Birds of a Feather Presentation at SIGGRAPH 2022: The Dancers of VRChat Talk About Their Dance Communities

CGVR, a member of the RyanSchultz.com Discord server (now over 700 members strong, hailing from any and every metaverse platform!) shared the following two-hour video presentation with me, and I wanted to share it with my readers:

This was a “Birds of a Feather” presentation held during the SIGGRAPH 2022 conference held August 8th to 11th in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. According to the session description:


This Birds of a Feather is for attendees interested in the dance scene, communities and clubs in VRChat — including but not limited to “Calibrate”, “Club Poseidon”, “Club Zodiac”, “VRDancing”, “VR Dance Academy”, “VRPD”. We will talk about experiences with virtual reality dancers, what to make sure of when dancing in VR, how is it different from the real world, what are the pros and cons, and perhaps also a dance performance. The session is hosted and funded from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program under grant agreement No. 101017779 (CAROUSEL+).

Organizers:

  • Noshaba Cheema – Max Planck Institut, DFKI
  • Archantos – VRPD
  • Chatmans – VRDancing
  • Pieter van der Linden – VIVITNet
  • Carmen MacWilliams – Grassroots Arts and Research
  • Kenny Mitchell – Edinburgh Napier University, Roblox

And the dance communities involved in order of appearance in this video:


Thanks to CGVR for the heads up!

Editorial: The Measures of Metaverse Success—And the Value of Community

I struggle with serious insomnia, which seems to be getting worse the longer the pandemic drags on (and no, the pandemic is NOT over). After another sleepless night, I gave up this morning, called in sick, and I am now sitting in from of The Beast, doing what I often do when I am chasing the Sandman in vain: hanging out in Second Life. (Hey, some people play solitaire. Others read or crochet. You do you, boo, and I’ll do me.)

I often like to visit popular clubs to listen to the music stream (sometimes I just park my avatar, turn up the sound, and use it as a radio while I work on something else). I often use a handy free HUD called What Is She Wearing? to inspect what an impeccably-dressed nearby avatar is wearing; in fact, many of my impulse purchases for both my male and female avatars were often something which I first spotted on somebody else on the other side of the virtual room!

Club 511, a very popular adult jazz club in Second Life

Some people are chatting (either in local chat or privately among themselves), others are dancing, still others are just doing a stand-and-model, showing off their avatar style. (Club 511 has a strict no-non-human avatars rule, so no furries, sadly! The Second Life furry community tends to hang out in their own clubs and bars.)

Which brings me in an meandering, roundabout way to the topic of this editorial: community. Clubs in Second Life come and go, and popular hotspots like Club 511 rise and fall in popularity with alarming regularity, but the thing that they all have in common is community. None of these places work without the avatars!

Metaverse platforms bring together people who meet, share common interests (such as jazz), chat, and form friendships, even romantic relationships. Countless couples in real life first met in a virtual world like Second Life (check out Draxtor Despres’ video series Love Made in Second Life if you want a few examples; also please watch Joe Hunting’s excellent feature-length VRChat documentary, We Met in Virtual Reality, currently streaming on HBO Max, or on Crave TV here in Canada).

One of the reasons for VRChat’s success to date is that you can pretty much guarantee that, when you log in, you will find places where you can meet and talk with other avatars. Over time and through word of mouth, you hear about virtual clubs and regularly-scheduled events, you start to schedule them into your calendar, et voilà—you’ve become part of a community, and made new friends or acquaintances. (I vividly remember how much fun the Endgame talk shows were, while they lasted! Again, such popular events tend to come and go over time.)

Yesterday evening, I finally downloaded and set up the Sansar client software on my new personal computer, and signed in, wearing my Valve Index VR headset. My default landing point was, as it happens, the science-fiction-themed Social Hub, newly reset-up that very evening by stalwart community member (now Sansar employee) Medhue.

The Sansar Social Hub is back!

