High Fidelity, the open-source VR software platform, today released Virtual You: 3D Avatar Creator on the Apple App and Google Play stores. It enables people to produce a customizable avatar ready for High Fidelity in less than five minutes.
Powered by VR/AR developer Wolf3D, the free Virtual You app generates a 3D avatar from a selfie. Users can then choose from thousands of wardrobe combinations and customize every aspect of their appearance, such as hair, makeup and body shape. Virtual You avatars are sent directly to a user’s High Fidelity account and are compatible with any virtual environment that uses its open source software.
“As VR begins to transform our daily lives, we will often want to easily appear in virtual worlds as we do in the physical world,” said Philip Rosedale, CEO and Co-founder of High Fidelity. “Avatars have always been a pillar of VR and virtual worlds, but unless you’re a dedicated enthusiast, creating them hasn’t been easy. By making 3D customizable avatars available through a mobile app, we’ve cleared an important step towards bringing VR to billions of people.”
Now, obviously, you’re not going to get the high quality results you would see with a multiple-camera, full-body scanning service such as that offered by Doob, but it’s still an attractive option for a somewhat personalized avatar. So I decided to give Virtual You a spin, using my trusty iPhone SE.
I downloaded and installed the app, following directions to take off my glasses and slick back my hair to get the clearest possible face shot. The app then walked me through choosing my hair colour, hair style, eye colour, and style of glasses. You are then presented with a first draft of your avatar, so you can make various adjustments to skin tone, body shape (height, weight, etc.), head shape, eyes, nose, lips, hairstyle, hair colour, makeup, eyebrows, glasses, and clothing:
Here is the final result:
I was then asked to sign into my High Fidelity account, and it sent my avatar off to High Fidelity!
I had to wait a while for the “Sending your avatar to High Fidelity” to clear. From start to finish, the process took me fifteen minutes!
Then I signed in to High Fidelity to see my avatar in-world. The avatar was immediately available in my inventory:
And here is what my customized avatar looks like! I am actually rather pleased with the results.
It’s hard to take good selfies in HiFi; there’s a mirror mode (which I used to take these pictures), but there doesn’t seem to be a freecam mode to allow me to zoom in on the bottom half of my body, or take a side view of my avatar.
There was once a service in Second Life that generated a classic system (i.e. non-mesh) avatar skin based on a single selfie, but the results were pretty abysmal, as you can see from this old photo I took, comparing the original photo of actor Jake Gyllenhaal with the resulting avatar:
I created this avatar to play Jack Twist for Brokeback Mountain roleplay in Second Life over a decade ago, and I thought the result was good enough at the time for that purpose:
The create-an-avatar service eventually shut down, and I never found a replacement for it. I only used it a couple of times. I also made a Heath Ledger-lookalike avatar to play Ennis Del Mar, but the results were even worse than they were for Jake:
I couldn’t find a really good, well-lit full-frontal facial photo of Heath Ledger, so the result doesn’t really resemble him at all, in my opinion!
So you might just want to download the Virtual You app to your iOS or Android mobile device and try it out for yourself! This is a service that I would like to see more social VR and virtual world companies provide. Perhaps Wolf3D could be convinced to export its app-generated avatars into other virtual worlds? I do think that there is a market for this.
In the December 2017 issue of The Atlantic magazine, Leslie Jamison wrote an article about Second Life. The webpage for that article has the original article title, Second Life Still Has 600,000 Regular Users (which you can check for yourself by doing a Google search):
However, it would seem that Leslie’s editor at The Atlantic wanted a somewhat punchier title, and so we have The Digital Ruins of a Forgotten Future, which shows up when you click on that link. (I’m pretty sure that Linden Lab is less than pleased with that particular editor.)
There’s a quote from that article which is, to my knowledge, the most up-to-date statistic we have about how many people still use Second Life:
Of the 36 million Second Life accounts that had been created by 2013—the most recent data Linden Lab will provide—only an estimated 600,000 people still regularly use the platform.
“Only” 600,000? That still makes Second Life, far and away, the most popular virtual world. And yet, somehow, the mainstream news media continues to portray Second Life as quaint, outdated and underused.
Now, I am not going to dissect all the gory technical details of that announcement here. But one statistic did happen to catch my eye:
Let’s get this out of the way first: 542,967 unique users across 9.9 million sessions spending 17.7 million hours logged into Second Life on Firestorm over the last 30-day period.
