Editorial: A Blogger’s Biases

bi·as /ˈbīəs/ — prejudice in favour of or against one thing, person, or group compared with another, usually in a way considered to be unfair.

Oxford Dictionary (via Google)

Yesterday, I got into a debate with one of my blog readers on the RyanSchultz.com Discord server, who felt that I was being hypocritical for saying that High Fidelity was “doomed” when I was not similarly harsh on Sansar, which also has low user concurrency figures.

She does have a good point (she comes from VRChat, which is demonstrably whooping Sansar’s ass in that department):

Every blogger has his or her own biases, and those biases will shift over time. I will admit that I have a soft spot for the two platforms developed by Linden Lab: Second Life and Sansar. And, I will also admit that my bias towards High Fidelity has swung from positive to negative in the past year. Other bloggers also have their biases, whether they publicly admit them or not. For example, Wagner James Au, of the long-running Second Life blog New World Notes, sometimes seems to have an axe to grind when it comes to Sansar.

Am I being fair to High Fidelity? Well, I guess it all depends on your perspective. Yes, I have been very harsh towards HiFi, because I see them lurching from mistake to mistake, but I am not really saying anything new here; other observers have also criticized High Fidelity. Many current and former HiFi users have told me privately that I am writing about what many of them are thinking. And I will continue to praise the company when I see them doing things that I think are beneficial, like their recent create-an-personalized avatar app for mobile devices, which I think is an excellent idea that I would like to see more social VR platforms and virtual worlds adopt. But yes, overall I do think that the company is in quite serious trouble, and yesterday I used the dreaded D-word: doomed.

Does this mean that I am uncritical of Linden Lab? Nope. I can point to numerous instances in the past where I have been sharply (and, yes, even unfairly) critical of Linden Lab. And I have been similarly critical at times of many other virtual worlds. Because I tend to get accused of bias when I do aim criticism at any particular company, I will refer you to a quote I made when I was accused of bashing Sansar by criticizing its too-early launch on Steam:

I want to stress that this is only one person’s opinion, not an official Sansar spokesperson’s point of view. I still remain a strong Sansar supporter, but I would be neglecting my duties as an independent social VR/virtual worlds blogger if I simply posted nothing but “good news” about Sansar, as some people want me to do.

And the exact same sentiment applies to any other platform I write about on this blog. I visit and enjoy many different social VR/virtual worlds, and I have made some great friends and had some wonderful experiences everywhere I go, but I am not simply going to be a cheerleader for any platform; I want to be able to report both the positive and negative sides of all the social VR platforms and virtual worlds I blog about.

So, why do I think that Sansar is not doomed? The various sources of Sansar user concurrency stats, while still low compared to rival platforms like VRChat and Rec Room, are showing promising signs of growth. This is also borne out by a definite increase in the number of people joining and participating in the official Sansar Discord. Sansar is clearly attracting new people. While that pace of user growth might still disappointing to Linden Lab, it is clear to this blogger that Sansar is still doing better overall than High Fidelity.

And yes, I could be wrong. I have often been wrong before. I thought that Virtual Universe would be a success, too, and it failed. I thought that Cryptovoxels would fail, and it has prospered. So, what do I know? I’m just a blogger who spends way, waaay too much time exploring social VR and virtual worlds, and writing about my experiences from my own unique perspective. I have been fortunate to get a bit of attention from my blog, but I am far from a seer. Nobody can predict the future.

And I make you this promise: if I do fuck up—and I tend to fuck up quite often, both in real life and in virtual worlds—I will admit it (especially if I am called out on it, as I was yesterday), own it, apologize, and move on. That’s the best and surest way to learn and grow.

Sometimes, I will push back, and argue my stance on certain issues if I still think I am right. And, right now, I will forcefully argue that Sansar is destined to succeed, although I suspect it will take many years for that to happen. Ebbe Altberg and his team at Linden Lab are very wisely playing the long game: slowly and methodically building a next-generation virtual world that might, someday, surpass Second Life in popularity (even in the face of potential behemoths like Facebook Horizon). We’ll see if that prediction comes to pass or not.


Editorial: Why I Think High Fidelity is Doomed

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Look, I realize that I have been exceptionally cranky lately when it comes to High Fidelity. The company is just trying so hard to make its remote teamwork social VR platform a thing, but, sweet minty Jesus, I think they are failing (and flailing) big time.

