Taking a Look at the Current Academic Research on Social Virtual Reality (Part I of a Series)

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One of the things I most enjoy about being an academic librarian is having access to all the research databases to which my university subscribes—and the know-how to search them effectively and efficiently! Every so often I like to do a deep-dive into the research to see what’s new in the world of virtual worlds and virtual reality.

In this blogpost, I wish to highlight some recent academic work which looks at the rapidly evolving world of commercial social VR. This is the first of what I expect will be a series on social VR research.

A trio of researchers at the University of California, Santa Cruz (Dr. Katherine Isbister, Professor in Computational Media at the Jack Baskin School of Engineering; her Ph.D. student Anya Kolesnichenko; and post-doc Joshua McVeigh-Schultz, who recently left UCSC and accepted a professorship at San Francisco State University) have been publishing a number of research papers at various computer conferences on social virtual reality. Here are citations to three of their papers, which you can obtain from your local academic or public library:

McVeigh-Schultz, J., Márquez Segura, E., Merrill, N., & Isbister, K. (2018). What’s It Mean to “Be Social” in VR?: Mapping the Social VR Design Ecology. In DIS ’18 Companion: Proceedings of the 2018 ACM Conference Companion Publication on Designing Interactive Systems (pp. 289–294). https://doi.org/10.1145/3197391.3205451

McVeigh-Schultz, J., Kolesnichenko, A., & Isbister, K. (2019). Shaping Pro-Social Interaction in VR: An Emerging Design Framework. In CHI ’19: Proceedings of the 2019 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. https://doi.org/10.1145/3290605.3300794

Kolesnichenko, A., Mcveigh-Schultz, J., & Isbister, K. (2019). Understanding Emerging Design Practices for Avatar Systems in the Commercial Social VR Ecology. In DIS ’19 Proceedings of the 2019 on Designing Interactive Systems Conference (pp. 241–252). https://doi.org/10.1145/3322276.3322352

In addition to these papers, which I strongly urge platform developers, as well as anybody who is interested in social VR, to obtain and read, Dr. Isbister and Dr. McVeigh-Schultz have given presentations which you can access on YouTube. The following is a presentation made this past March by Joshua McVeigh-Schultz at the 2019 Virtual Reality Developers Conference (part of the Game Developers Conference):

And the second is a presentation by both Dr. Isbister and Dr. McVeigh-Schultz given at the Mozilla Emerging Technology Speaker Series (the Mozilla Foundation supported some of their research with a grant).

Using a method of design-oriented autobiographical landscape research to examine existing commercial social VR platforms, the researchers attempted to identify key issues and concerns for future social VR design, and areas for possible future research. In-depth interviews were conducted with designers, developers, and other experts involved in the creation of social VR applications such as Rec Room, AltspaceVR, Facebook Spaces, VRChat, Mozilla Hubs, Anyland, and High Fidelity.

One interesting finding: the researchers discovered a clear design distinction between large open platforms where one was likely to encounter strangers (Rec Room, VRChat, High Fidelity, etc.) and non-open platforms where you connected mostly with people you already knew (Mozilla Hubs, Facebook Spaces):

Especially among the large open platforms where a user is likely to encounter strangers, we found convergence around broad design themes involving the role of place and space, community engagement, moderation, social catalysts and activity structures, social mechanics of friending/muting/blocking etc., and other embodied affordances including a range of communication modalities. However, we also observed fairly substantial divergence in terms of particular mechanics underlying these broad design areas. Furthermore, for non-open-world platforms such as Facebook Spaces and Mozilla Hubs, we noted less focus on supporting safety and security, and more investment in design goals associated with: supporting device interoperability, empowering a range of participation modalities, and bridging social encounters in VR with the outside world.

—McVeigh-Schultz, J. Shaping Pro-Social Interaction in VR

What’s exciting to me is that these people are conducting research in the exact same area where my own interests lie! (I’ve found my kind of people!!!) And since I have decided to suspend my previous VR research project for being much too broad and overambitious, discovering this published work gives me some much-needed food for thought on possible future research projects which I could decide to pursue at my university.

