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NFT Illustration
Illustration by Adam Koon

Show me the NFTs

Non-fungible tokens, commonly known as NFTs, are emerging as a multi-billion dollar industry. Hokies are carving out a space in this irreverent, disruptive, and exciting new territory.

Non-fungible tokens are having a breakout moment. In March 2021, acclaimed digital artist Beeple sold the piece "Everydays –The First 5000 Days" at a Christie’s auction for $69.3 million. "Everydays" – a collection of 5,000 images produced daily between 2007 to 2020 and combined into a single collage – shattered the previous record for non-fungible tokens, typically referred to as NFTs. A landmark moment for both the NFT and blockchain industries, Beeple’s sale brought attention and legitimacy to digital art. 

NFTs are digital certificates of authenticity that act as a proof of ownership for digital art, videos, music, and in-game assets. Non-fungible means they are distinctive assets that aren’t interchangeable and can be uniquely identified.

With the momentum brought by the "Everydays" sale, Beeple has leveraged collaborations with an impressive list of companies – including Nike, Louis Vuitton, Apple, Coke and Pepsi – as well as musicians like Imagine Dragons, Justin Beiber, Madonna, Katy Perry, and Nicki Minaj. A recent report by Axios found that in 2021, sales of NFTs totaled $17.7 billion.

In response to the surging interest in NFTs, and blockchain more broadly, Virginia Tech’s Department of Computer Science developed the Blockchain Ecosystem Catalyst. The blockchain initiative, which is led by James Harder, provides students and the local community with blockchain-focused programming, conferences, consultations, and bootcamps. 

Harder, who serves as the department’s external engagement manager, is excited about the increased interest in blockchain due to the growing demand for NFTs. “NFTs capitalize on a new era of creative outputs and interest in blockchain technology,” he said. “Yet I believe that NFTs have barely scratched the surface of their potential. Blockchains, smart contracts, and NFTs have the capability to disrupt other industries beyond financial services like music ticketing, land records, credentialing, and traditional supply chains.”

How do NFTs and blockchain intersect?

NFTs are sold on blockchains, which makes them secure, immutable, and typically denominated in cryptocurrencies. Blockchains provide a secure and decentralized record of transactions and are best known for their crucial role in the growth of cryptocurrencies, like Bitcoin, Ethereum, and Dogecoin. 

Blockchains serve as a digital ledger, allowing transactions, such as those applying to NFTs, to be transparent and publicly accessible. Blockchains guarantee the fidelity and security of a record of data and generate trust without the need for institutions or third parties.

NFTs allow artists and collectors alike to have full transparency along the whole artwork’s supply chain, both digital and physical.  

One of the most appealing features of an NFT, especially within the art world, is a term called provenance. Literally translated as ‘coming from,’ provenance represents the source of the NFT, or its history, and is crucial to determining the value of an NFT.

 

“Digital art is the current leading use case of NFTs; however, we’ll see numerous new asset classes that are going to be created.” —Virginia Tech alumnus Greg Lee

 

Some examples of NFT provenance include the first instance of a very famous meme, or the first-ever tweet. Others examples might be a collection of digital collectibles created by a famous artist, or an NFT minted by a famous athlete with additional physical perks attached to it, like a signed photo.

“Digital art is the current leading use case of NFTs; however, we’ll see numerous new asset classes that are going to be created,” said Virginia Tech alumnus Greg Lee (’94, computer science, economics), who serves as chief operating officer for nft42, a company that builds brands focused on virtual goods and the metaverse. 

Lee suggests that while art is what’s driving the current ubiquitousness of NFTs, it will be the metadata, such as the characteristics that help to define the NFT, that will drive the value of them in the future. “Art is there for the human inspiration aspect,” said Lee. “It’s there because humans connect easily to art to understand a particular digital asset, with Bored Ape Yacht Club being a prime example.”

Blockchain that serves

Dan Barzyk, president and co-founder of the Blockchain at Virginia Tech student organization, agrees that collectibles and art help to break down complex NFT applications into more understandable use cases. “It's easier for someone with no knowledge of blockchain to visualize and connect the technology with something they understand, such as NFTs like baseball cards or limited art prints, rather than to try to understand Bitcoin,” he said.  

Students at Lionhack.
Members of the Blockchain at Virginia Tech student organization participated in Columbia University’s LionHACK earlier this year, marking the group’s first national hackathon participation. Photos by Whitmore Studios.
Students coding at Lionhack.
Students coding at Lionhack.

Barzyk, a sophomore majoring in computer science, has been following cryptocurrency since the 2017 boom, with more heightened attention during COVID-19 and the rise in popularity of blockchain technologies. “I was fascinated by the immense benefits and opportunities that blockchain technologies create, and immediately found myself desperate for discussion with family and friends,” Barzyk shared. 

While enrolled in a senior seminar entrepreneurship course, Barzyk was inspired by Greg Lee, who spoke about his own entrepreneurship journey and blockchain possibilities.

Barzyk, along with fellow classmate Akshay Akula, quickly learned that there were other students interested in the cryptocurrency/blockchain topic and merged their club ideas together with the goal of spreading blockchain awareness across campus. The university’s motto Ut Prosim (That I May Serve) deeply underpins the organization’s mission. “We’re working to inspire the next generation of blockchain innovators within a positive and experiential learning environment,” said Barzyk.

Currently, the club operates with a 10-person executive team, with 280 members on Discord and 60 members registered on GobblerConnect. During the spring 2022 semester, a team of 10 members participated in LionHACK, hosted by Columbia University’s student-run blockchain non-profit club. Barzyk and fellow teammate Harry Chaklader won $4,000 as semi-finalists for their two-factor authenticator for blockchain transactions project using zero-knowledge proofs, while other team members built a decentralized Airbnb application. 

Barzyk viewed it as an opportunity to put Blockchain at Virginia Tech on the map and says the competition marked the group’s first foray onto the national hackathon stage.

Blockchain and beyond

In the same spirit of the blockchain student group, the Department of Computer Science has launched several initiatives around the blockchain conversation, with support from the GO Virginia grant and a signature gift made by Block.one. Building upon the momentum of the annual Blocksburg Summit and the interest to continue the blockchain dialogue, Harder invited Lee to serve as one of the four adjunct faculty for the inaugural Virginia Tech blockchain certificate program.

Launched in the spring 2022 semester, the certificate provided participants – both mid-career professionals and students – the opportunity to develop a specialty in the current areas of blockchain: crypto, NFTs, smart contracts, and decentralized manufacturing. A summer cohort is also being offered to meet the demand and interest.  

Harder says he is fascinated to see where the next generation of blockchain technology goes. “Blockchain has tremendous potential to be a transformative technology, but it’s still early in its lifespan. As the industry evolves beyond crypto and art-based NFTs, our blockchain initiative seeks to provide students with the tools and expertise to experiment and create. I believe there will be a second wave of blockchain innovation, similar to the way that smartphones led to newly designed technologies like Spotify and mobile banking. It’s thrilling to see students in the blockchain club and certificate program conceive inspiring and exciting new applications and ideas.”

Video by Spencer Roberts

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