Interaction Designer Alan Chao Writes About Lessons Learned Building Successful Worlds in AltspaceVR

Alan Chao (website, Twitter) describes himself as:

I’m an interaction designer in NYC, currently a Senior UX (User eXperience) Designer at Storefront. I have over 6 years of experience in UX and product. I’m also doing work in virtual reality.

Alan has written a post on Medium—the first of a planned series—where he talks about the lessons he has learned from building successful, popular worlds on the social VR platform AltspaceVR. His first post, whimsically titled Don’t Get Stuck in the Hot Tub, is absolutely required reading for anybody who is at all interested in social VR.

I’m just going to quote a few choice bits here because I want you to go over there and read the whole thing. I’m serious; it’s that good. And it’s not that long. Go. Read.

*sigh* Are you still here? O.K., fine, here’s my quote…

People in VR love their Starbucks. This was one of the first lessons I learned with my first attempt at building worlds in Altspace. It was mostly a naive experiment to bring 3D models into VR, which I had never done before. However, the first two worlds I made taught me a lot. The first was a Starbucks.

Something is amusing about bringing a mundane place like a Starbucks into VR. The building was a boxy structure modeled in Sketchup with wood textured walls and white signage. Inside, I included the glass pastry display, refrigerator case, cash registers, several coffee-related props, the drink pickup area, and the little bins with sugar packets and straws. To my surprise, when I teleported a group of users into the world, some immediately assumed positions behind the cash registers, and a line of customers formed and started ordering drinks. There were even roleplayed arguments about the drink orders being too complicated. For whatever reason, everyone in the space bought into this “game” and maintained character. As the creator of the world, I was even named the General Manager of the store.

Alan Chao’s Starbucks Coffee in AltspaceVR

Here is a short summary of the lessons Alan learned while building this and many other worlds in AltspaceVR:

  • Spaces shape behaviour: nowhere is this better illustrated by the visitors to the Starbucks Coffee, who automatically began roleplaying!
  • Start with a feeling: “To achieve immersion, start with the feelings you want a world to convey.” This does not necessarily mean increased photorealism:

I’ve found that in Social VR specifically, photorealism doesn’t mean it feels more realistic. Too real, and it sort of falls into the uncanny valley, primarily in stark contrast to the style of avatars. High poly counts can also be detrimental to performance on mobile headsets. The key is to find the balance between just enough geometry, materials, and lighting consideration to support a real feeling.

I am quite looking forward to reading the rest of this series!

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Editorial: My Social VR/Virtual World Predictions for 2020

Photo by Jen Theodore on Unsplash

Now that I am (finally!) finished my annual holiday tradition of utterly ransacking all the Advent calendars and December shopping events I can find in Second Life—the better to clothe my small army of alts with fashionable freebies!—it is time to turn my attention to predictions for the coming year.

Let’s start with a look back at my predictions for 2019, shall we? I said then:

  • That Second Life would “continue to coast along, baffling the mainstream news media and the general public with its vitality and longevity”, and that “the ability to change your first and last names in SL will prove very popular—and also very lucrative for Linden Lab”. Well, I am going to stick to that prediction. Implementing avatar name changes in SL turned out to be a thornier problem than Linden Lab anticipated, hence the delay, but they now have eight years of pent-up demand for this feature, and I anticipate that it will still prove popular—and profitable—for Linden Lab. I myself upgraded one of my alts to Premium to be able to change her legacy name of Bumbly Rumpler. (I know. I know. I don’t know what I was thinking at the time!) I also snagged her a lovely new riverside Victorian Linden Home in the process.

  • That OpenSim would move on implementing virtual reality support, but (as far as I can tell), that work has stalled or been abandoned. To be honest, I have barely set foot at all in OpenSim this past year, so I regret that I am not in any position to make predictions for 2020!

  • That “one or more blockchain-based virtual worlds are going to fold”—a prediction which has come true, at least for MATERIA.ONE, which has not officially folded, but is currently on an indefinite hiatus. The landscape is littered with various blockchain-based projects that are either dead, moribund, or stuck in pre-development hell: Aether City, Ceek, The Deep, MARK.SPACE, MegaCryptoPolis, The Sandbox, Stan World, SuperWorld, Terra Virtua, and VIBEHub. And yet, somehow, new crypto projects keep appearing, hoping to become the next Bitcoin.