Biting Off More Than I Can Chew: Lessons Learned from a Suspended Virtual Reality Research Project

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As you might know from reading my bio, for the past couple of years I had been working on an academic research project involving Sansar. As members of the faculty union at my university, academic librarians have an opportunity and obligation to pursue research as part of their overall workload. Here’s a brief description of what I wanted to accomplish with my research project:

As my multi-year academic research project, I am creating a user-navigable, three-dimensional version of the Mathematical Atlas website (a guide to the mathematics literature for undergraduate and graduate students created by Dr. David Rusin) using Sansar as a software platform. I am doing this research in order to try and answer the following questions:

What hurdles do academic libraries face in providing access to a pre-existing reference/research tool in a virtual reality environment to students?

Are the software tools currently available (for example, those in Sansar) sufficient to build effective, efficient VR experiences for reference? If not, then what else is needed? This research project would be among the very first library and educational uses of the Sansar platform.

How will patrons use reference and research tools in VR? In the specific case of the Mathematical Atlas, will the use of a three-dimensional landscape model help users better grasp the various areas of modern mathematical research and how they relate to each other, as opposed to a traditional flat, two-dimensional webpage? Or will the 3-D model simply get in the way of imparting useful information?

“Wanted to accomplish” is in past tense because, I now realize, I have bitten off way more than I can chew, and tried to take on a research project that I simply cannot complete with the resources I have in any sort of timely fashion. I originally had this wonderful idea that I would create a three-dimensional version of the Mathematical Atlas website, and I would then test users to see how being able to navigate the information in 3D would impact users’ comprehension of the material.

My research project failed due to a number of factors, such as a lack of research time, and poor overall planning and project management. But the biggest problem was that I picked an area where I lacked the necessary in-depth subject knowledge. I have an undergraduate computer science degree and a Masters degree in library and information science, as well as several years of experience as the liaison librarian for the Department of Mathematics at my university. However, it quickly became obvious that a much greater in-depth knowledge of mathematics was required to effectively create the scenes or rooms representing the various areas of contemporary mathematics research that I had envisaged as part of this research project. As I said, I bit off more than I can chew. To give you an idea of how complex this topic is, here is the front-page “map” of the territory:

The front-page map of the Mathematical Atlas website, showing the relationship between the various research areas in contemporary mathematics research (position of the circles), and the amount of published research (size of the circles)

So what I am doing over the next six weeks is writing up an academic paper about my suspended research project, where I outline what I wanted to do and the lessons I learned in trying to get a project like this off the ground, in hopes that other researchers can learn something from my failure.

I still do believe that Sansar and other social VR platforms provide a “short cut” to building and publishing virtual reality experiences that can be very useful for educational and research purposes. For example, I just recently learned about a project at my university, the University of Manitoba, where Dr. Andrew Woolford and Dr. Adam Muller spent four years creating a virtual reality experience based on the testimonies of survivors of Canada’s Indian residential school system. The goal of the project was to shed light on a shameful chapter of Canadian history where indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families and sent away to boarding schools, where they lost their language and culture, and were often physically, mentally and sexually abused, all in the name of government-and-church-sanctioned assimilation into white settler culture:

I am curious about the technical aspects of this project, and I have reached out to the professors who did this work to learn more about it. This is the sort of thing that platforms like High Fidelity and Sansar would be a natural fit for. And I do believe that social VR platforms will play a key role in future educational and research projects. In fact, I still want to do research into applications of virtual reality and social VR to academic libraries. After I write (and hopefully publish) my paper, I will be sitting down to figure out my next research project.

Book Review: Dr. Margaret Gibson Makes the Case for Second Life Being a Mature, “Haunted” Virtual World

After my recent cancer scare, I picked up a book that I had been reading, which I had set aside, titled Living and Dying in a Virtual World: Digital Kinships, Nostalgia, and Mourning in Second Life, by Dr, Margaret Gibson and Clarissa Carden (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018). I had promised earlier that if I had time, I would write a book review, and here is that review.

Living and Dying in a Virtual World

This book, which covers various issues of nostalgia, memorial, and mourning in the virtual world of Second Life, is highly recommended reading, particularly for those people who don’t “get” Second Life, or understand why over a half-million people still use the platform regularly after 15 years. Here is a lengthy excerpt from the final chapter of the book, which I found especially thought-provoking reading:

SL was one of a group of virtual worlds which came online in the early 2000s. Not all have survived. The Sims Online, later EA Online, is a notable example of a world which, despite being loved by its residents, did not make it. Of those that have continued, some, like World of Warcraft, are game-focused. The purpose of their existence, and for the continued interaction of users, is apparently self-evident. Second Life provides no such explanation for its own continuation. It continues to exist because it remains in use—but the reasons residents choose to live in SL may be as numerous as residents themselves.

