Editorial: Some Housekeeping Announcements

First, I have decided to suspend the “indefinite hiatus” business, effective immediately. I’ve noticed that I have been writing up and posting at least one blogpost a day lately, which is a sign that I’m feeling less depressed.

Also, on Friday I just gave my presentation on acedia during the coronavirus pandemic at the 10th Annual Mental Health Symposium hosted by Virtual Ability group in Second Life, which was a great success (you can watch my presentation here starting at the 6-hour-and-4-minute mark). I also finished a weeklong intensive content creation training course over in NeosVR on Friday, and I am eager to write more about Neos in the coming weeks and months!

So we’re back in business!

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

One thing that I have learned during my “indefinite hiatus” is that pretty much NOTHING can stop me from blogging about Second Life! So you can expect my coverage to continue, even as I continue to write more about other social VR platforms and virtual worlds.

Remember that I have replaced almost all of my blogging about Second Life freebies and bargains with notices posted to the new in-world RyanSchultz.com Steals, Deals & Freebies group! More information on this brand new SL group here. (Just do a keyword search for “ryanschultz”—all one word—under Groups and you’ll find my new group easily. It costs only L$50 to join, which means that I can now call myself a professional freebie fashionista! 😉 )

Moving forward, I will be focusing on two categories of worlds on my blog:

  1. Those that pay me for sponsored advertising (e.g. Sinespace) will get highest priority; in such cases I will always include a standard disclaimer at the bottom of the blogpost that it is sponsored, and by whom (my advertising rates are here); and
  2. I will also be writing more often about those platforms that intrigue and excite me. For example, I have just spent a week learning how to create content in NeosVR, and I can’t wait to show you everything I have learned!

So, fasten your seatbelts—we are off on another adventure!

Photo by Joshua Sortino on Unsplash

Goofing Around in NeosVR (Plus a Look at the Vive Facial Tracker in Action)

PLEASE NOTE: My blog is still on indefinite hiatus; I have made a single exception for this blogpost. After this, I am returning to my self-imposed break from blogging.


Overall, the fact that I can have an expressive, fully animated avatar inside a metaverse is blowing my mind.

—Ari Tarr

Not too long ago, I was invited by Carlos Austin and Jason Moore to pay a long-overdue visit to NeosVR, where we met up with XRiEL (a.k.a. Ari Tarr), went over to Jason’s workshop, tried on some cool avatars, and rode some fun vehicles!

Here’s the full one-and-a-quarter hour video which Carlos kindly posted to YouTube:

Enjoy! As you can tell we had a lot of fun. Carlos was the cameraman capturing the shenanigans, and we were later joined by iBrews (a.k.a. Alex Coulombe). This video also makes a great introduction to NeosVR if you have never visited before! Of particular interest is Ari showing just how easy it is to rig an avatar within NeosVR:

Jason showing Ari how to rig an avatar in NeosVR
Ari attempting to rig the rest of his body (after the head and hands were done)

Thanks to Jason, Ari, Carlos, and Alex for a wonderful afternoon! I had to bow out a little early (at the 50-minute mark in this video) to avoid becoming VR sick, but the antics continued after I departed!

At the 53-minute mark, XRiEL/Ari demonstrates what he can do with his avatar, wearing a Vive Eye Pro VR headset with eye tracking, the Vive Facial Tracker, plus Valve Index hand and finger trackers, and also three Vive pucks attached to his hip and both his feet. Yes, his eyes and mouth are mirroring his facial motion in real time!

The Perks of Virtual World/Social VR Premium Memberships: Are They Worth It? What Do You Get?

Second Life (which I still consider to be the perfect model of the mature, fully-evolved virtual world that the companies creating the newer social VR platforms would be wise to study) has two levels of membership: Basic (free), and Premium. How Premium membership in Second Life works: for US$99 a year (or $32.97 quarterly, or $11.99 monthly), you get a set of benefits and perks over free, Basic user accounts:

Second Life Premium Membership (source)

VRChat is another platform that decided to offer a comparably-priced paid premium membership level last December, called VRChat Plus (which I first wrote about here). Now, upon first reading of the perks such a membership would offer me (see below), I was less than impressed (probably because I have been spoiled by all the goodies Second Life Premium memberships offer me in comparison).