That is our most recent set of metrics regarding Firestorm usage in Second Life, directly from Linden Lab. Those are mind-blowing figures. Although we don’t have metrics for how many OpenSim users run Firestorm, it is safe to say it isn’t anywhere near that. My estimate would be somewhere around 2,000 users. But still… THAT’S NOT WHY!
It is because of those numbers that we prioritize Second Life, but those numbers are NOT why we struggle with OpenSim.
So, in other words, over the past 30 days, 542,967 unique Second Life account holders used the Firestorm viewer to access Second Life. Now, Firestorm is by far the most popular viewer. Let’s assume that all the other viewers combined (including Second Life’s own native viewer) have only 10% of the market that Firestorm occupies, which I think is a fairly reasonable assumption.
10% of 542,967 is 54,296. Adding 54,296 to 542,967 (or just multiplying 542,967 by 1.10) gives us…597,264.
Which means that Second Life, still, has approximately 600,000 regular users in the past month.
What is the secret to Second Life’s “stickiness”? In a word, it’s investment: investment of time, investment of money, investment in an avatar representation, and investment in community.
Until a social VR/virtual world platform comes along that can offer everything that Second Life does, it is going to continue to be the most commercially successful and most popular virtual world around, and a reliable cash cow for Linden Lab.
Whether you like it or not, and whether the news media admits it or not, Second Life is still relevant and still rules. Competing metaverse platforms would kill to get the level of usage Second Life still gets, even after 16 years of continuous operation, even as it has been all but written off by mainstream media.
I have been thinking about writing this editorial for quite some time. Social VR and virtual worlds have been a part of my life since I first encountered Second Life back in 2007 (in a story I relate here). I have set foot in literally dozens of different worlds, old and new, and I have shared many of my experiences with you, my faithful blog readers, over the past couple of years.
In those 12+ years of metaverse hopping, I have seen all kinds of interactions between the staff employed by the companies that are building the various social VR/virtual world platforms, and the customers of those platforms, including the content creators. And I have seen many examples of both good and bad communication between employees and users. So I think it’s an opportune time to focus specifically on this topic, especially in light of this week’s events.
It is, of course, entirely up to the company to decide if, when and how it communicates with its customers. Some have taken a highly informal approach, where you can simply grab the person you know is in charge and bend their ear. This works very well for platforms with one-or-two-person development teams (like NeosVR and Cryptovoxels), but obviously, it doesn’t work well for larger and more formally structured companies like Linden Lab, VRChat, and High Fidelity.
The current level of access Sansar users and content creators have to Linden Lab staff via the official Sansar Discord is unprecedented, as many people have already noted. Staff up to and including the CEO, Ebbe Altberg, are available to answer questions. Regular in-world meetings are held with the users. While we should take advantage of that openness, we also can’t abuse this privilege.
And frankly, we should not expect that this unprecedented level of openness will stay that way forever. Why not? Because it simply doesn’t scale effectively. In the early days of Second Life I have been told that it was much the same, but over time, as millions of user accounts were created, Linden Lab has had to put various formal systems and structures in place to handle that load, and insert a bit of distance between their staff and their userbase. That’s an inevitable step as a product becomes popular, just to maintain some sanity for people providing product support. It happened with Second Life, and it will happen over time for Sansar as well.
In the case of High Fidelity, I have been sharply critical of how the company has essentially abandoned its original userbase in its recent pivot to focus on enterprise use of their platform to support remote teamwork. It’s not so much what they did that upsets me as much as how they chose to do it. For example, High Fidelity shut down the regularly scheduled community meetings where regular users could pose questions and raise issues.
It is now so hard to actually reach anybody at High Fidelity, and the company is now so thoroughly insulated from its user base, that in desperation I had to resort to using a HiFi staff member’s personal Twitter account to report this week’s problems with the livestreams. (I have now been asked by that person to not use that method to contact her about High Fidelity business in future.)
The current sad state of affairs is best illustrated by something that happened to me last Friday. Early that afternoon, I had been in contact with a magazine writer who was planning to write a story about virtual reality, and who asked me (via my blog) about people she could interview in an upcoming trip to San Francisco. I suggested she pay a visit to both Linden Lab and High Fidelity, and interview Linden Lab CEO Ebbe Altberg and High Fidelity CEO Philip Rosedale.
