The MuseWeb 2020 Conference, Running March 31st to April 4th, Will Have Some Events Taking Place in Second Life

One of the largest annual museum conferences in the world, MuseWeb (Museums and the Web) has moved to an entirely online version because of the coronavirus pandemic. The organizers of the MW20 conference, running from March 31st to April 4th, 2020, have decided to hold part of the conference within Second Life:

Dr Nancy Proctor, a leading organizer of the Museums and the Web Conference in Los Angeles, had not played Second Life since 2003 – until a few weeks ago, when she had to take the now-cancelled event online. 

Second Life is too technically taxing to carry the whole event, she says; not every attendee can download the software, make their own avatar and learn to navigate the world (which sometimes involves flying). But traditional videoconferencing struggles to replicate “the serendipity, the sense of being there and being together” of in-person networking, whereas Second Life has “exactly that ineffable quality”.

All this has made things pretty frantic for Linden [Lab]. It is scrambling to educate new customers, setting them up with restricted private islands ($349 a pop, although Proctor’s conference has been donated one for free).

Unfortunately, unlike the Educators in VR Summit and the IEEE VR 2020 Conference, the general public cannot attend the MW20 conference sessions for free, whch will be held using Microsoft Teams. However, anybody can visit the set of four sims that Linden Lab has set up for social events, the Birds of a Feather Breakfast, and the closing plenary at this SLURL:

The conference’s spacious auditorium is decorated with works of art by Afrofuturist artist Nettrice Gaskins:

I popped in for a quick visit, to take these pictures, and I met a couple of people who had just joined Second Life, to attend the MuseWeb conference events.

Here is the full program for the MW20 conference. I would encourage Second Life users to be on hand to help welcome and orient all the newcomers this conference will bring to SL!

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Pandemic Diary: April 1st, 2020

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.
Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee
With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade,
And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten,
And drank coffee, and talked for an hour.

—T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land

Actually, here in Winnipeg, we aren’t going to see any lilacs until late May at the earliest. People living in more southerly regions often don’t realize that winter in Winnipeg runs six months of the year, pretty much from the beginning of November until the end of April. In fact, the weather forecasters are telling us to expect 10-20 centimetres (4 to 8 inches) of wet, heavy snow today.

Yesterday I took a sick day from work, even though I am already working from home: I was struggling with depression and needed a mental health day badly. In the morning, I had my biweekly phone call with my psychiatrist, a reassuring, stoic Russian woman who always dispenses good, sensible advice. (As someone who has struggled all his life with chronic clinical depression, I have been extremely lucky to have had good, empathetic psychiatrists throughout. It makes a big difference, as do the antidepressant and anti-anxiety prescription medications I take, although I try very hard not to rely on the latter to deal with my anxieties.)

I have been thinking a lot about the mental health impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, and I suspect that we are going to see a wave of psychological and psychiatric problems after all this is over (and frankly, even before it is finished). One of the ways I deal with the stress is, of course, writing this blog: to inform, to exhort, to editorialize, and sometimes just to vent. I am still maintaining and updating my list of mental health resources during the pandemic, adding good resources as I encounter them. (I think I am doing this for myself, for future reference, more than for anybody else. I just want to have this information handy when I really do need it.)

I have troed—Lord knows, I have tried—to limit my news consumption. As I wrote in the COVID-19_support subReddit:

I wake up every morning feeling depressed, and I know I should stay away from the newsfeeds and news media, but it is so hard. I plunge into the news and I get depressed, I get outraged at Trump’s latest antics, and it’s not helping me. At the same time, I want to know what is going on.

The COVID-19_support community is one of many that has sprung up online to provide a space for people to talk about their feelings and support each other. I honestly cannot imagine going through all this without the internet. I have an active coronavirus-chat channel on the RyanSchultz.com Discord server, where my blog readers from around the world (who normally discuss social VR, virtual worlds, and various aspects of the evolving metaverse) can talk to each other about the pandemic.

I have been struggling to focus on work while working from home, but I have made a commitment to set an alarm, get up every morning, have a shower, get dressed, brew a pot of coffee, and sit in front of my personal computer, to face the day as best I can. A coworker shared this video of how she was feeling about this unprecedented situation, getting up day after day, like in the 1993 Bill Murray movie Groundhog Day:

I feel fortunate that I work with such a wonderful group of people at my university library system. We are pulling together during this crisis, and I do feel that I am a valued part of the team. Among other assigned projects, I am serving as a sort of floating back-up to our library’s virtual reference service, Ask Us, helping faculty, staff, and students connect with and navigate the wealth of digital information resources in our libraries. In cases where people need information which is located in a physical, paper book (currently unavailable since our physical library collections were locked down with our university’s shutdown), we are making arrangements to purchase (or, more accurately, lease) access to electronic editions of those books when possible.

At home, I am slowly working my way through all the pandemic food supplies I had stocked up on: pasta, potatoes, rice, cheese, yogurt, bags of mandarin oranges, canned stews and soups. I have stepped outside my apartment exactly twice since I began working from home on March 16th, and I have run out of bread and almost out of milk. However, I have three large bags of instant skim milk powder, I have discovered that I like the taste of powdered milk, and can live with that as a backup. No need to go grocery shopping, yet! I plan to hold off as long as possible, and perhaps turn to online grocery delivery as an alternative to going outside.

And I have started baking. One of the 10-kilogram bags of flour I had stocked up on several years ago developed a rip in the bag, and went bad, but the other bag is just fine, and I have been teaching myself how to make basic biscuits. I am starting to get good at it! My ambitious plan is to eventually work my way up to baking my own bread.

Photo by Nadya Spetnitskaya on Unsplash

And apparently, a lot of people are baking during the pandemic:

As more Canadians work from home and practice self-isolation due to COVID-19, there’s been an increasing interest in turning on the oven and baking.

