Maxx Berkowitz is the co-founder and head of product and design at NOWHERE.io, a video-on browser-based virtual gathering, and events platform. Maxx is a multidisciplinary designer and technologist passionate about crafting digital products and experiences that improve people’s lives through intuitive, elegant products and experiences. Maxx has been creating digital products and immersive XR experiences for start-ups, brands, agencies, and entertainment since 2011. His work has been featured at Sundance, SXSW, and Panorama Festival, and he won an Emmy for Outstanding Interactive Media.
Despite a lot of enthusiasm, the metaverse didn't go anywhere in 2022, there was a lot of noise and big promises about the world that's to come, but after many tens of billions of dollars, the Metaverse feels like it came down to some very expensive hardware and far too many NFTs. On this episode, Maxx Berkowitz, co-founder and head of product and design at Nowhere.io, and Kristina talk about the metaverse and how to bridge the gap from today’s capabilities to what is yet to come while providing unique virtual reality social experiences.
[00:00:00] KRISTINA PODNAR, host: Despite a lot of enthusiasm, the metaverse didn't go anywhere in 2022, there was a lot of noise and big promises about the world that's to come, but after many tens of billions of dollars, the Metaverse feels like it came down to some very expensive hardware and far too many NFTs.
[00:00:16] INTRO: Welcome to The Power of Digital Policy, a show that helps digital marketers, online communications directors, and others throughout the organization balance out risks and opportunities created by using digital channels. Here's your host, Kristina Podnar.
[00:00:34] KRISTINA: Welcome to the first episode of the Power of Digital Policy Podcast for 2023. I'm excited to welcome you back as we dive into the conversation around all things digital marketing and operations. Today, I want to put aside the term metaverse because it seems like it was overhyped in 2022 and have a discussion on virtual gatherings and online events that resonate with users gain traction, and yes, at the end of the day, make money on the platform. So really excited to have you with us today, Maxx Berkowitz. He's the co-founder and head of product and design at Nowhere.io, a video-on-browser virtual gathering, and events platform. By the way, you're going to hear more about that in a minute. So stay tuned. Max is a multidisciplinary designer and technologist with a passion for crafting digital products and experiences that improve people's lives through intuitive, elegant products and experiences he's been creating digital products, an immersive XR experience for startups, brands, agencies, and entertainment since 2011. His work has been featured at Sundance, South by Southwest, and Panorama Festival, and a little-known fact to me, but very exciting nonetheless, is that Maxx has won an Emmy for outstanding interactive media. Maxx, welcome.
[00:01:47] MAXX BERKOWITZ, guest: Thank you for having me, Kristina.
[00:01:49] KRISTINA: It's great to hang out with you. And in December, I had the opportunity to experience your platform, but for those who are listening and haven't had the pleasure yet of hanging out in Nowhere, can you maybe tell us a little bit about what is it, and describe it for us?
[00:02:04] MAXX: Sure. Well, Nowhere.io is a virtual gathering events platform. Basically, I think video chat like Zoom meets Fortnite with a little bit of clubhouse, kind of intermingling. So, trying to get groups together. So, we use spatial sound and video. So, as you get closer to people, you can have conversations, and you can hear people who are in the distance. And you can get the most close-to-life replication that you can in a virtual platform.
[00:02:31] KRISTINA: The thing that was shocking to me when I first came into Nowhere is that I didn't have an avatar that looked like something that my son uses in Minecraft. It felt a little bit more natural. I got to see people's actual faces. Is that by design, or how do you describe that for folks? Because it seems a little bit more personal than many of the other VR experiences we're seeing out there.
[00:02:54] MAXX: Yeah, we started Nowhere with the intention of making a more accessible platform online. We know that there are lots of people who like come from the video game side who love avatars and the anonymity that you get there. And I do think ultimately avatars are gonna lose that uncanny valley situation, and everything's gonna feel much more real, but for now you can't beat video where you can still see facial expressions, and you know, get to read body language. So it was, it was very intentional for us to bring video into these 3D spaces because yeah, you lose the anonymity, which I think kind of build, breeds more of a, a healthy digital public space, which is a big part of what we've been trying to do. And yeah, and in that same vein, we encourage people to use their real names. So, all trying to b build a more personal experience with other people.
