There is simply no better place to watch as the dominoes fall in the beleaguered world of cryptocurrencies, blockchain, and non-fungible tokens (NFTs) than the cryptosnark subreddit, r/Buttcoin (tagline: “ButtCoin. It’s a scam. At least we’re honest about it!”).
Crypto lender Genesis filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection late Thursday night in Manhattan federal court, the latest casualty in the industry contagion caused by the collapse of FTX and a crippling blow to a business once at the heart of Barry Silbert’s Digital Currency Group.
The company listed over 100,000 creditors in a “mega” bankruptcy filing, with aggregate liabilities ranging from $1.2 billion to $11 billion dollars, according to bankruptcy documents.
A list of the 50 largest unsecured creditors was leaked, and it turns out that both of the co-founders and the current Chief Financial Officer of blockchain metaverse Decentraland are owed an eye-watering US$55 million. Crypto news website The Block reports:
Virtual world platform Decentraland has not one but three of its executives and founders listed among the 50 largest non-insider unsecured claims against Genesis Global, the crypto lender that filed for bankruptcy protection on Thursday.
Decentraland CFO Santiago Esponda drew attention after his Decentraland email address was listed in court filings as the contact for Heliva International, a Panama-based company owed $55 million by Genesis. But a closer look reveals that Decentraland’s two co-founders are also listed in the documents with non-Decentraland email addresses.
Esteban Ordano, a Decentraland co-founder who now acts as an adviser, is listed as the contact for an entity called Winah Securities. Genesis owes Winah, which is located on the same floor in the same building as Heliva, almost $27 million. Ordano told The Block that Winah has no relationship with Decentraland.
Gaming company Big Time Studios is owed $20 million. It’s run by Ari Meilich, Decentraland’s other co-founder. He started Big Time in 2020 but also remains a Decentraland adviser. Meilich declined to comment.
Which brings me, in a roundabout way, to the point of this particular editorial: how I will be covering blockchain-based metaverse platforms going forward on this blog.
In a previous editorial, I explained that I was substantially cutting back on my coverage of Second Life, to refocus my blog on virtual reality in general, and social VR in particular. Likewise, I have also decided that I will no longer be writing about any blockchain-based metaverse platform unless it incorporates virtual reality. According to my comprehensive and reasonably up-to-date list of virtual worlds and social VR, the only platforms which incorporate blockchain technology (cryptocurrencies and/or NFTs) and support virtual reality are three:
NeosVR (a social VR platform with an associated cryptocurrency called NCR, which was planned to be the in-world currency but has not been incorporated; please note that Neos does not have NFT-based virtual real estate, or use NFTs at all)
Sensorium Galaxy (this ultra-high-end social VR platform uses the SENSO cryptocurrency to purchase avatars in their online store; as far as I am aware, Sensorium Galaxy does not use NFTs)
Somnium Space (a blockchain-based virtual world that supports VR, with a cryptocurrency and NFT-based real estate)
All the other blockchain metaverse platforms I have written about on this blog (including the one that first attracted my attention, Decentraland) are either flatscreen virtual worlds which do not support virtual reality, or they have not yet launched (and, in the current crypto nuclear winter, are increasingly unlikely to do so; the only exception being The Sandbox, which is still in extended alpha testing).
And (as illustrated by my initial anecdote about the Decentraland co-founders and executive entangled in the Celsius bankruptcy case), those platforms which had the great good fortune to launch well before the current crypto carnage, are possibly still entangled in the web of interconnected crypto companies lending and borrowing from each other, in highly speculative cryptocurrencies whose actual value is based only on what the next greater fool is willing to pay for them. In particular, those who purchased overpriced NFT-based real estate on such platforms as The Sandbox, Somnium Space, and yes, even pioneering Decentraland, are going to find it very difficult, if not impossible, to make any sort of profit off their investments.
And one only has to observe the travails which NeosVR has gone through, after a cyncial pump-and-dump instigated by cryptobros, to see how a social VR project with such technical promise can be hamstrung by attaching a cryptocurrency to it. There has, to my knowledge, been no active development on the platform in over a year, and it is unclear what 2023 holds for NeosVR. It breaks my heart and it angers me.
While I will continue to follow the current crypto winter shenanigans as an interested (and bemused) observer, I have decided that I will no longer be writing about any blockchain metaverse unless it has launched, and it supports virtual reality. In particular, I will no longer waste my time (and your patience) writing about all the blockchain metaverse projects which consist of little more than an .io website, a Telegram or Discord channel, and a white paper long on hand-waving, but short on actual technical details. Enough with the bafflegab and bullshit.
If you happen to actually launch a product which incorporates blockchain in some way (cryptocurrencies and/or NFTs), and it supports users in a VR headset, then I will gladly write about it. Otherwise, I’m no longer interested.
The SWIFT payments network has made an extraordinary decision that will have widespread implications on cryptocurrencies.
Asia Markets can reveal SWIFT will no longer process fiat currency transfers from bank accounts to cryptocurrency exchanges, with a value of less than US$100,000, effective from February 1, 2023.
The move will thwart cryptocurrency access to tens of millions of people worldwide.