Baking-related search terms are up on Google, grocery stores have experienced an increase in flour purchases and sugar and flour manufacturers are working overtime to keep up with a spike in demand.

If you are looking for my last-updated list of good, credible, information resources about the coronavirus pandemic, click here.

I leave you with an inspirational video, which was put out by the very talented people at Travel Manitoba (who, obviously, aren’t being called upon to promote much travel at the moment):

Stay home, stay healthy!

Engadget Interview with Ebbe Altberg: Why Linden Lab Decided to Sell Sansar

On March 27th, 2020, the Engadget website published what is probably the most detailed interview yet with Linden Lab CEO Ebbe Altberg, in which he explains the thinking behind the company’s decision to sell their fledgling social VR platform, Sansar, and focus on Second Life.

It’s clear that one of the strong messages that Ebbe wanted to send out with this high-profile industry interview is that Linden Lab is now in a strong, profitable position as a company. Here’s an excerpt from that interview, which I would encourage you to read in full:

So why did Linden Lab sell the platform? In short, the company wanted to be profitable and Sansar wasn’t making enough money. “We incubated Sansar,” Altberg explained. “We got it up and going. It’s fantastic technology, but it’s still [got] quite a way of runway [before it can] become a cash-positive.”

Altberg said it was ultimately a “strategic decision” to sell Sansar and give the development team a chance to branch out on their own. “I’m super stoked that we’re able to find a way for them to continue the journey,” he explained.

First, though, the company needed to find a buyer. It considered “a bunch of different paths,” according to Altberg, which included some larger owners. In the end, it settled on Wookey Project Corp., a little-known startup that wants to create “a new generation of online AR/VR experiences,” according to a Linden Lab press release. Altberg describes the company as a “really scrappy investor type of player” who wants a challenge and is prepared to let the Sansar team drive its own agenda. Wookey’s CEO also lives in the same town as Altberg, which probably helped seal the deal.

And (yes, I have to say it), I first drew attention to Linden Lab’s essential dilemma in a blogpost I wrote two years ago:

I think that Ebbe Altberg and his team at Linden Lab can’t win no matter what they do. If they continue to throw too much time and money at Second Life, Sansar will suffer and they’re betting the future on Sansar… Yet if they try to promote Sansar…folks who are wedded to Second Life get upset. Or people will say that SL is “being actively starved and strangled”.

Linden Lab was trying to juggle two completely separate projects, at completely separate stages of development, and was finding the juggling to be a bit much. Like Philip Rosedale found with High Fidelity, Linden Lab discovered that all the time and money they had poured into a social VR platform, in hopes that users would flood in, was a cash drain that put the entire company in danger. In the end, something had to give, and that something was Sansar, which, under the circumstances, makes perfect sense.

Sansar now has a “really scrappy investor type of player” who will try to turn the platform into a profitable endeavour, and Linden Lab can go back to what they do best: keep Second Life humming smoothly along as the reliable cash-cow it is, at almost 17 years of age. I’m quite sure that Philip Rosedale and his original team at Linden Lab back in 2003 never dreamed that SL would enjoy the long, successful life that it has had!

However, I will put on my prognosticator’s hat and issue a prediction: Wookey will go all-in on Sansar, and they will do their absolute damnedest to aright the Good Ship Sansar, which has been listing badly of late. (Go ahead. Call the metaphor police. I dare you,)

But Wookey isn’t going to stick around forever if Sansar fails to take off a second time. The number crunchers at Wookey already have a deadline in their head. I give them two years, max. If they haven’t turned a profit by then, Wookey will sell Sansar in turn, or shut it down.

Clock starts now.

Image from the brand new Wookey website

Aardvark: A Brief Introduction

Housekeeping Note: I know that I have been devoting a lot of coverage to Second Life lately on my blog, which has seen a significant bump in both new and returning users during the coronavirus pandemic, particularly in jurisdictions under some form of lockdown/quarantine/social distancing. However, I will still endeavour to write about the many newer projects and developments in virtual reality, such as Aardvark. My coverage will even out over time, I promise!


An example of a simple Aardvark “gadget” within Steam VR Home

I first heard about Aardvark via a frustrated tweet by Avaer Kazmer, lamenting the current fractured state of mutually-incompatible social VR plugins. (And yes, I do agree with him.)

Aardvark reminds me a bit of a project I had written about in May 2018, called Pluto VR. Like Pluto VR, Aardvark is sort of an overlay over existing Steam VR programs. According to the project’s GitHub:

Aardvark is a framework for building augmented reality “gadgets” that run on top of virtual reality experiences. Gadgets are constructed using a bunch of custom React components (from the @aardvarkxr/aardvark-react package) and run in the Aardvark application. Gadgets use these components to show interactive models, 2D UI, or other stuff that will draw on top of any VR applications you run. You can attach these gadgets to your hands and bring them with you in your favorite VR apps.

This is perhaps best explained by a short YouTube video demonstration by one of the developers, Joe Ludwig:

Again, like Pluto VR, you can actually communicate with other people who are in a completely different virtual environment from you. In this video, Joe happens to be in his Steam VR Home, but he can see his friend Jared’s “gadgets”, even though Jared is running Beat Saber!

While Aardvark is perhaps more of a curiosity, a proof-of-concept, than a viable product at this time, it is still an intriguing project. Visit their GitHub if your curiosity has been sparked, and you want to tinker a bit with Aardvark yourself! All the code is there.

And I will be adding Aardvark to my long-neglected, overflowing, comprehensive list of social VR apps, platforms, and virtual worlds. I know, I know...I said I was going to reorganize and categorize it! Yet another project for these days of social isolation….