Biting Off More Than I Can Chew: Lessons Learned from a Suspended Virtual Reality Research Project

Photo by Jaredd Craig on Unsplash

As you might know from reading my bio, for the past couple of years I had been working on an academic research project involving Sansar. As members of the faculty union at my university, academic librarians have an opportunity and obligation to pursue research as part of their overall workload. Here’s a brief description of what I wanted to accomplish with my research project:

As my multi-year academic research project, I am creating a user-navigable, three-dimensional version of the Mathematical Atlas website (a guide to the mathematics literature for undergraduate and graduate students created by Dr. David Rusin) using Sansar as a software platform. I am doing this research in order to try and answer the following questions:

What hurdles do academic libraries face in providing access to a pre-existing reference/research tool in a virtual reality environment to students?

Are the software tools currently available (for example, those in Sansar) sufficient to build effective, efficient VR experiences for reference? If not, then what else is needed? This research project would be among the very first library and educational uses of the Sansar platform.

How will patrons use reference and research tools in VR? In the specific case of the Mathematical Atlas, will the use of a three-dimensional landscape model help users better grasp the various areas of modern mathematical research and how they relate to each other, as opposed to a traditional flat, two-dimensional webpage? Or will the 3-D model simply get in the way of imparting useful information?

“Wanted to accomplish” is in past tense because, I now realize, I have bitten off way more than I can chew, and tried to take on a research project that I simply cannot complete with the resources I have in any sort of timely fashion. I originally had this wonderful idea that I would create a three-dimensional version of the Mathematical Atlas website, and I would then test users to see how being able to navigate the information in 3D would impact users’ comprehension of the material.

My research project failed due to a number of factors, such as a lack of research time, and poor overall planning and project management. But the biggest problem was that I picked an area where I lacked the necessary in-depth subject knowledge. I have an undergraduate computer science degree and a Masters degree in library and information science, as well as several years of experience as the liaison librarian for the Department of Mathematics at my university. However, it quickly became obvious that a much greater in-depth knowledge of mathematics was required to effectively create the scenes or rooms representing the various areas of contemporary mathematics research that I had envisaged as part of this research project. As I said, I bit off more than I can chew. To give you an idea of how complex this topic is, here is the front-page “map” of the territory:

The front-page map of the Mathematical Atlas website, showing the relationship between the various research areas in contemporary mathematics research (position of the circles), and the amount of published research (size of the circles)

So what I am doing over the next six weeks is writing up an academic paper about my suspended research project, where I outline what I wanted to do and the lessons I learned in trying to get a project like this off the ground, in hopes that other researchers can learn something from my failure.

I still do believe that Sansar and other social VR platforms provide a “short cut” to building and publishing virtual reality experiences that can be very useful for educational and research purposes. For example, I just recently learned about a project at my university, the University of Manitoba, where Dr. Andrew Woolford and Dr. Adam Muller spent four years creating a virtual reality experience based on the testimonies of survivors of Canada’s Indian residential school system. The goal of the project was to shed light on a shameful chapter of Canadian history where indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families and sent away to boarding schools, where they lost their language and culture, and were often physically, mentally and sexually abused, all in the name of government-and-church-sanctioned assimilation into white settler culture:

I am curious about the technical aspects of this project, and I have reached out to the professors who did this work to learn more about it. This is the sort of thing that platforms like High Fidelity and Sansar would be a natural fit for. And I do believe that social VR platforms will play a key role in future educational and research projects. In fact, I still want to do research into applications of virtual reality and social VR to academic libraries. After I write (and hopefully publish) my paper, I will be sitting down to figure out my next research project.

OpenSim Virtual World Provider Kitely Plans to Run a Grid Based on High Fidelity’s Open-Source Code, Even as HiFi Pivots Away from the Consumer Market

Maria Korolov of the Hypergrid Business website reports, in an article on High Fidelity’s pivot away from consumers towards the business market, that OpenSim provider Kitely is planning to launch a new grid based on High Fidelity’s open-source software:

Those communities that have already begun planning a migration to High Fidelity may be out of luck. Kitely, for example, has long had a strategy of being a multi-platform company, with High Fidelity part of their long-term road map. How will Rosedale’s news affect their plans?

It won’t, said Ilan Tochner, Kitely’s co-founder and CEO… “Our service doesn’t use High Fidelity’s grid services, we use our own proprietary systems for that,” he told Hypergrid Business. “So, as long as High Fidelity Inc remains committed to continue open sourcing their platform codebase we see no reason to switch to using something else.”