[00:03:48] KRISTINA: So tell us a little bit about how it works? You're in this space; what's the value proposition, especially as maybe marketers or brands are thinking about what can I do with this platform? How's it gonna be useful to me?
[00:04:00] MAXX: Well, we try to make it as easy as possible for people to get in, number one. So it's all browser-based. You don't need any headset and no downloads. It's just like going to a Google meet. You click a link, and you're going right into a 3D world. And so that makes it really easy to get in, and you know, bring anybody in to, to see either your event or to show off your, your product or company, or you know, or if you're an artist or musician, your, your work. So you can easily set up screen shares, do live streams, and upload content, so you can have like embedded YouTube videos or upload images and link outs if you want to know, sell a product, or talk about different parts of your service. And then, you know, and we're seeing people use it both for, you know, events that are more public. As well as a kind of social space for the corporate you know, especially like monthly All hands or a bigger kind of the social side of business events.
[00:04:59] KRISTINA: What's the benefit, or I guess, what would be really the competitive advantage over having a team or a Zoom meeting, something where people can just show up in Zoom? I'm like; I'm already there. I see your face. We have it installed on our enterprise. I don't have to do anything special. People don't have to go outside of my network. We're all here. Why Nowhere, then, for corporate especially?
[00:05:19] MAXX: Well, one of the biggest things is, you know, when you're in a Zoom-type space, you really can only have one person talking at once. So if you have a hundred people in a meeting, one person gets is talking and, and everyone else is kind of, you know, a little bit zoned out or, or just listening. But if in Nowhere you can spread out, you can have smaller conversations; you can mingle, you can overhear people and kind of like switching back and forth. And so, you know, in Zoom you could have a breakout room, but in Nowhere you could actually kind of have people move around and organize and then kind of like switching between. So, it has much more feeling of being together in a virtual space.
[00:05:59] KRISTINA: Tell us about that technology aspect. Because showing my husband Nowhere and using my arrow keys and he was like, wow, I'm having flashbacks to 1990, which is a little bit crazy because I'm using either my cursor or I'm using my up and down arrows. But really, the technology behind Nowhere goes well beyond the obvious technologies, like the browser. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?
[00:06:24] MAXX: Sure. Yeah. I mean, people have been playing with virtual worlds and the metaverse since the nineties, Second life obviously is a big example of where that was starting. But especially with the browser technologies like WebGL has just, in the last handful of years, gotten to the point that it's powerful enough to really power these like deeply immersive experiences and also enable video to be in the same space as a 3D environment.
[00:06:48] KRISTINA: What do we need to look for technology-wise to take us to the next level? Because the thing that did seem cool, and I would encourage everybody just to check out Nowhere, it's free, right? You don't have to pay for it right now. You can just come in and check it out.
[00:07:01] MAXX: It's free for 50 people, and then we have paid chairs for some, for up to 150 and to have more spaces so you could scale up to thousands and have more features.
[00:07:09] KRISTINA: Okay, so bring your 50 closest friends, hang out do some fun things. The thing that I liked about it, which I thought was cool to me personally, was exactly what you said the ability to run in what I saw with space in different spaces. So you could actually have different rooms, different areas, and it's not just about the look and feels; it's about what you're doing in those spaces. Maybe there's a DJ in one space and a comedy act in another space, and then there's a third space where people are just having cocktails and hanging out and chatting. And so, it's the opportunity for everybody to be doing what they want to be doing rather than, like you said, forcing people into an experience that they may or may not enjoy, and which may cause them to drop off versus stay engaged in a different context. So is that by design, do you actually help people design those environments, or do you provide the platform, and then it's up to everybody to use their imagination? How does that work?
[00:08:00] MAXX: Yeah, so we've, we firmly believe that spaces dictate behavior and that the spaces that you choose to have your event will help kind of guide people. But ultimately, we want to give people a bit more freedom. So, there's I believe we have 12 included worlds right now that you can choose from to kind of sit what kind of 3D scene you want to be set in. And then we have builder tools and a roster of verified 3D artists who have built for the platform. And so, yeah, our builder tools anything that you could you build in 3d, you could build and then pour it over to Nowhere. And we're always interested in helping people integrate these worlds and think of how to build spaces that best suit their needs...
[00:08:45] KRISTINA: So, for anybody who wanted to maybe try it out, because it's a lot easier to maybe do a little bit of a pilot rather than having to do a significant virtual world build out in something like Alt VR, let's say. What does that look like? What would you advise them to do?
