NFTs? WTF? It’s just a JPEG!

How I fell down the blockchain rabbit hole and went from normie to noob.

I was familiar with the Bitcoin headlines, the term blockchain, and more recently non-fungible tokens or NFTs. The $69 million dollar sale of Beeple’s  ‘Everydays’ at a Christie’s auction registered a blip on most people’s radar, and introduced the acronym NFT to non-blockchain enthusiasts. It was hard not to be aware that people were paying big money for jpegs, something that most people consider free. But there was more to it than the sensationalized headlines as I was to discover.

This Nyan Cat NFT sold for $560,000 early this year.

Now there are many new concepts with emerging technology and it took me a while to get my head around them, and I am still learning more everyday. But understanding ideas like decentralization, blockchain, cryptocurrencies, and smart contracts are essential to keeping up with the tech. I will summarize as best I can, how I understand it. 

At the core is the concept of a decentralized system that removes any one single stakeholder. This is the idealized concept that exists to varying degrees. A blockchain is a book of records, aka the ledger, that is controlled by thousands, maybe millions of computers that store the information and confirm it’s veracity. Crypto currencies are the tender of a specific blockchain and its value reflects the network’s adoption and usage. And then smart contracts are agreements written in code on a blockchain that can automatically be executed when certain conditions are met.

Therefore using blockchain technology,  one can write something to the ledger, create unique digital stuff, sometimes referred to as tokens, and document ownership. As long as the lights stay on, and the computer nodes that make up a given network are plugged in, the record of ownership of any item, digital or not, can be verified and exists forever. In addition the smart contracts can be written to govern the tokens, and do things like pay royalties to original creators that automatically occur on a resale. Head spinning yet?

First came Bitcoin which is only a store of value, but then came Ethereum which enabled developers to create programs on a blockchain, and now there are dozens of competing blockchains with different approaches, with their own currency to incentivize the network, because someone has to pay for the electricity. (More on this in a later post)

I first became aware of these ideas a few years back when Nye talked my ear off about Crypto Kitties and the idea of verifying ownership of digital assets.  I remember reading up on it and learning how each one was entirely unique,  and that owners could breed them to create other unique non-fungible kitties. I thought it was a cool game mechanic but I left it at that.

Flash forward to earlier this year and I saw that Beeple, artist Mike Winkelmann, was selling his art as NFTs. (This was before the Christie’s auction) He was offering his artwork as NFTs, but was creating slick packaging to help bridge the gap between a physical collectible and digital artwork. If you didn’t fully grasp the concept of digital ownership, you still got a physical thing.

Beeple’s NFT Packaging

Around the same time I learned about Crypto Punks, one of the first collections of generative art profile pictures, or PFPs, also referred to as avatars. Crypto Punks were a creation of Larva Labs and the 10,000 pieces of algorithmically generated pixel art characters committed to the blockchain were given away for free in 2017. The intriguing concept, in addition to proof ownership being tracked on the Ethereum blockchain, was that the images were randomly assembled from a list of visual traits, and every single one was unique. Programmatically generated art is an important and reoccurring theme in digital art. These now blue chip NFTs resale for an average of $360,000 each. Punks have reached the pinnacle of popularity in the space and the team has recently signed on with the entertainment talent agency UTA.

In May of this year Nye and I came across another 10k generative project called the Bored Ape Yacht Club, or BAYC. They were these awesome illustrations of cartoon apes. Both of us said cool, let’s pick one up. They were offered for .08 Eth at minting, the term for documenting a new thing to the blockchain, but we never did. As of this writing the current value of the least expensive ape is around 35 Eth, or $130,000. Missed opportunity, oh well. But the interesting thing about this project to us was the movement towards added utility. The creators, Yuga Labs, were not just offering cool artwork on chain, but a membership to a club. How it would be manifested was to be determined, but as this market for NFTs has grown, the communities that are formed around ownership have been integral to a project’s success. Yes it is art, but it is art with benefits.

Crypto Punk – Bored Ape – Vee Friend

When Gary Vaynerchuck, entrepreneur and influencer, announced his project called VeeFriends,  I figured maybe I would participate in the offering. To do so I created a non custodial wallet and bought some crypto, both a prerequisite for purchasing anything on a blockchain. When the details came out, price structure and utility, I had second thoughts. I loved his take on utility for the token, they doubled as a ticket to his soon to be created conference, but I could not commit to travel to unknown times and places of the events. In addition the price, with Ethereum near its all time high, seemed like a lot. “How much for a jpeg?” I imagined my wife saying. So I didn’t buy one.

At this point I had Etherum burning a hole in my non custodial wallet, and I began looking for interesting projects that I could afford. That’s when I came across the Visitors of Imma Degen, or VOID, and I began to see the potential of where projects might go.

Visitors of Imma Degen – VOIDs

At the time, there were very few 3d avatar projects, most were 2D cartoon characters of animals. A lot seemed like retreads of other projects. But VOID, in addition to a high resolution render, were offering the 3D models of your purchased Degen. As an artist who works daily with 3D software, I saw this as a real bonus and added utility. So I bought one for the studio. Then we bought 2 more.

After downloading the geometry of our Degens, I started messing around and dropped some animation on the characters in Maya on a simple rig, kit bashed some stuff together in the Unreal Engine, then posted my derivatives on twitter.

The community response was great, and when I engaged with VOID collectors I started to see other creators using their own VOIDs to make content. Making derivative art is a big part of these communities, be it memes or full blown pieces that are minted and resold. In fact, many projects give you full commercial rights to the token you buy, and artists who sell their derivatives are encouraged and supported by the community.