I stood in the slanted rays of virtual sunlight leaving long shadows on the red floor of the central plaza, among the park benches, and chatted with friends I had made several years before, and even met a few new people. It was as if I never left! I have been admittedly rather absent from Sansar these past couple of years, as the platform changed corporate hands and struggled at times, but it is showing renewed life under the leadership of its new CEO, Chance Richie.

The point that I am trying to make is this: even in a social VR platform that might only still have a low number of concurrent users, like Sansar, there remains a hard-core, committed user base who have established friendships and working relationships. They might not be strong in numbers, but they are strong in a sense of community, and community is the reason that people keep coming back. I have seen this happen time and time again, in any variety of flatscreen virtual worlds and social VR platforms over the years. As long as the metaverse platform hangs around long enough (and Sansar just celebrated the 5th anniversary of its open public beta), a community will form—and if they’re lucky, in popular worlds like Second Life and VRChat, many varied and vibrant subcommunities, too!

And I have noticed that the relationships we make in virtual worlds and social virtual reality tend to carry over, not only in real life, but onto other metaverse platforms, too. For example, I have made a point of buying avatar fashion or virtual home and garden decor in Second Life from content creators whom I first got to know personally during the Sansar alpha test period. And many of the people who decided to leave less-successful or failed worlds have also tended to bring their friends and business partners to build and enrich many other metaverse platforms over the years! The seeds first planted in Active Worlds (now 27 years old!) and Second Life (which just turned 19) have borne fruit in many newer metaverse platforms!

So how about, instead of using the standard corporate yardstick of success, and focusing on the purely mercantile aspects of the metaverse, we talk about the communities that they foster, and the valuable relationships that we make because of these worlds?

Let me give you a recent example. The tech industry newsletter called The Information recently published an article titled The Metaverse Real Estate Boom Turns into a Bust. Now, you and I cannot read the full text of that article unless you shell out US$399 a year to subscribe to The Information†, but what they did freely share with us poors the first few sentences of their report, plus a couple of rather interesting graphs:

The metaverse is in the midst of a real estate meltdown. Sales volumes and average prices for virtual land have plunged this year, part of a broader slide in crypto and non-fungible token prices.

Soaring interest in virtual property spawned an industry that mirrors traditional commercial real estate—buyers develop land by adding virtual storefronts, and then sell or rent it to companies looking to set up shop as a marketing strategy or to sell things like clothing for online avatars. Investors who bought at the peak are now sitting on land that has tumbled in value. Meanwhile the real-world economic downturn could weigh on brands’ appetite for spending on building out their metaverse presence.

I notice that, in a note underneath the charts, it says, in fine print: “Includes data from The Sandbox, Decentraland, Voxels (formerly known as Cryptovoxels), NFT Worlds, Somnium Space, and Superworld“. I was actually quite bemused at the inclusion of Superworld, as it is among those buy-a-virtual-piece-of-Earth NFT schemes which provoked a rather cranky editorial from this metaverse blogger! (At least Decentraland, Voxels, and Somnium Space have already launched an actual product, while The Sandbox, the scene of some frantic bidding for NFT-based real estate during the bull market, has the bad timing to be stuck in alpha testing during this ongoing crypto winter. And NFT Worlds just had the rug pulled out from under them by Microsoft and Minecraft.)

I have already written yet another of my infamously cranky editorial blogposts about how myopic it is to only look at the 27-year history of the metaverse from a purely blockchain perspective, but I have another pet peeve: the assumption that the success of a metaverse platform can only be measured by metrics like commodity prices and trading volume, and by how much they attract “brands”. It makes me want to tear my hair out!

Yes, obviously, these platforms need to have some level of economic success in order to stick around and for community to have a chance to take hold; that’s a given. But to ignore and/or mock a platform like Second Life or VRChat for not attracting or keeping big-name corporations or “brands” is missing the point. Metaverse success can also be measured by the strength and endurance of the communities and relationships they foster, things which you cannot assign a dollar value to.

