Helios: A Brief Introduction

I just heard about a brand new social VR project, a small indie project called Helios, and since this is a blog about social VR, I thought I’d let you all know about it.

Actually, there’s not much to see yet over at the Helios social VR project. No website yet, basically just a Twitter feed and a brand-new Discord server (here’s the invite).

According to the FAQ on their Discord:

What is Helios?
Helios is a Social VR game made with Unreal Engine 4 by SubLight Games.

Why are you using Unreal Engine?
Unreal Engine will allow Helios to offer a more immersive, interactive, and creator friendly offering than anything currently on the market today.

Will I be able to make my own avatar and use it in game?
Yes! Helios is being designed from the ground up to be as creator friendly as possible. Functionality has already been added to allow you to do this.

What stage of development is the game currently in?
Helios is currently in a closed Alpha stage. The bare bones are there and new features are being added often.

If you are interested in joining the closed alpha of Helios, you can send a request for a Steam activation code to user Rareden (the lead developer) on their Discord server. Apparently, the developers hold organized community tests once a week on Fridays at 11:00 p.m. EST.

Helios is also unique in that almost all of the other social VR platforms on the market either have a custom game engine (e.g. Sansar) or use Unity (e.g. VRChat). Helios will be based on the Unreal game engine.

Here’s a 46-second video pulled from their Twitter feed, showing off one of the imported avatars. Here’s a still from that video:

It’s quite a complicated-looking avatar, with feathers and all, which is quite intriguing! And (of course) I have added Helios to my ever-growing list of social VR/virtual worlds.

Editorial: Will Facebook Horizon Succeed If You Can’t Be Anybody But Yourself? (What Fourteen Years of Second Life Has Taught Me)

If anybody had told me, at the start of my 14-year Second Life journey, that my main avatar (the one I use the most) would be a woman, I would have laughed my damn head off. It would have never even occurred to me that I could be a woman. When I started off, I created an avatar that, more or less, looked like me, dressed like me…was me. The first two alts I created were also male (here’s an old picture of the three of them, way back in 2007, gathered around a cozy pixel campfire):

My first three SL avatars: Heath Homewood, Morden Winkler, and Notecard Writer

And yet, almost fourteen years later, here I am, Vanity Fair, wearing a slinky new ombre dress I picked up at ViSion with the free L$300 gift card available from their booth at the seasonal Shop and Hop (which ends tomorrow, by the way, so hurry down to pick up the fabulous freebies!), elegantly sipping coffee from my limited-edition Lab Gab mug (thanks, Xiola and Strawberry!) and sedately listening to the tunes at the new, upstart Frank’s Jazz Club…and dressed to kill, honey! 😉

Which got me to thinking.

Second Life has been an unparalleled opportunity for literally hundreds of thousands—even millions—of people over the past 16 years, to step outside their own skins and become somebody else for a day, a week, a month, a year…or forever.

At various times in the past, I have been (and sometimes still am):

  • a medieval lute and harp player, serenading fantasy roleplayers in drafty stone castles and at jousting tournaments
  • an urban angel with a neon halo, dressed in black from head to toe, patroling the mean streets
  • a six-year-old girl with a teddy bear, who skips everywhere she goes
  • a very prim and proper 1950s housewife (complete with pearls!)
  • a Chinese emperor—and a Chinese empress!
  • Britney Spears (“It’s Britney, bitch”)
  • Cher, surrounded by an army of animated cockroaches, belting out “If I could turn back tiiime…If I could find a waaay…” on an endless loop, as she wanders various post-apocalyptic worlds in Second Life! (Uhhhm, that would be Cher singing, not the cockroaches—although that would be pretty funny, too!)
  • a satyr
  • a stripper for cash tips (link is safe for work)
  • a fat cop who likes to hang out at donut stops
  • a plus-size female model
  • Queen Elizabeth I in full regalia
  • Elvis Presley (complete with white sequin jumpsuit, microphone and wearable spotlights!)
  • a male moon fairy—and a female fairy godmother!
  • a flaming phoenix
  • a gypsy fortune teller (complete with crystal ball)
  • a very old man in a Hugh-Hefneresque smoking jacket, puffing away contentedly on his pipe
  • a 1960s hippie chick
  • Ennis Del Mar (and Jack Twist!) from Brokeback Mountain
  • a male Na’vi warrior from Avatar
  • a Victorian parlourmaid (whom I like to stick in rather unexpected places like clubs and stores, where she busily dusts and vacuums)
  • a Johnny-Depp-lookalike pirate with a parrot on his shoulder
  • a Japanese geisha
  • Marilyn Monroe
  • a vampire
  • Mary Poppins (complete with levitating umbrella and carpetbag, she once memorably dive-bombed an S&M orgy in Second Life while staying completely in character!)
  • a Bollywood movie star
  • Michael Jackson
  • a goth girl who only wears three colours: black, white, and red
  • a mermaid
  • Paris Hilton (“the Paris Hilton of Second Life” from that long-ago CSI:NY episode)
  • an Afro-Canadian woman
  • an Indigenous/First Nations Canadian woman
  • a white-haired old woman for Caledon/steampunk/Victorian roleplay
  • Santa Claus
  • a Bavarian German man in lederhosen with a beer stein
  • a Lord of the Rings/Harry Potter wizard
  • a drag queen
  • a circus clown
  • a timberwolf
  • a large, fire-breathing dragon
  • a court jester
  • a ball-joined china doll
  • a stern Roman Catholic sister armed with a ruler to inflict God’s punishment on sinners! And sometimes, just to get a laugh, I have her being followed around by a flock of penguins…
  • and the list goes on, and on, and on…

And it makes me wonder: just how successful will the new Facebook Horizon be, if they insist that you be, essentially, your own rather boring self, linked to your personal Facebook account, and unable to throw on the guise of somebody else?

