I Was Interviewed by a Business Reporter for The Globe and Mail for an Article About the Metaverse

On March 10th, 2022, I was contacted by Joe Castaldo, a business reporter for The Globe and Mail (which bills itself as “Canada’s National Newspaper”). He was writing up a story about businesses entering the metaverse, and the current metaverse hype cycle, and he asked me if I would be willing to be interviewed.

After checking in with my union representatives at the university, who gave me the all-clear to go ahead, I was interviewed for an hour via telephone. The Globe and Mail had given Joe a Meta Quest 2 wireless VR headset, so a couple of weeks later, I gave him a guided tour of two popular social VR platforms, VRChat and AltspaceVR.

Well, Joe’s article was published in The Globe and Mail today, titled Is the metaverse the future of the internet? A Globe journalist steps inside to find out (if you should hit a paywall, here is an archived version).

I’m not going to reproduce the entire newspaper article here; I was mentioned in the final few paragraphs:

For Ryan Schultz, the widespread interest in the metaverse is a little weird. “My obscure, niche hobby has suddenly gone mainstream,” he told me. A reference librarian with the University of Manitoba, he spends a few hours every week strapped into a headset or exploring desktop-based worlds, and has been blogging about it for years.

Mr. Schultz finds the speculative nature of the digital land rush in some worlds off-putting. “People are investing in this basically as a flex and as a boast to their friends that they can afford these artificially limited items,” he said. Businesses with virtual office space, meanwhile, are likely spending money on a “really fancy three-dimensional brochure.”

He’s seen much of it before. Corporations flocked to Second Life when it took off in the 2000s. Coca-Cola installed soft drink machines, Toyota set up a car dealership, American Apparel built a clothing store, and IBM established an island for employee recruitment and training.

It wasn’t long before the corporate enthusiasm died. “Nobody came to visit these locations, because the people who were already in Second Life didn’t care,” Mr. Schultz said.

He understands the appeal of virtual worlds, though. When he first discovered Second Life, he spent hours there each day. Away from the computer, he has jokingly called himself an “overweight, divorced, gay librarian with diabetes.” At 58, he feels his body growing older, and he’s struggled with depression so bad he’s taken leaves from work. “I kinda suck at this whole reality business,” he wrote on his blog.

In Second Life, Mr. Schultz loved building avatars – angels, supermodels and a Na’vi from, well, Avatar. There was solace in becoming someone else. During the pandemic, he’s met his social needs through virtual reality, and a mental-health app became a lifeline. “I can put on my headset, join a group, and use cognitive behavioural therapy techniques to work through issues and problems, and it’s extremely powerful,” he said. “You feel like you’re really present.”

For those of us who are not already immersed, such moments are likely a long way off. I searched high and low for meaning and connection in the metaverse, but mostly found empty branding experiences, a speculative frenzy around digital assets, and people who were just as curious as I was to find out what this was all about, and were still searching for answers.

But given the relentless enthusiasm of those trying to turn the metaverse into some kind of reality, there will be plenty of chances to try again, for better or worse.

I think that Joe did a good job of describing the metaverse in a way that newspaper readers could easily understand, and there are a couple of videos included in the digital version of the article which made me laugh at certain points, as Joe and his producer Patrick Dell navigated Decentraland and Horizon Worlds!

I also appreciated that the online article linked out to my ever-popular list of social VR platforms and virtual worlds. I’m not really expecting a spike in traffic to my blog (I didn’t get one when I was interviewed by a writer for New Yorker magazine in 2019), but it was an interesting experience, nonetheless.

(By the way, I do receive more and more requests to be interviewed lately, because of my blog. I turn most of them down, but I said yes to this one, because The Globe and Mail is a major Canadian newspaper, and one which I read often.)

The Globe and Mail newspaper interviewed me for an article on the metaverse

P.S. The mental health app mentioned in the quote above is called Help Club; here’s the blogpost which I wrote about this self-help social VR app for mental health.