    However, three blockchain-based virtual world projects appear to be doing well—Cryptovoxels, Decentraland, and Somnium Space—and I expect that they will all continue to do well in 2020. I note that both Decentraland and Cryptovoxels have tended to rank in the Top 5 in sales volume on the OpenSea marketplace (this screencap is from a tweet made Dec. 27th):

I’m already working on a predictions blogpost for the various social VR platforms and virtual worlds in 2020. Among my predictions is the following: if Linden Lab cannot find a way to increase the overall number of users in Sansar within the next 12 months, even with a pivot to (and an exclusive focus on) live events, then the company will do one of three things:

– convert the existing Sansar code to open source and let the community take it over (which I think is the least likely option);

– sell Sansar to another company and keep Second Life running (or perhaps sell off Linden Lab and all its assets entirely to another company); or

– shut down the Sansar project completely (which I think is the most likely option).

In case you haven’t been paying attention, the honeymoon period for Sansar is OVER.

I am increasingly worried (even heartsick) over the future of Sansar.

  • That “the Oculus Quest VR headset will ignite the long-awaited boom in virtual reality”. I think that we can agree that the Oculus Quest has been a runaway success. Facebook is apparently selling the units as fast as they can make them, and they are now backordered until late February 2020. (The Valve Index is also selling well, and also similarly backordered.) I do predict that this will bring many more people into those social VR platforms which can natively run on the standalone Quest headset, such as VRChat, Rec Room, and AltspaceVR.

  • That “Linden Lab’s launch of Sansar on Steam will likely have only a modest impact on overall usage of the platform”. I deeply regret that this prediction has come true in spades. I said at the time that Linden Lab ditching its SandeX and launching Sansar on Steam would be a terrible mistake, and I take no pleasure in being proven correct. Sansar has been pummeled by negative reviews by Steam gamers, adding to the general sense of malaise about the platform in the past year, especially since approximately 30 staff working on the project were laid off by Linden Lab a couple of months ago, in an attempt to trim their continued financial losses. This was a move which was probably imposed on CEO Ebbe Altberg by the Linden Lab board of directors, who are probably very worried that if Sansar tanks, it will take down Second Life with it.
Photo by Drew Beamer on Unsplash

O.K., now that we’ve looked at how well my predictions for 2019 have fared, now it’s time to peer in my crystal ball and make some new predictions for 2020.

First, all current social VR platforms and virtual worlds will struggle with a key problem: effective promotion. Getting the word out to the public about the various platforms is proving to be more and more difficult in an age of social media overload and short attention spans.

We can expect to see more partnerships between various platforms and influencers (such as Sansar’s continued partnership with the VR vloggers Cas and Chary, and my own recent sponsorship and advertising deal with Sinespace). By the way, my partnership with Sinespace is not exclusive, we can still see other people 😉 and I am still actively looking for other advertisers and sponsorships for my blog and the Metaverse Newscast show (hint hint).

Second, every single eye will be on Facebook as they launch their new social VR platform, Facebook Horizon, early in the new year. It’s disgusting to me how even the smallest Facebook announcement gets oceans of fawning mainstream press coverage, and you can certainly expect Horizon to suck up all the oxygen in the press room when it gets closer to launch date. If Facebook Horizon, backed by the almost limitless resources and reach of its ambitious parent company, fails to take hold in 2020, then that will be the clearest indication yet that the nascent social VR industry is in trouble (and that I might be out of a job!).

Third, as I have said above, I am extremely worried about Sansar. The Sansar website has recently had a complete redesign to focus almost exclusively on live events:

It would appear that Linden Lab is going all-in on Sansar as a platform for live events, to the detriment of other features such as avatar customization (I don’t expect anything new this coming year). However, competition in the live events market in 2020 is likely to be intense, with the following products also planning to focus on hosting such events:

  • Microsoft-owned AltspaceVR (which has also recently announced a pivot to live events);
  • VRChat (which is already home to popular talk shows such as ENDGAME, and many other regular live events);
  • Wave (which has already pulled off some spectacular musical events such as the recent Lindsey Stirling concert);
  • Upstarts such as Ceek and Redpill VR (which are in various stages of pre-development and may or may not launch in 2020);
  • Not to mention that Facebook will also want to muscle in on this extremely lucrative territory (with Oculus Venues, and probably Facebook Horizon, too)—and Facebook will not hesitate to ruthlessly use every tool and tactic at their disposal to achieve market dominance (including “hiding” posts about competing platforms in their Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp social network users’ newsfeeds). Facebook also has deep pockets to ink deals with major talent, locking them into exclusive deals to appear on their platforms.