One of the first crypto giants to notify users of the development this weekend, has been the world’s largest exchange, Binance.
“The banking partner that services your account has advised that they are no longer able to process SWIFT fiat (USD) transaction for individuals of less than $100,000 USD as of February 1, 2023. This is the case for all their crypto exchange clients,” said Binance.
“Please be advised that until we are able to find an alternative solution, you may not be able to use your bank account to buy and sell crypto with USD via SWIFT with a value of less than $100,000 USD.”
Time to go get more popcorn; this three-ring circus is just getting started!
Binance sent a notice to customers that starting February 1, their banking partner, Signature, would not be processing SWIFT transfers of less than $100,000.
Retail customers of Binance have until the end of the month to get their US dollars off the exchange. After that, their money is stuck.
Rumors are swirling around this — not helped by an early news report (rapidly corrected) claiming that the SWIFT system itself was cutting off all crypto exchanges. Here are the facts that we know so far:
Binance is cut off from Signature for transactions below $100,000.
Signature’s other exchange customers have not said they’re affected, and we haven’t seen their customers saying so either.
We haven’t heard of other banks putting such a condition on Binance or another exchange.
So it’s so far just Binance, via Signature.
Still, it is significant that Binance, the biggest cryptobroker still standing, is facing such a stringent sanction by one of its banks. (By the way, Attack of the 50=Foot Blockchain is well worth following, for its expert analysis of the ongoing crisis in crypto!)
I am happy to announce that the long-awaited season 2 of the Metaverse Newscast has begun! For our first episode of the second season, I interviewed Jason Moore and Chris McBride of the MetaMovie project! We talked about their latest immersive theatre production, called Alien Rescue, which I had previously reviewed here (October 2021).
I’d like to thank Carlos Austin, my co-producer and director for this season, along with Victor Posa, who did additional camerawork. Oh, and I do apologize for my avatar in this episode! I used one of the mouth-enabled robots from the avatar setup room in Neos, to use with my Vive Facial Tracker, but I didn’t realize until after we stopped filming that my avatar’s tongue was sticking out a lot of the time! (Oh well, live and learn! I’ll probably switch to a different avatar the next time we record in NeosVR.)
I have been waiting a while to write this editorial, but I think the right time has come.
I have been avidly following every twist and turn of the current crypto crash, following various Reddit communities and scouring Google and Apple News for the reports of the latest crypto companies to fail, taking their investors’ money with them. The chain of dominos continues to fall, and nobody can predict where or when this “crypto winter” will end.
In talking about all this, there’s lot of jargon being thrown around which can sometimes be difficult to understand: smart contracts, DeFi, NFTs, DAOs, etc. The following 7-minute YouTube video explains all these and other terms, and I can recommend it highly (and it can serve as a refresher for the rest of you):
From the moment I first began writing about the blockchain-based virtual worlds and social VR platforms (starting with Decentraland, years before they actually opened their doors to the general public), I have been fascinated by the new crop of metaverse projects boasting some blockchain component. These projects seem to split into two kinds:
1. Projects with Non-Fungible Token (NFT)-based virtual real estate (e.g. Decentraland, Cryptovoxels, Somnium Space, The Sandbox). All such projects tend to have their own cryptocurrency (or use Ether, ETH), and offer a marketplace where you can buy and sell other blockchain-based goods, such as avatar wearables.
While examples of the second category are few in number, there has been an explosion of projects announced in the first category over the past couple of years. Many of these projects had hoped to duplicate the success of Decentraland, which had the great good fortune to do an Initial Coin Offering at the absolute perfect time, in 2017 raising US$24 million dollars before ever building a platform.
Decentraland’s successful subsequent virtual land auctions (with their frenzied bidding wars for NFT-based virtual pieces of land called, naturally enough, LAND) also attracted a lot of attention and favourable press. This no doubt encouraged other companies to set up similar schemes in an effort to duplicate that success. Among those that have actually delivered a viable product to date are Cryptovoxels, Somnium Space, and the still-in-alpha/beta-testing-but-soon-to-launch platform The Sandbox. Each of these projects inspired similar bidding frenzies for artificially-scarce NFT-based parcels of virtual real estate, in some cases setting records.
The following charts show just how much the value of the cryptocurrencies associated with just these six projects has tumbled over the past three months (all charts are via the CoinMarketCap website):
And here’s one that really hurts: the surge and plunge in value of Neos Credits (NCR) over the past year. At the moment, project development has come to a near-standstill as the CEO fights against the CTO and the rest of the dev team about the role crypto will play in the NeosVR platform (and the matter will likely land up in court for the lawyers to battle over).
It’s still not clear if NeosVR can recover from this fiasco, which breaks my heart because it has such great technology! I do consider this to be the textbook example of how crypto speculation and greed can cause problems with an otherwise stellar platform; without being hooked to NCR, a cryptocurrency which has as yet has no practical use on the platform, NeosVR would still be doing very well! Instead, it is bleeding investors.