After News Reports of Sexual Harassment, Meta Implements a Four-Foot Personal Boundary for Avatars in Horizon Worlds and Horizon Venues

Unfortunately, sexual harassment online is pervasive, happening in such disparate venues as social media, chat rooms, Discord servers, and role-playing games. Virtual worlds and social VR are no exception. Again, this is not a new problem; I have been writing about trolling, griefing and harassment in the metaverse, and how companies are responding to it, since May of 2018 on this blog.

There have been several recent news reports about women who reported being groped or otherwise harassed in Meta’s social VR platforms Horizon Worlds and Horizon Venues. For example, the U.K.’s Daily Mail had this report about a women who was assaulted after logging into Horizon Venues:

Nina Jane Patel watched and listened in horror through a virtual-reality headset as her avatar – a moving, talking, computer-generated version of herself – was groped aggressively in a sustained attack by three realistic male characters.

On a visit this month, the mother-of-four entered the ‘lobby’ – a virtual space serving as an entry point. But within seconds she was pursued by the men’s avatars, who groped her, subjected her to a stream of sexual innuendo and took screen shots of the attack for several minutes as she tried to flee.

Alex Heath of The Verge reported on December 9th, 2021:

Earlier this month, a beta tester posted in the official Horizon group on Facebook about how her avatar was groped by a stranger. “Sexual harassment is no joke on the regular internet, but being in VR adds another layer that makes the event more intense,” she wrote. “Not only was I groped last night, but there were other people there who supported this behavior which made me feel isolated in the Plaza.”

[Vivek] Sharma [Meta’s VP of Horizon] calls the incident “absolutely unfortunate” and says that after Meta reviewed the incident, the company determined that the beta tester didn’t utilize the safety features built into Horizon Worlds, including the ability to block someone from interacting with you. (When you’re in Horizon, a rolling buffer of what you see is saved locally on your Oculus headset and then sent to Meta for human review if an incident is reported.) “That’s good feedback still for us because I want to make [the blocking feature] trivially easy and findable,” he says.

This event was widely reported by a variety of news sources, ranging from the New York Post to the MIT Technology Review. Victor Tangermann wrote in a Dec. 16th, 2021 Futurism article titled Sexual Assault Is Already Happening in the Metaverse:

Rather than ensuring Horizon Worlds doesn’t foster a culture of strangers groping each other in VR, Meta is hoping to make the problem go away by making adjustments to its tools. The company says users can turn on a feature called “Safe Zone,” which creates an impenetrable bubble around the user when they want more space.

But personal space is likely to be a galling problem for social VR applications.

“I think people should keep in mind that sexual harassment has never had to be a physical thing,” Jesse Fox, an associate professor at Ohio State University, told MIT Technology Review. “It can be verbal, and yes, it can be a virtual experience as well.”

Bloomberg columnist Parmy Olson also wasn’t exactly impressed by Meta’s VR experience, either. Once in the VR lobby of Horizon Venues — Meta’s VR events platform that is serving as Horizon Worlds’ precursor — she was being surrounded by a “group of male avatars” who started taking pictures of her.

“One by one, they began handing the photos to me,” Olson writes. “The experience was awkward and I felt a bit like a specimen.”

Meta may have thought they would have avoided these kind of problems by deliberately designing their avatars to have no body below the waist. No genitals, no problem, right? WRONG. It’s not what the avatars look like that’s the issue here; it’s how the people using the avatars behave towards each other.

Note also Parmy Olson’s incident in the previous quote: in her case, the group of male avatars were using Horizon Worlds’ built-in camera feature to make her feel uncomfortable. Harassment can take many forms, and may involve the abuse of features which the developers never dreamed would be so misused.