The next step was to actually make an NFT. Dip our toes in the blockchain waters so to speak. So both Nye and I experimented with different platforms. Nye minted our Founders’ token on NiftyKit which allows you to customize your contract on the polygon network, and I lazy minted an animated Box Rocket Bot “Cheers!” on OpenSea with Ethereum. 

Founders Token on Polygon and BRB Cheers! on Ethereum

A large portion of the current NFT market is what I would call collectibles with benefits. In addition to being used as a digital identity on social networks and in the emerging metaverses, they can also be used as unique identifiers which can provide access and assets to holders on line and in real life. It can be even more than this of course, and it is evolving. Some of the best use cases are still out there, not just when you consider how games and metaverses will integrate ownable digital assets into their platforms, but how a shared intellectual property can be leveraged by the crowd to create new and interesting content and revenue models.

With that in mind we are building, because we believe there is opportunity for novel approaches, and at this point I am too far down the rabbit hole to climb back up.  Stay tuned for more….

Chatbot Experiments & Pseudo AI

Building BRB 0.1 

For some reason I have always been fascinated with the idea of having a conversation with an artificial intelligence. Talking with a sentient robot that knew me.  The way Luke Skywalker communicated with R2D2.  Perhaps the idea came from this childhood fantasy.

People will say Luke doesn’t really understand R2D2 and needs C-3PO to translate, but I’ll gloss over this for now just as I did as a kid.

So a few years back when there was a lot of hype about chatbots I got the idea to make an augmented reality chatbot that you could play games with. I actually built a prototype, or at least part of the pipeline. I created 3D assets in Maya, exported to Unity with the 8th wall plugin, then to Apple’s XCode, and finally to my iPhone.  I got it working, but realized the AR visual representation was just one tiny piece of such a massive undertaking. Another piece of the puzzle of course was the actual conversation part.

Cut to a few years later and I am now experimenting with the chat side of chatbots. There are currently many platforms on which to build the conversational end of a chatbot.

Now I didn’t spend hours researching and reviewing all the available platforms, instead I chose one that was free to start building. That platform was ManyChat. At its basic and least costly (free) version Manychat is a Facebook Messenger specific marketing tool designed to help businesses sell on Facebook.

Although I wasn’t necessarily looking to sell anything, I figured it was worth seeing what else it could do. My intended purpose was to create an entertainment style chatbot that could provide basic information about our animation studio and deliver a daily tidbit of information. An infotainment bot if you will. So using our studio mascot as the persona I set out to build Box Rocket Bot aka BRB. 

The platform itself requires no coding, basically you can design conversations by dragging and dropping dialog boxes and click to add response options, images and more.  To launch you must have a Facebook page that hosts your bot.

Creating a conversation flow chart

As I began building what is referred to as a “sequence” my vision of leveraging the latest advancements in AI to create a pseudo sentient being quickly gave way to the reality that the platform pretty much relied on a rule based approach. Meaning if there was no rule written for a specific conversation turn, the conversation would break, and when the bot breaks the user’s experience sucks. This makes the need to create a rigid happy path paramount, done best by guiding a user through dialog with predetermined answers via buttons and quick responses. What is lacking are the predictions. It’s just If/then statements. If a user says X, then the bot respond with Y. So no real artificial intelligence, probably not even using any natural language processing.

Now I am not knocking Manychat, as there are many marketers who use it successfully to hawk their wares, but using it to create an infotainment style bot that pushes daily doses of fun was not what it was designed for, and definitely not for having a multi-turn conversation with an AI personality. Now to be fair, after delving into a more machine learning based platform, currently there are not many chatbot platforms that allow it’s bots to answer questions it wasn’t programmed to answer. Not many are fully able to integrate the current state of AI, however this one comes close.

It’s a long video but if you watch the first few minutes you’ll get the idea.

Anyway I created my sequence and asked a few folks to test it and quickly became further disillusioned. One of the biggest roadblocks I discovered was no one uses Facebook messenger. Standard texts, or SMS, are preferred by most in my testing circle, and if they do use messenger it’s not the main way they communicate, so the bot’s messages were often missed.

These missed messages turned out to be the second roadblock because of Facebook’s rules regarding contacting users. To prevent marketing spam, a noble cause, they don’t allow a bot to contact a user after 24 hours from the last user initiated interaction. Basically if the bot pushes a message and the user does not respond within 24 hours, the conversation dies and the bot cannot send another message without potentially being flagged and its Facebook page shut down. The work around of course is you can pay Facebook to reach your users. So much for that noble cause! Switching the sequence to all SMS messages requires a cost per message, and as my first test I wasn’t ready to make the additional investment.

Despite not building the bot I first imagined, I built a version of our mascot that hopefully demonstrates some charm and provides a little entertainment value. If you’re curious please give BRB a spin! Just QR-read the image above, OR open Facebook messenger and type @BRSBot, OR visit his Facebook page and hit send message.

I am continuing with the bot experiments and currently building the next version of BRB on an open source platform that integrates real machine learning and natural language processing. Stay tuned for that one!

Seduced on Starz

We’re excited to announce that a project we had a small part helping out with, is now available to view on the STARZ Channel.  “SEDUCED: Inside the NXIVM Cult” is a four-part documentary series that explores the notorious cult and those affected by it.  In each episode there are animated sequences directed by Elyse Kelly. For some of those sequences Box Rocket provided cg animated reference to help establish the end result. It was a pleasure working with Elyse, producer Holly Stone, and the international team of artists. Go check out the series, it’s a salacious tale! 

Watch the trailer:

Clips from animated sequences in episodes 1 & 2:

Hello World!

Welcome to Box Rocket Studios’ corner of the internet, and thanks for taking the time to check us out. We are working together, and with others, to make stuff you might enjoy. If you’re interested in staying up to date on what we are doing please drop your email in the box below. We won’t spam you, sell or give away your email, we will only send you info on our projects.