Editorial: The Rapidly Changing Face of the Music Industry—What Sansar Is Doing Wrong (and Fortnite Is Doing Right)

Earlier this year, after an extended break, I rejoined the official Sansar Discord server, and while I have not nearly been as active there as I used to be, I still lurk from time to time. I had a good laugh at this snippet of conversation from the day before yesterday (and yes, I do have both Medhue’s and Vassay’s permission to quote them, and to post this image here on the blog):

Medhue: Literally, Ryan Schultz does more marketing for Sansar than Sansar does.

Vassay: Funniy (sadly) enough, that’s true.

Medhue: IMHO, we have a bunch of people who live in the past, when music was a 50 billion dollar industry. It is not anymore, and likely won’t ever be again. Gaming has always been growing and there are really no signs of it slowing, grabbing more and more of the entertainment market each year.

Wookey has been strangely silent since its purchase of Sansar, and their team have been largely absent from the Sansar Discord. And yes, it is indeed true: even though I barely write about Sansar at all now on this blog, I still do more promotion of Sansar than Sansar does! This relative lack of marketing activity is frankly baffling to me. After all, the often ineffective marketing of Sansar by Linden Lab contributed to the difficulties it encountered in enticing people to visit the platform—and keep them coming back for return visits, a key indicator of success.

As you might know, the money-losing Sansar was recently sold by Linden Lab to Wookey. Many Linden Lab staffers who worked on Sansar moved over to Wookey, including Sheri Bryant, who was Vice President of Strategic Business Development and Marketing and then General Manager at Linden Lab, and is now President of Wookey Technologies (LinkedIn profile). She is widely credited with saving Sansar by setting up its sale to Wookey, and it is under her management that Sansar has significantly shifted its primary focus from a VR-enabled platform for world builders and content creators (i.e. a second-generation Second Life), to a VR-enabled live events venue.

An example of the recent shift in emphasis in Sansar (from the Sansar website)

While a quick glance at the Sansar Events calendar shows that the deal Linden Lab previously struck with Monstercat to bring live musical events into Sansar has continued now that the platform is owned by Wookey, the company is going to have to do a lot more work to attract musical artists to give virtual concerts in Sansar.

Let’s contrast the modest success that Sansar has had with Monstercat with what has been happening on other virtual world and game platforms in recent years:

In addition, both Microsoft-owned AltspaceVR (which has recently announced a pivot to live events) and the ever-popular VRChat (which is already home to popular talk shows such as ENDGAME, and many other regular live events) are no doubt eyeing the possibility of hosting live concerts on their platforms. And let’s not forget the upcoming Facebook Horizon social VR platform, where Facebook will probably take what the company has learned over the past couple of years with Oculus Venues, and where they will want to sign their own exclusive deals with musical performers to entice people to visit their platform after it launches.

And this is the important point: some profitable companies with very deep pockets—Epic Games (the makers of Fortnite), Microsoft, and Facebook to name just three examples—are going to want to get into this potentially lucrative market. Smaller companies like Wookey, trying to shop around Sansar as a live events platform, are going to find themselves outbid by companies like Epic Games to bring in top talent, which of course brings in more users to Fortnite. It’s a vicious circle; the big players get bigger, while the small ones fight each other for the leftovers.

Following on from Medhue’s point in the quote above, the music industry has already seen many changes and gone through many wrenching shifts in how it operates and how it makes money in the past (notably, the shift away from physical media like CDs to the now-ubiquitous music streaming services). But now the gaming industry is bigger than both the music and movie businesses combined!

The coronavirus pandemic has shuttered real-world concert arenas for the foreseeable future, which has only increased the economic pressure on the management representing the artists to sign deals with various metaverse-building companies in order to host virtual concerts and events. There’s probably already a lot of activity going on behind the scenes that we can’t see, but I expect we shall see quite a few announcements for virtual concerts with major musical artists, as well as many smaller artists, over the next six months.

Where Fortnite is already running circles around Sansar, even at this very early stage of the game, is their ability to sign deals with the highest level of talent (using all those billions of dollars of profit earned from their games like Fortnite), and their ability to host massive live events for millions of attendees (again, leveraging off their technical know-how to build and maintain the necessary infrastructure to support millions of Fortnite players playing the game simultaneously all around the world).

