UPDATED! EDITORIAL: The Sansar Community Asks Itself—Is It Time to Give Up on Sansar and Leave?

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.


Today’s meeting in Sansar

I attended an extraordinary meeting held in Sansar this afternoon, without any Wookey staff present, where the previously unthinkable was discussed quite openly: is it time for the Sansar community to give up on Sansar, and move to another social VR platform?

One of the two moderators, RAG, read the following statement from one user, Henry Grumiaux, in order to get the discussion going:

I suggested this topic [because] I started to suspect that Sansar, as a platform for social and content creation, is about to die. Just few months ago, the nights at North America used to be the peak time of Sansar. Now at US/CAN night this is a desert. And all of us actually we just interact one each other in the events. No, I don’t think that Sansar is about to close the doors, but the focus is events. And considering this surge of events that we are experiencing, I believe that Wookey is doing a great job. However as I said…community is no longer the focus, so Wookey is not doing anything to increase the community. On the last 10 to 12 months we saw huge commercial events with hundreds of people attending, but no one become a Sansarian. Just enjoyed the event and never returned – Or maybe returned and get bored and decide to just return on the next huge event because this is a desert. Yes, Wookey can help, but they don’t. Those people on the events registered the e-mail in order to signup to Sansar. So, it could be easy to Wookey to use this database and produce a simple weekly email containing the events of the community, new experiences, new things that we create and put on the market place, etc… to attract people and make the community grow. Cheap marketing campaign, but Wookey is not interested because there is no interest to invest in community. I respect, as I said: the focus of the platform is the events, not our events, but you know…commercial events, so I don’t blame Wookey, they are just a company trying to make money and this is not wrong. But we need to think about our future as enthusiasts of metaverses. We like to hangout, we like to create contents, etc… And it could be a good idea for us to share alternatives to Sansar.

While there are a small number of people who joined Sansar because of a live event, they are the exception that proves the rule. It is now very clear that, as RAG said above, that Wookey’s sole focus for Sansar is live events, and all the company’s energy is on that.

The problem is that people who come for events tend not to stick around to become part of the Sansar community. Wookey apparently does not intend to invest in building a community outside of live events, a task which they have left to the current userbase. Dr. Fran said “you ignore the community at your peril,” noting that Wookey staffers no longer bother to attend many community events.

One person present, Tahla, a relatively newer user, said:

Altspace has like admins most of the time in the campfire (main world people start off in) so there’s always someone available to help new people. Sometimes Sansar is completely empty and if I was new and didn’t see anyone at all, I wouldn’t be interested in staying. Thankfully, when I started quite a few people were in here every day. The volunteer greeter thing here was a cool idea but they actually have to be passionate about helping new people when they see them in the Nexus, because getting started here can be confusing when you don’t even know how to dress yourself. There needs to be a full tutorial and a portal for the tutorial in the Nexus.

The lack of tutorials for such basic things as how to dress yourself is seen as a significant problem in Sansar. In addition, there is no easy way to find user-created games in Sansar, since Wookey has never bothered to create a category for games in the Codex! Throw in the unfavourable cash-out rates for content creators in Sansar, and it all adds up to a highly frustrating situation for those people who have stuck around.

In short, Sansar has been in serious trouble for quite some time, and there are few signals that Wookey is even listening to its current userbase in their focus on live events. People are getting fed up, and there is now an open revolt being discussed.

At today’s meeting, I said something that I have never blogged previously: that there is a 50/50 chance that Wookey-run Sansar will fold this year or next, a statement with which many of the people present agreed.