[00:09:01] MAXX: Yeah, just jump right on the product. As you mentioned earlier, you can grab a free space, try one of the included worlds in minutes upload images and customize the space to feel like you, and then, do a test event and that, if that works out, get in touch with us if you want to take the next step into building your own environment.
[00:09:19] KRISTINA: And what are the biggest challenges that you're seeing with a platform right now? I think about the metaverse, and in my mind, I keep saying that we're not in the metaverse yet because I think we need a lot more development; we need not just XR; we also need, IoTs to evolve. We need better hardware for sure. There's just so much. We need five, and six-G connectivity. There's so much more than just what's included in web three in my mind, and so I always say we're not there yet, but as you think about Nowhere, okay, so if you think about Nowhere, we're not in the Metaverse yet, are you on the way? Like what does that evolution look like and what are the biggest challenges that you're seeing?
[00:09:57] MAXX: I heard someone can talk about all the metaverse platforms as micro verses right now. So right now we've got these little, like proto metaverses. I think there's a good chance that one of the companies that are out there now or soon to come up, will be ultimately kind of, the framework of the metaverse. Who knows who it's going to be? But I think for a while we're kind of proving what the metaverse is going to be and how it's going to be used. I do think that technology has just hit that point that it's starting to make it viable, but I think there's a lot of, but it's like once every, you know, five years down the road, everyone's gonna be at the point that they've, they have like powerful enough gear to actually be running these 3D immersive environments. So I don't think we're that far off from like, really getting to something that's getting closer to the so-called metaverse. But you know, there's still plenty of development and exploration to be had to get there. And then as far as challenges go, I think a big challenge is a mass public wrapping their head around, what the metaverse is, why it's useful, and why it's not just a shiny toy. So I think that's, that's a big thing of trying to really figure out what it's for and what it does best.
[00:11:11] KRISTINA: And that's one of the things that I continually hear from organizations that I'm engaged with, right? They say, oh, sounds great. Everybody's all about it; I brought my property in the Metaverse. But then what do I do with that? I have a property in the Metaverse, so how do I commercialize that? I think an ongoing question. So, as you were thinking about it, you said, maybe we're about five to six years out from having these miniverses making the depth of a metaverse. What bets should people make at this moment? Should they be buying into a miniverse at this point? What should they be thinking about? Is it just about experimentation and seeing what sticks? Should you be putting a lot of eggs in your basket, meaning trying multiple platforms? What would you advise?
[00:11:50] MAXX: Yeah, I mean, like, like I said earlier, trying to figure out what the best value prop is for whatever your business or your interests are. So, go play with different platforms and see what feels good to you. Try events. Right now, I almost see. I think everyone's going to have their 3D website. I think that's kind of where this kind of first step is. So everyone has some sort of presence that's a bit more immersive. The next step for a lot of these companies. So brands start activating and more 3D in worlds and, there are more events and things happening to just try to figure out what plays well in 3D and how that is an improvement off of web one and web two.
[00:12:30] KRISTINA: So in terms of Nowhere, what are you seeing is really the draw to it right now? Whom is it resonating with most? I know that you said events, and obviously, I can think of many different events but is there one where you're like look, we are the platform for X, Y, Z, for example? To me, my experience was around hanging out with you all, I think, at your party. And what I felt was like, wow, for a concert or social event like this is great. I'm not sure if I could see myself in a corporate setting, but maybe that's what it is too. What is the thing where you're Nowhere is the sweet spot for - blank!
[00:13:03] MAXX: What Nowhere does best is social gatherings and kind of like networking situations where there's a bit more it's many to many; we've had plenty of talks and stuff in Nowhere, and I think that works. But it's best if it's a small component or if there's an element that you watch a short video stream and then you have a conversation around something, or you have a networking event. We've seen great success with comedy. That works well cuz it's a lot of informal; you hear people laughing, and you're, in a space together. And then we've seen real success in the corporate world on the social event side of things, a company happy hour for a remote team or kind of like an all-hands kind of meeting.
[00:13:43] KRISTINA: How much does interoperability matter in that context? So right now, we're still in these mini verses world where everybody's doing maybe their own thing. But as we start to think maybe two to three years out, does interoperability become a bigger thing at that point, you think? Or is it the case that we can still live in our own silos?
