Decentraland — A Virtual World for a Virtual Future
Decentraland is a blockchain-powered virtual world where you’ll be able to explore 3D creations, play games and socialise. It is built, owned and monetised by its users and powered by the Ethereum blockchain. MANA is its native ERC20-based token that users trade for land, goods and services hosted on the platform. Before users can start building in the virtual world, they need to acquire plots. Decentraland is made up of a limited number of parcels called LAND, the canvas on which users can build their experiences. They have full creative freedom and can earn income from anything they generate. The Decentraland Marketplace is an open, decentralised market where you can buy, sell and manage these parcels of LAND. Users can search and navigate Decentraland using the in-built Atlas tool.
What sets them apart?
Cryptocurrencies are not the only thing made possible by blockchain technology. They can be used to store various types of complex information, game assets being just one example. All without having to trust a central third-party to manage those records. That’s where Decentraland comes in.
Building on what was accomplished by the likes of Minecraft, Roblox and World of Warcraft, Decentraland allows you to create your own environments, on virtual land you own, free from centralised control. In that sense it can be seen as an infinite, tokenised and decentralised version of those platforms, where you are completely free to create whatever you want, and that nobody else can destroy.
Parcels of virtual land can be purchased with the native MANA ERC20 token, either via one of the announced land auctions (there have been 2 so far), or by purchasing from a current owner. Each individual unit of land, known as a “Parcel” equated to 10m x 10m of virtual space, however, following a recent community decision, via the integrated Agora voting system, the default parcel size was altered to 16m x 16m. Any joined collection of more than one parcel is known as an “Estate”. Some estates are further organised into “Districts”, which may be themed, for example Genesis Plaza where users will first arrive, or Crypto Valley.
It utilises the ERC721 non-fungible token (NFT) standard to create, store and exchange these assets, allowing for a marketplace where users, rather than centralised companies, can earn from their content creation, goods, services or land.
The Decentraland Foundation was founded by Esteban Ordano, who also serves as CTO. He has significant experience in the space having co-created the Bitcoin infrastructure library known as Bitcore (whilst working as a software engineer at BitPay), further to his work on Copay (a bitcoin wallet) and Insight (a bitcoin blockchain API). He is supported by Ariel Meilich as Project Lead, bringing in knowledge from data analytics and venture capital, Tony Sheng as Product Lead with experience at Google and AltspaceVR, as well as several team and board members with a variety of backgrounds within the blockchain and VR space. 
What are they trying to accomplish?
Virtual Reality may well be on the cusp of mass adoption and will have a huge impact on our daily lives in the future. The group of friends and VR enthusiasts that started the Decentraland project did so, in part, as a response to their concern over what would happen in the VR space if we allow a single entity to control its future, as Google does today in search, or Facebook in social media for example. A centralised entity like this would have the power to dictate the cost, to control content, to censor users and to monetise the platform solely for themselves. That was not the kind of future for VR they wanted, and so Decentraland is a proactive attempt to try and avoid such a situation. 
If they can pull it off, they would help to save one of the most important emerging digital industries and large part of our future digital lives from centralised control, delivering a decentralised platform where the users (you know, the ones who actually provide content and value) are rewarded and have a say in decision-making. This would be in stark contrast to the emerging internet-based digital applications we have seen in recent years, where people are only just beginning to understand the true cost of some of these “free” services.
Does it solve a real problem?
Not yet, but it will do. As alluded to above, Decentraland is trying to help solve a problem that doesn’t really exist yet, in the virtual reality world anyway. The team behind it know only too well, however, what is on the horizon for this industry and how it could be cornered by relatively few existing multinational players who are much more interested in centralised and closed systems to monetise users, than in a collaborative open one where all participants are rewarded.
Many projects in the crypto space are criticised for trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist. Yes, some are complete vapourware, but others recognise that many of the digital applications we now use today, didn’t solve a problem at their conception, but did have the foresight to realise they could solve a problem that the mass populous didn’t yet know they had, or be proactive enough to create solutions to probable future issues. That certainly seems to be the case with Decentraland too. There’s no guarantee of success, especially in a culture where convenience seems to win over everything, despite its cost. However, they recognise where and how quickly the VR space is going, and unless we want to recreate some of the monopolies and associated abuses of such power in this emerging industry, action needed to be taken over the last few years to try and provide a viable alternative.
