John Orion Young believes we could be living in a simulation.

Just like in The Matrix, everything in our world is a virtual reality constructed by a computer program, he says. Young is a VR sculptor who is known in the art world by his initials, JOY. He creates 3D digital art using blockchain technology, and his work is traded using cryptocurrencies like Ethereum. Recently, Young said he removed his Oculus headset and realized that the physical world and VR were “indistinguishable.”

 

“Maybe we’re like the cave people of virtual reality,” Young said, speaking from his part of our shared experience known as Portland. There, in a yellow closet, Young creates his eponymous digital 3D sculptures using an Oculus Rift S headset and Medium by Adobe. Collectors feverishly buy and trade his JOYs, which are like trippy  Pokémon, including hammerhead sharks, rainbow butterflies, and freaky trolls. Ownership of a JOY is verified on the Ethereum blockchain, limited to one person at a time. This makes them highly desirable—and valuable.

Crypto art is work directly created, stored, and traded on blockchain platforms like Ethereum and Counterparty. It emerged in 2017 with digital trading cards and collectible CryptoKitties. Artists were quick to adopt it, creating digital masterpieces that exist only in virtual reality, where they are sold and traded far from the fusty art industry. As Young spoke on the phone, I cruised around Cryptovoxels on my MacBook. It’s a virtual world that feels like Minecraft, where Young’s work is exhibited in the Museum of Crypto Art (MOCA).

 

Beings from the physical world are quickly making crypto art mainstream. The actor and venture capitalist Ashton Kutcher recently sold a piece of his digital artwork for 20 Ethereum (approximately $8,000 USD). Young saw an artist sell a digital piece for the equivalent of $55,000, a figure that rivals the price of some ‘traditional’ contemporary art.

“Art just kinda seemed normal. What I really wanted to do was to make everything with nothing.”

JOY is a classically trained artist. He grew up in Lamar, Colorado, watching his father, a wildlife artist, create life-sized sculptures of elk and deer cast in bronze. “Art just kinda seemed normal,” he said. Then a book about Salvador Dalí sent him on a different path. At school he studied art and created hundreds of paintings, but found no creative satisfaction. “What I really wanted to do was to make everything with nothing,” he recalled.

 

Young was working at a company in San Francisco the first time he saw an artist working with Oculus, the VR headset. “They were just in augmented reality, laying back in a chair creating a gigantic spider,” he said. Young dashed to the nearest Best Buy, purchased a headset, and started to build a virtual reality PC.

He minted his first piece of digital art in 2018. Young coded an original smart contract to increase the value of each JOY after each trade, and then list it for sale again. He explained: “Somebody could always steal your JOY from you—if they were willing to pay more than you.” Nowadays he’s migrated all JOYS to a full ownership model. “So the idea is that everybody can view this online digital art, but only one person can own it.”

 

The biggest collector of JOYs is known online as Whale Shark. “He’s somebody who has acquired the majority of JOYs, he has like 22,” said Young. Whale Shark is perhaps the J. Paul Getty of crypto art, holding a vast collection of works in a digital vault. “He’s collected about $2 million worth of digital art work,” Young said. Whale Shark even launched his own cryptocurrency, $Whale. “I was like, ‘What is happening?’” Young said. “Okay, now JOYs are backing this currency, apparently.” 

John Orion Young is speaking at MAX 2020, a free virtual event taking place Oct 20 – 22.

“In the near future, I’m actually putting all the JOYs into what’s called the InterPlanetary File System [IPFS]. So it’s a decentralized storage. If you have a JOY in your crypto wallet, you would be able to click on it, and then just view it in virtual reality, in your room,” he said. Imagine giant spiders and yellow monsters hanging out in your living room.

 

I wondered if Young is ever bored by our physical world. Does he ever eat at Olive Garden, or stand in line at the DMV? “The physical world is so freakin’ cool,” he said. “I like to go outside, go to nature, walk to the river. But I’ve seen the simulation being lazy. A lot of times I see it repeating things, like it’s copied and pasted people in my walking path. I see the same car six times.”

Young, who joined Adobe as an Augmented Reality (AR) resident in 2020, added, “This is only the beginning of what’s possible with programmable money and programmable art.” As he continues to push the boundaries of crypto art, he says he is thinking more about AR.

 

AR is quickly infiltrating our physical world. A heads-up display projects your speed onto the windshield of a Mercedes Benz, while Snapchat and Instagram offer 3D filters that distort our realities. According to AR Insider, advertising revenue for AR is expected to hit $8.8 billion by 2023, a growth of 81%. Young is at work on 3D sculptures that you can view in the real world, just like a Snapchat filter. The possibilities are endless.