So get out there, explore the various metaverse platforms out there, and see what appeals to you. Don’t let the current gloom and doom surrounding the blockchain-based metaverse platforms put you off the entire metaverse marketplace; there’s a lot more out there than the recent crop of NFT-based platforms. There’s so much going on out there!

So go and find your bliss, and find your community. You might just surprise yourself, and make a few friends along the way. Or just hear some good jazz 😉

OK, now that I have vented, this blogger is going to try and get some much-needed sleep…


†By the way, if you do happen to have a subscription to The Information, I’d dearly love to read that article! 😉

HBO Max Documentary Review: We Met in Virtual Reality

This evening, I finally had an opportunity to watch Joe Hunting’s full-length documentary, We Met in Virtual Reality, which I first wrote about last year. This is my review of that documentary.

Here’s an overview of Joe’s film, taken from his IndieGogo page:

We Met in Virtual Reality is an enchanting portrait of social Virtual Reality (VR) app VRChat, composed of intimate and hilarious moments inside global VR communities. The film presents an emotive impression on this new virtual landscape through a poetic collage of stories, exploring how VR is affecting the way we socialise, work, love and express ourselves; told authentically by the users of VRChat through a warm heartfelt lens. 

The overall narrative is made up of three distinct protagonists each presenting unique stories of discovering a romantic relationship through VRChat, and using VR to cope with poor mental health. These core narratives flow between each other in a linear fashion through Winter 2020 to Summer 2021, delivering a compelling journey amidst the more observational moments in other VR communities.

Filmed entirely inside VRChat using cinematic virtual cameras during the COVID lockdown crisis, this film captures a precious time in an underground cultural movement that will soon shape the world we live in; additionally highlighting contemporary subjects such as of coping with poor mental health, modern forms of sign language, non-binary gender expression and finding love beyond physical interaction. Everyone appearing in the film will be addressed by their virtual usernames without any real life imagery, immersing audiences into a new cinematic documentary experience.

This documentary has three main storylines: the American Sign Language (ASL) teachers teachers Jenny0629 and Ray_is_Deaf, who work at Helping Hands; one couple, DustBunny and Toaster; and a second couple, IsYourBoi and DragonHeart. Both couples first met each other within VRChat. In addition, there are many cameos of a number of other characters, who candidly discuss various aspects of being an avatar on a social VR platform.

Among the worlds explored are a dinosaur theme park, a camel ride through the desert, an improv comedy stage show, a New Year’s Eve countdown celebration, and the Zodiac Club, an exotic dance club. Many of the avatars shown have eye, finger and even full-body tracking, which gives the viewer a really good idea of what you can accomplish in VR (for example, shooting a game of pool, or taking part in a belly-dancing lesson!). This film will be a real eye-opener to the metaverse neophyte who might have thought that being in virtual reality meant that you would be limited to only moving your head and your hands!

There are moments of glorious hijinks in this documentary, as well as some sombre discussions of mental health issues. Joe does a masterful job of editing, moving smoothly from one story to another, and he wisely gives the people he profiles the time and space required for them to tell their stories, each in their own fashion. It’s been a joy to see Joe Hunting burnish his skills as a documentary filmmaker over time!

The decision was made to film the entire documentary in VRChat, so there is no jarring back-and-forth between the virtual world and the real. In fact, one of the underlying messages of We Met in Virtual Reality is that the virtual can, in fact, become the real. The communities and relationships Joe documents are just as authentic as any in the real world! (While this will not come as a surprise to any of my blog readers, many of whom already have experience in countless virtual worlds, it might come as a shock to those who have not yet set foot in the metaverse.)

In fact, the outreach potential of having Joe’s documentary available on a major TV/movie streaming service such as HBO Max means that a lot more people will learn about social VR and the metaverse in general, and VRChat in particular!