That will change if they decide to stop open development, he added. “Then we’ll evaluate whether High Fidelity remains a viable option moving forward,” he said. “We’re building our proprietary services with that contingency in mind.”

In response to a comment questioning this strategy, Ilan replied:

The High Fidelity open-source project has a lot of potential. We don’t judge it based on the default UI High Fidelity offers or how well High Fidelity Inc. managed a VR-focused consumer service while the demand for such a service was close to non-existent. [The] UI can be improved, we’re pursuing a different target demographic, and our company manages customer relations differently than High Fidelity Inc. does.

We still believe in the High Fidelity open-source project because it handles many of the hard engineering challenges that must be overcome to provide a good distributed multi-user VR experience. OpenSim is a lot more mature and includes many crucial components that are required for providing consumer virtual worlds. Most of those components are still missing from High Fidelity, but High Fidelity already has many VR-related capabilities that OpenSim currently lacks.

That said, most of the proprietary components we’re developing for our High Fidelity-based offering aren’t High Fidelity specific and could be used with our OpenSim-based Organizations offering as well. In other words, most of our R&D is invested in developing differentiating features for our own services and not on building platform-specific functionality for any of the virtual world options we provide.

You might not be aware that Kitely has already contributed a fair bit of code to the open-source High Fidelity project, which anybody can contribute to. There is a possiblity that Kitely may choose to branch off from the existing open-source code at some point in the future, especially if HiFi decides to go in a direction that doesn’t meet their needs.

Kitely is not the only company looking at providing services based on High Fidelity’s code. In March 2019, former High Fidelity staff member Caitlyn Meeks founded Tivoli Cloud VR, a company focused on providing supplemental services for virtual worlds based on the High Fidelity software, in response to High Fidelity’s recent announcements (here and here).

Thank you to Theanine for the news tip!

Dance Central is an Unexpected Social VR App for the Oculus Quest

In talking about the social VR apps that are ready for the Oculus Quest at launch, I had overlooked one new app with a hidden social side: Dance Central! (Dance Central has launched alongside the new Oculus Quest headset, and the app will soon come to the Oculus Rift.)

According to this Reddit comment thread, you can actually interact with other players in Dance Central:

It is a lot of fun. It’s good for adults too if you play online PvP (player versus player) in the lounge room. I was playing til 1:00 a.m. the other night…Yeah, you can have dance offs, pose challenges, group battles, it’s quite a good multiplayer game and I can spend ages just chatting to others while we dance.

My First Day with the Oculus Quest

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

—Arthur C. Clarke
My New Oculus Quest (with Bertram the Bear)

Well, my Oculus Quest finally arrived on Friday, and this morning I set it up. I also downloaded my first app from the Oculus Store (VRChat), and tried that out. This is my report on my first-day experiences.

You need to have a cellphone with WiFi and Bluetooth enabled to set up your Quest. You will also need to download and install the Oculus app on your cellphone. I had installed mine three weeks ago, and I found that when I went into the Oculus App, only the Oculus Rift and Oculus Go were listed as options! So I had to delete and reinstall the app, and the second time I could select the Oculus Quest and begin setup.

Setup was relatively quick and easy. The biggest problem I had was finding a big enough space in my small apartment to play in! I decided to clear away all my unfolded laundry and create a suitable space in my bedroom.

The starting tutorials were very well-done, and I had a big grin on my face when I was dancing with the robot! Then, I loaded up the store and went looking for VRChat, and found and installed it.

VRChat on the Oculus Quest works the same way as it does on the Oculus Rift, and in no time I was up and running. I selected a portal to an avatar shop and picked out an anime avatar girl. I also visited Al’s Avatar Corridors, a popular and well-known avatar shop in VRChat, but I was disappointed to find that most of the selections would not work in an Quest environment.

When you encounter someone whose avatar is too complex to render for the Quest, their avatar is replaced with a grey robot which has “PC”: stamped on its chest. I predict that many Quest users of VRChat will soon realize that they are missing a LOT of what made VRChat so attractive in the first place, as they visit place after place where most of the other avatars are grey robots. Will that impact how popular VRChat is with Quest users? Perhaps. only time will tell. It could drive avatar creators to build lower-impact avatars, which could become a booming business.

All in all, my first morning was magical. There is a wonderful freedom associated with not having to worry about tripping over any wires! I do think that the Oculus Quest is going to prove very popular with consumers. I’m glad I got mine early, and I look forward to all the apps to come!