On February 4th, 2022, no doubt in response to these and other news reports and the negative publicity they generated, Meta announced a Personal Boundary feature:

Today, we’re announcing Personal Boundary for Horizon Worlds and Horizon Venues. Personal Boundary prevents avatars from coming within a set distance of each other, creating more personal space for people and making it easier to avoid unwanted interactions. Personal Boundary will begin rolling out today everywhere inside of Horizon Worlds and Horizon Venues, and will by default make it feel like there is an almost 4-foot distance between your avatar and others.

This Personal Boundary feature is hard-coded, at least for now; you cannot turn it off or adjust the distance. According to the press release:

We are intentionally rolling out Personal Boundary as always on, by default, because we think this will help to set behavioral norms—and that’s important for a relatively new medium like VR. In the future, we’ll explore the possibility of adding in new controls and UI changes, like letting people customize the size of their Personal Boundary.

Note that because Personal Boundary is the default experience, you’ll need to extend your arms to be able to high-five or fist bump other people’s avatars in Horizon Worlds or in Horizon Venues.

Adi Robinson of The Verge clarifies that “it gives everyone a two-foot radius of virtual personal space, creating the equivalent of four virtual feet between avatars”, adding:

Meta spokesperson Kristina Milian confirmed that users can’t choose to disable their personal boundaries since the system is intended to establish standard norms for how people interact in VR. However, future changes could let people customize the size of the radius.

If someone tries to walk or teleport within your personal space, their forward motion will stop. However, Milian says that you can still move past another avatar, so users can’t do things like use their bubbles to block entrances or trap people in virtual space

Contrast Meta’s approach with other platforms such as Sansar, which gives the user control over whether or not they want to set up personal space between themselves and other avatars, allowing them to set up one distance for people on their friends list (or to turn it off completely, and set another for non-friends and strangers (see the Comfort Zone settings in the image below):

And, of course, VRChat has an elaborate, six-level Trust and Safety system, where you can make adjustments to mute/hide avatars, among other settings.

A few thoughts about all this. Because Meta is such a large, well-known company, it was perhaps inevitable that such reports would be considered newsworthy—even though sexual harassment has been around for decades in virtual worlds, dating back to Active Worlds, founded over a quarter-century ago!

Also, the immersive nature of virtual reality can make such harassment feel more invasive. Jessica Outlaw has researched and written at length about women’s experience of harassment in virtual reality (here and here).

Finally, like all the metaverse platforms which came before it, Meta is learning and making adjustments to its social VR platforms over time. This is common and is to be expected. For example, Second Life has had a long history of discovering and addressing problems which arose during its 18+ years of existence. Some fixes are good; others cause their own problems, and require further tinkering.

I personally believe that the best solution to the continuing problem of sexual harassment in the metaverse requires a deft mix of social and community rules and expectations with software solutions such as the Personal Boundary feature, and muting/blocking avatars. There is no easy fix; we learn as we go.

Editorial: Meta’s Horizon Social VR Strategy Is Currently a Bit of a Mess

As many of you already know, I responded to last October’s announcement by Meta (then still called Facebook) that owners of Oculus VR hardware would have to set up accounts on the Facebook social network, by personally boycotting all Meta products and services—including the Horizon Venues, Horizon Worlds, and Horizon Workrooms social VR platforms. (Here’s the blogpost where I announced my decision.)

Since that announcement (full text here), I have replaced my trusty Oculus Rift tethered VR headset, which up until that point I had been perfectly happy with, with a Valve Index (which I love to use and I consider an upgrade in every single way from the Rift). I also did a factory reset on my Oculus Quest 1, sending it to my sister-in-law in Alberta, who might use it in her work with developmentally-challenged adults (she has no qualms about having a Facebook account, and it’s going to a good cause). I had already deleted my Facebook account previously, and I followed by deleting my Oculus account as well and removing the Oculus app from my iPhone. Yes, I burned my bridges, and I voted with my feet and my wallet!