I do find it ironic that this documentary—which focuses so wonderfully on the Deaf and hard-of-hearing community of Helping Hands—has been released on HBO Max at the very moment when the VRChat community is in an uproar over an update which has disabled many popular mods intended to serve the Deaf and hard-of-hearing, providing core functionality which the official VRChat client still lacks.

The documentary is available in both closed-caption and described-video versions, and you can watch it on HBO Max in the United States, and through Crave TV in Canada (which carries HBO content). Here’s a list of the other countries where HBO Max is available.

Joe Hunting has crafted a love letter to VRChat, and if you watch only one film about the metaverse this year, We Met in Virtual Reality is that film. Highly recommended, particularly if you are brand new to social VR and VRChat. I give it five stars out of five! ★★★★★

VRChat’s Latest Security Update, Incorporating Easy Anti Cheat, Is Causing Controversy Among Users

Yesterday, VRChat posted the following blogpost to their official blog, titled The VRChat Security Update:

“Modified clients” are a large problem for VRChat in a variety of ways. Malicious modified clients allow users to attack and harass others, causing a huge amount of moderation issues. Even seemingly non-malicious modifications complicate the support and development of VRChat, and make it impossible for VRChat creators to work within the expected, documented bounds of VRChat.

In order to prevent that, we’ve implemented Easy Anti Cheat (EAC) into VRChat.

If you’ve played Apex Legends, Fortnite, Gears of War, Elden Ring, or many more, you’ve seen Easy Anti-Cheat (EAC).

EAC is the industry-leading anti-cheat service. It’s lightweight, effective, and privacy-focused. In short, for any game or platform looking to prevent malicious users from breaking the rules, it’s a powerful solution.

The integration of EAC means that all modified clients are blocked. The problems mentioned above will be minimized if not outright eliminated, improving the VRChat experience for users and creators.

Malicious client modifications are responsible for a massive amount of issues for both our team and our users. We’ve been listening to you cry out for a solution to being harassed, griefed, and constantly crashed, so we’re taking further steps to address one of the roots of the problem.

Our Trust & Safety and User Support teams witness first hand how much damage modified clients do to the platform. 

Every month, thousands of users have their accounts stolen, often due to running a modified client that is silently logging their keystrokes as well as other information. These users – often without even realizing it! – run the risk of losing their account, or having their computers become part of a larger botnet. 

These networks of modified clients perform malicious actions without informing users – such as reporting back user locations to harassers or stalkers, ripping and archiving avatars, allowing mass harassment of users via automated actions, and even acting as nodes for distributed “zombie” botnets. We’ve directly observed this happening innumerable times, and it alarms us!

Additionally, all modified clients – even ones that aren’t malicious – are a burden for creators. We regularly speak to many that have spent hours (or days) debugging user issues, only to realize that the culprit is a modified client. This frustration ultimately has a chilling effect on VRChat creators, hurting their enthusiasm and preventing them from building awesome things. 

This pain extends to VRChat support too – any time we update, we get a massive amount of bug reports that end up just being broken modifications. In addition to burning developer time, this support burden also frustrates less technically-inclined users who didn’t know what they were getting into by installing these modifications.

Now, keep in mind that it has always been against the VRChat Terms of Service to make modifications to the official VRChat client. Those who break the ToS risk being banned from the platform, but (much like earlier flatscreen virtual worlds, e.g. Second Life), there’s really very little stopping an infringer from creating a brand new account to get around the ban.

However, it appears that many users are unhappy with this latest move by the company, which will impact useful mods as well. Among the ways users are voicing their displeasure is by review-bombing VRChat on Steam:

However, this has not gone down well with the game’s community. Modding was a large part of the VRChat experience despite it being technically disallowed. Mods are currently used to address the game’s poor performance as well as to add missing accessibility features such as speech-to-text (via PCGamer).

Recent Steam reviews for VRChat are currently sitting at “mostly negative” as thousands of negative reviews are flooding in from displeased community members.