I posted a request to the official Sansar Discord, and within ten minutes, a Linden Lab employee was in touch with me and gave me the name of a contact within the company that I could pass on to the writer.
And High Fidelity? After posting requests for assistance on both Discord servers and the official High Fidelity user forums, and waiting all afternoon for someone from the company to get back to me, I finally posted in exasperation:
“Is there NOBODY from High Fidelity monitoring these forums?!?? I got a response back from Linden Lab within half an hour, with the name of a contact person. I’ve been waiting all afternoon and nobody from HiFi has given me the name of a contact person that this writer could set up a meeting with. Seriously? SERIOUSLY?!?? This is potential marketing for your platform.”
Eventually, one person (someone not associated with the company) suggested I message Jazmin Cano, High Fidelity’s User Engagement Manager, on Twitter, which I finally did late Friday evening. Jazmin was able to provide me with information that I could pass on to the writer.
High Fidelity’s community manager, Emily, did finally get back to me on Monday morning—a whole weekend later. It seems pretty clear that HiFi staff are not monitoring the Discord servers or the official community forums on a regular basis. And I don’t blame Emily or any one person for this current state of affairs. This is a sad case where the company has pretty much completely abandoned its original user base, the raving fans who were the platform’s best advertisement.
High Fidelity is a textbook-classic example of how not to communicate with your customers. The current situation is now so bad that its own users have rebelled and formed their own discussion forums and their own Discord server, in opposition to the company’s own official forums and Discord. To have generated such a level of distrust is truly amazing. You have to really work at it to screw things up that much!
A more recent example was the whole handling of what I now call “the Tilia thing” in Second Life, which eventually led to such an uproar that they held an in-world town hall meeting just to address all the questions and misconceptions that people had. Unfortunately, these types of mistakes have led to a sort of ingrained mindset among many longtime Second Life users that automatically assumes ill will or malicious intent on the part of Linden Lab, which is really rather unfair to the company and its employees.
And every day, I marvel as just how accessible, engaged, and helpful so many Linden Lab staff have been on the official Sansar Discord. A perfect example of that was the lively discussion that took place after yesterday’s blogpost, which, I will openly admit, was biased more towards the content creators than the company. Galileo, Harley, and various other Linden Lab employees took the time to educate this blogger about some of the bigger issues that weren’t so immediately obvious, and they also provided some valuable context as to why (for example) Sansar simply can’t have Ken and Barbie-like naked avatars, and why “ample coverage” is so important.
But the point that I am making in this very long-winded editorial (and yes, there is one!) is that companies like Linden Lab, which engage with their customers, listen to their concerns, and address their questions, are much healthier than companies like High Fidelity that passively (or even actively) discourage such communication.
Does that mean that everybody is happy with everything that Linden Lab is doing? No, of course not. Some end users and content creators are still very upset. Some have voted with their feet. But at least, we can talk about that corporate response in a way where we feel we are being heard. And that goes a long. long way towards happier customers overall.
I have talked about only two companies in this editorial: High Fidelity and Linden Lab. But there are many other examples of good and bad communication between employees and customers throughout the metaverse. We need both to applaud examples of good corporate communication, and to critique examples of poor corporate communication. And I intend to continue to do both on this blog.
Do you have any examples of good (or bad) communication between metaverse company employees and customers that you would like to talk about? Please feel free to leave a comment on this blogpost. Also, there’s the RyanSchultz.com Discord server, the world’s first cross-worlds discussion forum! I’d like to extend an invitation to have you join us and participate in the many discussions and debates that take place there.
Furthermore, the Linden Lab staff member then issued 24-hour deadlines for the avatars to be fixed, or have them removed. This edict has gone over about as well as it could be expected. One creator who is quite upset about it, Medhue, told me:
Of course, I complained to Ebbe that all the female avatars on the marketplace don’t have enough ample coverage. So, today, all the female avatars or most [were flagged], including Fabeo’s. Fabeo tried to make an announcement about it all, in a funny creative way, and [LL staff member] removed the comment, and banned him from the Discord. In fact, the whole Avatar channel was blocked for any posting for a number of minutes, twice. You could get quotes from Bagnaria and Fabeo about it all, and dealing with [LL staff member]. They are truly a tyrant.
