Lavender: A Brief Introduction

While having an online chat with someone on the Discord server about the current state of High Fidelity, they mentioned a new social VR platform in development that I had never heard of before, called Lavender.

According to the #read-me channel on their Discord server, which has well over a thousand users already signed up:

What is Lavender?

Lavender is a social sandbox game running on the Unity engine (2019.1.7f1), for desktop and VR players to enjoy together. We will provide tools that allows you to make custom content (SDK). Things like TTT, Battle Royal, along with social RP like City RP and survival to name only a few. And lastly, you will be able to host your own servers. With these tools and enabling scripts, your imagination will be the only limit in creating content.

Is this a VRChat clone?

We are not trying to compete, but rather offer an alternative experience you cannot find on VRChat.

The people building the Lavender social VR platform are promising some interesting features, among which are:

  • Player-to-player physical interaction
  • Full body tracked expressive avatars with eye tracking and lip sync
  • A powerful but user-friendly SDK experience to aid new content creators
  • User supplied custom worlds and avatars with minimal restrictions on expression
  • Steam audio integration providing a rich complex experience that immerses you into the soundscape of the game
  • A fully-featured world manager, called a Solar System, allowing users to create world instances and manager them in-game and through a modern web interface
  • Solar Systems can be community run or privately owned allowing for control over who can join and create worlds on your server
  • A rich scripting experience with a fully featured API that allows content creators to make crazy contraptions and surreal worlds
  • Full content management system through a modern web interface that allows users to track, upload, and manage their favorite items
  • Physical bodies and movement that allows you to experience everything from zero gravity to climbing up a cliff and swimming underwater

The small Seattle-based company building Lavender, called Take Over Games, is planning to launch the social VR platform under the Early Access Program on Steam. The project has a Patreon page as well. They are already almost three-quarters of the way towards their $1,000-a-month fundraising goal, which is very encouraging! There already seems to be a lot of interest in this new platform.

And, of course, I have added Lavender to my ever-expanding comprehensive list of social VR platforms and virtual worlds.

High Fidelity: Rearranging the Deck Chairs on the Titanic?

I suspect that some people are going to be very angry at me for writing this blogpost, but I’ve been watching things over at High Fidelity with a growing sense of unease.

Back in April, Philip Rosedale dropped the bombshell announcement that they were shutting down all the publicly hosted spaces, and that High Fidelity was pivoting towards the business market. As part of those changes, the regular user General Assembly would be discontinued and replaced with a monthly developers’ meetup. Here is the livestream of that last General Assembly meeting on April 4th, 2019, if you haven’t already watched it:

And here’s the livestream of the most recent Developers’ Discussion held on June 14th, 2019. Notice anything interesting about the thumbnail High Fidelity chose for this video?

Yeah, your eyes are not fooling you. They reused the image taken from the April meeting. Why, you might ask yourself? Well, here’s an actual screenshot from the second video:

That’s quite a drop in attendance, wouldn’t you say? Yes, this is a different and much more technical audience, but what happened to all the people who were active supporters of High Fidelity and who used to come out to meetings?

Most recently, longtime members of the High Fidelity discussion forums (which have been noticeably quieter lately) got a rather unpleasant surprise: their previous “trusted member” levels had been downgraded to standard membership. Some commented:

Is it just me, or is there a general overall sense of HiFi turning off the lights, shutting down various systems, and in general just downgrading services to their loyal userbase? High Fidelity has also shut down the feature request list as of June 1st, 2019, announcing they would no longer triage feature requests from users. (I would put in a link, but that list is now completely gone.)

On top of that, at the top of the redesigned homepage, there’s a brand new page extolling the virtues of High Fidelity for remote work teams. All very well and good, and looking very professional, but as I have said before, there’s absolutely no guarantee that HiFi will be successful at re-positioning its platform for business users (God knows there are already lots of companies jostling for marketshare in this arena already, many of whom seem to be struggling to attract customers.)

And yes, I have heard of at least one developer (whose work was previously proudly mentioned by Philip Rosedale) who is actively looking for another platform for their HiFi project. I’m not going to say who it is, but I doubt they are the only ones who are looking at alternatives.

Who’s staying with High Fidelity? Who’s leaving? Who isn’t sure what they are going to do next? Feel free to leave a comment on this blogpost, or join the ongoing discussion on the Discord channel, where we discuss events happening on any and all social VR/virtual world platforms.

