The word ‘metaverse’ took the internet by storm last year as Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg declared his company’s intent to go beyond its social media products and build the next big thing.
For some, the metaverse is the holy grail of the digital world that promises an environment to work, entertain, create and consume. Real estate prices have boomed 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 pivot and rebranding as Meta, there is not much happening in this world.
Interesting Engineering spoke to Daniel Sturman, the Chief Technology Officer (CTO) at Roblox, one of the earliest versions of what we call the metaverse today and has remained popular for over a decade. Sturman holds a Ph.D. and MS in Computer Science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a BS in Computer Science from Cornell University.
As CTO at Roblox, Sturman is responsible for leading the engineering team and driving the company’s technical strategy in support of the vision to connect billions of people in the metaverse with optimism and civility. With previous leadership experience at Cloudera, Google, and IBM, Sturman has been around many new concepts in the technology world and has seen them grow. In an interview with IE, Sturman shared his vision of the metaverse and his expectations for it to grow in the future.
Interesting Engineering (IE): Roblox has been around for over a decade. Did you ever think it would be bigger than a game?
Daniel Sturman: As we’ve been building out Roblox, we’ve always thought of it as more than gaming. We’ve thought of it really around this idea of 3D experiences where people just come together to do almost any activity. You’re seeing that play out now with a lot of things we’ve been doing over the past few years with concerts on our platform.
We’ve seen graduations and even birthday parties. Some universities have recreated their campus online, and during COVID, we created a mock-up of our own headquarters with rooms so teams could get together, coordinate and collaborate.
Things like concerts and brand experiences have started to really take off on the platform. The whole idea was really just recreating kind of arbitrary 3D experiences and allowing people to have social experiences within them.
The world had a problem, and there is a way of addressing that problem to some degree with these 3D experiences.
Many companies now want to create these experiences for customers in this wave of the metaverse. How is Roblox approaching this?
I think the term Metaverse started off with Neal Stephenson’s book Snow Crash in the early 90s, and the idea that we’re building something like that was obvious from the very beginning. I think everyone at Roblox has read that book at some point, some even before joining the company.
But it’s not that we were focused on recreating someone else’s vision. Rather, it was really around this new way of interacting, which is more than just a 2D text feed. There are a lot of cool things you can do in this world, and when you bring physics and graphics into the mix, it gets a lot more immersive.
So I don’t think we were ever surprised that people started using our metaverse; we always knew it was out there. It’s just it felt a little broad for what we’re talking about, and we were kind of focused on the specifics of what we were doing at the time. Right, so I think you know how you’re representing the metaverse as part of the immersion and what a metaverse for what an avatar needs to look like really is driven by the experience you’re trying to create.
I don’t think there’s any right or wrong way to do it. The way we’re doing it at Roblox is focusing on having infinite choices on what your avatar looks like. So the participant can decide what they want to look like in collaboration with the experienced creator.
For example, your avatar is going to look different in a rock concert than, let’s say, in a wild west simulation game. And if you are with your school trip going to ancient Egypt, in an experience, you’re going to look different there. So we recently launched a new avatar clothing management system. That’s possible with technology today, where you can first have very custom bodies and all the items in our shop can be a layer on top of it.
This is vastly different from other avatar systems, where you have clothing items designed in concert with bodies. What we’ve done instead is allowed creators to come in and create items, none of which are provided by Roblox. We allow users and content creators to mix and match and put constraints to get the exact experience they want.
We do think 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. Therefore, we offer pretty much infinite choices on what you can look like.
Speaking of avatars, are these the best representations of ourselves that we can produce? The legless digital forms are floating around in a digital world.
Yes and maybe no, as well. It depends on the experiences, I guess. Let’s say you’re doing an interview. You might actually want to be in something not crazy, but say an equivalent of a suit, right? Like a little bit more conformist, a little less expressive, right, a little bit less crazy. Then you’ll have other environments where something like a suit would be a no-go.
I think it just all depends on the environment you’re trying to work in on what that looks like. Also, if your environment makes sense with legless avatars, and your technology can drive that expressiveness one way or another, even with the limitation. To summarize, I do not think there’s one size fits all when it comes to avatars.
McLaren launched their new Formula One race Car on Roblox, Chipotle came with a burrito-branded experience. We’ve had Gucci, we’ve had Ralph Lauren.
If my avatar does not look like me, how do people know they are interacting with the real me? How do we authenticate individuals?
I don’t think that function will come from your avatar, per se. I think there are other mechanisms to do that, particularly if the person is a notable celebrity or in some way. I think there are ways to use the social features of the platform to verify identities if there is a need for that.