One thing that Wookey could be and should be doing for Sansar is promotion—and yet they are leaving it to bloggers like me to talk about the product. Where is the marketing? If they are holding off on marketing, waiting until they land some big-name events, I think that would be a tactical error.

Wookey needs to get Sansar’s name out there; many people in our attention-deficient society still have no idea that the platform even exists. Yet everybody and their grandmother has heard of Fortnite by now. That is no accident. Epic Games did a masterful job of fanning the flames of user interest. Wookey should be taking notes.

If no action is taken, Sansar is going to continue on its downward trajectory, slowly circling the drain, and eventually will fold. Linden Lab has already made many grievous errors in trying to effectively promote the platform; Will Wookey continue making the same mistakes?

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Meditation and Mindfulness in Social VR and Virtual Worlds

Photo by Simon Rae on Unsplash

We live in a crazy world—which the coronavirus pandemic has made even crazier. People who are struggling with self-isolation, lockdowns and quarantines are seeking some peace, and some are turning to social VR platforms and virtual worlds as places to practice meditation and mindfulness, and to connect with like-minded souls, at a time when social distancing makes group practices in the real world difficult.

Please note that I will not be covering solo, standalone VR meditation apps like Guided Meditation VR and Nature Treks VR, since that is a separate category from the more open-ended social VR platforms and virtual worlds I write about on this blog. (By the way, I use and recommend both programs highly for meditation.)

AltspaceVR and EvolVR

EvolVR was founded by Rev. Jeremy Nickel, an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister, and calls itself “the world’s first VR Spiritual Community”. According to the FAQ on their website:

Why Meditate in Virtual Reality?

Meditation can be beneficial alone or with others.  VR is a convenient way to meditate with others. Social Meditation has a long history and is part of the foundation of the monastic experience.  Meditation can be practiced by individuals at any time.  In fact, we are ultimately meant to be living each moment mindfully, which means meditatively.  Meditating with other people can act as an amplifier that can help strengthen our own practice.

How Can I Meditate with a Brick on My Head?

We often use the breath as an object of meditation.  The VR headset is just another distraction.There is always something that’s not supposed to be going on when we meditate, like a bad back or a bad day or a bad relationship. The practice of meditation teaches us to manage our attention, to help us put it where we want it to be.  So a VR headset is just another itch to be noticed.

It is a program which I believe had its start in Sansar, based on the following short promotional video, but it has since moved over to AltspaceVR:

EvolVR hosts one or two guided meditations every day, as well as daily group discussion circles on various topics (here is their calendar of upcoming events). They also have a Discord server you can join, with a little over a hundred members.

ENGAGE and MindWise VR

The ENGAGE educational social VR platform has been home to mindfulness workshops hosted by Caitlin Krause, which I have heard good reports about:

This has evolved into MindWise VR, which appears to be hosting regularly scheduled workshops, including an event on May 16th, 2020 (more info from her website):

Sansar

There is certainly no shortage of worlds in which to practice meditation and mindfulness in Sansar, just do a search on “meditation” in the Sansar Atlas (you can also try searching the Sansar Atlas using the term “mindfulness”, for even more suggestions of places):

Meditation Spaces in Sansar

In this case, especially if you prefer solo to group meditation, the fact that Sansar is not as popular as other social VR platforms, such as VRChat and AltspaceVR, means you can probably snag a semiprivate space to practice meditation and mindfulness on your own without too much trouble. Also, Sansar’s frankly gorgeous graphics and advanced lighting model mean that some truly beautiful, evocative, and mood-enhancing virtual environments are available for you to use for your practice.

Sansar Studios’ Zen Garden

Of particular note is the Meditation Station, created by DisneyHuntress, which offers links to five different meditation spaces, including a yoga studio, a forest, a labyrinth, a group meditation room, and even an ecstatic dance space to give your full-body tracking a workout!