In addition, you can see the clear downward trend in both sales volume and average sale price for the following NFT-based properties over time (all taken from the NFT Stats website). Some seem to be doing a bit better than others, but all are down:
The overall situation is grim, particularly for those who bought cryptocurrencies and NFTs at the height of the market, perhaps expecting to flip them for a quick profit. But, for the countless blockchain-based metaverse projects who hopped on the bandwagon after Decentraland and the other market early movers, the situation is even worse. In many cases, the newer companies expected to raise funds by minting and selling NFTs to investors, often well before anything concrete was built! Examples of such projects include two I have written about earlier this year, Wilder World and VictoriaVR, but there are literally dozens and dozens more such projects, more than I could ever hope to cover in my blog. The prognosis for these newer projects is not looking especially promising, as potential investors head for the hills.
And, sadly, the bullish crypto market also brought out all the scammers who wanted to take advantage of the hothouse atmosphere of crypto investment, accepting money up front for what was essentially vapourware, and then pulling the rug out from under those who had not done their proper due diligence. Greed and FOMO (fear of missing out) drove a lot of ignorant cryptobros to pour money into a lot of projects which, to date, have had little to show for them but a slick website and an active Discord (or Telegram) server where everybody was pumping everybody else up to buy and HODL (hold on for dear life to) their associated crypto and NFT assets.
Some non-financially-savvy people, believing that they were truly on to a sure thing, gambled money they could not afford to lose—their life savings, their retirement funds, even their childrens’ college funds—and have lost everything, or next to everything, in the current bear market, holding near-worthless assets they cannot find anyone to sell to. I keep reading heartbreaking stories in the various subReddits of investors who have lost everything. Many have spoken of suicide, and many Reddit communities have posted resources to support those who are struggling with their mental health as a result of their poor financial decisions.
In the current environment, I believe that any blockchain-based metaverse (or a metaverse platform with an associated cryptocurrency), is going to be in for a very rough ride over the next few months, as governments around the world raise interest rates, and the easy, low-interest credit dries up, and a global recession looms. People are going to retreat to safer investments, fleeing the demonstrably high volatility of crypto and blockchain assets like NFTs. We can expect to see a mass stampede to the exits in some projects, and frankly, not all the blockchain-based metaverse platforms out there will survive.
This will be the first of a series of lengthy (very lengthy!), investigative-journalism-type blogposts about the social VR platform NeosVR, by Solirax (more background here). In this first part of the series, I will provide some historical background and context to the the earliest days of the company, and its two co-founders, Karel Hulec and Tomáš Mariančík (the latter is better known by his NeosVR handle, Frooxius). I believe that this background look at both Tomáš and Karel is necessary to understand how the current dispute arose, and where it might lead.
My sources for this part consist of Frooxius’ own words from his blog (which I was able to access via a tip, using the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine), as well as a well-placed, knowledgeable source who wishes to remain anonymous. Given that much of what they told me fits in very well with the other information I have read and researched (e.g. Frooxius’ own blog), I have decided to present some of that information here, paraphrasing it to protect their anonymity. (Note that I am deliberately referring to them as they/them/their throughout this post.) Please note that I do not usually make it a habit to present information from an anonymous source, but in this case, I am inclined to trust what they have to say. This is a rare exception to my rule, which I hope you will find acceptable under these unusual circumstances.
We also have Tomáš’ own description of what happened in those very early days, taken from a his own blog. I am going to quote directly from this at length for two reasons: because it is no longer easily accessible on the internet, and also because it provides a fascinating glimpse into Tomáš’ mind.
My name is Tomáš Mariančík, although you might know me better as Frooxius, creator of SightLine, World of Comenius, Neos: The Universe, Unity VR light fields and bunch of other smaller things…
I’m 24 years old and for past year I have been doing VR for living. You could say (and some actually say that to me) that I’m living the dream, but what few realize are the years of nightmares that have preceded.
I am exaggerating a bit for dramatic effect of course, but the truth is that the path to this dream was lined with a lot of stress, depression, pain and other generally unfavorable feelings that have left quite a mess.
That was the most significant impulse to write this article, both for myself to tidy my own thoughts and for you, so you can better understand what’s going on in the background and in case you are in similar situation, know that you’re not alone and that there is a soft puffy cloud on which you can live your dream if you’ll be persistent to find it through all the storms.
What I want you to realize is that path to success isn’t easy as many imagine (unless you get really lucky) and patience and persistence are probably the most important virtues required to achieve your goals.
People usually only see you once you succeed, so it might seem that the success came so easily that you must be doing something wrong because you can’t replicate it so simply yourself, but I want to show you how difficult the path is and give you a brief overview of my journey on it.
Tomáš describes his beginnings as follows:
My path to VR started perhaps surprisingly with experimental processor architectures. During the last years of high school, I developed a deep interest in the inner function of CPU’s and programming in assembly languages (and the layers of abstraction built on top of those – I always loved imagining how things fit together and how they relate and influence each other, creating hierarchies and layers of abstractions) and began to think if they could work in a significantly different manner, considering that the basic principle dates at least all the way back to Babbage’s analytical engine in the first half of the 19th century.
Long story short, I developed a series of esoteric CPU architectures (with associated softcore implementations on FPGA boards, programming languages for them, compilers for those languages and set of examples and measurements of their properties) and with those, based on the initial impulse of my high school teacher, I competed in the national science fair, which got me to Intel ISEF 2012 in the U.S.