Among the (relatively) small number of features for VRChat Plus users is the ability to set a user icon to display in a circle next to your user name:

But in conversation with Voices of VR podcaster Kent Bye last night via Zoom, he raised a point that I had hitherto failed to consider, Given my well-documented, one-man, scorched-earth campaign against Facebook and Oculus for, among other things, forcing Oculus headset users to get Facebook accounts and their toxic advertising-based business model which scrapes and strip-mines users’ personal data, why would I not support an alternative way for VRChat to earn a profit?

I stopped to think of what VRChat would be like with Facebook-like advertising, and I positively shuddered in revulsion. So this evening, I pulled out my credit card and ponied up for a VRChat Plus membership (US$99.99), so I now have the familiar “red Ryan” logo displayed next to my username in world (which has sort of become an icon for my brand, as I use it everywhere else, too). If it helps other users in VRChat recognize who I am, then I think it’s worthwhile.

My familiar “red Ryan” user icon

So, I have decided to do a quick survey of the major social VR and virtual world platforms, and find out whether or not they offer a paid premium service, and if so, what you get for your money.

Second Life

My alt Moesha Heartsong, sitting on the porch of her lovely Victorian Linden Home on the continent of Bellisseria (one of the many nice perks you get with your Second Life Premium membership)

Second Life Premium membership (currently priced at US$99 a year) offers you the following benefits:

  • A weekly L$300 stipend (basically enough to buy a nice outfit or pair of shoes for your avatar every week)
  • A L$1,000 sign-up bonus for first-time Premium users (can only be used once)
  • Priority entry when regions/sims are full of avatars (in other words, if a Basic user and a Premium user both try to get into a packed sim at the same time, the Premium user gets priority; this comes in handy at crowded shopping events, and I have made use of this perk often!)
  • A 1024m² virtual land allotment for use towards a nice starter Linden Home or a parcel on the Second Life mainland; this is another benefit I do take advantage of!
  • Expanded live-chat customer support (which I have used on occasion!)
  • Premium virtual gifts (frankly, kinda useless to me)
  • Exclusive access to Premium areas and experiences (such as building sandboxes)
  • Increased cap on missed IMs (which I never use)
  • Increased group membership limits (I make use of my groups ALL THE TIME! A freebie fashionista can NEVER have too many free group slots for store groups, freebie groups, etc. Basic accounts have 42 group slots, but Premium has 70;)
  • Voice morphing (never used it, myself; most SL users never use voice, anyways)
  • UPDATE 11:36 p.m.: Animesh (animated mesh) creator Medhue tells me that SL Premium members can attach two animesh items (e.g. pets such as Medhue’s delightful animesh cihuahua), while Basic members can only attach one.

Basically, I have three Premium accounts, with two lovely Linden Homes between them (which I think is the major benefit of a Premium membership). More group space and priority access to overcrowded sims are also perks I tend to use a lot.

Sansar

Sansar offers three levels of premium subscriptions (unchanged from when Linden lab owned the platform), which give you:

  • A 45-day free trial of the Marvelous Designer software (used to create avatar clothing in Sansar)
  • Purchase discounts on Marvelous Designer for when you do decide to buy it
  • An increase in the number of Sansar worlds you can create (frankly, I’m not sure most people bother beyond the free Basic account, which lets you create up to 25 worlds)
  • Expedited user support options

Sinespace

The Unity-based Sinespace virtual world/social VR platform, created by Sine Wave Entertainment, offers a truly overwhelming number of Premium levels to choose from:

Premium users can create larger regions/worlds, have a larger number of regions active at one time, and get priority support and user-created content processing and approval, among other benefits.

AltspaceVR

Surprisingly, Microsoft-owned AltspaceVR doesn’t seem to offer any premium accounts (that may change in the future, though).

