Are you ready for the Metaverse?

July 1, 2021
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The Metaverse, Web 3.0, immersive experiences... the internet is on the brink of a leap forward. Within a few short years the science-fiction of stories like Ready Player One might have to drop the fiction element as technology once again accelerates to catch up with our imagination. Bruce Grove, CEO of Polystream, is one of the visionaries leading this change and he's the latest guest on "In Conversation With...".

Here is a full transcript of the episode:

- So joining me for today's episode of In Conversation With, I've got the CEO of Polystream, Bruce Grove. Good morning Bruce.

- Good morning David, how are you?

- Yeah, not too bad, not too bad. Bruce, for those who haven't heard of Polystream, what is the business?

- What is the business? Well, Polystream has been on quite a journey and we started by creating a fundamental technology. It was a way of delivering high-end 3D applications from the cloud whether it was games or simulations or other types of very visual applications.

But over the last year and a half, we've also seen sort of through the changes in the world and the changes in where everyone is heading. We have seen an acceleration in what we would call, what we were calling two years ago, Web 3.0. But what we now, people are starting to come to know is the Metaverse. And it is this idea that the internet becomes a more 3D interactive experience than it is today.

It's this idea that we don't have to just go and look at flat pages or go to a shopping sites and just have an individual experience that actually we can join each other in these experiences. And we could go to a virtual concert.

We could go jump inside, be fans at a sports game or an Esports game. We can go inside new events. We've seen concerts like Travis Scott, Lil NAS happening over the last couple of years. Lindsey Stirling. And it's really this idea that we now start to think of the internet and very sort of interactive mediums as a way to join.

And what's happened over the last year and a half particularly with the pandemic is all of these new ideas of how we do that. Whether it is things like Gather Town for meeting in spaces, Fortnite becoming more than just a game, Roblox in it's absolute explosion.

And so what is Polystream? Well Polystream is a platform, an infrastructure technology, and a way to start building that next generation of 3D interactive content so that I could say, hey David, I want to go design a new car, do you want to come join me in this and we can wander around it together and have a look and see what colors we like and put it into its own different scenery and backgrounds.

And from there, we go to a virtual hangout, a virtual pub, we go to a concert. We can just move between all of these spaces. And we're building the platform that will enable the creators at that next generation, that Web 3.0 Metaverse content to be able to build these incredible new experiences.

So of all of the things that have happened over the last year, I think this realization of where we're going with virtual experiences is just incredible.

- It's huge amount of different ideas there for someone to get their head around. I suppose, whilst you probably don't want to label the business one thing or another, is it easiest to try and define Polystream as a gaming business but then looking at how that innovation and application gets then deployed into other mediums?

- Yeah very much so. I think when we look at 3D and interactive experiences, we've actually the games world has led this for years. We can go back to games 20 years ago like Ultima Online and we've had these big multiplayer experiences where they became more than just a game, they became social places to hang out. You would go there to meet your friends and it wasn't always about just going, jumping into a game to kill a monster.

Sometimes it was just going into a game because that's where your friends were. And what we've seen is a big shift I would say over the last two decades, but really over the last five years of how these meeting spaces have... That's become the primary reason for going to these spaces.

We don't necessarily go just because we want to go in and play the game, we want to go and hang out and we know all our friends are going to be there. And so we talk to people through discord. We hang out in lobbies of games, we don't necessarily go into the game because we can just chat and interact with people.

And so game technology, game engines have very much given us that capability. And what we're now seeing is other industries are realizing that the 3D, the performance of these engines is capable of creating those experiences in different spaces.

So last year Balenciaga did a fashion show. It was an interactive, you could go in and do this whole walk around the city, seeing all of their new collection. And that was all built on game technologies. But it was built not for gamers, it was built to be a fashion show.

We saw Decentraland creating this sort of entirely new space filled with plots of land where people can hang out. And we've had other spaces that have been around building on this for a while like Second Life.

But now we're really seeing everyone thinking about, I want more than just to go to a website and design something for me and then send an image of it. I want to take people with me, or if I want to go to a concert, there's lots of friction with going to a concert. It's do you buy the tickets? Can you get there? Do I actually want to go there? Do I care enough about that artist?

