Known online as @Bl0ckstone , Michael Blackstone is based in Bellingham, Washington and is a virtual artist & consultant with a broad spread of creative interest, but he is known for his dedicated focus on creating immersive virtual environments & architecture by hand with the use of VR. He operates Propagation House, a builder's lifestyle & digital culture brand hosted exclusively in the metaverse alongside vrdesign.house, the commercial wing that handles consulting & design asks for brands transitioning into 3D.
Hello Michael, welcome into RED•EYE Metazine! How old were you when you designed your first creative project? What is your education background in terms of digital art?
Thinking back by fourth grade I was handing out burned CD mixes to my few friends at recess while the Walkman was the rage. I wasn't making my own music yet, but by then I was already recognizing how to curate & package with taste.
I have zero formal education outside of k-12. My blessing was in having a father with a career in computer science & a mother with a love for the natural world & how environments work. When I was at his place, I had access to computers, tools, old PC games like Mech Assault & stereos laying around from a man who already appreciated good sound. I grew up next to dialup & all of that & I loved it. Early into high school my Mother, a botanist- was wise enough to recognize my interest in details & scenes when she took me out to the forests & hillsides, so she put a camera in my hands to help me direct my focus. Between her & my father I took a great interest in exploring/recognizing our environments while gaining a high level of proficiency in tech at a young age. What started as a means to bring documentation of other environments into digital with photo & film, then sound slowly evolved alongside the tech & turned into an interest in storytelling and creating new environments altogether.
When VRDESIGN.HOUSE was born and how? Walk us a little bit through the creation process of it.
VRDESIGN.HOUSE started with reading the words "Working with the garage door open" from one Gaby Goldberg. She talked about how working in the public eye offered more benefits than risks & how being open about your process can be turned into a strength. I had been hiding a lot of what I had been working on for years, not because I was afraid people would take my ideas, rather there was really nowhere to put the ideas & concepts I had created to be seen by the average person. Along came Spatial.io, & suddenly I had somewhere to host the variety of 3D & digital art I've created over the years. I already had a massive interest in virtual environments from the abstract & surrealist end, but being on the platform & watching it grow by the week I recognized people's need for virtual spaces to call their own. A lot of people were selling projects at extremely high ticket prices or worse, paying for overpriced serverspace on platforms that weren't evolving with their increase in resources or the feedback from their user base.
Recognizing this I started creating spaces that felt more familiar to reality for people to use as meeting rooms, basic galleries, the like- at this point the space was still extremely rudimental, but people were already finding massive benefit & potential... So retaining an artist's vision, I angled my design approach to include genuine usability. Where I used to lead people on a specific path or create spaces that were otherworldly, I began making spaces with obvious use areas- meeting spaces, conference halls & such while leveraging the new abilities that come with entering virtual space & leaving physical limitations. Once I really had the method down, I opened a location & called it VRDESIGN.HOUSE. Starting in late january through june, almost every day we worked on a project, we worked on it from the inside, step by step, hosted live in the real-time metaverse. This way users could enter at any time, watch our process, ask questions & receive direct help on creating their own spaces while being given a space to network, learn & take advantage of our help as consultants without any cost. We eventually moved this two one & two days a week to avoid burnout, but the result was astounding. Thousands of people came in, learned from & taught us directly - where we had a million questions about building & were grappling with problems ourselves, by way of interest & open communication we created direct relationships with people who had expertise in various areas of design that could come in, help us & meet others interested in their fields of study: virtual design as a whole. We've met other agencies, artists, creators & found organic business this way, all through leaving the door open.
Tell us more about SAFEHOUSE, the most accessible environment NFT as a key to future updates, further made-for-metaverse assets, & access to private events, collections & shows.
I made Safehouse as a multiple edition drop to give easy access to everything you need for setting up shop in the metaverse at what was then converted to $100USD. Considering that we do custom work upwards of $8-15k, offering anything at this price was our choice to make a statement: this space is open to everyone, and we reward genuine participation.
It wasn't about selling out, making a fortune overnight or saying we were too good to offer anything at an accessible price- we wanted to give participants everything we can offer them at a rate that was feasible for almost anyone while training them how to use the assets, concepts & resources we provide. We couldn't afford to sustain ourselves & hand out everything to everyone, but if you showed us you really wanted it & had a vision of your own- we'd give you everything & more to get started without lowering the value of our genuinely unique, custom works for clients & collectors.
