platforms like Twitter will play a role in the wake of your mention of the Blue Tick?
I''m not sure that you would use Twitter on metaverse platforms. Roblox has been the first user ID ever for many of our users. Let''s examine other ways of articulating your identity or having connections between those things.
ROBLOX is a very social platform, not a place to come and experience or to participate in an experience or a game. It''s a place where you do that with your friends and colleagues. And that''s kind of inherent to our platform.
So we tend to think of Roblox as having two main components: one is the content component, and the other is the social component. I think this is because when we decide which instance of an experience you''re going to be in, we make a very vigorous effort to keep you there with your friends. So, I think it''s no less a social platform. Instead, you can just talk to any of our avid users and they will always tell you, "My friends and I went and did this cool thing on Roblox together."
Will metaverse platforms have their own internal social media?
There are inherently social experiences, you''re going to be wanting group content, and you''re going to be sharing content with each other in real-time. So, you''re often chatting with each other in real-time on the platform. You go to a concert, you''re dancing together. You might be doing something together. So, here are a few things that you''re doing together, which are inherently interactive and social. This is, for example, you''ll not need to be able to separate
Will we end up seeing silos of these digital worlds while being separated from others and then have to wonder how to integrate them?
We''re constantly striving to make integrations and interactions more enjoyable. Right now, we''ve got a better connection to things like YouTube videos. Today, much of our community uses this mechanism to enthuse and explain and interact.
What are the most important challenges for Roblox?
I might think of two major ones. So the one is just continuing to broaden the kinds of games that are available on the platform. In early April, we had a long-running history of games we''ve been doing a lot with music.
McLaren''s new Formula One race Car was recently introduced on Roblox, which was somewhere between a game and a brand experience. Chipotle was recently on the platform with a burrito-branded experience. I believe these brands will be massive on the platform.
We''re beginning to do some really exciting things with education, but we''re not calling out the participants right now, but we''re not looking forward to it all. One is the experience avenue where say, your school wants to go to ancient Egypt, and the other is the learning of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). We''re also starting to experiment with Roblox as well.
So this vast array of experiences, I believe, is one of the biggest challenges. These will all drive very different technical requirements. For example, if you''re going to do work, you really need to have the ability to express your avatar as a result of the fact that you need to get a much higher level of activity.
The next big one, I''d think, is the breadth of creation. Every designer should have a strong idea. And so, today, it involves using our main strengths, primarily the Roblox Studio, and sometimes external ones, to assist creators in creating and developing complex experiences. What we''re really looking at is how do we reduce that skill level? There''s a lot of really interesting AI-driven deep learning workaround creation on a variety of platforms. We believe that you can apply it to Roblox.
How do you make it really simple to create a world based on some text that you''ve written up, or which describes the world? How do we make it really simple for a game to bring characters and obstacles out on the platform without having to be as deep in the technology? I believe that making everyone a creator, having experience which is themselves creation experiences, and the breadth of creation, will be a big challenge for us.
What are your beliefs about the role of wearables in the metaverse? In what role will they be shaped in the future?
Roblox is about going wherever you are and being available on any device right now, and unsurprisingly, our most significant device by today is mobile phones. We know our users can feel through that interface, it is really immersive, and they really feel it.
I believe wearables are an interesting technology direction; it is one we''ll definitely be engaged with. However, we don''t think it''s fundamental to the experience at all. It''s simply a way to experience it. It may also depend on the individual user, whether they have VR or their phone. Probably there will be a lot of mixing and matching.
Wouldn''t it be a uniform as a platform? Otherwise, will the user have to keep switching between devices to access different locations?
Most applications and the way we build Roblox are that they can be consumed on any device. But even today, some people say, Hey, I''ve built this experience, just for a mobile device, or just for PC, although they might have a minor of experiences on the platform. I do think that most experiences will be universally accessible. However, depending on which device you come in with, it is still a 3D world, and our ability to kind of convey that into both works pretty well.
It''s just like a different projection of that planet onto the charrette. However, we always believe in holding the choices in the hands of our creators. So I''m not going to rule out that a particular artist has a vision for their space and may say, Hey, I''m going to restrict it in certain cases, for whatever reason, I don''t know what these reasons would be. But I''m not going to take that choice away from my creators.
What can you look at the metaverse right now? Is it something that should have happened a while ago, or is it an idea whose time has come?
We''ve been building this platform for a while. Overall, we have a vision for where we''re going to go, and we''re just going to keep pushing on that. We do think it''s marvellous that there''s been a recognition of what a lot of our users have been doing for years, and it makes sense because COVID highlighted that individuals were looking for new ways to express themselves and interact.
I believe that''s where most of this is. This is the hype, but I''d say that the world had a problem, and that it may be used to to get it addressed to some degree by these 3D experiences. I''m not sure if there''s a lot more attention, but even if there''s something, it makes a lot of sense given what the whole world was just experiencing.
What can Roblox users and metaverse enthusiasts expect in the coming years?
We need to do more cool things than ever have people to do them, so we simply kind of stay focused and keep getting the next great thing out there. Like the brand partnerships I was discussing, the layered clothing launch gives our avatars and creators a lot of room.
Depending on whether or not the next year, we may modify the ability for users to use their voice, and their avatar''s face and mouth will move with it. So, when you are talking to someone, you will get a lot more of the human ability.
We are also working on ensuring that real-time voice communication is secure. If we wanted to only provide voice services, we might probably probably make them available very quickly. However, we must ensure that voice isn''t a replacement for our civility beliefs and our actions, as well as our behavior.
Another thing I might refer to in regards to creators is that you''ll see a lot more inexperienced creations instead of having a coder and using our Roblox Studio as the only way to create. This year, you''ll see some of that, which will give people hope for non-playing things, and we''ll have a few interesting ways to go do that.
What makes you see metaverse progress from here? Is there any metaverse player that you should watch out for?
I believe there will be increased interactivity. That''s why I''ve said that your voice is so important to us. Because I think people will want to come in and not just text one another but talk to each other, have compassion. So today, at Roblox, you can get creative. It''s possible to grow to 1000, then 10s of 1000s.
Imagine attending a rock concert with 50,000 people and your closest friends, soaking up all of the energy in a virtual world. I think these are just a few examples of the crazy things we''ll be doing.
Things that you don''t see as a user, like an automatic retransmission of experiences, are something we''ve been working on, and we''ll continue to push to ensure that anyone who develops an English experience in India can start it, for example, without that burden being on the creator to get a translation team for their work.
I believe that when you classify the metaverse, what exactly you should look out for? Our goal is that we know our users want more information from us. We want to simplify creation. We spend almost every day just focused on where we want to take the platform, rather on what others do.
I believe the greatest players in the metaverse will be the creators, not just on our platform, but anyone else. Companies like ours will just provide the platform, the fundamental technology, and the magic happens where when our creators join forces, and they do these things we never imagined that they would do. Roblox has been a repeat pattern at the time.
What Gucci used to do with their brand and virtual equipment, blew us all away. Until now, Roblox was not saying, Hey, Gucci, this is what you should go build. That was their own imagination coming to life. They could do that because they understand their business and their brand much better than Roblox will ever do.
I predict you''ll see that across any successful platform, but it''s not going to be the companies per se that do the next big thing in the metaverse; it''s going to be a scientist who has a crazy belief that nobody has ever thought of before.