On launch, it talks about mobile, web and VR options. If they can integrate with consoles like Microsoft’s Xbox and Sony’s Playstation products, especially considering their current VR development, they’d be knocking on the door of mass adoption. Partnerships already seem to be forming — it was recently announced that HTC would support the Decentraland Marketplace on their new EXODUS1 (the world’s first blockchain-enabled smart phone), however some of the integrations they may desperately need are also with potential competitors. If the likes of Microsoft, Sony, Apple, and others can be convinced that an open, decentralised VR world network from which they can all build their own products and services is the best way to go for everyone, much like the variety of products and services that are built on top of the Internet today, maybe those integrations will be possible. Without them, traction may prove difficult.
The project has also received support from the Digital Currency Group Founder and CEO, Barry Silbert.  He has been a strong advocate of the project that makes up part of the DCG portfolio in the form of a VC fund named Metaverse. The exclusive purpose of the fund is to focus on building startups within the Decentraland ecosystem.  A MANA Investment Trust also appears to be on the cards at its subsidiary Grayscale, according to a yet to be utilised page on their website.  Such support certainly indicates the long term belief in both MANA and Decentraland from one of the most successful and established companies in the space.
In a collaborative move, Decentraland provides the opportunity to purchase LAND from auctions in BNB, KNC, ELF, ZIL, SNT, DAI and MKR, with more likely to follow. In addition, other projects such as Aelf are actively building on the Decentraland platform too, establishing it as much more of a platform that other projects can utilise, rather than seeing them as pure competitors.
Decentraland’s “Builder” went live in March and allows anyone to develop creations without specialist skills being required, though there is an SDK (Software Development Kit) for more advanced users. Having tried this out for myself, it is basic, but certainly user friendly and very simple to use. It’s a little slow and buggy in places, with limited inventory to build creations, though it’s a good start and no doubt more advanced versions will follow. It will certainly attract enthusiasts of Minecraft and the like. A contest was also launched to encourage adoption, with LAND, MANA and an HTC EXODUS1 phone up for grabs for the most imaginative designs.
It does offer something completely different however, not just an open decentralised network for software and game developers to built their ideas on top of, but one in which the users can build themselves. Much as video platforms like YouTube allowed anyone to create, share and publicise their own work, without the need to go through record labels or management companies, over time this approach may lead to a plethora of creations from any user.
It’s the right idea for the future that’s being developed, but I can’t help but wonder if the concept is a little ahead of its time, and the masses outside of crypto would simply rather wait from an offering from more established brands.
Older generations may be particularly skeptical of why anyone would want to buy and create anything in a virtual world. Parents of children caught up in the world of 3D creative games over the last decade may understand this a little better, though this is much more than just a game. It is predominantly the generation of these children and beyond, however, that will take this experience to the next level.
As crypto adoption grows in general, society may be more and more inclined to utilise such decentralised, collaborative and user rewarding platforms across all types on industries, VR certainly included. For anyone who has seen the film Ready Player One, we’ve already had a glimpse of where the VR world may take us, and we are certainly heading to increased digitisation of everything, not moving further away from it. Despite its doubters, there’s a strong possibility that a virtual world to meet, socialise, buy and sell goods and services, play games and more, will indeed become a reality. In the early days of the Internet, many scoffed at the idea of socialising online, or buying and selling anything digitally, yet today, for better or worse, many of us spend a significant amount of our daily lives doing exactly that. Any platform, particularly a decentralised one, that can harness this opportunity to combine our current digital gaming, socialising and transactional experiences, will likely become a killer application in the space. Decentraland is positioning itself to be exactly that.
Disclaimer: Investing or trading in crypto currencies involves significant risk. It is important to research and carefully assess any such investments. All the information presented in this article does not constitute financial advice or recommendations of any kind.