While it might be considered a bold, gutsy, and even audacious move to boycott what is likely to become one of the significant players in social VR, in a blog specifically about social VR, I am still quite comfortable with my decision four months later. As I wrote on my popular and comprehensive list of metaverse platforms:

I am DONE with Meta, and I refuse to come back unless the company reverses its decision to force its VR headset users to have accounts on the toxic Facebook social network.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that I won’t write about Meta and its social VR strategy; it’s just that I won’t be writing about it from a first-person perspective! (And I have a whole network of metaverse enthusiasts, who are not personally boycotting Meta hardware and software, to keep me reliably informed as to what’s going on in-world.)

From my onlooker, outsider perspective, Meta’s social VR strategy seems to be a bit muddled at the moment, with no less than three different social VR apps as part of their current metaverse offerings. And I’m not the only one who has noticed. Tech pundit Ben Lang tweeted yesterday:

Idea: We’re one of the biggest social network companies in the world, let’s make a social VR platform that everyone can enjoy!

Execution:

As a recent Road to VR article written by Ben, titled Meta Plans to Fuse Its ‘Horizon’ Apps & Make Them More Accessible… Eventually states:

Although all three share a common umbrella name, and even share the same avatars, they’re really entirely different applications. You might be sitting right next to your colleague in Workrooms and invite them to watch a show with you in Venues after the meeting, but there’s no seamless way for both of you to actually go from A to B without quitting your current app, launching a new one, and then eventually find each other on the other side. Not to mention dealing with an entirely different interface and features between the two.

In an interview with Digiday, Meta’s VP of Horizon, Vivek Sharma, hinted that the company hopes to eventually bring these experiences together in a more seamless way.

“Eventually, Sharma plans to stitch [the three Horizon applications] together to create a cohesive virtual world,” writes Alexander Lee. “Though he didn’t offer specifics about the timeline for this union or what the overarching platform would be called.”

“You can imagine us building out an entire ecosystem where creators can earn a living, where communities can form and do interesting stuff together,” Sharma told Digiday. “So it’s not just a place for games; it’s not just a place for people to build creative stuff; it’s all of the above.”

At present, Horizon is scattered in more ways than not being able to navigate seamlessly between apps. Accessibility is also an issue… you’ll need an Oculus Quest 2 headset if you want to be able to access all three. If you have the original Oculus Quest you can only use Worlds and Venues. If you have an Oculus Rift you can only use Worlds. And if you have a non-Oculus headset well, you’re out of luck.

Ben Lang raises an important point: everything that Meta is currently doing is constrained to run on Meta’s VR hardware. In fact, I’m not even sure how Meta plans to make Horizon Venues, Horizon Worlds, and Horizon Workrooms available to headsets like my beloved Valve Index. It will be interesting to see how—or even if—Meta tackles this issue.

If they don’t support other brands of virtual reality headsets, the utility of the Horizon line of social VR platforms is going to be limited, particularly as new competitors enter the market (like Apple, who is widely anticipated to launch a VR/AR headset sometime this year or next year).

An Experienced Second Life User Responds to Facebook/Meta’s Grand Metaverse Ambitions: “We’ve Been There, Done That…Two Decades Ago”

Will Meta trample Second Life? (image source)

I was waiting for somebody with deep roots in Second Life to write a complete, detailed response to Facebook (sorry, Meta) and its ambitious plans to build the metaverse, and lo and behold, Phaylen Fairchild rose to the challenge!

In a Medium post written yesterday, titled Facebook Meta Isn’t New. The Future Started in 2003, Phaylen (who actually was the organizer of Second Life’s sixth birthday celebration, SL6B, way back in 2009), shares her opinions about Meta’s grand plans, informed by her many years of experience in Second Life.

Her longform article is insightful, and I very strongly urge you to go over to her website and read it in full. Best of all, the author assumes that you know nothing about Second Life, which is a common trap those who write about SL for an external audience tend to fall into.

Meta offers some pretty amazing concepts such as Avatar creation, shared virtual spaces, immersive environments and user generated content that will take users far beyond the third person experience of simple status box. Facebook Meta will feature teleportation to other users rooms and customized experiences. From inside, you’re no longer an idle profile picture, but a 3-D representative of yourself. Within this world exists a new social media platform called “Horizon.” It promises detailed and expansive worlds with infinite possibilities and will essentially redefine the way we communicate, collaborate and educate.