Before all that, I was a very shy, socially anxious kid (and still am, but not nearly to the same extent as before) with low self-esteem. My idea of my future was that I would somehow get through university, get a job somewhere and maybe, in some free time, I’ll work on things I’m really passionate about.
This thought was very depressing, because since young age I loved to create. I have been writing stories, drawing machines, inventing some working ones (like one time I disassembled my electric car toy and made a functional blender from its components and a yoghurt cup, using a duct tape and pieces of cardboard to hold it all together, including the wires and electrical components; didn’t have a soldering iron yet), later I started making my own amateur films, animations, games and software. I just love creating stuff of many kinds across the whole spectrum, from highly technical to artistic.
At any moment my mind is full of ideas for things I would love to do, whether they are stories for games, details of alien worlds or perhaps a unique sound synthesizer algorithm or some new way to create 3D geometry. Now imagine you have all those ideas and your expectation is that nobody will ever support you in working on any them, so you’ll spend the rest of your life ignoring the constant stream of ideas and just focus on doing things others tell you to do.
With that mindset and against all my expectations (I was too afraid to even show the architectures I made to anyone, which is why it took impulse of my former teacher to participate in the science fair) I suddenly found myself in the United States of America, at age of 19 (well not so suddenly, there was a year delay between the national science fair and Intel ISEF) at the biggest pre-college science fair in the world.
The whole experience was grandiose, fascinating and impactful. I was surrounded by thousands of other young people from all over the world, with similar passion for learning and creativity, although I didn’t talk with almost any of them because of my shyness. But that didn’t matter, because the biggest impact was made by the opening speech by David Brian Johnson, Intel’s futurist.
His talk about pursuing our dreams and how technology progressed to the point where we are constrained only by our imagination (more or less) and most importantly that it is us who are building the future, instead of future being something that just happens to us, awoke something in me. I felt as if figurative chains that were tightly wrapped around my whole body suddenly ruptured and I was free. I was no longer afraid (at least not nearly as much as before).
After I returned home, I soon quit university after the first semester (which frustrated me to no end) and decided to start pursuing my own dreams. I returned to game design with work on some mobile phone games based on ideas I had since the first year of high school (and some even before that) that I wanted to implement for years.
Tomáš spent some time muddling around with mobile games, but then the Oculus KickStarter happened in 2012:
Seeing the KickStarter campaign for DK1 made me immensely excited. The promise of a technology that transports you into the virtual world was like a dream come true. As I mentioned before, I am constantly thinking of many diverse worlds in my head (most of which nobody has even heard described yet) and there’s nothing I want more than to share them with others (it’s almost bordering on an obsession).
Writing stories, drawing pictures, creating classic games are all great ways to share those worlds, but virtual reality is simply the ultimate one (although I’d say the current one isn’t the ultimate one yet, since there are some stories it can’t tell, but that’s for another article).
No longer do you have to imperfectly imagine the world from the words (on the other hand it gives you certain freedom for your own imagination). No longer do you have to imagine what’s going on in the paintings and what the world would look like if you started exploring around. No longer do you have to look at flat rectangular projection of the world. You are in the world.
Even before hitting the pledge button (for two Rifts, actually) my head filled with many ideas of more or less bizarre worlds (including what became the SightLine) that I would like to create for the technology. And the impatient wait began.
Meanwhile I continued making classical games in my free time while doing contract software development for money. After some delays and impatient refreshing of the community-made delivery log, my dev-kits finally arrived. Despite the low resolution and other issues, I was completely amazed by the technology and played through the whole Half Life 2 in almost one sitting in the first few days, partly because there was little community content at the time.
Of course it didn’t take me long to start producing my own. I’ve dabbled with several concepts as I explored the technology, none of them receiving particular attention (though I haven’t thought they would in the first place), but I started slowly working on a bigger game based on the painting game concept from the OUYA game jam.
When the VR Jam was announced, I considered participating with the painting game for a while, but eventually decided to use an idea I was personally most excited about and which I thought would stand a better chance – a game based on lacking the object permanence and building a surreal dream-like reality.
The decision proved to be a good one, earning SightLine a third place. The prize money helped things a bit, but wasn’t nearly enough to fund a team to develop the concept into a full game.
However, I got something much better from the VR Jam. Attention from both the Oculus and community. Or so I thought.
I was already happy to be among the twenty finalists, but when the winners were announced and I received personal congratulations from the Oculus team, I thought “This is it, this is the turning point.”
Oculus contacted me directly and claimed that they were impressed by my project and wanted to help me. The community loved it too. I thought that this was the chance to drop the senseless contract projects and devote my time fully to VR. I was excited that I would finally have opportunity to transform the ideas I had into a fully blown project.
But that was a naive viewpoint. I had no idea how wrong I was at the time. I began talking with Oculus, showing them more concepts, development progress (still slow, made in my spare time). When I heard that they funded some other VR Jam projects, I asked about funding also.
The replies I’ve got were always semi-positive, but never quite giving me anything solid, just raising my hopes that they were interested (and that they indeed provided funding to some projects) and answering my questions only partially. Sometimes responses didn’t arrive at all. It was okay I thought, they are just very busy, I just have to keep again later.