The remainder of the our conversation centered on which social VR platforms were worthy of investigation as suitable possible destinations for the Sansar diaspora. Among the platforms whose pros and cons were discussed were:

  • Sinespace
  • VRChat
  • AltspaceVR
  • Neos VR
  • Tivoli Cloud VR (which is based on the old High Fidelity source code)
  • Vircadia (which is also is based on the old High Fidelity source code)
  • Helios
  • Core (a games platform which I have not written about before; more info here).
Many issues of concern were raised at today’s meeup

UPDATE April 14th, 2021: The MusicOasis team asked me to include the following statement, which I was happy to do:

Our recent MusicOasis’ OpenMic (OM) subject was ‘Metaverse Diversity’. We thought the topic would generate an interesting discussion of virtual worlds in addition to Sansar. We were inspired by one of our OM regulars who wanted to voice a particular point of view about fears of Sansar failing and where would one go if it did. This opinion was aired first and launched a vigorous and varied discussion about all things Wookey/Sansar and other virtual spaces. To our MusicOasis ears, this was a successful show that is open to all opinions and allowed a lot of point of views to be heard. Ryan Schultz is a valued regular attendee blogger. In a few posts after the OM event he implied that Sansar was on the verge of collapsing and quoted a couple of participant’s statements (with permission). We do not have a problem with any of Ryan’s opinions but wanted to clarify our MusicOasis’s position on this matter. We do not believe Sansar is in imminent danger of failing and are in fact working hard developing new venues and programs to promote its growth. We do feel that there are many areas in need of Wookey development and attention such as creating more creator friendly building tools, game engine enhancements, avatar development, and certainly reducing the onerous 64% fee on converting Sansar dollars to US or other currencies. But we feel, Sansar is in good shape, IS attracting attention through its current programming and should be a viable member of the Metaverse for the time being. Thanks, the Music Oasis Team

Second Life Avatars, WOMBO, and Reface: A Tantalizing Glimpse at the Future of Avatars (OH MY GOD WHAT IS THIS EVIL SORCERY?!??)

NOTE: For more information about the Reface mobile AI app, please click here.


Okay, one more blogpost (last one, I promise). I plugged the following selfie of my main male Second Life avatar, Heath Homewood:

Into the WOMBO app (which I only discovered via Twitter today), to get THIS:

Boom Boom Boom by the Vengaboys

WHAT. IS. THIS. EVIL. SORCERY?!?? This is the most over-the-top, jaw-dropping, demented thing I have ever seen, and I absolutely want this as my next animation override, NOW! Mind. Blown.

O.K. I want the Waterfield Group (the new owners of Second Life) to DROP EVERYTHING, acquire WOMBO, and merge it with Second Life! Make it happen!

Holy shit. This just leaped past the Uncanny Valley in my opinion. This works so well it is truly scary. Heath looks like a real person!!! Try it for yourself with a facial picture of your favourite avatar, and let me know what you think!

Here are a couple more examples:

Thriller by Michael Jackson
Never Gonna Give You Up by Rick Astley

UPDATE 2:25 p.m.: I just dropped US$$29.99 (about forty dollars Canadian) on an annual Premium WOMBO subscription, and I have decided…I am just going to self-treat my chronic clinical depression today by plugging Second Life avatar selfies into WOMBO all day. I reject your reality and substitute my own!

Don’t Cha by the Pussycat Dolls
I Will Survive by Gloria Gaynor
NEW as of March 13th, 2021! We’re Not Gonna Take It, by Twisted Sister

Of course, it’s not just Second Life that you can do this with; WOMBO works with avatars you create in any social VR platform or virtual world. Here’s an avatar I created in Sansar, singing Thriller:


And, of course, it’s not just avatar pictures, it works with any face pictures. Here is Frida Kahlo (or, more accurately, her self-portrait), singing Tunak Tunak Tun, which is the mashup I never knew I needed until today!

Or, you can now get the Mona Lisa to sing the Numa Numa song:

UPDATE March 11th, 2021: Reza Zadeh just took this whole WOMBO-fying your art thing up to a whole other level! (I suspect Reza used WOMBO to animate the heads, then somehow pasted them back into the pictures. He also used some music clips that are not part of the WOMBO app, so perhaps he used different software. Either way, it’s hilarious. I just lost it at Marat coming back to life in his bathtub!)


UPDATE March 17th, 2021: I am just having so much fun throwing Second Life selfies into WOMBO! The company keeps adding new songs, too! Here are some of the latest additions (the Borat one is an exclusive for Premium members):

A little Twisted Sister, perhaps?
Perhaps some Funky Town disco?
The Borat Bing Bong song is a WOMBO Premium members exclusive!