So you can imagine, if you’re the real Taylor Swift on the platform, there might be like a blue checkmark or something like that. Or even if I’m the real Dan Sturman, not anyone special, you know, there’ll be social mechanisms where I can prove my identity.
Having said that, we have to be very cautious of people’s privacy and the safety of their data. I think that’s something that is just developing but needs to be approached with caution.
Since you mentioned the Blue Tick, do you think social media sites like Twitter will have a role to play?
I’m not sure you would log in using Twitter onto metaverse platforms. For many of our users, Roblox has been their first user ID ever. So let’s put in the future ways of bringing your identity together or having connections between those things.
By design, ROBLOX is a very social platform; it’s not just a place to come and experience or to enter an experience or a game. It’s a place where you do that with your friends, with your colleagues. And that’s kind of inherent to our platform.
So we tend to think of our Roblox as having two main components. One is the content component, and the other equally important is the social component. And we absolutely see this when we decide what instance of an experience you’re going to be in, we make a very strong effort to put you there with your friends. So it is inherently a social activity. It’s just a different one from the traditional kind of 2D text-based stream-based approach to social media, but I don’t think it’s any less a social platform. Rather, I mean it is a very active social platform. I mean, 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”, that’s how the conversation always goes.
So will metaverse platforms have their own internal social media?
In the metaverse, there are inherently social experiences, you’re going to be wanting groups, and you’re going to have content you share with each other. We recently forayed into voice on the platform. So you’re often just talking with each other in real-time on the platform. You’re doing things together; you go to a concert, you’re dancing together. You’re playing games together. You might be trying on items or commenting. Let’s say you’re at a virtual fashion show, right? You may be doing that together. You know, you could be driving cars together. So there are all these things that you’re doing together, which are inherently interactive and social, that you wouldn’t really need separate social media.
With so many companies developing metaverses, will we end up seeing silos of these digital worlds and then have to wonder how to integrate them?
We’re always trying to think about integrations and interactions. The biggest one on our platform right now is a better connection to things like YouTube videos. So much of our community uses this mechanism to kind of teach and explain and interact.
What are the biggest challenges for Roblox?
I could think of two big ones. So the one is just continuing to broaden the types of experiences that are available on the platform. We’ve had a long, rich history of games we’ve been doing a lot with music. In early April, we had the Grammy week experience
We’re doing a lot with brands. Recently, McLaren launched their new Formula One race Car on Roblox, which was somewhere in between a game and a brand experience. Chipotle was recently on the platform with a burrito-branded experience. We’ve had Gucci, we’ve had Ralph Lauren. And so, I think those brands are going to be really big on the platform.
We’re starting to do some really interesting things with education and can’t call out the participants right now, but really trying to help turn Roblox into a teaching tool for two avenues. One is the experience avenue where say, your school wants to take a field trip to ancient Egypt, and the other is the learning of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). Because so many people get their first touch of programming, a computer building something on a computer with Roblox, we’re leaning into that as well. Work, I think that’s a little bit farther out but is something we’re starting to experiment with as well at Roblox.
So this breadth of experiences, I think, is one of the big challenges. And those will all drive very different technical requirements. For example, if you’re going to do work, you really need the voice and expressiveness of your avatar to be key in order to kind of get a much more high throughput sort of activity.
The next big one, I would think, is the breadth of creation. Our overall goal is any creator should be able to come to the platform with a great idea. And as easily as possible, create a 3D experience. So today, that involves using our tools, primarily Roblox Studio and sometimes external ones, to help creators go in, build and code up parts of these experiences. We’re really looking at is how do we drop that skill level? There’s a lot of really interesting AI-driven deep learning workaround creation on a bunch of platforms. We think we can apply that to Roblox.
How do you make it really easy to create a world based on some text that you’ve written up, or that describes the world? How do we make it easier to bring characters and obstacles for a game or to make it really easy for a brand to build their experience out on the platform without having to be as deep in the technology. So I think making everyone a creator, having experiences which are themselves creation experiences, and the breadth of creation are going to be a really big push for us, going ahead.
What do you think is the role of wearables in the metaverse? How will they shape up in the future?
Right now, Roblox is all about meeting where you are and being available on any device, and unsurprisingly, our biggest device by far at this point is mobile devices. We know our users can feel through that interface, it is really immersive, and they really feel part of the experience.