So I kept trying and trying. I launched an IndieGogo campaign to attempt to get funding from the community, but unfortunately that has failed for multitude of reasons. Firstly, I had no experience running such campaign. I tried my best, but I don’t really think it was enough.
Secondly, the community was still quite small as this was all the way back in the DK1 days when everyone pretty much knew each other (a bit of an exaggeration, but you get the point). And third, it was IndieGogo.
I was warned about that many times, I got told it’s a graveyard for projects, but I didn’t have a choice. I lived in the wrong country [the Czech Republic]. I desperately searched for ways to launch my campaign on KickStarter, but didn’t succeed in doing so. There were way too many barriers. So I had to do with IndieGogo.
Interestingly, during the IndieGogo campaign, Markiplier made a playthrough video of the demo, getting huge amount of views. I thought this would help the campaign tremendously, but sadly the number of visits to the campaign didn’t even increase noticeably.
Failing the campaign was unpleasant and it certainly didn’t help with motivation, but I kept working on the project, bit by bit and kept talking with Oculus, trying to get some kind of help from them.
And then, in 2014, Facebook bought Oculus…
And then the big event came out of nowhere. Oculus got acquired by Facebook. I was one of the few people (at least it felt that way) who weren’t overly negative about it, even somewhat positive after I heard Palmer Luckey talk about how this is going to help them with a lot of things, especially being able to afford to fund a lot more developers.
“Maybe now I have a chance to get funding from them!” I thought. I waited after everything calmed down and contacted Oculus again. No definitive answers again.
“It’s been a while since the VR Jam, maybe it would help to have something new to impress them with.” I continued thinking. The arrival of DK2 shipping was also coming up soon, so it seemed a ripe opportunity for a new proper demo.
So I devoted two weeks of my free time and chunk of my saved up funds (including the VR Jam prize, which helped a lot) and worked day and night on an idea I have been toying with a while – SightLine with absolutely no user input except the head tracking, because continuing with locomotion didn’t seem like the right path.
So SightLine: The Chair was made. I did my best (under the circumstances) to produce the most mind-blowing and beautiful demo I could with my limited resources, to show off what VR can do and also what I can do myself as a small taste of the ideas and concepts I have in store, hoping it would lead to the funding for the full project.
Here’s a 30-second trailer for SightLine: The Chair, which is pretty amazing for its time (remember, this was back in 2014):
The Sightline: The Chair demo was, for several years, the standard go-to demo to showcase the possibilities of virtual reality to newcomers. Frooxius confirms its popularity:
After anxiously releasing the demo to the public, fearing how it would be perceived, I encountered a problem. But it was one of the nicer problems to have– the demand for the demo overburdened the server, leading to about 2 TB of traffic in just a few hours. Luckily eVRydayVR offered his server to host the demo and everything was good.
SightLine: The Chair became a hit. I was overwhelmed with the positive feedback I got from people. I got tons of replies each time I released an update (and I tried to reply to them all, although some slipped through (sorry!)). Playthrough videos started popping up everywhere, even from quite big YouTubers (including [a] very hilarious one by Markiplier again) and I watched them all, happy that people liked my work so much. I kept releasing updates based on feedback and I was immensely happy and empowered by the community.
But Tomáš encountered problems in communicating with the new Oculus:
Encouraged by all this, I talked with Oculus again, thinking that having such hugely popular demo would be a strong point to finally get some kind of solid support. But nope. To this day, I often feel that almost nobody at Oculus even knows that SightLine: The Chair exists.
I don’t think that’s actually the case of course, since they later gave me a Crescent Bay prototype and free ticket to Oculus Connect 2 (I wasn’t able to be at the first one), both of which made me really happy and excited (despite a certain person from the community telling me the CB is an outdated trash anyway and they actually give out better betas of CV1 to devs), but it still didn’t help with the actual problem – getting resources to develop VR fulltime.
All I got were just another series of unanswered emails, half-baked answers and unfulfilled promises. My hopes were being constantly raised up and slowly shattered by the uncertainty, over and over again.
Being a young developer just starting his career made me almost entirely dependent on the help from others. I had many ideas and passion, but I lacked the time and resources to develop them. I hoped that would be enough for the Oculus, but the help simply wasn’t coming. Sometimes they reached out to me out of the blue first, but either stopped responding half-way through, or nothing useful actually came out of the exchange.
I didn’t know what more to do to get them to somehow recognize me and get some reliable communication channel. Not just for financial support, but for other kinds of help – help with promotion, or even submitting a build to their store, getting access to the latest unreleased SDK so I can prepare my builds (I had to wait for the release of CV1 for example to update my builds from 0.8 and still no progress on getting on Oculus Home, not to mention that I cannot even order CV1, since Oculus doesn’t ship to my country) or getting access to the hardware so I can develop and test.
Making successful VR experiences didn’t work, winning multiple VR awards (including their own 2013 and 2015 VR Jam) didn’t help either, if I tried to complain a bit about the issues some community members lashed out on me for being whiny and bad-mouthing Oculus and sent me into spiral of self-doubt and depression, as I kept wondering if my complaining contributed to the Oculus avoiding helping me in any way.