But then somebody says well hey, there's a virtual event happening and it's easy for us to all go to. And oh by the way they're playing in LA in real time but we can watch it here from the UK. And we all get to hang around together and socialize together. It's just it's a new wave of experiences.

But they're all being built in games and game technologies. And so game engines whether it is unreal creating that, the scenery and the backgrounds for the Mandalorian, well imagine what happens those sceneries become places we can visit and we can step inside and just hang out. And so it is a big vision, it is a lot to take in, but we're already getting there.

We've had a lot of these things being built over the last year where people are now starting to realize that there's more than just Zoom for example. Maybe we can create something that feels a little bit more spatial, a little bit more positional. And I feel like I've got a little bit more being able to interact with people than I have today.

- So over the last year obviously these technologies have taken a leap forward, out of necessity as much as anything but it must have been a huge, oh, forgive the pun with vaccines and whatever else but a huge shot in the arm for the technologies that we're talking about.

But who's going to drive this forward now because as the world slowly opens up a lot of people are talking about fatigue for virtual meetings and fatigue for kind of... People want to get out and see people in person again.

Well it sounds to me like there is this appetite and there is this acceptance and adoption of this technology within the gaming community and what, the gaming is worth what $160 billion worldwide as opposed to the movies that is something like $40 billion worldwide to put it in context.

So it's a massive, it's a massive pie sure, but it's still a very... I suppose that audience is already there and branching out into a wider audience is the challenge right?

- Yeah I think one of the things we learned 'cause we hear a lot about, for example Stanford during that big study and they said, what is Zoom fatigue? And it's very specific, right? We have certain instincts, we rely on sort of how we react and we respond to people's body actions and movements and the surroundings and all of those things.

But when we're on zoom we lose all of that. So if we have a big group on Zoom right and we do this every single week with our company. So we have 30 people on a zoom call. And you can't really sort of understand who's watching what and how they're reacting to you and all those kinds of things. So you lose those interactions. And that's a lot of what has created a lot of this fatigue. But the other thing that's created this fatigue is it's an exceptional situation.

It's not just that we're using Zoom but we've also lost that ability... For quite a while we lost the ability to even just go out and talk to our neighbors. We couldn't go down to our pub or down to a restaurant. We were utterly isolated and locked inside.

Speaking to someone a couple of days ago and she said, this is the first unscheduled meeting I've had in 12 months. Everything has been in a calendar and relied on connecting through some kind of link. But we had been looking and talking about things like Web 3.0 and those technologies as that's the next five years. It wasn't that it wasn't going to happen but it was further out.

And I think what we saw in the last year is an acceleration of everybody thinking about, wow, now I've suddenly got to do something different and I've got to make it enticing, I've got to make it interesting. And so you moved from this world where video games were saying hey, we want to bring people inside our spaces into a world where fashion houses said, how do we bring people into these spaces? But what that unlocked for them was a bigger audience a well.

So if you're putting on a fashion show in a very specific boutique somewhere, your audience is necessarily geographical is locked in and you create a certain experience for them. It's not that that's going to go away, but now you have an ability to also build on that and extend it to more people.

So all of a sudden people in Singapore can be watching the same show and people in New York and people in Australia. You could just be sort of wherever you want and everyone is now coming into these spaces. So I don't think it's that, everyone's just going to go back to where they were.

I do think everyone is desperate to get out and get back to, a lot of people are desperate to get out and back to socializing. But we now have an ability from what we've learned to start thinking about these experiences and what else we can do.

And this is why I also mentioned things like the Mandalorian, right? Mandalorian, that's TV, that's not going away. That's high production value video built on game technology. And that game technology can now be applied to other interactive spaces. And I think it's unreal with its recent metahuman technology, it's incredible about how you can create these new environments.

That's not really for games at the moment. That's so that you can create better audiences. How to foster and partners architect a giant tower block, and then say right, I want to take you on a tour of this.

Wherever you are in the world, I'm going to take you on a curated tour of this space. And you'll be able to interact, look around, look, there's the River Thames, what a lovely thing. All of these kinds of experiences can now be built on and that's why I think it does accelerate forward.

All we've done is compressed the next few years, and it's allowed us all to go, right, we're here, we now know which directions, we can see where people want to take this. And the technology timing is right for all of this as well.