[00:13:57] MAXX: Ultimately, I think interoperability is the best way to go. I think learning from where the dreams of Web one were going. Everything is interoperable is definitely the dream, and I think we should strive for that. I think there's a lot of difficulty with who sets those standards and which standards you get on board with, and whether that's going to be the actual interoperable standard. For us right now, we use glTF, GLB worlds, and so that's kind of a universal 3D environment. And so I think that makes a lot of sense. And then I think ultimately, we haven't identified exactly what company we think does this, but I think some sort of interoperable profile system is going to be important, where you can bring your identity from one place to another. If you could purchase an asset in one place and then bring that asset over to another place I think that's the ultimate dream of the Metaverse. Hopefully, it's something that's not completely siloed, and it's kind of be shifted between places; it may be a core pipeline, or it may be a more interoperable standard.
[00:15:02] KRISTINA: Well, hopefully, it's more interoperable standards, and it takes us away from just 3D websites because that's not really sounding that exciting to me right now. I have to admit, I feel like, Yeah. You know, it's just, it's not there yet. And so that also, I'm thinking about this. I was excited to talk to you today, and I thought one of the questions that I did wonder; I know you've been working on Nowhere for quite some time, but really having Web three talent and keeping them must be a real thing. How do you do that at Nowhere? Because a lot of people seem to be struggling with that right now.
[00:15:30] MAXX: Well, web three is interesting too because web three right now is, we're talking about generally refers more towards like crypto and blockchain. Metaverse is sort of looped in with that concept, but it's a little bit of a secondary concept, I think, when most people are talking about it, and they're not necessarily synonymous. So we're definitely working with the Web three community. We have like token gating built in if you want to do stuff like that. I definitely think there's some tech that's gonna come out of that. I think blockchain will definitely be part of the future of the internet. But it's so complex it needs to get much, much more accessible to the average person. And it's, yeah, it's a very varied field, and I don't think it's sorted out what it's going to be yet. So there are a lot of unknowns there. And there are a lot of exciting things, but then you have to try to figure out what's the actual reality of. Will these standards continue in the future? Or is it just a pipe dream? So, trying to sort through that is, is tricky.
[00:16:30] KRISTINA: On this show, we talk a lot about risks and opportunities, and I'm always fascinated because I think there are two sides to every coin. We've been focused on the upside; there are a lot of possibilities out there, which is exciting to me. The evolution of the web, in terms of going from web two to web three versus the evolution of the internet in my mind, which is the metaverse, just has so much potential. But there's also so much risk, and we've been talking a little about risk. When it's XRSI or some of the other standards, varying bodies out there, we see a lot of potential and drawbacks. What do you think people should be thinking more deeply about at the moment as they look at either online event places or maybe whether you're a corporation or an individual? What are the big risks you see right now that folks should take into account as they're joining a platform, whether it's Nowhere or another platform?
[00:17:23] MAXX: I mean, one thing is, I think where all these platforms are figuring things out, and so, as I said before, which ones are going to stick? Which ones are just shiny things that are going to fade out? I think that's a risk, especially putting in a commitment to going in on one platform, but at the same time, you got to start somewhere and try something out and see if it's fun. And, I think you have to think about who your audience is. Whom do you want to come to your events or come to your environments? Do they like anonymity? Is there a value to having a face-to-face? And, are you trying to do more, like streaming content? Is it more like putting up art in a gallery or like shopping? You must think about what the best use cases are for yourself. Ultimately, I think you just have to jump in and give it a shot.
[00:18:17] KRISTINA: One of the things that I appreciate about Nowhere, actually, was the fact that I didn't have to put on my Oculus headset. I'm always thinking about what kind of data people are collecting about me. And I'm willing to give up some personal data. I think I'm willing to give up a lot of personal data. I have this little device on my wrist, so I'm comfortable with some things being gathered, but I thought about Nowhere because, again, you see my face, and I do not have to use some type of hardware. I certainly don't have to cash out for a lot of hardware. So that was appealing. What types of data do you collect about users? Like is that a fundamental component of how Nowhere works? Or are you banking more on people subscribing to the experiences and hosting the experiences?