Within the Virtual world, you can attend concerts or watch a movie with friends. You will be able to go to parties with thousands of other people around the world or watch a sporting event from the front row, listen to talk shows with your favorite celebrities or buy, sell and trade virtual digital goods. Work from your office 3000 miles away or walk with dinosaurs from 40 million years ago in real time without ever leaving your home.

If this sounds familiar, maybe it’s because you’re a fan or Ready Player One or read Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson. Or maybe… just maybe, you did this all before, if you’ve ever logged into Second Life.

Phalyen also interviews former Linden Lab CEO Rob Humble, and quotes a tweet by Robin Harper, a former Senior Vice President of Marketing and Business Development at Linden Lab, to get their perspectives on what’s happening now with Meta.

Phaylen writes:

Facebook’s transitional to Meta appears to expect that, beyond pitching itself in a well-produced video, it can forgo traditional marketing necessities by leveraging an already embedded userbase of nearly 3 billion people. As a cultural staple, literally the most formidable technological asset in the world, it hopes to parlay its simple web-based presence in our daily lives into a 3-D, immersive world, where from inside, you work, socialize, entertain and share your presence beyond a status update. But already, Meta is falling victim to the same issues suffered by those that came before and ultimately failed.

Cartoon-like avatars instead of Second Life’s extraordinary, photo realistic avatars was partly why users of Google Lively disassociated from their in-world activities. They felt like they were playing a character instead of using it as a representative of themselves. Limited content creation and a lack of open world made it feel boxed in- you were literally in a box, and the interface was unintuitive and disruptive to the user instead of fluid. Second Life boasts everything from sprawling landscapes of golden wheat fields and sparkling oceans on which to take a cruise of race sailboats, to massive cityscapes bursting with activities- even traffic. That developers at Lively thought they could follow that by isolating users to a room in outer space was an unfortunate, tone-deaf introduction as a Second Life alternative.

Comparing Meta’s avatars with Second Life avatars (image source)

In her conclusion, Phaylen explains some important differences between what Meta wants to do and what Second Life has already done, and she emphasizes something which I say often on this blog: that SL is the perfect, mature, fully-evolved model of the metaverse which newer platforms would be wise to study, learn from and emulate.

Zuckerberg and the developers of Meta, which claims it is “A long way out,” could use Second Life as a proof of concept, leveraging the best parts of it, researching the mistakes made, and using those established building blocks to bring it into the 2020’s. But everything in the video published around the web by Facebook that revealed Meta already exists- and in many cases, in a better, more satisfactory framework than they propose. In Meta, you’re not building your world, you’re essentially putting your calling card on things that already exist- such as a logo on a wall or a sign. Second Life proved that user content and world-building are key- we’re putting our signature on our space, not just in a space. There was an intimacy, a personality with what we brought in and used to build up that reflected our identity. The day Second Life launched, it was a massive empty space just waiting for Residents to build and create limited only by the boundaries of their imagination- and it was that canvas that led them to push those boundaries, and by virtue of that, inspire others. What it wasn’t was a catalog of pre-made content, copy and paste code or simply a transfer of well known video games into the virtual realm. Most of what Facebook advertised in its reveal for Meta was pre-existing games made compatible with VR headsets such as the Oculus which will be compatible with Meta- but Meta isn’t necessary to play these games in Virtual Realty or 3-D, most have already been ported to a platform where that is possible, such as Playstation of X-Box. Collaborative meetings already exist as well, with Zoom and Webex leading the charge, which begs the question, how does Meta intend to improve upon these applications rather than simply integrate them?

For old Second Life residents, the announcement of Meta wasn’t all that innovative or awe-inducing.

We’ve been there, done that… 2 decades ago.


Thank you to Neobela for the heads up!