- When you talk about technology timing, with the greatest will in the world, if you're talking about looking around a building and I have a look at the times I will. It's one thing seeing on a flat screen, it's another thing entirely if it is immersive.

And I've messed around with kind of the entry level Oculus headsets and even they make a huge difference to the kind of the experience you have a friend had Saber beat, and it's a completely different experience to a game on a screen.

Do we need that kind of breakthrough and people too, that technology to become affordable and ubiquitous in the same way that mobile phones have. You know we've all got to these screens in our pockets but we haven't all got 3D immersion goggles.

- Yeah I think that's... I think there's a lot of things that go with immersion around how you feel when you're inside a space, we've been doing a lot of work looking at this. We've learned already for example this, and as have others look... People like Philip Rosedale, so Philip founded Second Life.

He then went on and he's created something called High Fidelity. High Fidelity is an audio solution, but it's a very spatial audio, is quite incredible. And when you're in... Even when you're in a flat space and you don't have video, you just have these little basic avatars, but you move around the room and you can hear where other people are and your conversation blends in and out.

And instead of that sort of Zoom feeling of everyone is in front of me and the sound is coming at me from the same place, I now know that you might be sat to the right of me and I can hear somebody's voice that's familiar to me on the other side of the room and I can walk across there and I can have a conversation with them. And I don't have to do that with a headset.

A headset creates that next layer of immersion, but there's obvious... There's also a lot of accessibility issues with the headset. It's I'm not going to walk up the street with a big VR headset on. Sometimes if I'm in a room with friends or family, I don't want to isolate myself with that headset. So those are the sorts of challenges that need to be overcome there.

But I think there is this sort of before we get there, how do I create even on a screen that sense that it is more than just, there is a video being projected to me. I want to know where people are in relation to people.

Can I move to a room with a private corner and have a conversation with someone? Can I step in and out? Do I have ambience? I was on something yesterday called V Together. And it's just got this really lovely demo is you move around and you feel yourself in different spaces.

You walk up to the campfire, it's just that little crackling sound, that feeling that there's a little bit more to it. And these are the things that give important cues, these are the things that take us away from the fatigue.

So if you use the car example, right, you might be standing on one side of it and I'm standing on the other side of it and if I open and shut the door, we should hear a different thing, we shouldn't hear the same sound clung. We should actually get an experience.

And that makes a huge difference to immersion. It makes a huge difference to how we feel about it. And it is that idea that if I was walking around the building and a seagull flies past, it's those simple things. And does it fly past or does the audio just come at me flat?

Can I track it as it flies past and get that sense of seeing where it's moving. And it's building the platforms and the tools to create those experiences. And that will break a lot of this feeling of fatigue because now they'll become another destination. Not our only destination, but they'll become another destination and there'll be far more than we have today.

- What are the technical challenges involved because to run a Metaverse, to run an environment where you've got perhaps thousands of users all logged into the same environment must take a huge amount of compute power.

- We're lucky, lucky, I think we're lucky with this. This is what we've been building for I think 15 years or so but the cloud technology is key to this. The idea that the compute that we are building and sort of putting together can be scaled when we need it and drawn back down when we don't need it.

So it's not that we have to go build some giant resource just for this. If we have an event that wants to bring in thousands if not tens or hundreds of thousands of people at the same time, we can just scale that up.

We can use any of the public cloud services we have today to do that kind of thing, and then scale it back down. In fact we tested this a couple of years ago. We did a big test with Amazon and we ran this sort of just ever increasing number of players until we had 40,000 players all at the same time. And it's that idea that it can become elastic. But we've been here before, right? This is what the web is.

When we started the web 30, 40 years ago, it was a couple of servers. I remember working at Sun Microsystems. And even in early 2000 I think Sun Microsystems had three very small form factor desktop machines that ran all of Sun's websites for the world. That was it, you couldn't do that today.

If you're Microsoft, you've got thousands of these things, just for your own websites. But that's what the cloud is. It's been this idea that all of this online presence, everything we do even Zoom, the number of servers that something like zoom runs, that's so that we can all connect but it doesn't have to run them all the time. It runs them when it needs them, brings them back down.

And our technologies around this space are all about more efficient use. And this is one of the things that Polystream does. It's our computes our computing model is very much built on, if you have compute in your hand, we'll make some use of that compute as well as the compute in the cloud. It's how you interconnect all of these things and better use all of these different technologies. But that's how it will scale.