UPDATE March 20th, 2021: And here are a couple more new songs available on the WOMBO app, as of today! I had actually asked (via the #song-suggestions channel on the official WOMBO Discord server) for Friday by Rebecca Black.

Friday by Rebecca Black
I’m Blue by Eiffel65 (a WOMBO Premium user exclusive!)

UPDATE March 21st, 2021: This afternoon I discovered a new mobile app called Reface, which allows you to insert your avatar’s face into movie clips and animated GIFs. Here’s an example, using the face of my main Second Life avatar, Vanity Fair:

Vanity Fair

Here’s Vanity Fair as Mona Lisa:

But wait, there’s more!

Here’s Vanity in thean animated GIF as Marilyn Monroe. Isn’t this amazing?!??

Vanity Fair as Marilyn Monroe

But wait, it gets even better! Witness the resulting MP4 movie clip, where Vanity Fair’s face is superimposed upon Kate Winslet’s in a succession of clips taken from the 1997 blockbuster movie Titanic:

Vanity Fair stars in the 1997 movie Titanic!

Reface allows you a decent handful of face swaps before it imposes a 30-minute timer to slow down your use of the free version of the app. I signed up for the Pro version, which costs US$2.49 weekly, or US$24.99 annually.

Here’s my main male avatar Heath Homewood as actor Harrison Ford:

Heath Homewood
Heath Homewood as Harrison Ford

And here’s an animated GIF I created of Heath Homewood as Freddie Mercury!

In some pictures, you can even insert more than one avatar’s face. Here are Vanity Fair and Heath Homewood in the famous Grant Wood painting American Gothic:

Vanity and Heath: Second Life Gothic!

UPDATE March 22nd, 2021: Well, tonight I am howling with laughter as I put my normally sedate Second Life supermodel, Vanity Fair, through WOMBO to sing some Taylor Swift, interspersed with some very well-timed goat screaming! Tonight, this my new favourite thing!!!

And then, I got really creative and starting combing the AI tools!

I pasted Vanity Fair’s face on Kylie Jenner’s body using Reface, then put a screen capture from the resulting animated GIF through WOMBO, et voilà! Here is the result! I am having way, waaay too much fun with this!

And Heath Homewood will sing you out with yet another exclusive song clip for Premium WOMBO users…

UPDATE April 5th, 2021: Three more musical clips from the fevered minds at WOMBO!

Despacito by Luis Fonsi
My Way by Frank Sinatra
Cotton Eyed Joe by Rednex

UPDATE April 6th, 2021: Here are a couple more tunes—enjoy!

Shake It Off by Taylor Swift
It’s Raining Men by The Weather Girls

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!

Editorial: Are Social VR Platforms Dependent Upon High-End PCVR Doomed?

Today’s Melatopia Festival in Sansar: Less than 45 Avatars Total?

This afternoon, I paid a visit to Sansar to attend the virtual version of the Melatopia South Asian festival. I had a chance to catch up with some old friends and listen to some great music. Sansar is still (to my mind) the most beautiful virtual world, with a vibrant marketplace (44,582 items and counting) providing endless avatar customization options (there was even a mini velociraptor avatar running around amidst the crowd at the concert stage!).

But all the while, I had this nagging little voice in the back of my head, asking: Where is everybody?

To the best of my knowledge (and Wookey may correct me if I am mistaken), the Melatopia event never went above a single instance, and there were never more than 45 avatars total present at the festival (and most of the time that I was there, the figure from the Codex was in the low-to-middle thirties). (UPDATE: There was briefly one time in the afternoon where the festival hit a high if 51 avatars, spawning a second instance.)

Even granted that most people would be watching the show via Twitch, Facebook, Instagram, or YouTube, I find that to be a shockingly, abysmally low attendance figure, especially compared to the multitudes that would have attended the real-life version of this festival, were it not for the coronavirus pandemic.

Frankly, this blogger has long ago given up trying to chastise Wookey for their puzzling lack of promotion of events on the Sansar platform. There’s only so many times I can write the same editorial: YOU NEED TO PAY FOR PROMOTION. YOU CANNOT EXPECT PEOPLE TO COME TO SANSAR IF YOU DO NOT PROMOTE THE PLATFORM. But my pleas (and those of many other observers) seem to have fallen on deaf ears. Whatever Wookey is doing to promote Sansar, it’s clearly not enough.