Oculus slowly changed from a company for whose hardware I was really excited to develop for, to a company whose hardware I only support because of their position on the market.
It’s something that I’m unhappy about, because I feel that they have betrayed their principles and from what I’ve seen and heard, I feel as they let the community of developers and enthusiasts down. People who devoted big chunks of their time and money to make great VR content when few trusted the new medium would deserve a lot more support than they’re getting.
But I still remain hopeful that this is just unfortunate side effect of their rapid growth and some degree of internal chaos and not deliberate work of some people in the background and that they will make me (and others) excited about them again.
Anyway, enough of the chronologically inconsistent ranting and back to the proper timeline.
It was clear that the help from them was unlikely, so I asked elsewhere for advice. A few people suggested to me that SightLine: The Chair isn’t simply enough. It’s just a demo after all, I need to develop a proper game to get support from them. Somehow they didn’t realize that the reason I needed help in the first place was the lack of resources to develop a proper game in the first place.
Others have told me to “just get your ass on a plane and visit them in person, nobody trusts dealing over emails”, also not realizing that the plane ticket alone costs easily $2000 (there and back) from where I live. And since I earned about $600 per month, I could hardly afford a plane ticket it on a promise of them maybe helping me. Once again, I lived in the wrong country.
They weren’t particularly insightful comments for my situation, but they were infuriating nonetheless. People kept suggesting things that I was simply unable to do because of my situation (which fueled the feelings of hopelessness and despair, that no matter how hard I try, I just won’t succeed) or they were way outside of my skillset (running a business/studio, finding investors and so on).
And so I continued my day to day contract development job and doing VR for living remained just a dream.
It was at this point that Karel Hulec met Tomáš Mariančík. Tomáš writes on his blog:
Working with VR in all of my free time wasn’t entirely without its merit in the end (and I didn’t make just SightLine of course, I did a bunch of other VR demos and experiments as well and made a few VR events/lectures in my country, but I don’t want to bug you with those). Because someone from my own country noticed my work and got in touch with me.
Karel Hulec started his own VR project—the RiftUP upgrade kit—and had run a few successful businesses before that as well. He had great interest in VR as well and has been following me for a while.
RiftUP was a full high-definition screen upgrade kit for the Oculus DK1 VR headset, which was described in this IndieGogo page for the project (scroll down the page for details). Unfortunately, my anonymous source tells me that Oculus was opposed to the project, going as far as to issue a cease-and-desist. There were other problems; the fledgling project could not produce enough RiftUP kits to meet demand.
Tomáš a.k.a Frooxius continues talking about meeting Karel on his 2016 blogpost:
We eventually met and discussed great deal of things, not just VR, but science, technology and fiction and we ticked off immediately. I finally found someone who understands the same concepts as I do and who has similar motivations and goals.
While he didn’t have the same deep level of understanding of more technical or creative topics as I did, he had a great knack for communication with people and running a business – something which I almost completely lack.
Great thing was that he actually understood the ideas and concepts I presented to him as well and we could have a proper discussion about them. We complemented each other greatly.
It was no surprise that we started cooperating on a VR projects. One of the most common and personal topics for both of us was education, so we decided to start a project together and we called it World of Comenius. A VR system designed to change the way we learn.
We recently covered a (at that point unnamed) VR project by developer Tomáš “Frooxius” Mariančík, the mind behind the stunning ‘Sightline’ VR series of demos. The project fused Leap Motion skeletal hand tracking with Oculus Rift DK2 positional tracking to produce an impressively intuitive VR interface. Now, a new video of the interface shows impressive progress. We catch up with Tomáš to find out some more about this mysterious VR project…
World of Comenius aims to draw on the legacy of a 17th Century Czech teacher (the titular John Amos Comenius), to demonstrate how future educational applications might present and allow users to interact with teaching materials. It’s the name of a new project Mariančík is working on. As we featured recently, it uses the innovative motion controller Leap Motion mounted on the face of a DK2 to detect the user’s hands and fingers, interpreting the gestures as input to control the virtual environment.
We now return to Frooxius’ 2016 blogpost, where he discusses the struggles he had working on this project:
I started development of various demos, while Karel organized visits to festivals, competitions and other events. We demoed VR and our stuff like crazy, but kept hitting one problem over and over again: we spent most of the time pitching VR itself rather than our work, because most people were unfamiliar with the technology.
That also lead to another problem – money. The project had no customers at the moment, so we leapt from one contract project to another, developing demos and pitching VR to various companies around who have taken interest in the technology and exploring ways to incorporate it with their existing business.
This lead to another problem on itself. We didn’t have time to focus on World of Comenius. It was the same issue all over again, but at least now most of the work was VR related. Despite the distractions, we managed to run the first class in Czech Republic using VR and win a prize (third place again) in the Leap Motion 3D Jam.
But the situation wasn’t good for us. Almost nobody around knew VR and of those who did, not much came out from our talks and demos in the end. Companies, investors and accelerators were very distrustful of the new technology, let alone our ambitious ideas. We simply lived in the wrong country [the Czech Republic].