If you look at your phone as an example, I mean we hear these stats where people say hey, my phone is more powerful than the computer they use to land the moon rocket. And it's like well, yes it is although that was built for a very specific purpose and it did it really, really well.

But yeah you have this incredible computer in your hand. When I started in computing, my computer wasn't even close to as powerful as my phone. So all of our compute keeps building, but the compute that is really building fastest at the moment is visual compute.

This is why we hear so much about Nvidia and graphics processes and how all of those pieces come together. It's our phones, our TVs, everything. Visual has become crucial to the next step of the internet.

- Do you think it's... Phrase this right but I imagine someone listening might go, hang on a minute, is there some security concern angle here? Using all of these different devices, TVs, phones, using some of their compute power, all of these devices have cameras, they have microphones.

When you're assimilating the technology of all of these different devices to try and run the systems that allow you to have 40,000 people in the same environment. How do you kind of head off those concerns about security, privacy and so on?

- I think that's very real, I think it's very valid, right? And we hear day on day different things about something got hacked or somebody lost something. And I think those are, that's there the curse of the all of this compute, right? We're always on in a connected world. I'm not kidding you.

I was actually playing with my router configuration at home the other day I do a sort of play around a lot with how the network is set up. And I was looking at my device list, what's connected around the house. I have 64 different devices registered on my home router.

And I'm looking around the house trying to work out where all these things are and I'm realizing I've got a thermostat, I've got speakers, I got all my different mobile devices. It was actually quite, even as someone that does this, that's quite alarming, that's a lot of devices.

I think it is incumbent on companies like ours to make sure those protections are in there and we create that safety, we create those nets. I think one of the things that Tracy said to me a while back was I think was very important when we think about these social spaces, it's very easy to go into the more public social spaces, MMOs.

There's a famous term, it's a long known term called griefing. You go into this space and you're just jumped upon and you get beaten up and it's a horrible experience and you go, do I really want to play this? Is this really something I want to do? And we still have that, that's a problem.

I see new games coming out, creating the same problems we've been doing for 20 years. But others do it better, right? If I want to go to a concert and 100,000 people are experiencing at once, it doesn't mean I want to be able to talk to that a 100,000 people. I want to go in with maybe my protected group of 20. And we can all interact, we can all chat and everyone else is just kind of ambiance there. They're all part of that space.

And it's about how we make those spaces safe, how we make it so that people feel okay with them going in there. How do we make it so that they don't feel accosted? They don't feel like they're just going to go in and everybody's sort of wanting to jump on them.

And there's a lot of learning in that and I think a lot of that has to be really pushed forward. But some of these starts with the most simple stuff, right? We do have to be protective of data, we do have to treat security at the front when we build platforms not at the back.

People talk about it and then you hear about these giant companies having leaked a lot of data because they hadn't got round to that. We can't build like that. Especially for this next sort of world of experiences we're heading into.

- So you talked there about some of those experiences that people can have in that friendship groups, Phantom is an in-game spectator engine that you launched, or actually let me correct myself perhaps, is it launched or is it pre-launch or where are you at with it?

- It's pre-launched at the moment and it's very much part of the platform we're building. Fits into this entire idea that we should be able to go in and out of experiences. So, Esports are huge and I think lots of people have talked about the stats, how much money is going into Esports. But Esports have become a new form of sports entertainment. And they work in as an... A lot of their existing spectate models are very similar to traditional sports.

If I watched Formula One, or if I watch a League of legends match, I'm watching a screen, someone's broadcasting telling me what's going on. But if I go to the match, I have a different experience. If I go to a Formula One race, I have a different experience, I get a different sense of what is going on.

And so what we built with Phantom and the Phantom engine, we showed that it was possible to put an audience inside a game, inside a multiplayer arena without them effecting the game play, without them getting in the way of the players.

But actually now creating that experience that you are inside the stadium. You're now there and you have, the words we use a lot are presence and agency. You feel like you're there with your friends. You feel like you're there in a group. You can also interact.

And a good analogy is when I go to a sports game, we have the players on the pitch. They're the ones kicking the ball, they're the ones taking part in the activity. But the fans around the outside when we get back to all the fans in the stadiums, the fans around the outside create more ambience, they create more that they're often called the 12th player.