One such negative review lists the negative outcomes bringing EAC will cause for VRChat. “What EAC will do for VRChat: Lower framerates, increase instability, stop script kiddies, stop “wholesome” mods, accessibility mods, and quality of life mods, Stop [GPU software] from improving your framerate…”

One user with almost 9,000 hours left a sarcastic positive review, stating that the uninstall button works great on the game. Another simply stated, “horrible devs, entirely disconnected from the community and what they want.”

The VRChat development team has yet to address the ongoing community backlash to their decision.

A reportor from TheGamer website writes:

As highlighted by a ResetEra thread, there have been over 5,000 negative reviews filed since July 1. This has brought the recent reviews score down to Mostly Negative despite the game’s Very Positive overall rating. Mods are against VRChat’s terms of service but the community use a slew of client-side addons to fix a lot of the bugs while also adding key quality of life features. But these mods do a lot more than that, making the game safer, and they’re set to break with the anti-cheat update.

Mods such as AdvancedSafety, LagFreeScreenshots, JoinNotifier, UIExpansionKit, and CameraMinus will all be flagged by the anti-cheat, resulting in a ban for users. The community has voiced concern over this with the Discord racking up complaints and backlash as a feedback post on the official website accumulates over 18,600 upvotes.

An anonymous source has shared with me the following message which is circulating among the VRChat hacker/mod community:

As some of you may have noticed, VRChat’s next big update is regarding their new EAC (Easy Anti Cheat).

This means that any mods you may have been using, VRChat is requiring you to get rid of them on this next update. You won’t be able to launch the game until done so.

>>I WOULD REFRAIN FROM LOGGING ONTO VRCHAT AT THIS MOMENT<<

Still waiting on more information from VRChat regarding this entire situation. I will be keeping an eye out and will update here as well.

As you may have noticed, VRChat has released an open beta that includes Easy Anti-Cheat, which prevents use of mods.

Playing cat-and-mouse game with anti-cheat developers is not something that could be won by a modding community as big and open as ours, so if this open beta makes it to release as-is, this would mean the end of wholesome modding.

Now is your chance to tell VRChat that this is a dumb change. It does not solve ripping or crasher avatars. It probably won’t stop malicious mods, as they’re way smaller and can evade anti-cheat easier. Nor do they open source their code, meaning you never really know what you are running, and risk getting your account stolen, or worse.

However, it prevents you from having unlimited avatar favourites. It prevents you from using anti-crash mods. It prevents you from using all other mod features you’ve come to enjoy. It prevents you from using safe, open-source mods that never made anyone’s experience worse.

So, we recommend that you cancel your VRC+ if you have it, and do not launch VRChat for at least a week to produce a visible player count drop. Encourage your friends to do the same, even if they don’t use mods themselves. Anti-community measures like these from a greedy corporation should be protested as loudly as possible. You can take the time off VRChat to explore alternative platforms – Neos provides a different experience, and ChilloutVR aims to be similar to what you know (you can even auto-convert some of your avatars!). Or you can choose to experience other VR and flatscreen games together with friends you’ve made in VRChat.

This is not really a “security update”. It much more of a “we’re too afraid of people doing our job better than us” update.

You can upvote a Canny post here.

Stay tuned—it looks like things are going to get interesting! 😉

UPDATE 9:39 p.m.: ThrillSeeker spends the first ten minutes of his 15-minute weekly VR news update discussing this story, making an excellent case that VRChat should have implemented the accessibility features provided by some mods before implementing EAC and cutting off thousands of users who relied on things such as speech-to-text:

He makes some excellent points, and ones that VRChat should listen to.

UPDATE July 28th, 2022: Tech website Kotaku has published an update to the situation, titled The World’s Most Popular Social VR Game Is In Turmoil:

Whether this week’s Security Update will go down as a decisive turning point in the history of the VRChat community or just a larger-than-usual blip remains to be seen. But two things are certain: A lot of players are angry, and the Security Update is here to stay.