Second Life

We end with the venerable, long-running virtual world of Second Life, which is home to so many virtual spaces devoted to meditation and mindfulness, some of which have been in operation for many years. So I trotted out my shaman avatar (because, OF COURSE, I have a role-playing alt who is a shaman!), and I set out to visit a few of them on a field trip.

My shaman avatar at Commune Utopia
(shaman robe from Spyralle)

Divine Mother has been around just about forever (since 2007), and the four-sim region features a healing pyramid, chakra meditation pillows, belly dancing, a pagoda for tai chi, an inspiration garden (with guided light meditation in English, French, Italian, Dutch and German), a dance floor featuring Bollywood music, a multi-story shopping mall with Indian fashions, a glass labyrinth, a marina, and even an international airport (?!). Handy teleporter panels whisk you away to dozens of meditation spots scattered all around the landscape.

The Buddhist Centre at Divine Mother

Free Spirit Farms is the hippie/bohemian commune you never knew you needed! If you join their free group, the owners even let you set your home location to this sim (which comes in handy sometimes). On the grounds is a campground, cottages to rent, a large rustic lodge, and game tables, all located in a beautifully landscaped, park-like environment and set to a groovy Sixties soundtrack. Free Spirit Farms offers a couple of live performers every Monday evening at 7:00 and 8:00 p.m. SLT.

Gather ’round the campfire at Free Spirit Farms

You are spoiled for choice at Shambhala Sanctuary! Teleporters at the spawn point take you to (among many other places):

  • a chakra pavilion
  • an underwater sanctuary
  • a healing pool
  • a poetry barge
  • a spot where you can play the game Go
  • DreamLand, where you travel down the wishing well to a charming seaside community and boardwalk
DreamLand at Shambhala Sanctuary

The sanctuary building itself helpfully offers a wall with information (and SLURLs) about many other meditation and mindfulness sims and communities in Second Life:

Among these places are:

So, as you can see, there is lots to see, do, explore, and experience in SL! Peace out, man. Om shanti shanti shanti…

Photo by Zoltan Tasi on Unsplash

Pandemic Diary, April 20th, 2020: Who’s Zoomin’ Who?

I wake up this morning, day 34 of my self-imposed isolation in my apartment during the coronavirus pandemic, feeling more than a little tired. I have been sleeping very badly these past two weeks, and struggling with insomnia and the resulting fatigue.

Today is a research day (we librarians get ten of them per academic year, to pursue “research, scholarly works, and creative activities” as our collective agreement states, because as members of the faculty union we have an opportunity and an obligation to pursue research). I plan to use the time to prepare for my Virtual Germany presentation on social VR, and edit the first draft of a journal article I hope to publish on the lessons learned from my earlier, suspended research project, a poorly-scoped, wildly overambitious plan to build a three-dimensional version of the Mathematical Atlas website, using Sansar as a platform.

Since Sansar’s near-death experience, which would have put that research project into jeopardy, I realize that I have to focus a critical eye on the financial stability, profitability, and long-term survival prospects of any future social VR platform I choose for any future research project. This is something that libraries have to do every day when choosing software such as integrated library systems (the software that handles things such as the acquisition, cataloguing, and circulation of books, etc.).

In Sunday afternoon, FROG*, my arts and entertainment group, which in the pre-pandemic days used to meet once a month in each other’s homes to plan outings to participate in Winnipeg’s vibrant arts, cultural, and entertainment scene, set up a Zoom meeting, just to have everybody get in touch with each other and see how everybody is doing:

We used the free version of Zoom, which automatically disconnects a group of three or more people after 40 minutes. We were having such a good conversation that our host generated and emailed out a second invitation, to meet for another 40 minutes! We also made sure to model our cloth masks to each other…

These women (I am the token gay male in the group) have been friends for over twenty years, and this Zoom meeting was salve to my wounded soul. I am an extrovert, someone who tends to get energy from other people, and opportunities for that have been sorely lacking over the past month. This was the first time I had ever used Zoom outside of virtual work meetings at my university, and we agreed that we would do this biweekly for the duration of the pandemic.