For that reason they accelerate what that experience is. And they also interact. They buy soda, they buy beer, they buy popcorn. They look at the billboards right there to be part of that interactive experience. When you go to a game with a group of friends, you are participating.

And that's what we built with the Phantom engine. We've demonstrated how we can bring people into game spaces in the same way we go to attend a game or a concert. And that's a big part of where we going with everything we're building on this new platform right now.

- Suppose that you've touched very lightly on the real kind of nugget here which could be the monetization piece. When people go to an event, they buy beer, they buy soda, you know whatever. How does that work and how excited are retailers in this opportunity?

- I think it's a new world, right? If I run a game, I mean it's a bit different if it's a concert and it's a one-off concert, people flying in off from all over the world. But if I want to go and watch Wimbledon play at Plow Lane again, hurrah, I desperately want to do that, but that's a much smaller cohort.

How do I increase the reach? How do I get more people into that experience? And yes it is about transacting. All of these things are ultimately about a transaction whether it is, I am looking at something that I want to pass on to a friend or whether it is I want to buy a version of a t-shirt that I couldn't have got if I hadn't attended the event in real time.

All of these things can now start to be built on and realized in the same way. If you look at some of the big marketing publishing arms, people like publicists, Publicis Poke, it's there to create a and think about this next generation of digital interactive. What's it going to mean to do more than just build a YouTube ad or a TikTok clip? What does it mean to actually interact with that audience now?

WPP the same, they building out an entire digital group just to work on these kinds of problems and start thinking about that next generation of experiences for people. I mentioned it earlier but this is exactly what the Balenciaga thing was about. It was about that idea that I can now reach a bigger audience and I can bring them into this space and I can get them excited about what I'm showing.

And ultimately Balenciaga goal is some form of transaction. And whether that transaction is messaging and passing on awareness, or whether it's somebody buying a version of the game. We've just seen a Gucci, I think it was in Roblox. An entire, whole Roblox experience built around all of their products. It was a very surreal sort of walking round, different rooms, gardens. Little treasure hunts in there to get your unique pieces.

I'm never going to be able to take that hat anywhere other than Roblox, but I now have a unique hat and I can only have it and not everyone will have that hat but I can carry it from game to game. It's that kind of thing. It's another transaction and I didn't pay for it, but I participated in the event.

- I can see how that could be commercially very successful. I suppose the one other question that it pops up in my mind, you see gambling adverts on the television now. People get hooked on gambling and all the adverts now are around kind of setting limits, taking breaks, not letting it go too far, knowing when to stop.

And I think we're all familiar with the pressures perhaps put on young players of things like Fortnight to have the latest skins, the latest weapons, experience points and so on. And there's almost these currencies that are built up specific within these gaming experiences.

Whilst there is this huge commercial opportunity, how aware do you have to be balancing the safety of people, making sure they don't get addicted or that they don't overstretch their means and making sure that those signposts, possibly signal safe signals are built into the environment so that people are protected.

- I think that becomes part of how we build these experiences. We have to bake that in as well, right? Whether it is, we talk about age gates, you mentioned sort of how do we deal with skins and people saying, I must have the latest skin. You hear these stories of young kids buying stuff on their parent's credit card and then their parents looking at the credit card bill and going someone just racked up 30,000 pounds, how did that happen?

Yeah, we have to build those protections. We also have to build those protections to make them safe as well. I think when we do look at some of these bigger games like Minecraft and Roblox, a lot of their work is around curation. A lot of their work is around protection. Whether it is time limits, I remember playing World of Warcraft and World of Warcraft used to pop up little things like you've been on for five hours, go away.

Just do anything else for a little while, right? It's that kind of thing. We do have to have those kinds of things, it is very easy to get drawn into these experiences. I think of it more as this is about enhancing a lot of the things we already have, right?

Whether I'm going to a new site, how do I make that more interactive? How do I go to a shopping site? How do I make that more interactive? I still go to all of those places. How do I make it a more compelling experience? Does that mean I'm going to get more drawn in potentially.

But at the same time I think it also gives me an opportunity to experience more than I did previously. And I think that it also gives other people a chance to experience things they may not have had.

And we would like say, you should get out, you should go out more, you should do more walking but the reality is there is a new generation, there is a new demographic of people who do spend more time in digital because that is where their friends are.