The very thought would horrify most Second Life users, who are so used to being somebody else, and hiding behind an avatar name, and often roleplaying somebody (or something) completely different from their real lives. And the same would apply to many of the newer social VR platforms, like VRChat, where everybody you meet seems to want to be an anime girl or a Disney character on the lam from their corporate lawyers.

Fourteen years of Second Life has taught me that the ability to be somebody else—walk around in someone else’s skin—can be an insightful, instructive, transformative, and even delightful experience. And I rather doubt that Facebook Horizon is going to be able to replace that, at least to start. (I mean, there’s no lower half of your body on the Horizon avatars! Think of the loss of shoe-shopping opportunities alone… 😉 )

If Facebook Horizon won’t let you be somebody else, will it still have the same appeal? Will it attract a different audience? These are good questions to ponder as we watch Facebook roll out Horizon this year.

Facebook Horizon: Friendly, yes…but what if you can’t be a fire-breathing dragon?

A Long-Overdue Update on the Status of the Metaverse Newscast

The original idea for a pre-taped interview show with the people behind social VR, virtual worlds, and the metaverse dates back to August 2017, only a month after I started writing this blog (here’s the original blogpost).

I would like to thank two key people, without whom the Metaverse Newscast never would have launched:

  • Tyler Scarborough (Dynamic Evolution in Sansar), who first approached me in August 2017 to discuss the idea of a news show, which I decided to call the Metaverse Newscast.  Tyler also built our first studio, which we did use for several interviews in the early days, before we decided to head out and film our episodes on location!
  • Andrew William of Imagine That Productions, who really did all the heavy lifting: acting as main cameraman for our episodes, then doing all the digital video editing to make the finished product you can watch on the Metaverse Newscast page on YouTube. All I had to do was look presentable, host the show, and ask the interview questions! I think I had by far the easier job, or at least the role of host came easily and naturally to me. It hardly seemed like work at all!

Well, as you probably know, work on the Metaverse Newscast stopped after episode 8. What happened is that Andrew got some paying video editing work in real life, which has unfortunately taken him away from this project.

He is still at work on episode 9, an in-depth interview with Chris Madsen about the educational social VR platform ENGAGE, which has unfortunately been significantly delayed due to Andrew’s current real-life workload. Hopefully, it will come out sometime early this year. I do believe it is our best work to date, and I really do want people to see it! Here’s a sneak preview.

Andrew William and I have had a long talk about where we take the Metaverse Newscast from here. We have four or five shows which we had filmed, but the raw footage needs to be edited into releasable episodes. Andrew had originally found a volunteer willing to help him edit the remaining video (because we have no money to pay anyone to do the work for us, we rely on volunteers), but unfortunately, that arrangement fell through in 2019.

So finally, over the Christmas holidays, Andrew and I agreed that I would sit down and learn Adobe Premiere Pro myself, work my way up the learning curve to become a digital video editor, and finish all the episodes after the ENGAGE one. I had originally hoped to use some of my Christmas holidays to start learning, but of course other things got in the way (including my self-imposed extended break from Sansar, which I talk about here: Part I and Part II).

As time passes, the finished episodes of the Metaverse Newscast are becoming a sort of time capsule, a record of a specific time and place that future VR historians might find of interest.

I do find it rather ironic that, of the two social VR platforms Andrew and I have covered in the first eight episodes of the Metaverse Newscast, half were about High Fidelity (a platform that is effectively shutting down in 2020), and the other half were about Sansar (where I am completely burned out, and I need to take a break).

So, what am I saying? I am saying that I will need to set aside the first half of 2020 to learn Adobe Premiere Pro, using the raw footage Andrew shot of the unfinished Metaverse Newscast episodes to teach myself the basics of digital video editing. So (except for the ENGAGE episode Andrew is still working on), please don’t expect any new Metaverse Newscast episodes for at least another six months, and perhaps longer.

Also, I have approached someone who worked as an additional cameraman on a couple of the very earliest episodes of the Metaverse Newscast, to ask him if he would be willing to become my main cameraman, taking over from Andrew. Somebody needs to be behind the camera as I play the genial host and interview people!

And I am very happy to announce that Carlos Austin has recently agreed to come on board! Carlos is as active, engaged, and interested in the various social VR platforms as I am, and I am grateful to have him as a partner as we move forward on the Metaverse Newscast in 2020, and start filming new episodes. Thank you so much, Carlos! I am looking forward to working with you again.

So, while there will be a bit of a unplanned hiatus, I do expect that the Metaverse Newscast will continue. Please stay tuned for further announcements!