The virtual boating future is coming, but there aren’t a lot of rules yet for the people building the boats and marinas inside it. Anybody planning to step aboard right now can score some prime waterfront real estate, but also needs to beware of pirates.
That’s the advice from Carolina Milanesi, principal analyst at the Silicon Valley-based consultancy The Heart of Tech, following the news that somebody paid $650,000 for a yacht that exists only in the metaverse, for use at a virtual marina that’s still being built, inside a digital platform so new that nobody can even access it yet. Yup, it actually happened. That was in late November.
To understand what this news means — both today and for virtual boating in the next decade or so — start by thinking about Steven Spielberg’s 2018 movie Ready Player One. In that film, characters put on virtual-reality headsets and enter a digital world called The Oasis, where they become avatars walking around inside a hyper-realistic video game. As avatars, they can do things just like in the real world, such as drive cars, but they can do those things in virtual-only ways, such as driving the DeLorean from Back to the Future while outrunning King Kong. How the digital world is built, and what players can do inside of it, are limited only by imagination.
Today, that virtual world we’ve seen at the movies is being built in real life. It’s called the metaverse, and its simplest definition is that it’s a virtual-reality space where users can interact with a computer-generated environment and other users.
Enter a New York-based company called Republic Realm, which is angling to be the luxury provider of things like superyachts inside the metaverse. Inside a metaverse platform called The Sandbox, Republic Realm is creating a place called Fantasy Marina. The marina’s look is based on the port at St. Tropez. It’s where the $650,000 virtual yacht just sold — and where other kinds of virtual-only boats are for sale now too.
“We are making a marina in The Sandbox, and we are selling boats to go into that marina,” says Janine Yorio, CEO of Republic Realm. “This yacht that was sold goes into that marina, which will ultimately be a place to gather in the game, and where people can do things.”
The virtual yacht is called the Metaflower. It’s the digital equivalent of a custom one-off that’s party-ready. While it looks really blocky — think Legos, Minecraft or, if you were a kid in the 1970s and ’80s, the games “Pong” or “Outlaw” on the Atari 2600 — but it has a DJ booth, a hot tub, a helipad and a garage for tenders. As soon as The Sandbox opens for public use via virtual-reality headsets, the owner of the Metaflower will be as ready to rock as the owner of a real superyacht on the French Riviera is right now. And of course, future upgrades are possible.
“There’s a caché that comes with owning it,” Yorio says. “I think that people will look to host events on their yacht that other people can’t host, just like in the real world. It’s a way to flex, just like in the real world.”
Other users inside The Sandbox can get to that party aboard their own virtual boats, which can be bought on OpenSea, which is like eBay. On OpenSea, Republic Realm is selling virtual speedboats that mimic classic wooden runabouts. As of this writing, bidding to own the White Whippy virtual speedboat was 1.75 ethereum, which is a cryptocurrency like bitcoin. (At press time, 1.75 ethereum was the equivalent of about $6,700.) The Green Glow virtual speedboat was going for around $7,500, and Pink Prowler was bidding at about $21,000. There also were various personal watercraft available, with bids from about $500 to $1,300.
“The positive side of it can be an extension of the love and passion for your boat that you have in real life,” Milanesi says. “This gives you an opportunity to create a digital second life and let you keep doing the things you like to do, maybe at times of the year when you can’t take your boat out because of weather, or as you get older and you can’t boat the way you want to go boating. It could be opening up the sport to people who cannot afford boats in real life, either because of where they are or because of economics.”
The downside, she says, is that a lot of the people currently building this virtual world come from the gaming industry. Among other things, that means a
primarily young, white-male-dominated universe where product placements abound.
Construction of this virtual world is still at least a decade away from looking anything like The Oasis in Ready Player One, or like what Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook fame has been talking about with Meta, Milanesi says. And there aren’t a whole lot of rules about how people can build this virtual world, or about how people’s avatars can act once they’re inside.
For instance, a Bloomberg reporter recently wrote about her experience inside the metaverse. One avatar was walking around coughing on everyone, saying he had Covid. Another was making animal noises. Still another hurled obscenities at her. “Think about that in terms of somebody who can’t drive a boat, but who thinks it would be fun to drive around and smash into everybody,” Milanesi says. “It’s everything that can possibly go wrong in a video game. It doesn’t matter if you’re real or you’re in the metaverse. If you’re a moron, you’re a moron.”
At the same time, it’s also everything that could possibly go right. Republic Realm is planning to host events such as virtual boat shows and regattas at Fantasy Marina. Milanesi sees a future of virtual boater education, with safe spaces to practice docking or being at the helm in a crowded seaway. Think about how it might feel to be laid up in the hospital after knee or hip replacement, but to be aboard a virtual boat while recovering.
And it can be your virtual boat, Yorio says. Custom yacht designers are already creating photorealistic computer-assisted-design renderings that superyacht buyers can “go inside” by way of virtual-reality headsets, to view and choose everything from lighting arrangements to furniture for real-life yachts.
Right now, a 3-D game developer could turn those CAD renderings, which are often shown on websites, into interactive metaverse experiences. “You’re only limited by your ability to hire somebody to build it for you,” Yorio says. “It’s building a video game. A website is a very distilled-down video game. A video game is much more interactive. That’s what we’re doing here. These assets are mini-video games, where if you steer the boat, it turns, or if you have a helipad, you can land a helicopter on it.”
So no matter whether the cost is $65 or $650,000, is it smart right now to buy a boat that exists only in the metaverse? “Tread carefully and see what the opportunities are,” Milanesi says. “Do you see this as an investment? Other people are thinking this is going to be great for entertainment purposes. Companies are trying to monetize right now, but it’s early. The rules have not been written yet. You could say it’s still the Wild Wild West.”
This article was originally published in the April 2022 issue.