It’s one thing to enforce the rules, but it is another to dictate how much time you have to do it. One day isn’t even remotely reasonable. The craziness in the Discord though, is a whole other level of craziness, by a Lab employee trying to justify their tyranny.
For Bagnaria and I, it is just super demotivating to know [LL staff member] is watching us closely, for any missed step. I only complained to Ebbe to show how they are targeting us alone. All those other bodies were posted a good week before ours. So, [LL staff member] is either targeting us, or they just didn’t do their job for a week, and then chose to hit us first.
(UPDATE: Apparently, Medhue was wrong, and Fabeeo Breen was not banned from Discord. However, “slow mode” was enabled, which meant that you could only post once every five minutes on the #avatar channel. I apologize for my role in reporting untrue information. I should have checked with Fabeeo before posting that, and I didn’t. Also, I screwed up in the use of the proper pronouns in referring to the LL staff member in question. They have all been changed to they/them/their.)
For her part, Bagnaria said:
Let me just say, have never felt less motivated to continue to work on anything in Sansar.
Fabeeo Breen reported on the message he received from Linden Lab:
Hi Fabeeo, Announcing the replacement of the Daphne avatar is fine, but please make sure that your announcement does not contain language that might fall under our Community Standards against Disturbing the Peace.
It is quite funny now that the Lab is using Disturbing the Peace as their reason for removing things posted by their CUSTOMERS. Ebbe, I read the post, and it was entertaining, and creative. Quite enjoyable actually. The only people being disturbed by it was Lab employees. Crap! This could fall under Disturbing the Peace too…
We were the first to get hit by the censor hammer. As Bag pointed out, we were contacted yesterday, and given 24 hours to fix it, as if we are just sitting around doing nothing and actually have the time for this sillyness. If they wanted a specific coverage, then they should have given that to us, instead of being VAGUE. They vagueness created this. I asked them several times at meetings exactly what was required, and instead of taking that question seriously, they laughed it off and said AMPLE COVERAGE. Again, they created this situation, by being vague.
Frankly, both sides in this dispute need to take a step back and re-examine how they are approaching this situation. I am not impressed by either side’s behaviour today. Linden Lab needs to stop being so heavy-handed. And, for their part, the content creators need to be a little less thin-skinned.
But all this patent ridiculousness over “ample coverage” could easily be addressed by letting avatars be naked, like Barbie and Ken dolls. Then, custom avatar creators wouldn’t have to guess if the painted-on underwear is too revealing or not. I mean, for God’s sake, the default system avatars and the most popular mesh body avatars in Second Life are sold naked. Why is that such a big deal in Sansar? Is Linden Lab that scared of Sansar being tarred with the brush of X-rated content that they have to police this sort of thing, and go to these ridiculous extremes? Are we going to have an Ample Coverage Police Force?
The only truly funny thing to come out of this godawful mess was Silas Merlin’s comment:
We’re all peacefully witnessing the sansarship…
Perhaps it’s time to re-examine the content guidelines for the Sansar Store again, maybe even loosen them up a little. Either that, or explicitly mandate exactly how much of the avatar needs to be covered.
After all, even children are allowed to play with Barbie and Ken dolls.
May I leave you all with some sage advice from Taylor Swift?
UPDATE, 5:00 p.m.: Well, this blogpost has sparked a wide-ranging discussion on the official Sansar Discord server, and I learned quite a few things that I didn’t know before, such as the fact that the “ample coverage” guidelines Sansar has now are the result of the adjustments they’ve made to accommodate content creators over a period of years, and that the 24-hours rule (while being reviewed, internally, in response to this episode) is also a compromise to the original policy, which was to remove such content immediately without notice.
So, the message I get from Linden Lab is that these rules are not made up arbitrarily or on the spot. Mind you, Linden Lab has historically not been very good at providing the context in which those rules are formulated and updated. And, to be fair, the users and content creators often assume the very worst of intentions on the part of Linden Lab, often leaping to conclusions without evidence. Both sides can improve.
But I do apologize to Linden Lab and their staff the part I played in this. In particular, I jumped the gun and published this blogpost without getting all sides of the story. That was clearly not the best way to handle this situation, and I’m sorry.
SECOND UPDATE, Sept. 18th: I have replaced the original illustration at the top of this blogpost with this wonderful tongue-in-cheek image supplied by Silas Merlin, who told me his own stories of “sansarship”, but requested that I do not repeat them on the blog. Thanks, Silas!