But it does raise a bigger question that I have only addressed in passing in earlier editorials discussing and dissecting the demise of the old High Fidelity and the near-death experience and resurrection of Sansar. And that question is: was it a mistake to build social VR platforms that would only run on tethered, high-end virtual reality headsets like the Oculus Rift, the HTC Vive, and the Valve Index? The collective term I and many other people use when talking about these VR headsets, all of which require a high-end Windows gaming computer with a powerful graphics card to run, is PCVR.

Let’s face facts: both now and for the foreseeable future, the clear VR headset of choice by consumers will be the wireless, standalone Oculus Quest, especially now that Facebook has released the newer, cheaper Oculus Quest 2. And Facebook will stop selling its Oculus Rift S tethered, PCVR headset (the successor to the original Oculus Rift) this coming spring. Business Insider reported:

“We’re going to focus on standalone VR headsets moving forward,” the company said in a blog post on Wednesday. “We’ll no longer pursue PC-only hardware, with sales of Rift S ending in 2021.”

The Rift line of headsets required a powerful gaming PC to power virtual reality experiences. The headset connected to the PC with a set of wires, but the latest Oculus Quest headsets are able to replicate this experience with a single detachable USB cable in addition to operating without a dedicated PC.

As such, Facebook isn’t outright killing its PC-driven virtual reality efforts. It will continue supporting higher-end, PC-powered virtual reality on the Quest line of headsets. 

“We’ve seen significant growth in PC VR via Oculus Link,” the blog post said, “and the Rift Platform will continue to grow while offering high-end PC VR experiences like ‘Lone Echo II’ and ‘Medal of Honor: Above and Beyond’ well into the future.”

Two years ago, TechCrunch reported on the disagreements within Facebook over the company’s decision to focus on standalone as opposed to high-end, tethered headsets, saying that Brendan Iribe, the co-founder and former CEO of Oculus, was “leaving Facebook  following some internal shake-ups in the company’s virtual reality arm last week that saw the cancellation of the company’s next generation ‘Rift 2’ PC-powered virtual reality headset, which he had been leading development of”.

If Facebook is leaving the high-end PCVR market, what does that mean for the future of social VR platforms which either do not run on the Quest, like Sansar, or do not run at their full technical capacity, like VRChat? (I wrote about my earlier experiences running VRChat on my Oculus Quest here. Although I’m sure the situation has improved somewhat since then, the fact remains that you still need PCVR to really experience everything that VRChat has to offer.) Are those platforms that run best (or only) on PCVR doomed?

No. So relax. (Yeah, all right, I admit that was a click-bait blogpost title. Sue me.)

While the market for high-end PCVR might mature more slowly than that of wireless VR headsets (and definitely more slowly than most overconfident observers had originally predicted), eventually it will come. Devices may come and go in popularity, but the overall trend is clear: ever more data being pushed to your headset, creating ever more detailed environments. Eventually, that screen door effect that can sometimes make it difficult to read text in a VR headset will vanish. Visual fidelity will only improve from here on in. Consumers and businesses will demand it, and they will buy it. It’s inevitable.

While we do not yet know what future headsets various tech companies have on their drawing boards, we can be assured that other companies will definitely step into the PCVR market while Facebook is stepping out, and up the VR/AR/XR game (many eyes are watching to see what Apple will do, for example). As I like to say, a rising tide lifts all boats. I believe that many people who get their first taste of VR from an Oculus Quest will no doubt graduate to more powerful, tethered devices. (Even Facebook may decide to change their minds at some point in the future, particularly if they should see any potential competitors do well.)

I myself have already placed my order for a Valve Index kit to replace my trusty, four-year-old Oculus Rift, as part of my personal boycott of Facebook/Oculus products and services (more info here). I have heard through the grapevine that they are selling well since Facebook’s decision to force Oculus device users to get Facebook accounts, which is not sitting well with many early VR adopters at all.

And I very much look forward to visiting future virtual festivals in Sansar in my shiny new Valve Index!