Safehouse is purchased as a ready-made virtual location, but more: as a key to continuously minted & updated content in the future- Content accessible directly through the metaverse or securely through servers tied directly to the blockchain for verification & safe, immutable storage. Downloadable, updated versions & variants of the space, new locations, useful metaverse assets, tools, resources & more. These assets are hosted in a private, token-gated instance of the space accessible only by holders of the original Safehouse NFT. Levels deeper, the NFT & its airdropped pieces with time all link through Darkblock & Arweave to provide a secure location for immediate download of the modifiable masterfiles from any device.
Concisely: The Safehouse works as a ready-made virtual location & a key to everything that gets shipped through its doors. Rather than scrolling the available media & downloads waiting for them in 2D without context, they can enter the building securely, check out what's in stock that day & take home what they like, theirs to keep.
What are your favorite softwares when it comes to digital art and architecture design?
Virtual reality tools like Gravity Sketch & Arkio are extremely powerful. So much of the fear & inhibition of traditional CAD & 3D programs is removed the moment you begin coming to grips with the controls & interfaces in how they work. I work in room-scale VR every day, I cannot state enough how powerful it is to be able to walk around your design, scale it, stand inside or out & make extremely small changes by hand in fractions of a second that would take minutes, often hours to do with a traditional keyboard & mouse setup. Simply put, there is no other way to view virtual assets or design than from inside virtual space or with tools to augment your physical perception of them. We've lived in 2D boxes digitally our entire lives- but we've never actually lived in flatland ourselves. Trying to assess the visceral & subconscious response of multidimensional objects from a two-dimensional perspective is in most scenarios, a massive disadvantage. Arkio & Gravity Sketch in tandem with Unity to polish & publish will do loads for getting your work in front of people quickly & efficiently.
How challenging is the creation of a digital identity in Web3.0 and what about the protection of it?
I think the creation of identity is relatively easy, but the protections of real-world identity within it is difficult. With "Metaverse" as a buzzword & the narrative that here we can be anyone & anything we want in virtual space; we still have to take into account the realities that still exist for many of its users in our physical one. Want to become a fictional alien creature, try out a simulated view of being "someone else '' from an educational perspective or present as a robot or nonhuman entity? I could get behind it. When we take into account the realities, we have made real for the identities of many, we hit a risk range where folks begin justifying profit presenting as a marginalized group they aren't a part of or start to enforce archetypal perceptions of groups of people by puppeteering virtual representations of them in media & production.
If we talk about identity from a Brand & Entity standpoint, the tools available have never made it easier. We have all of the tools we need to create a world of our own & host the information we need to share stories & resources with anyone from anywhere without the need for any language- just solid understanding of how to provide context & a space that's enjoyable to stick around in.
What is so exciting for you when it comes to AI art? When was your first approach with it? Share with us a few AI artists we should keep an eye on.
The sheer pace. I remember learning how to use photogrammetry & sitting around for hours processing models... Now we have text to 3D synthesis. I remember the fear of using samples in that it may be a hang-up if the project ever wants to get past a mixtape... now we have trainable AI for audio output. I remember when I'd sit around for hours waiting for StyleGAN 1, 2 & 3 to process the information you honed them on... now we have tools like Dalle & MidJourney. I could keep saying I remember a thousand times in context to the processes of digital art, from texture generation to film editing, 3D animation, architectural design & sound engineering- we have a tool for every single area of focus if we know how to hone it. The beauty is with an understanding of how to leverage these tools, it's not about replacing yourself as the artist, rather how to bring everything together to amplify your output, abilities, workflow & narratives in ways previously impossible or too costly to touch.
I first touched AI & GANs when styleGAN came out. Watching the training steps for the first time totally blew my mind so I dove in. WIth StyleGAN2 I made my first real AI project after I trained it on all the photographs, I had taken in my archive over the last 10 or so years. It took ages to train but the output at the time blew me away. Then I tried the approach again but focused on Mars surface images, as I had just done some work with NASA on an invitation to the Mars Insight mission launch in CA. Being able to pull up a ton of different archives from the UAHiRise project & a few others, I managed to create a model that would generate marslike surface images & created an animation alongside a track titled "Mars Wind." Was a much larger undertaking to get right than I thought it would be at the time but the result was beautiful & said a lot about the potential for procedural generation & AI visualizations for planets we can't see or need to place in 3D star maps like Space Engine.