One night, after we’ve returned home after an extra busy day, we’ve received a very peculiar Skype call. It was from Tipatat Chennavasin representing Rothenberg Ventures. He invited us to River VR, the first accelerator for VR startups.
It was a bit of a last minute invitation, since the program was announced for a while and the submissions were closing in just a few days, and he had to reach us through Leap Motion developer relation. Naturally we were a bit distrustful, we had no idea what this program was and what would it entail.
But on the other hand, suddenly there was someone who didn’t care where we lived, only about what we could do. They have seen SightLine and World of Comenius and decided they wanted us on the program.
We had only few days to decide and coupled with very erratic and busy schedule, the deciding wasn’t easy at all, not knowing what we were getting into, but in the end we have decided to go for it.
For me, the decision was very difficult. The prospect of spending a few months in foreign country, doing who knows what was very scary. For several days in a row, I couldn’t even sleep. So many unknowns only gave my imagination greater freedom, so I spend the sleepless nights anxiously imagining one terrible scenario after another. I’m simply a natural worrier.
But all that has disappeared when we first arrived. We were greeted by Tipatat, who showed us around, introduced us to others and generally made us feel more at ease and welcomed.
Later that day he drove us to our hotel an in the car, he said something that I’ll probably never forget. He told us that the reason they invested in the VR companies is because they really believe that virtual reality is the future and that’s why they put the money into it, while everyone else just talks about it, but doesn’t actually invest and instead waits.
The reason I won’t forget that is because of how empowering it felt and how illustrative it was of a completely different mindset, one that we weren’t used to at all. After struggling to get some kind of investment back home, or some kind of substantial help from Oculus, suddenly there was someone willing to support us based on the merits of our work alone.
I often kept wondering why it’s so difficult to get help even from Oculus, since they seemed excited about my work. Were they just feigning excitement, hoping I’ll keep making VR demos, without actually having to spend any resources to help me? Or was it because I’m too young and inexperienced for them? Or it is because where I live? Or maybe because I don’t already have enough money to run my own studio, but instead I’m cobbling things together from my bedroom.
It was frustrating, because I didn’t know which (if any) of those reasons it was and they were often reasons I had no control over. Many nights I have worried about those and wondered if I could do anything about them. The uncertainty simply gives too much room for the imagination.
People at Rothenberg Ventures didn’t mind any of that (in fact, I think that they actually liked some of these aspects). They trusted us enough to give us some of their resources and that alone felt very motivating.
During the following weeks, we spend almost every waking hour of every day at the Rothenberg offices working and connecting with other VR startups and other relevant companies that they have brought in. We went to various events to showcase our work and got to meet influential people from the area.
The entire experience was exhilarating. We no longer had to pitch VR to everyone we met. We were surrounded by VR enthusiasts (including the Rothenberg Ventures staff), people who understood the technology and its potential, we could focus on our work.
It was a very refreshing environment to be in, one that gave us great strength and a room for our vision to breathe. We met with a lot of smart people from the industry (not just VR, but related to VR) and exchanged our ideas, which was very rare before, as people we met back home were either mostly too ignorant (not in the pejorative sense) of our field to hold a sensible conversation about it, or simply unwilling to accept it because of their conservative values.
And World of Comenius slowly turned into NeosVR:
In the meanwhile, we continued our work. I’ve continued researching and developing light fields in which I have initially taken interest at December of 2014 as a side project, while World of Comenius slowly transformed into Neos: a much bigger and more grandiose project.
We released Neos: The Universe for the second Oculus VR Jam and soon won a third place (what is it with me and third places?). When demoing it to other people, we tried to convey how it is just part of our main vision for Neos itself, but that was mostly left with misunderstanding, because it wasn’t clear from the experience itself.
That sort of became a new problem and source of worries, at least for me. Because of the big plans and visions I have for Neos, there’s a lot of underlying work that isn’t immediately visible.
I spent a lot of time designing and building architectural foundations and other parts of Neos that could support the big visions and offer something that nobody else does. Building such system requires a lot of patience and focus.
Meanwhile others have been churning out quickly made demos and showing off their work, while it seemed that we did very little. I wanted to avoid doing the same, because such quickly made demos usually lack depth to them – they’re great showcases of concepts and ideas, but we wanted to focus on something a lot more substantial, something that will last for years, if not decades.
I also vehemently avoided another approach to development, where you start with quickly made demo and then keep piling on features. While this would allow to release eye candy updates at rapid rate from the beginning, the development speed would start dwindling as the project would go on, because it would become bigger and bigger hairball of messy design and code.
Instead, I have opted for the opposite approach, which has slow (visible) development speed at the beginning, but starts ramping up and accelerating as the project goes on, as everything benefits from a strong and stable framework. However, such versatile and well-designed software architecture requires a lot of effort and attention right in the first phase of the development, during which there’s seemingly little progress, because there’s nothing that’s actually built on the system, since it lacks the critical mass so function independently.
The most difficult part about building system as complex and intricate as Neos isn’t actually the technical part though. I’ve always found the technical part rather easy. It’s very rare that I would get an idea and have absolutely no clue how to implement it. I always know where to start and eventually work my way to a full implementation.