A First Look at Rec Room on iOS

VBunny Go is a VR game vlogger and Twitch livestreamer who was one of the beta testers of the iOS version of the social VR platform Rec Room, and she has posted a video of her experience to YouTube (I can’t embed it in this blogpost, but I can link to it).

VBunny Go is quite an entertaining and enthusiastic commentator, as she puts Rec Room through its paces (including playing several levels of a dungeon quest as part of a team). She finds that most of Rec Room’s functionality is still present, despite playing the game on an iPhone.

I need to get a setup like hers, so I can start doing my own in-world videos! She’s a good example of someone who is slowly building a YouTube audience with her videos of her VR gaming adventures.

Another enthusiastic early tester posted on the Rec Room subReddit:

As a VR only player, I’ve been excited to be able to try the mobile version and see what everyone is ready to complain about. And since today I was invited, I hurriedly downloaded it to finally witness the horror of mobile gaming. And guess what? It’s good. The game runs beautifully and looks absolutely gorgeous. The UI and UX is intuitive and snappy. The controls just make sense. I was literally jealous of the mobile menus compared to the VR version. It’s a smooth, polished ride with all of the content at the ready. It’s GOOD. And you all are going to love it.

This marks a significant shift in the social VR/virtual world market: support for mobile devices. Linden Lab is also working on an official mobile client for Second Life (no word on when that will be released), and of course there have been other mobile SL clients such as Lumiya for Android devices. There’s also a beta Android client for High Fidelity.

Libraries Providing Virtual Reference Service via Virtual Reality: An Idea Whose Time Has Come?

The short answer is: not yet, but that doesn’t mean that libraries shouldn’t prepare for the eventuality.

Reference Desk, UCLA School of Law

Many academic, public, and special libraries offer virtual reference services to their users. The American Library Association defines virtual reference as:

Virtual reference is reference service initiated electronically, often in real-time, where patrons employ computers or other Internet technology to communicate with reference staff, without being physically present. Communication channels used frequently in virtual reference include chat, videoconferencing, Voice over IP, co-browsing, e-mail, and instant messaging…

Reference services requested and provided over the Internet, usually via e-mail, instant messaging (“chat”), or Web-based submission forms, usually answered by librarians in the reference department of a library, sometimes by the participants in a collaborative reference system serving more than one institution.

There has been extensive academic research done on libraries offering services in predecessor virtual worlds such as Second Life. Libraries’ and librarians’ presence in SL has waned after an initial burst of enthusiasm, mainly due to budgetary constraints, the relatively steep learning curve associated with Second Life, and the fact that few people were prepared to use what they considered a game platform to access library services (i.e. a mismatch between anticipated users and actual users). However, this earlier wave of research gives us a glimpse of what virtual reference via VR could look like. In fact, one person (Cedar Librarian) has already built a functional library on the social VR platform High Fidelity, using public-domain versions of classic books. (I would, however, argue strongly that the “library” is the actual service of a librarian, rather than simply a static collection of books, even if they are digitized and accessible via a computer.)

One important issue that virtual reference service via VR would face is the licensing of resources. Libraries sign license agreements with commercial database publishers which restrict access to institutional users only. This means that, if I were to provide reference services to a user not affiliated with my institution, I would not be able to provide them with copies of books and articles. However, there are still many useful non-commercial information resources such as Google Scholar that we could refer users to, as well as the myriad of resources of their own local public and academic libraries. Librarians refer users to other libraries all the time.

Another key issue is the cost of VR equipment and the learning curve associated with social VR platforms. While I would argue that it is easier and more natural to get started in Sansar than it is in Second Life, it’s still a significant challenge for many people to take their first steps in VR. The first generation of VR headsets, the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, were complicated to set up, and required an expensive gaming-level computer. However, cheaper standalone VR headsets like the Oculus Quest promise to bring VR to an ever larger audience of consumers, including potential library users.

I can forsee a future (starting perhaps a decade from now) where many libraries would offer virtual reference services to users via virtual reality (“VR in VR”, if you like). Users could make appointments for their avatar to meet in-world with a reference librarian, who would assist them in finding electronic and printed information resources to answer their questions. Alternatively, library staff could sit at the virtual reference desk at regularly scheduled shifts, available to whoever dropped in with a query. The reference interview would encompass both text chat and voice chat, and include hand gestures, body language, and facial expressions, just as in real-life conversations. Academic, public, and special libraries could even work together to create a collaborative, 24/7 reference service which spans the globe and has locations on many popular social VR platforms.

One day, you might just consult with your reference librarian in virtual reality.
(Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay)

As I said, it’s not here yet. But it’s coming, and perhaps sooner than you might think.