Having said that, I think wearables are an interesting technology direction; it’s one we’ll definitely be engaged with. But we don’t think it’s central to the experience at all. It’s just another way to consume it. Whether it is most appropriate or not, will really, depend on the creator’s vision and the experience, they wish to create. There may be experiences that are absolutely best consumed through a VR device, but probably the majority of experiences will not be that. It may also depend on the individual user, whether most of their experiences will be consumed through VR or through their phone. Guess there will be a lot of mixing and matching.
Wouldn’t you want it to be a uniform as a platform? Otherwise, will the user have to keep switching between devices to access different worlds?
Like I said, most experiences and the way we build Roblox is that they can be consumed on any device. But even today, we have some creators who say, Hey, I’ve built this experience, just for a mobile device, or just for PC, even though they might a minority of experiences on the platform. I do expect most experiences will be universally accessible. And depending on which device you come in with, you might have a slightly different experience. As you know, being on a phone and being on a VR device are very different, right? But 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 world onto the charrette. But we always believe in putting the choice in the hands of our creators. So I’m not going to rule out that a particular creator has a vision for their space and may say, Hey, I’m going to restrict it in some cases, for whatever reason, I don’t know what those reasons would be. But I’m not going to take that choice away from my creators.
How do you look at the hype around the metaverse 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 quite a while. Overall, we have a vision for where we’re trying to get to, and we’re just going to keep pushing on that. We do think it’s exciting that there’s been kind of this recognition of what a lot of our users have been doing for such a long time. People are talking about the metaverse more, and it makes sense because COVID really highlighted that people were looking for new ways to express themselves and interact.
I think that’s where most of this is. You could call it hype, but I would say the world had a problem, and there is a way of addressing that problem to some degree with these 3D experiences. I’m not sure if there’s been a lot more attention, but even if were, it makes a lot of sense given what the whole world was just going through.
Your avatar is going to look different in a rock concert than in a wild west simulation game or if you are on your school trip going to ancient Egypt.
What can users and metaverse enthusiasts expect in the coming years from Roblox?
As the lead for the engineering team, we have more cool things to do than we ever have people to do them, so we just kind of stay focused and keep getting the next great thing out there. Like the brand partnerships I was talking about, the layered clothing launch gives our avatars and our creators a lot more flexibility there.
Probably later in the year or maybe next year, we will roll out 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 expressiveness within the avatar.
Not just that, we are also working on how to make real-time voice communication safe. If we wanted to simply launch voice services, we could probably launch them very quickly. But we need to ensure voice is not a workaround for our civility rules and our behavior, the behavior we want on the platform.
Another thing I could mention with regard to creators is that you’re gonna see a lot more inexperienced creations as opposed to having a coder and using our Roblox Studio as the only way to create. You’ll see some of that this year, which will open up new avenues for those who want to use our platform not just to play but to build something, and we will have some interesting ways to go do that.
How do you see metaverse progress from here? Is there any metaverse player that you watch out for?
I think it’s going to be increased interactivity. That’s why I’ve said that voice is so important to us. Because I think people are going to want to come in and not just text each other but talk to each other, have emotion. Another thing I see is the scale. So today, at Roblox, you can do experiences that include a few 100 folks in a given space at a time. We will certainly see it grow to 1000, then 10s of 1000s.
Imagine being at a rock concert with 50,000 people and your closest friends and experiencing all that energy in a virtual world. I think those are some examples of some of the crazy things we’re going to be doing.
Things that you don’t see as a user, like an automatic translation of experiences, are something we’ve been working on, and we’ll continue to push so that someone building an experience in English in the United States can launch it in Hindi in India, for instance, without that burden being on the creator to get a translation team for everything they’re doing.
As a company, we are really very focused on ourselves. I think it also depends on how do you classify metaverse to determine who one should look out for? Our focus is that we know our users want more stuff from us. We want to broaden those experiences. We want to simplify creation. And really, we spend pretty much all our time just focused on where we want to take the platform, not about what others are doing.
I think the biggest players in the metaverse are going to be the creators, and not just on our platform but anyone else’s too. Companies like ours will just provide the platform, the underlying tech, the magic really happens where when our creators get involved, and they build these things we never imagined that they would build. And that’s been a repeated pattern at Roblox.
What Gucci did with their brand, their virtual stuff, blew us all away, as none of us had ever seen anything like that. Now, that’s a big corporate player, and it did not need Roblox sitting down and 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 far better than Roblox will ever do.
I expect you’ll see that across anyone successful platform; it’s not going to be the companies per se that do the next big thing in the metaverse; it’s going to be some creator who has a crazy idea that no one’s thought of before.