I follow the High Fidelity corporate Twitter account, and this morning, somebody posted the following tweet:

Clicking through takes you to the High Fidelity Marketplace, where you can pick up Piper Peppercorn’s virtual coffee mug for 25 HFC (High Fidelity Coin):

So, the thinking here is something along the lines of: “Hey, we want to get people visiting and using High Fidelity, so I have an idea! Let’s promote various items from the Marketplace on Twitter! Somebody will want that coffee mug so much, that they will:

  • download and install the High Fidelity client software;
  • create an avatar;
  • go shopping on the High Fidelity Marketplace and buy that coffee mug.”

I’m sorry, but that is a completely insane expectation. Between tweets for various objects for sale like this coffee mug and a scarf (yes, a scarf!), and numerous generic tweets about the joys and benefits of remote working, I am seriously starting to wonder what the hell is going on:

High Fidelity should stop trying to promote remote teamwork in general, and start focusing squarely on selling their platform. They are not going to convince any company to try using remote workers through these ineffective tweets. If they think this will actually make any sort of difference with executive decision makers, they are sadly mistaken.

The virtual coworking island cam fiasco is a perfect example of a company seemingly completely adrift, without any clear indication that they know what to do, or how to market themselves. It took two days—two days—for the company to even notice that its livestreams had no audio. And the livestreams hardly showed off the platform in its best light, even though they have some innovative product features such as spatialized audio. Nobody is going to watch these videos and think, “Hey, this is cool! I want this for my business!”

High Fidelity is one of the clients of a professional PR company, called Firebrand Communications; do they not listen to their advice at all? Or is this the best advice they are being given at this point? (One blog reader astutely pointed out that any good PR company would be monitoring mentions of their clients on social media and blogs, and stepping in when somebody posts highly critical, deeply negative blogposts like I have written about High Fidelity recently. That’s what PR companies do.)

High Fidelity is a sinking ship, and it just breaks my heart. I’m just going to come right out and say this: I now believe that the company is doomed. Their user forums are a virtual ghost town (nobody has posted anything for a week now, a troubling sign). Many people, like Jason Moore of the MetMovie Project, have abandoned HiFi for other social VR platforms. You load up the HiFi client and visit, and except for a few events like the weekly salon hosted by DrFran, the platform is empty.

High Fidelity is a case that should be studied at university business schools of how not to treat your existing userbase, and how not to promote yourself to try and get new customers. High Fidelity desperately needs help, particularly when it comes to marketing and public relations, and I’m not sure that they are going to get that help before they run out of the millions of dollars of venture capital they received, and simply close up shop.

So, what do you think? Please feel free to leave a comment below or, as always, you are welcome to join the freewheeling conversations, arguments, and debates about social VR and virtual worlds taking place on the RyanSchultz.com Discord server, the first cross-worlds discussion forum! We’d love to see you there.

High Fidelity Releases Virtual You, a Mobile App to Create a 3D HiFi Avatar from a Selfie

Today, High Fidelity issued a press release:

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. 

Virtual You on the iOS App Store

“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.

Editorial: Employee-Customer Communication at Social VR and Virtual World Companies

Need to vent? Some companies make it
easier than others to give feedback.
(photo by Icons8 team on Unsplash)

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.

But I do want to compare and contrast two examples of employee-user communication that happened this week. One has to do with the disastrous co-working island cam livestreams by High Fidelity. The other is related to the brouhaha over ample coverage of Sansar avatars, which I wrote about yesterday.

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.)

And recently, I had to openly beg on the official HiFi user forums to find out to whom I should be directing a New Yorker magazine writer:

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!

Now let us contrast this with Linden Lab. Yes, yes, I know, I know…Linden Lab has often made some stupid mistakes in communication throughout its long history. You can find numerous examples in this blogpost of the Top 20 Controversies in Second Life.

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.

However, Linden Lab, particularly under the capable leadership of its CEO Ebbe Altberg, has shown a remarkable willingness to make themselves available, to discuss issues of contention with its users, and to incorporate changes to their policies based the feedback they receive. A good recent example of this was the decision not to cut the number of groups that basic, non-Premium Second Life accounts could belong to (please see the update at the end of that blogpost for the company’s official statement).

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.