Due to its age, SL, while no longer cutting-edge technology, is still a very new type of entity. Mature virtual worlds have not and could not have existed at any other moment in history. Never before has it been possible for residents to have engaged so extensively and for such long periods of time in a single digital environment. Our ideas of what constitute meaningful relationships, and the way in which these relationships should be remembered, have simply failed to live up to the rate of change. While there is a great deal of ubiquity to memorialisation online, it is easy to forget that there are still people who are surprised by this phenomenon and are not willing or comfortable participants.

Existing media discourses pathologise long-term engagement with virtual worlds such as SL. If SL is inherently and necessarily secondary, it can be redefined as a distraction, a space in which individuals unreasonably and unfairly spend time which could be more usefully employed elsewhere. This perspective has informed the salacious media coverage which accompanied SL’s early years and, arguably, has contributed to an almost complete refusal on the part of major media sources to engage with SL in more recent years. There are, of course, exceptions, such as The Atlantic’s 2017 article “The Digital Ruins of a Forgotten Future.” As the name implies, however, this article, while sensitive and extensive, ultimately positions SL as something that is not quite comprehensible. There is almost a sense of confusion that this virtual world, which is no longer new and which appears not to have lived up to its initial promise, has stubbornly refused to die.

However, this book has demonstrated that SL continues to be a space in which significant and valuable lives are lived. The distinction between “real” and “virtual” lives reflects a biological fact. Avatars cannot age, or die, or experience the sensation of touch. Avatar life cannot exist independently of physical embodied life. The avatar is in this sense secondary—its death cannot end the existence of the human operator, even though the opposite is true. This purely pragmatic view of firstness and secondness not only obscures the lived reality of second lives, it also speaks against a discourse which holds that the “true self” exists independent of the circumstances of our physical lives. This discourse has been powerful in shaping our understandings of the relationship between computers and mortality. Computers can only be understood as offering a potential salve for mortality if the “true” self can exist outside of the physical body. This understanding of the “true” self is also prevalent in the perspectives of SL residents, who see SL as a place in which they are freed from the constraints of their embodied lives and can finally live “truly.”

Dr. Gibson goes on to make the case that Second Life has indeed graduated into the ranks of a “mature” virtual world, and even goes on to say that it is, in a way, “haunted”:

This tenuous connection to significant objects and spaces is exacerbated by rumours of SL’s impending death. Linden Lab has been spruiking a new virtual reality project, Project Sansar, for a few years. It has gained support from prominent SL residents who have been invited to create spaces and objects within this new environment. It has, however, led to real fears among members of the SL population who suspect that SL will eventually be shut down. If this were to occur, it would follow a string of other virtual worlds—notably including The Sims Online—which have been destroyed after becoming unprofitable. This is a danger inherent in investing heavily in a virtual world, one which likely contributes to the ideas of firstness and secondness which remain an important part of the language of residents. However, residents do not act with a constant awareness of or fear of the possibility of SL’s impending death. The longevity of this virtual world has created a situation in which its life can be projected into the future—it has become a taken-for-granted part of individual biographies which is not understood as facing an imminent end unless residents stop to consider this as a possibility. It is this taken-for-grantedness, this association with individual memory and biography, which characterises SL as a mature virtual world.

Yet SL does not function independently or outside of the physical world. Its history is its own, but it is interwoven with the history of the world offline in both an individual and collective sense. There are spaces in which a resident is transported to an imagined version of a time and place in the history of Europe or the USA. In this book we have discussed 1920s Berlin, but there are also historical representations of Chicago, Texas, Rome, London, and others. In these locations the work of heritage associated with the upkeep of memories and physical places or objects is overtaken by a new kind of heritage work which is rooted in experience and emotion. The heritage sites one encounters in these spaces are not carefully preserved and contextualised in relation to a history which encompasses that which followed their moment of prominence. Instead, they are spaces in which one can live history devoid of context. In a way this allows for a more accurate understanding of individual biography in relation to historical metanarratives—these spaces provide one with a sense that those residing within them do not know what comes next—theirs is an unknown and unseeable future. Yet the users of the avatars do indeed know the future and are thus in a situation in which a future is known but not known, full of possibilities and yet constrained.