VRChat

VRChat Plus offers you the following perks (with more promised soon):

  • A nameplate icon: With VRChat+, you can personalize your nameplate with an icon you create! Snap a pic in VRChat or upload your own image on our website.
  • You can send a picture with an invitation to a friend to join you at your location
  • Free slots for up to 100 favourite avatars (as opposed to 25 for basic users)
  • “A limited edition VRCat Badge to display on your profile” (Really? Really?!??)
  • A higher trust ranking in VRChat’s Safety and Trust System

As I said up top, this list is a bit sparse, especially compared to what Second Life offers (and yes, you can be an anime girl in SL, just as easily as you can in VRChat!), but of course, there’s zero VR support in Second Life.

Rec Room

Rec Room offers something called Rec Room Plus at US$7.99 a month, which includes the following benefits:

  • You get 6000 tokens (r6000) monthly, delivered in installments of r1500 per week
  • One four-star gift box per week
  • A 10% discount in Rec Room stores that accept tokens
  • Exclusive access to the RR+ section of the item store
  • 100 saved outfit slots
  • The ability to sell premium inventions/keys for tokens

NeosVR

NeosVR uses Patreon levels to hand out perks to various levels of paying users (more info). For example, at my current “Blade Runner” level ($6 per month), I get:

  • Access to private channels on the official Discord Server
  • Patreon supporter badge in Neos
  • Early access to Linux builds
  • Early Access to Patreon only content (exclusive experiences, work in progress experiences before they’re public)
  • A Neos Mini account with 25 GB of storage
  • Your name in the stars! (your name will appear in the sky in the Neos hub)
  • 30 Neos Credits (NCR) monthly, accumulates

(Note that there is an even less expensive level, the “Agent Smith” level, at just $1 a month. Please check out the NeosVR Patreon page for more details.)

ENGAGE

The ENGAGE educational/corporate/conference social VR platform offers a free, “lite” version, and a premium, “plus” version for €4.99 a month, which gives you space to save your presentations, among other benefits. (They also offer enterprise and educational rates on request.)

Blockchain-Based Virtual Worlds (Cryptovoxels, Decentraland, and Somnium Space)

Of course, the various blockchain-based virtual worlds sell everything using whatever cryptocurrencies they support (for example, a custom, non-randomly-generated avatar username in Decentraland will set you back 100 MANA, Decentraland’s in-world cryptocurrency (which is about US$36 at current exchange rates). It’s just a completely different model than the “freemium” ones offered above.


Thanks to Kent Bye for giving me the idea for this blogpost!

NeosVR Demonstrates Full Mouth Tracking on Their Avatars

Tomáš Mariančík (a.k.a. Frooxius), the creative and talented lead software developer who is building the NeosVR social VR platform, recently shared the following video via Twitter, saying:

The HTC Vive lip tracker dev-kit I integrated into NeosVR really adds a whole new level of expressivity to social VR. Never before [have] I had other people in VR telling me they like to see me smile when there’s something funny, or to go to sleep when I’m yawning!

This is so cool! Of course, most people in VR headsets use hand controllers of some sort to animate thier avatar’s arms and hands. Valve Index hand controllers can even animate individual fingers (although not all platforms can take advantage of this feature).

Many people have also been experimenting for years with using the HTC Vive “pucks” (on platforms such as VRChat, the old High Fidelity, and Sansar), to animate their avatar’s full bodies, attaching them to shoulders, waists, hips, knees, and feet. But adding mouth, lips (even tongue!) movements pushes the envelope even further, and these non-verbal expressions can add so much to conversations in social VR!

It should be noted here that the quest to animate your avatar’s face has been going on for quite some time now, with a variety of different solutions. For example, Sinespace sells a product called an Avatar Facial Driver, which works using your webcam to capture your facial expressions and play them on your avatar’s face (this is for a non-VR, desktop user, though). I blogged about this back in May of 2018.

Congratulations to Tomáš and the entire team at NeosVR for pushing the boundaries in avatar expression!