Light Fields? Easy. Volumetric rendering of MRI scans? Done in two days. In the spare time when charging the battery of a quadcopter when visiting my dad actually. I’m not even kidding.
The trouble is that Neos is a very complex and expansive idea and requires a lot of time to work through all the aspects of it and thorough consideration to make sure everything fits neatly together, because I needed to find a set of basic elements which are both very simple and elegant, but interact in so many ways that they provide extremely flexible, but also consistent system.
I always know what to do from moment to moment, but there’s just a lot of things to do. So I keep working for months, piecing the system and working through it all. But before the system comes together, there isn’t much to show for it.
What I found most difficult is watching as everyone else is showing off their VR projects with quickly made solutions, but with a fraction of functionality, gaining attention, winning awards, participating at events, demoing in public, getting invited to VR shows and podcasts, while I’m piecing together my big vision in the shadows.
Coping with that wasn’t easy though. I often feel guilty and anxious both towards people at Rothenberg, worrying that taking so long might worry them and make them question their support. I worry about not showing progress to the community as well and that I’ll be simply forgotten and lose their support whenever I release something new – something that I value highly.
Funnily these worries sometimes actually help. Whenever I feel like I’ve lost motivation to continue working on the project, I keep going because of my fear of disappointing others, by not delivering what I have promised. It’s not the ideal motivator, but it keeps me going through those times.
However, the distractions of having to work on various side projects (like updates to SightLine) took Tomáš out of the proper mindset to focus on NeosVR. So he and Karel came up with a solution:
To work on the full Neos, I need to get into the right mindset where I have the project architecture in my head and I can immediately think through a lot of options and consequences of each design choice.
Switching focus to another project and then coming back produces certain overhead – a period of time where I need to get back into the right mindset, after being “distracted”.
Sometimes the distractions come from other sources too – travelling, running errands or even publishing new update of SightLine (sorry guys!), trying to deal with Oculus or some big event that I missed (and usually getting infuriated or depressed as a result). Sometimes they even come so often that I lose my focus on Neos just after I have gained it back again, further contributing to my worries about not progressing fast enough.
For those reasons my colleague and I have decided to get rid of all (or most) of those distractions, so I can focus fully on Neos for several months straight and push it from the mild part of the (apparent) development speed curve towards the steep exponential bit.
We stay at our rented house most of the time, rarely go anywhere (except getting food and other necessary errands) or meet with anyone. Even online, I don’t follow most of the news and community developments, because whenever I spend time not working on Neos, I get anxious about its progress.
So this is my life now. I wake up, move a few meters to my computer, continue working until I’m sleepy again. There’s some food and hygiene between, but mostly just focused work. Day after day, night after night, month after month.
When I dream, I dream of my project. Sometimes I dream of solving technical problems, data structures, consistency checks. Other times I dream of architectural solutions and ideas and then I wake up already in the middle of conscious thought about Neos. This isn’t a metaphor or euphemism, this has actually happened to me and it’s been one of the strangest feelings I’ve ever had.
During the day, I daydream about Neos in its full blown state and all the awesome things I would be able to build with it, I think how many cool things I can add into it and how will I finally be able to share it with everyone else, hoping that they’ll find it as brilliant and elegant as I want it to be.
And then, some days, I fear that they will not. I fear that it’ll fail and go unnoticed, I fear that I’ll disappoint everyone who trusted me and has given me this opportunity.
I fear that someone else will suddenly release something much better and all my work will go to waste. I watch as others rapidly release their VR projects, some of them fully focused on what will be just a small subset of what Neos could do (or something you could fully implement in a few hours with it), worrying that each such release will make Neos seem less awesome and interesting to others when it’s ready.
But I keep pushing hard and working nonstop, happy or sad, depressed or full of enthusiasm, slowly building towards the big milestone, when everything will come together. Most of the time, only my own motivation to make this project work and excitement about its possibilities is enough to get me through the day. Other times it’s the fear of disappointing others.
I often even wonder if I’m doing the right thing and making the right decisions. I question if I should be doing this at all, if I’m not overdoing it, if I’m not trying to get more than I can chew, if it’s the right way to do things or if I’m the right person to do it.
The important thing is, I keep pushing on and it’s paying off, because I can already feel the moment approaching. Just as I kept pushing and devoting my time and energy to VR when there was nobody to help me and support me, I keep pushing now.
At this point, the partition of duties between Karel Hulec and Tomáš Mariančík had already begun: Karel was the people person who handled the business side of things, and Tomáš, who had earlier described himself in his 2016 blogpost as “shy,” and “socially anxious”, got to do what he does best: focus intensely (and frankly, brilliantly) on solving coding problems. Of Karel, Tomáš writes in his 2016 blogpost:
The cofounder of Solirax found me out of the blue, because he stumbled on my work online and without him I wouldn’t be able to create and run a startup (and technically I still don’t, he does, I just keep creating).
My anonymous source tells me that Tomáš wanted his own space to just be able to work on his ideas, placing his full trust in Karel handling the business and money side of things. As part of the project development, house instead of office space was rented on company expenses, that also served as a shared living space with clear division of responsibilities.
Well, that’s enough for today. Stay tuned for Part 2 of the NeosVR Investigation!