Second Life is a haunted virtual world with various forms of spectrality around lost and deceased lives, the persistence of memory, and the persistence of grievability, but it is also a world that regenerates itself. There are always new projects on the horizon. The extent to which these projects are likely to materialise in SL itself is open to question. The future of this world cannot be assured any more than could the futures of those virtual worlds that have gone before. What is certain, however, is that those residents who have developed important networks of relatedness and who have engaged in the acts of memory we detail in this book will find ways to maintain those networks and those memories.

In short, what makes SL a mature, still-thriving, and evolving virtual world is its strong community. Linden Lab might, perhaps, be a little surprised at the stubbornness and tenacity of SL’s userbase, some of whom (as this book excerpt alludes to) are adamantly opposed to the idea of a new virtual world, Sansar, “replacing” their beloved Second Life. (As I have stated often before on this blog, no matter what Linden Lab does with Second Life vis-à-vis Sansar, they can’t win.)

Galen, in his recent guest editorial, talks about how Linden Lab might choose to reinvigorate Second Life in the (unlikely, but still possible) case that Sansar fails to take off:

What if Sansar fails?

It’s a bit sad that there are many vocal Second Life users who are hoping for this outcome in the belief that Linden Lab will use the money saved to improve SL faster. Personally, I’m not ready to predict Sansar’s imminent or future demise. I still think Sansar has the best shot of success among all the social VR platforms right now.

But let me just speculate for a moment what would happen if LL were to give up on Sansar development and essentially shut it down. I’m going to imagine it from the perspective of what I would do if I were at the helm of Linden Lab and not make an actual prediction, per se.

What would cause me to shut down Sansar? Most likely, this would result from a series of very visible signs that people are preferring some alternative to Sansar and that doom Sansar to have a small niche audience. If, for example, someone made a YouTube video showing how you could create your own multiplayer VR social experience from scratch in Unity in 15 minutes, that would be a solid sign. Or if HiFi’s rendering engine was as good and their typical daily concurrency peak was over 10k and growing, while Sansar’s remained flatly under 1k. It wouldn’t be one single thing. It would be several devastating signs like these that would do it.

Assuming I just shut down Sansar, what would I do with the remaining staff, budget, and experience gained from Sansar? The obvious answer is: Improve SL. I would probably take a big gamble that would still be bold but not as dramatic as Sansar. In particular, I would turn SL into a “hybrid grid”. Let me explain what I mean.

SL is a fossil. Yes, there’s plenty of room to improve it, but the gradual improvements to it are always supposed to be backwards compatible with content going back to 2002. That hinders SL’s potential immensely. That’s why LL took the big leap into the Sansar project as a totally new world to begin with: for a fresh start. I think they know that Second Life’s days are numbered and that something will eventually draw most of SL’s population away.

To breathe new life into SL, I would engineer a significant and only partially compatible version of the Second Life viewer and servers. Let’s call the current technology “SL classic” and the new part “SL next-gen”. The next-gen part of SL would take advantage of many of the lessons learned and technologies pioneered for Sansar. Picture having a new SL client that supports both classic and next-gen sims. Those sims could live alongside one another, as though two grids in one. Your account would be good for both. So would your money. But maybe you would have to create a new avatar in the new grid. Or maybe there would be some conversion utility. And some assets you own in the classic grid wouldn’t be fully compatible with the new one. And assets made specifically for the next-gen grid would be largely incompatible with the classic one. The overarching goal would be to gradually migrate everyone over to the newer platform and eventually retire the old.

There are many possibilities that would open up if I were in damage control mode after Sansar had died and I wanted to know what to do next. But I would likely favour doing some sort of hybrid grid as described above and seeking to gradually migrate SL’s residents and ventures into the newer technology platform. That’s what would make SL’s population grow again and give SL many more years of life ahead.

In other words, Second Life as we know it may indeed evolve into some sort of “hybrid” grid system, as Linden Lab slowly moves its SL grids over to new technology (they are already hard at work on a project to move Second Life sims from physical servers to “the cloud”). While this latter work is far from Galen’s idealized “hybrid” grid system, Linden Lab would be wise to consider all its options, lest it lose its Second Life population to rival virtual world platforms such as High Fidelity and Sinespace.

The community fostered by Second Life, as a mature virtual world, “haunted” by the associations, memories, and aftereffects of its millions of users over the years, will continue to live on, in one way or another. I find Dr. Gibson’s book a reassuring academic treatise on the topic, and well worth a read.