Sunday evening, I participated in a second Zoom meeting hosted by the Out There Winnipeg LGBT2SQ+** Sports and Recreation Group. One of the members had purchased sets of interactive online games from Jackbox Games, which uses Zoom on desktop, and requires a mobile device such as an iPhone as a game controller. We played a couple of lively rounds of Patently Stupid, which can best be described as a cross between Pictionary and Shark Tank:

We followed Patently Stupid with a round of Trivia Murder Party, which was very cleverly designed and programmed by Jackbox, with many “deadly” challenges for those who failed to answer the trivia questions correctly. This was my first time joining the Out There group in Zoom for their Games Night, and it was great fun, and it cheered me up immensely.

So, Aretha Franklin’s Who’s Zoomin’ Who? feels like a very appropriate theme song for yesterday.


*Yes, FROG is an acronym. No, I am not going to tell you what it stands for. The name’s origin is shrouded in the mists of time, and the members of my group prefer to keep it that way 😉

**LGBT2SQ+, of course, is an inclusive, umbrella acronym which stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Two-Spirited (i.e. indigenous and gay), and Queer or Questioning. The plus sign at the end is for anybody that doesn’t feel they fall into any of the previous categories 🙂

My Answers to the Ask-Me-Anything (AMA) Questions!

It’s 2:00 a.m. and I have an absolutely wicked case of insomnia, so I decided to write up most of this blopost in the wee small hours of the morning, and answer the questions I received in my Ask Me Anything (AMA) blogpost.

You might find it interesting to see my recent daily blog statistics from WordPress. As you can see, there has been a slow but significant increase in my blog views and visitors within the past two weeks:

In the old days, last year, if I got over 500 views per day, I was quite happy. Now I am regularly getting over 500 views by noon, and well over 1,000 views per day! In the past week, I have even hit 1,200 views per day several times. The overwhelming majority of that traffic is my Second Life content, particularly my coverage of Second Life steals, deals, and freebies.

Despite this level of activity, you are still a rather quiet bunch: I only received three questions!


Andrew Heath asks me:

What features do you think Facebook needs to add to Facebook Horizons, to make it stand out to its rivals?

Well, Facebook has lots of money to throw around at things like advertising and programming talent. Facebook has also been buying up popular VR companies like Beat Saber, and will no doubt find ways to provide exclusive access to Facebook Horizon users, shutting out competing platforms who don’t have such deep pockets.

Facebook will ruthlessly use every tool and tactic at its disposal to ensure that Facebook Horizon stands out and gets attention. Expect massive news media coverage when the social VR platform does open its doors to the general public. Until then, they will be keeping a very tight lid on the alpha testing process, with very little information released.

Another point I want to make is that Facebook is not aiming at the traditional virtual world user community (the classic example being, of course, almost 17-year-old Second Life). Facebook is aiming Horizon at their social media users, the Facebook, Messenger, Instagram, and WhatsApp crowd, an estimated audience of over six billion individual accounts, which gives the company massive leverage.

Social Media Statistics as of February 2020 (source)

Whether they succeed at enticing these people to take the plunge into virtual reality remains to be seen, but sales of Oculus Quest in particular have been strong, despite supply chain problems due to the coronavirus pandemic. In fact, the coronavirus pandemic may give an advantage to Facebook, as millions of people around the world self-isolate at home and seek ways to interact and socialize in ways that feel more immersive than Discord, Zoom and Webex. The timing might be perfect.

However, your Facebook Horizon avatar will be clearly associated with your real-life profile, and you can bet that Facebook will advertise to you in a similar targeted fashion to what you now see in your Facebook social network feed. While this link to your real-life profile may well cut down on griefing, trolling, and harassment, it is also likely to be unappealing to many current metaverse platform users for exactly that same reason. I wrote more about it in an editorial here.


Chamberlain asks:

Has anybody had any commercial success with any of these ventures, other than Second Life?

Well, the only company that I know that’s generating a profit (and that’s because because I was extremely nosey, and I asked them) is ENGAGE, which seems to be doing quite well for itself in the educational social VR market. And, of course, Cryptovoxels is making enough money to enable its lead developer, Ben Nolan, to work on it full-time. The rest is a question mark. And that’s perfectly fine with me; metaverse-building companies are certainly under no obligation to tell me/us if they’re making money yet or not.

