Editorial: How Much Freedom Does Blockchain Really Convey? Artur Sychov Talks About Somnium Space 2.0

The VR news website VR Focus did a good profile on Somnium Space co-founder and CEO Artur Sychov at the recent Gamescom 2019 conference in Cologne, Germany, where he talked about the upcoming Somnium Space 2.0 update and shared a few shots of what it looks like:

As I have mentioned before, Somnium Space is planning to integrate blockchain as part of their social platform, stating on their website:

In the VR Focus video, Artur describes what he sees as some of the benefits of blockchain:

As I said, there are two ways you can do it: either we have a centralized approach like any other game in the world including Second Life, which has 500 million dollars revenue per year, or we do it decentralized. And centralized means, as a company, we hold all the information about all your items, all your belongings, on our servers. The only problem is, for the player… if there is anything happening, so you work hard for years and you earn some items and money inside the game and you own avatars and everything, but once you get banned for any reason… your items are gone. You are not in control of your belongings. On the other hand, a decentralized economy, a blockchain economy, allows you to own those items on the token and we as the company have no way how to influence that. For example, you own an avatar, it’s on a blockchain token, you can go and sell it on the open market and if we decide to ban you… you can still go and sell your avatar on the free market, and we have no influence over that, so we cannot stop you to do so and that’s the power of the blockchain. We have decoupled the economy from Somnium as an operating company, and we give this power back to the users.

Now, this all sounds wonderful, but I do wonder if Somnium Space is going to run into some serious technical issues when they try to implement this truly decentralized plan. Decentraland is an example of a blockchain-based virtual world that promised a decentralized implementation, a promise on which it has not yet delivered. Saying that you own something like virtual land on the blockchain is one thing, but if the servers providing access to your land are centralized (as Decentraland’s servers are right now), that proof of ownership is meaningless if they decide to shut the service down at some point in the future. And the same thing applies to Somnium Space.

But that’s not the only concern I have. In this video, Artur says that blockchain could be used as a way to evade a ban from the company, citing the example that a blockchain-based avatar could still be sold on the free market, outside the control of Somnium Space.

Let’s examine this idea more carefully. Since this was filmed during a conference in Germany, let’s say you create an avatar that breaks Germany’s strict laws banning denial of the Holocaust. (For example, an avatar holding a large picket sign claiming that the genocide of 6 million European Jews, as well as millions of others, including gypsies and homosexuals, never actually happened.)

First, are you claiming that avatar representation on your platform will be completely decentralized, that is, distributed over multiple servers worldwide over which the company has zero control? The technical implementation issues would be enormous, I would think. I can’t think of a single social VR platform or virtual world that has been able to do this (and if I am wrong, somebody please correct me).

And second, what happens if the German government knocks on Somnium Space’s door and insists that the Holocaust-denying avatar be completely banned from Somnium Space accessed from German computers, in accordance with their law? Facebook is just one example of a company that has fallen afoul of German Holocaust denial laws.

Or let’s look at this with a different example. What if your avatar were a sexually explicit one, being used for child pornography purposes? I think you will agree with me that any social VR platform which gives such complete, unfettered freedom to avatar creators is going to run into many serious legal problems from a variety of jurisdictions around the world.

All being on the blockchain means is that you can prove you own something. Period. It doesn’t confer the freedom to do whatever you want, possibly running afoul of corporate policy and global laws. And I would be cautious of any company that makes these kinds of promises, especially in these wearying days of relentless blockchain hyperbole. There’s lots of breezy talk in the cryptocurrency and blockchain community about concepts such as “decentralization” and “ownership” and “freedom”, without a lot of serious thinking about the consequences if such a vision were to be fully implemented. We need to have those discussions, too.

I look forward to exploring Somnium Space 2.0 when it comes out. The early teaser shots look wonderful, and I think that moving to full-body avatars is a great idea. There’s lots of good ideas in Somnium Space, but I am a little concerned (and a little skeptical) about some of the blockchain-related promises being made in this video. Sorry, Artur! Please don’t take this personally. You know I will point out potentially problematic issues on this blog when I run across them, and Somnium Space is not the only blockchain-based virtual world I have criticized. You will remember that I also gave you a hard time with that whole “eternal life” promise you made last year. You just need to reign back on the promises a bit, until the technology catches up 😉

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


Thanks to Artur Sychov for the heads up on the video!

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UPDATED! Adventures in VR: Oculus Home, Somnium Space, Sinespace

This morning I decided to spend a little time in my Oculus Rift visiting three social VR platforms that I have not spent a lot of time in recently: Oculus Home, Somnium Space, and Sinespace.

Oculus Home

I was genuinely curious about Oculus Home after David Hall posted his video to YouTube, so I made sure to spend some time exploring it and learning about its new features. Basically, you can design your own home (even import your own content now), create multiple homes, and visit other people’s homes. You can set any of your homes to private, friends only, or public.

The software is still a little bit buggy. Multiple times I tried to favourite other people’s homes which I liked and wanted to be able revisit later, but it would not save my choices. Moving around is a bit cumbersome at first, but you can change the default teleport to walk and the default snap turning to smooth turning, so once I was able to fiddle with the settings a bit I felt a little more comfortable. I also encountered a few sticking points in the tutorials, which also could use a bit of tweaking.

Another problem is finding places to explore. There is a Recommended list of homes under Places in the pop-up menu, but it’s rather short (perhaps not many people have set their homes to public yet). Oculus Home is not really set up yet to allow you to easily browse other people’s experiences as you already can in Sansar with the Sansar Atlas, which is sortable in various ways (most popular, recently created, etc.).