But their friends group is wider than it ever was. Their friends aren't necessarily just down the street. Their friends could be anywhere in the world. And I think there's two sides to this. There is how do I now open up my world and be able to be part and interact with people anywhere.

So yes, we need the protections, we need to stop people going mad. I think things like the gambling limits are incredibly important. And I think protections on payments, I think protections on payments for everyone. I've heard some incredible stories about these free-to-play games where only 1% of people are monetizing them.

And then you hear what 1% of that 1% are paying on some of their digital items. And I mean it's incredible amounts of money. But it's also what some of those people do. And they fund that experience then for the other 99%. So it's I think that there's all of these things like I don't want to sort of just dismiss it and there's a balance.

But I think also we've got to learn a lot of these things as we have done over the years with the internet anyway. We've had so many different things, we've had to learn protections, how we experience, how we stop bad behavior. And that will become... That's never going to stop, that will always be a form of a race against those things where one side is trying to beat the other but it's incumbent on us to just keep working at that.

- So last quick question then. When you're talking and you're describing the Metaverse and how it might work. My slightly geeky brain can't help but jump to the idea of something a bit like perhaps Ready Player One, terrible film, great book, but it's not kind of an image that it conjures in my head, but that's, come on that's science fiction, it's fantasy to a certain extent, it's a way down the line.

Where are we going to see the real first shoots of this adoption? Is it going to be business executives instead of jumping on a plane, they're stepping foot in a genuinely immersive boardroom. Where are we going to see this technology really begin to take root beyond that 160 billion gaming market?

- I think we've already seen it. I think the last year has shown it to us. And I think the thing with Ready Player One or Snow Crash, this idea of just going into a single universe by putting on a headset. I think what it does show is a lot of that is built for the story. It's this idea that is single space that has everything.

But what it did show us was this idea of all these interconnected experiences. So Ready Player One has video games inside it. They're racing cars, they're driving, they got all of these activities going on. Then they go into the virtual museum to find out about the history of the Oasis and why they're there.

Well that's Wikipedia. That's our spaces, that's our knowledge base, that's where we go. They go to the bar, they go to the disco and they dance, and they hang out in the dance clubs. And they go to all of these different interconnected spaces.

We're starting to see that now. We see that when we went into Roblox to watch the Lil Nas concert. I went to the club, I saw the players, I saw the things going on. I can go into games and watch these big matches. I can go into meeting spaces and hold virtual events. How we build on that and interconnect it, we'll realize one day we're not really thinking about it. We just jumping from space to space, and we're going from those different places.

I don't think it's about putting a headset on and going into a single world necessarily that has all of these. But I do think it is about making it as easy as possible to go to my museum, to go to my shop, to go into my game and to take part in all of those different activities. I just want to be able to jump around and immerse in them. And then I want to say to someone, hey, because also we also have different meeting groups.

I might be at work in one space and I'll tell people to meet me here, I'm in the virtual kitchen, come hang out by the water cooler. Let's have a conversation about this. We'll pop it up on the virtual whiteboard, it's all great. But then I go out in the evening to somewhere and I want to watch a virtual concert. I invite my social group, I invite my friends. I can move seamlessly between these places.

And we all have our sort of identity management that allows us to get from place to place. And I think it's that I think it's... We're already seeing that. What we now need to do is effectively make that more frictionless, build more tools for it, make it easier.

Right now if I want to take my mum to a virtual Elton John concert, it would be quite difficult. I want to go build the platform that makes that really easy where I can send mum a link and she comes and joins the concert and we hang out together.

I don't want her to install an entire video game to do that. I want it to be as easy as sending her a web article and saying hey, read this. It's that, that's what we'll see very, very quickly over the next couple of years.

- Well Bruce it's been really interesting to talk to you. I feel like we're on the cusp of a slightly different way of interacting with the internet and with what's available. So it's been fascinating to get that view. Thank you very much for your time.

- Well thank you David, I've really enjoyed the conversation. I always love your questions and I'm hoping that in the next few months we can have another of these conversations but it will be inside Polystreams engine and you'll be able to start to get that feel of what it is we're talking about here and you'll see it for yourself.

- Perfect, thank you.

- Bye, thanks David.

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