The key here seems to be: start small, grow organically and incrementally, and let things evolve and customers come to you. I do know that some social VR platforms and virtual worlds have seen an uptick in business because of the wholesale shift of things like conferences from the real world to the virtual world (in fact, one company I know is working lots of overtime dealing with all the extra business!).

From my vantage point, it seems pretty clear that the strategy of throwing years of software development work and millions of dollars of venture capital at platforms has not worked out well so far (e.g. High Fidelity, Sansar), mainly because the consumer market for virtual reality failed to ignite as predicted. However, the coronavirus pandemic is now a potential game-changer for a lot of metaverse-building companies. The longer the public health crisis lasts, and the more quarantines, lockdowns, and social distancing are imposed on restless populations, the more people will look at these platforms as a place to work, meet, rest, and play.

On the flip side, the mounting economic crisis will also cause some poorly-thought-out metaverse projects to fold due to lack of investment. I can see this happening for many of the start-ups in the blockchain-based virtual worlds, for example. Not the three front runners (Cryptovoxels, Decentraland, and Somnium Space), but the also-rans, many blockchain projects which seem to consist of nothing much more than: a white paper full of crypto-bafflegab; a .io website domain spouting senseless use cases; mystifying, vague promotional videos; and a tired Telegram group flogging a struggling ICO. Expect to see a lot of shutdowns in this market segment. Those who were lucky enough to get in at the right time might (might) make a tidy profit; the rest are doomed.

As for Sansar, I honestly fail to see how pursuing the exact same strategy that failed when they were owned by Linden Lab—a focus on live events to the exclusion of just about anything and everything else—will make the slightest bit of difference now that they are owned by Wookey, barring some miracle. I could very well be wrong; perhaps another year or two of runway, and Sansar will indeed take off in flight (my apologies for that rather mangled metaphor). But many of the world designers and builders who helped shape the early days of Sansar, and built many of their most popular worlds, now feel alienated by this pivot and have simply given up, migrating to benefit other platforms such as Sinespace. Many former Sansar users are now kicking the tires on Helios, a brand new social VR platform based on the Unreal game engine. Sansar’s loss is their gain.

Ironically, one or more of the three forks of the open-source High Fidelity code may yet take off in popularity, although there’s obviously still lots of work to do. However, there is an energy and enthusiasm I see taking place in these forks that is encouraging, and frankly infectious. I do wish these projects well, and I will follow them closely.


And finally, John has a longer comment and a question for me:

Not sure I have a question. But would very much like to say that the occasional glimpses into your ‘real self/world’ moments as opposed to the ‘virtual world’ moments/posts, are incredibly powerful and reassuring, reminding me that all of us are human, and these glimpses are what keep me coming back to your blog. They comfort me and reassure me. You are real. You are trying your best. And you help me (us) when you show us what is beyond the successful veneer of the top notch librarian/researcher. Just wanted to say thanks. Your blog is part of my morning ritual, along with the newspapers, and it is even more of a requirement now, in these difficult times. Oh yes, I might have a question. Can you keep this blog of yours going till the ol’ Internet fades?

Thank you for your kind words, John! I’m glad I can be a small part of your day.

I would like to thank, from the bottom of my heart, all my readers. Some of you have chosen to express your appreciation via my Patreon page, and that money now covers my blog hosting costs on WordPress, for which I am extremely grateful. Whether or not you are a Patreon supporter, your support means the world to me.

And yes, I do plan to keep this blog going as long as I can, and I’ve even thought a bit about having it archived in some way after I pass on, to create a sort of time capsule of an interesting era in social VR and virtual worlds. I am currently in the process of creating a will and a healthcare power of attorney, still waiting to hear back from the lawyer that my financial planner recommended. (I also plan on leaving many of my Second Life avatars to other people via my will. My lawyer is going to have a field day drawing up my will!)

In the interim, especially in these precarious days of pandemic, I will be writing up a detailed document to share with my friends and family, with all my accounts and passwords, making my wishes clear in the event of my untimely death. I will not leave you hanging!

But I don’t plan on going anywhere! I am just starting to hit my stride here.