And, in what I call “the VRChat/Rec Room problem”, there appear to be a lot of children and immature adults on the platform. Yes, there is asshattery, tomfoolery, and trolling already! It’s hardly surprising, really. After all, anyone who owns an Oculus Rift VR headset has access to Oculus Home.

However, I cannot deny that the experiences I visited were beautifully rendered, especially at the highest graphics settings in the options. I am eager to see where Facebook/Oculus takes this.

Somnium Space

I always have the same problem whenecer I try to start Somnium Space: I can’t remember the automatically-generated password! So I had to go through the whole rigamarole of resetting my password. This time I made sure to check the “remember password” option!

Unlike most other social VR platforms, Somnium Space appears to be one large landmass (mostly empty at this point). There’s a few places to explore, like a seaside town, a working bowling alley, and a shopping mall, but not a lot else yet.

There’s a very handy snapshot feature in Somnium Space which I used to take some in-world photos, but unfortunately, it doesn’t tell you what directory it is saving them to on your hard drive! After hunting around fruitlessly for fifteen minutes, I simply gave up.

There are also teleporters which tell you that can actually use them to teleport from Somnium Space to High Fidelity, JanusVR, and AltspaceVR, but they don’t work. Or at least, I couldn’t figure out how to work them. I gave up on that too.

Somnium Space really could use someone to provide better user documentation of features like the camera and the teleporters. Other than that, they’re off to a promising start, having raised over US$60,000 in their recent IndieGogo crowdfunding campaign.

Also, I decided today to set up a new category on my blog just for Somnium Space.

Sinespace

When I first tried Sinespace in VR last May, it was seriously buggy. I am sorry to report that the situation has not improved any. To enable VR mode in Sinespace, you have to download a special beta OpenVR client, install it, open it, make sure you enable OpenVR in the user settings and then restart the client software. (A bit fussy, in my opinion, compared to the seamless switching between desktop mode and VR mode in competing platforms like Sansar and High Fidelity.)

I found the level of jitteriness to be so severe that I had to take off my VR headset after only a couple of minutes before I got sick. In addition to that, whenever I teleported anywhere, I landed up facing the opposite direction from where I started. The user interface menus are positioned too close to your eyes. At one point, I was looking at the backside of the Explore menu! I could go on, but you get the idea: this is simply not ready for prime time yet. I was actually very disappointed.

UPDATE 9:03 p.m.: Well, I asked on the official Somnium Space Discord server, and someone told me where to find the snaphots I had taken (they were saved to the C:/Users/[username]/Documents/Somnium Space/Tablet Camera folder):

My avatar in Somnium Space
The teleporter I couldn’t get to work 🙁

Somnium Space Raises Over US$40,000 in Their Indiegogo Crowdfunding Campaign (and Announces an Official Partnership with Pimax)

Somnium Space has now raised 400% of their original US$10,000 fundraising campaign on the crowdfunding website Indiegogo:

Somnium Space Indiegogo 1 5 Jan 2018.jpg

When I checked this morning, 189 backers have raised US$40,296, which works out to $212 per supporter—impressive! According to their latest update to investors, dated January 4th, 2019:

Hello people of Somnium!

What a ride. The more you – our supporters, buy land, or teleports, or anything we offer we are amazed and grateful! We work really hard to deliver you the BEST VR experience available! Now let’s dive into new things!

First glance at [the] more detailed Map!

Oh yes! You asked for it, you begged for it, you threatened us and our team! Now the time has come to start revealing our new map which is coming in Feb 2019. Have a look and we hope you enjoy it as much as we do!

One image on their Indiegogo page caught my eye. It would appear that the VR headset maker Pimax is now an official partner of Somnium Space (although I could not find Pimax listed on the Partners section of their official website):

Sominium Space Partners 2 5 Jan 2018

As far as I am aware, this would make Somnium Space the first virtual world to partner up with the Pimax headset, which is supposed to start shipping to consumers in February 2019.

Pimax
The Pimax Virtual Reality Headset

And there’s also a not-so-subtle hint in the company’s latest investor update:

P.S.: We are working hard to deliver one of the coolest perks you can ever imagine. Something exclusive, something, which you will not be able to find anywhere else. We hope we will be able to finalize and announce it soon. One hint: if you are planning to buy a very high resolution VR headset – wait few days 😉 If it works out well – you will not regret it!

Here’s a tip, guys: if you’re gonna talk about something that’s not yet official and “Top Secret”, you better check all the media you post to your own Indiegogo page. Just sayin’ 😉

Somnium Space is planning a major update to their client in early 2019. Here’s a preview:

You can follow Somnium Space as it evolves on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Telegram.

Somnium Space Launches a New Crowdfunding Initiative on Indiegogo

Did you know that you can become a patron of this blog, and help support my reporting on news and events in social VR, virtual worlds, and the metaverse? Here’s how.


Somnium Space 27 Nov 2018.png

Somnium Space is looking for new investors!

The virtual world Somnium Space has already raised £112,048 in funding through the U.K.-based crowdfunding website for VR projects called SeedingVR. And now, they have launched a new fund-raising campaign on the popular crowdfunding site Indiegogo:

Somnium Space IndieGogo 27 Nov 2018

Among the perks available to contributors are live guided tours of Somnium Space, T-shirts, parcels of virtual land and the opportunity to have your name “engraved” on the Somnium Space headquarters building.

So far, they report that they have raised 72% of their initial US$10,000 goal in only 36 hours! If you want to contribute, here’s their Indiegogo page.