[00:19:00] MAXX: Yeah, obviously, we're collecting basic data and how people use stuff, but part of our ethos is really trying not to go down the road of where web two went, whereas all, advertising, the actual end user being the product. So we're trying to build a healthier digital public space online because, once you're getting into such immersive environments, metaverse or 3D environments, they're tracking where you're moving, whom you're talking to. They could start to build in like subliminal messaging and stuff that, you think that advertising and Instagram and stuff is aggressive now. Like the next level once you are wearing AR glasses and walking down the street and things are all customized to you, and you don't even notice it is like, that scares me a lot about where the ultimate, it could get very dystopian quickly. And so I think it's important to think about that and in the platforms you choose as well and try to see what their data standards are as much as you can. I know that stuff's often a bit of a black box, but yeah, it's important.
[00:20:01] KRISTINA: Who else is playing in your space directly? Who are the biggest competitors for Nowhere?
[00:20:05] MAXX: Spatial.io is a big one. I also think places like Twitch, thinking about streaming live streaming content. I think that Nowhere overlaps with that in that it's a bit more of a group experience rather than just a passive watching streaming. But online entertainment, I think, is a big side of that too.
[00:20:26] KRISTINA: But are there actual competitors to Nowhere, because it does seem like even though there, you're in a similar category. I haven't personally experienced anybody who's like, yes, we're just like Nowhere. I haven't had that experience yet, and I thought, Is there direct competition? It's an exciting and novel way, I think, of approaching the audience, which sounds a little bit strange maybe, but part of it, I think, and I said this to you before we started recording today, I said, in a way, it's a little bit old school, and I don't mean that in a derogatory way Max. To me, that's refreshing, right? I'm like, Hey, We're not in the metaverse yet. My avatar looks like clergy. Right? Like, I don't have limbs usually when I'm in alt VR, which feels weird. And so I'm like, why don't we just not fake it till we make it? Why don't we just do things as we can and continue to evolve the technology and then really move things forward when we can? And so it was refreshing. It was refreshing to see people's actual faces while we were in this. Like a cool spatial place. And I couldn't think of another platform that's exactly like that.
[00:21:25] MAXX: Yeah, we were the first to market with the video on Metaverse platform. There are a handful of other platforms. I think the closest one to us right now is it's called Bubbler no e, it's a circular video, but they have feet. But other than that, it's pretty similar. And there are a couple of other avatar platforms that now let you also turn on the video, so you have an avatar and then the video pops up by your head. So a lot of competition has been coming out in the last two years since we started. But yeah, we still are fairly unique. Also, we're built in; ultimately we're built in a VR game engine that's browser-based. So, once we feel like avatars are getting to, like, the next level, it is something that we can turn on and then has mixed avatar and video. So we're waiting till that feels like the right moment to do that kind of thing. But right now, as you said, I think there's something to not trying to innovate before something's ready and, so choose where you want to innovate, and sometimes it's great to use tech that's, that's working.
[00:22:26] KRISTINA: Yeah, I like that. What's next for Nowhere?
[00:22:29] MAXX: Well, we're, we're currently about to raise our Series A, and we're trying to push into getting more membership and getting marketplace in the works so you can get cooler pod backs, buy new different worlds, try to have artists be able to build and sell and trade in the platform. So I think that's coming up in a couple of years that we're focusing and then yeah, really trying to get this kind of interconnected metaverse going where people are putting up events or showing off their brand or their products in 3D spaces and trying to build what people want to do with.
[00:23:07] KRISTINA: Well, that's great. Well, Maxx, I really appreciate you taking the time to chat today. I think to me it's refreshing to think about the year ahead and what I do not hear from you is a lot of hype, which gives me hope, that that we're going to have a 23 that's maybe more real in terms of what we're doing with these technologies and the ability, like you said, to continue to build and forge ahead, but also the right size and ensure that our offerings are fit for purpose before we start touting them too loudly in headlines. So we appreciate you stopping by and look forward to seeing where things go with Nowhere.
[00:23:40] MAXX: Awesome. Thank you for having me, Kristina. And yeah, definitely encourage anyone to jump into Nowhere, and we're always open to supporting people to do whatever they want to do. So, if you have a dream or wanna talk about what we could do, get in touch with us, and we're happy to help.
[00:23:56] KRISTINA: So even though you're in Nowhere, you are somewhere.
[00:23:59] MAXX: I am somewhere.
[00:24:00] KRISTINA: Sounds great.
[00:24:02] MAXX: Going Nowhere.
[00:24:04] KRISTINA: Perfect. Take care, Maxx
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