This is the first chance I have had to find a little peace and quiet, decompress, and meditate on the events of the past couple of days, and indeed the events of the past twelve months. It’s been a rocky year.
A year ago, things seemed much more hopeful for social VR and virtual worlds. High Fidelity was hosting numerous splashy events, with hundreds of avatars in attendance. New and better features were continually being added to Sansar, which was also experiencing record attendance at big events like the Monstercat launch. Prospects seemed so bright as we entered 2019.
And then, things started to go wrong, or perhaps more accurately, stubbornly refused to go right. High Fidelity abruptly switched direction away from consumer use in an ultimately futile attempt to pursue the business market, and now the company has announced it is essentially shutting down its flagship platform in the new year. Linden Lab, despite assurances earlier in the year that it would be “business as usual” while they were still trying to build an audience for Sansar, suddenly laid off many of its talented staff working on the project (and at the worst possible time: halfway through a complete redesign of their human avatars). Even worse, LL has had to back out of a recent disastrous decision to replace the popular Atlas of worlds with the Nexus and the Codex, only after many users threatened to pull their worlds in protest.
After the bruising year that has befallen Linden Lab’s Sansar project and Philip Rosedale’s High Fidelity, an observer might be forgiven for wondering why any company would choose to embark on building a metaverse at all. In a recent blogpost, Philip blames problems with the current state of VR hardware for HiFi’s failure to thrive, but that does not absolve him of his tactical decision to go all-in on virtual reality, at a time when the majority of users were still in desktop mode (and likely will be for quite some time). Ebbe Altberg similarly gambled that VR would take off much sooner than it has, a gamble that he (and frankly all of us) bet the house on. A bet we appear to be losing.
In one of my darker moments of gallows humour this week, while writing the blogpost about the demise of High Fidelity, the thought occurred to me: that I might be the one blogger who documents both the rise and the fall of social VR. Was all this just a fad? Will virtual reality continue to be a niche, unprofitable market? Will High Fidelity and Linden Lab be the first of many metaverse-building companies to downsize, backtrack, and even fold in 2020?
In 2020 all eyes will be on Facebook as it launches its latest and greatest attempt at social VR, Facebook Horizon. Will Facebook be able to leverage its existing reach (and its deep pockets) to make social VR a viable proposition? If mighty Facebook fails, despite using all the powerful tools and tectics at its disposal, then perhaps that will be clearest signal yet that social VR (at least, as it is currently being conceived and marketed) is not what consumers want or need.
We could land up back at the drawing board, a discomforting thought. Or, perhaps, one or more companies and/or communities of users will bring some outside-the-box thinking that is sorely needed to kickstart this market and bring it out of its comatose state.
Look at Mozilla Hubs. It runs on just about every single piece of hardware you can throw at it, from high-end VR headsets to the cheapest cellphones. It’s so dead simple that you don’t even need an account to use it! Yet despite its limited features, I have had some truly wonderful meetings and experiences in Hubs this year.
Look at Cryptovoxels, a one-man labour of love that started off with slow, organic growth, and is now growing and thriving, with an invested community and a thriving art scene.
Look at NeosVR, which is probably unique among all social VR platforms in that a majority of its users are actually in VR headsets (a claim that even VRChat cannot yet make), and which is doing some truly amazing and innovative work that is attracting notice.
Look at ENGAGE, which is already profitably using social VR to create educational experiences for universities, with innovative features such as three-dimensional video recording of lessons.
This is not the time for a perimortem or a postmortem; it is time for a call to arms. A time to put our brains together and come up with new ideas and approaches, new niches and markets for this amazing technology. Yes, there will be failures and missteps, but there will likely be more successes like Mozilla Hubs, Cryptovoxels, NeosVR, and ENGAGE.
This is not a time to give up hope. It is a time to keep going, keep pushing, and keep trying new things. To keep moving forward, despite setbacks.
UPDATE Dec. 13th, 2019: Will Burns (whom I have written about before on this blog) had this characteristically blunt, I-told-you-so response to this editorial on his Twitter:
Call to arms. They wouldn’t have a problem if they actually understood the underlying mechanics and causality for making a social VR platform. What we’re seeing isn’t the failure of social VR but instead the unmasking of all the pretenders who bullshitted competency.