The Story Behind TIME’s Metaverse Cover

To depict the metaverse on TIME’s cover, we commissioned a renowned “digital explorer” to guide us into this new, imaginative world.

Micah Johnson, a former Major League baseball shortstop turned digital artist, rendered an image of a virtual portal featuring his character Aku, who Johnson considers the world’s first digital explorer.

After hearing a young boy ask his mom “Can astronauts be black?” Johnson created Aku with an oversized astronaut helmet and a thirst for exploring. Johnson became the first NFT artist with a significant TV or film development contract to create a digital character.

Micah Johnson, artist with Aku statue in New York City

Micah Johnson

“I wanted to present him in a way that he’s welcoming others into the world that gave him this incredible platform to begin his journey,” Johnson said of Aku on TIME’s cover. “He’s most interested in exploring the past. He is able to learn from the giants that came before him who achieved their dreams in the face of adversity and he’s also able to see people who were denied access to their dreams because of their socioeconomic situation, gender, their race, or any other limiting circumstances.”.

As Matthew Ball writes in TIME’s cover story, the metaverse is a network of interconnected immersive digital experiences which will come to reach nearly all places, people, businesses, and parts of our lives. Johnson, 31 years old, wanted the cover photo to reflect its infinite potential.

“The metaverse is a crypto wallet that allows you to have a persistent identity across both physical and digital experiences,” explains Johnson. “The greatest potential is for people whose access to knowledge or experiences is limited due to their physical environments or circumstances. It gives them realistic access to a limitless world.”

Johnson, who was drafted by the Chicago White Sox as a shortstop in the 2012 MLB Draft, made his debut at the plate in 2015. He also recorded his first major league hitting in his second at-bat. After stints with the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Atlanta Braves and multiple injuries, including a fractured wrist, Johnson retired from professional baseball in 2015 to explore his “hobby.”

Micah Johnson #7, Chicago White Sox, leaps into the air as he throws to first base. Jay Bruce #32, Cincinnati Reds, slips to second base during sixth inning at U.S. Cellular Field. It was played on May 9, 2015. Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images

Getty Images

“It was not an easy transition. I went nearly two years without selling any of my artwork, which at the time was purely on physical canvas and I began to really doubt myself,” said Johnson. “But, when I discovered NFTs and cryptoart in late 2019, the welcoming nature of the community put any self doubt and nervousness at ease.”

Johnson started his career painting traditional paintings before he discovered the potential of digital art and NFTs.

“Painting on a traditional canvas is very much a personal practice. It’s like when I was in the batter’s box all alone – nobody else can help me when my brush is on that canvas,” he says. “3D animation is very much a team sport, which is why I love it so much. Playing well but losing pales in comparison to playing bad and your team still wins.”

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