As for artists to watch: I will always love & shout at BitMedler to make more art... but I've also been watching @BigTrav dive in deep over the last few months alongside some really awesome work from @DevMoore - I've seen some work from them that I really appreciate in providing a lot of different faces & backgrounds in scenes they've traditionally been absent from... I think projects like this will inspire a lot of minority youth from seeing faces in scenes they can imagine themselves in.... the power of that can't be understated.
Virtual environment design has the amazing effect of inviting like minded individuals directly into a specific space. How important is virtual design for the new generation of young creatives and what we can expect in future, in your opinion?
Virtual environments & the approach to their design will change everything for education & culture. Many of us grew up with 2D media, for the next generation this will be the norm, even an expected standard. Take a group of creative youth with shared interest & give them a space where they can all communicate, just sit back & watch. Between exhibiting work & providing a platform for them all to work & create together in real-time, globally. We've never had this before. Sure we had skype, zoom & the like- but nothing like this.
As we progress in time, we'll see more & more of the world entering virtual space to teach, learn, & play. Educational institutions will evolve or crumble as we begin offering immersive, interactive learning centers hosted in real-time. When you can scale a space like this, introduce teachers & experts, then pay them for their time in a way that is scalable, recordable & streamable globally.... this incentivizes good teachers, incentivizes good information & classrooms. We'll see virtual think-tanks & hackathons become the norm, we'll begin to expect our favorite artists to perform virtually, offer truly immersive projects & for brands to begin opening storefronts that we genuinely prefer over their 2D counterparts. This goes the same for creative groups & niche interest forums. Instead of sitting around scrolling reddit & chat threads, we'll enter the room & talk to these people: tech, film lovers, artists, musicians- everyone has room here & everyone can bring what they were doing in 2D with new life into 3D. As the tools get easier, the anxiety of interface approach lessens & more quality experiences show up, the market will continue to boom & creatives will continue to thrive. If anything, I expect a lot of our next-gen creative youth will find access to resources & full-time careers earlier & earlier in their lives, done right, likely before they even leave high-school. We have a space where our creativity truly runs the world now... the sooner our creative youth recognize this, the sooner they can lift themselves up financially on their creative interests alone.
Add organized efforts- their ability to communicate, plan & demand will increase tenfold. With their creative spirit, their ability to protest, campaign, organize & demand change from their local governments will evolve too.
In terms of the creative industry, virtual design will be the bridge between the physical & digital worlds. We'll see more & more of the entertainment industry & major production companies take to the metaverse, offering exclusive events & ticketed shows, virtual art galleries, fashion shows & more. We're already seeing this, but as more use cases are proven, demos inspire & projects break more ground- there will be no way for the creative industries to look the other way anymore... leading right back to who will benefit the most: the kids who grow up with this as a second language.
The possibilities are limitless, but the one thing we can expect to see more of is an immersive, interactive & global generation coming together in intimate & profound ways.
Any favorite project that you’ve worked on?
Safehouse remains my favorite project, mainly because it'll never end.
When we started standardizing the expectation of .glbs alongside the environments you purchase, in cryptoart & the NFT scene that was a pretty big deal. People didn't say much when we released Copper Canyon with this as the conversation starter, but nearly everyone changed their tune overnight. When we went a step further with Safehouse I think all of the lights went off for me... the longer I host the project & the more I can put into it, give back to collectors & expand on the tools available, the more I learn, too. We really set a new paradigm with a location based, subscription-by-holding system. People are tired of scrolling netflix, they want an experience. This recognizes the want & delivers in a way that keeps providing value- sure we host private events, platinum producers & all that too- but we also give people more modular designs to work with, more assets they can use across platforms, tips & workshops to help train folks on how to get the most out of their space & efforts... I don't scream from the rooftops- but no one else in Web3 has even begun to execute at this level or prove this concept. The beauty is it works extremely well. More importantly, because of the way it works, I get to meet nearly every single one of my holders- I know them all by name, voice & some in person. We feature their work, we put our creative network on exhibit. All because they can actually pop in & talk to me while I work or throughout the week. The connections are real, the value is tangible. I've watched users turn around & start entire storefronts off of Safehouse & its variants with success for $100? I can't wait to come back in 3 years & see where SAFEHOUSE is as a project between the culture growing there & the business networks forming alongside it. I'm thinking about it 24/7- it's the project where I get to deliver the most for the least & the mission is to set you up for your own success.
A letter to your future self. What would you write?
I told you so.