Expect many skirmishes on the live events battlefield in 2020, and also expect some causalities to occur.

Fourth, Second Life will continue to coast along as it always does, still boasting approximately 600,000 regular monthly users in recently released statistics by Firestorm, and still making millions of dollars in profits, both for its content creators and for Linden Lab. It’s the gift that keeps on giving, and I see no sign of it stopping anytime soon. I predict that SL will still be around five years, perhaps even ten years, from now, and that people will still be logging in, and still merrily ransacking Advent calendars 😉 …and I will continue to blog about steals, deals, and freebies in Second Life!

Fifth, we can expect to see the upcoming Educators in VR International Summit as an example of an increasingly important use of social VR platforms in 2020: conferences. This is a natural fit, and one that saves precious resources (such as airline fuel) in an increasingly environmentally-conscious world. We can expect to see more conferences and meetings hosted in VR as an alternative to real-world meetings (although, as High Fidelity found out, the remote workteams support marketplace isn’t quite there yet, since the vast majority of companies still expect their employees to show up to their offices rather than work remotely from home). I think it’s going to take another generation for that shift to take effect in any widespread fashion.

Sixth: those social VR platforms which currently lack an in-world economy, currency, and a marketplace for user-created content, will be moving towards implementing those features. VRChat already has a booming off-world economy in the creation and sale of custom avatars. We already know that both VRChat and Rec Room are making plans in this area, based on job postings on their websites, but we can also expect other platforms to take this step, taking their cues from the continuing success of the mature, fully-evolved in-world economy of Second Life.

Platforms where people can make money tend to attract droves of new users, appealing to their greed and the universal desire to strike it rich (Decentraland as a more recent example; although its continued success is not 100% guaranteed, investors have sunk a lot of money into it, and it will be interesting to see how this ultimate expression of virtual, cut-throat capitalism will evolve and grow over the next year).

Finally, at some point Apple (and other companies, including Facebook) will launch the first consumer-oriented augmented reality headsets. The over-hyped Magic Leap One has turned out to be rather underwhelming (and underselling) so far, but who knows? Perhaps future AR products may ignite consumer interest, and have an as-yet-unknown impact on the current crop of social VR platforms.

Perhaps the big bet we all placed on virtual reality has been misplaced? We won’t know the answer to that hypothetical question until at least another decade has passed. Of course, some social VR platforms may decide to extend support to whatever AR/MR/XR hardware becomes available in the future, too. Anything can happen.

So these are my social VR/virtual world predictions for 2020. Please check back in a year, and we’ll see just how accurate I was!

Image by Jim Semonik from Pixabay

The Educators in VR 2020 International Summit, February 17th-22nd, 2020, in AltspaceVR, ENGAGE, Rumii, and Other Social VR Platforms

This morning, I decided to submit an application to be a speaker about applications of social VR to libraries at the upcoming Educators in VR 2020 International Summit, which will run from February 17th to 22nd, 2020. Wish me luck! I’m crossing my fingers that my proposed talk will be accepted!

Instead of a physical real-world location, the entire conference will take place on various social VR platforms, including:

AltspaceVR is actually a pretty good choice as a platform for this conference, since it is pretty much accessible to almost everybody, including flatscreen PC users (although I still object to the cartoony avatars from a purely aesthetic standpoint 😉 …).

Picture taken at the first Educators in VR meetup in AltspaceVR, October 2018

Here’s a brief description of the summit, taken from their website:

The 2020 Educators in VR International Summit is a free, open-to-the public, virtual event lasting 6 days (over 80 round-the-clock hours) with a diverse range of speakers and presentations covering:

• The Basics of VR/AR/XR/MR
Research into Spatial Technologies in Education
Corporate Uses for Training and Education
Language Arts Training, Education, and as a Classroom
Coaching and Personal Development
Medical and Science
Computer Science and Math
Student Maker/Creator Projects, Collaborations, and Apps
Virtual Applications and Hardware for the Classroom

And so much more. We have topics under consideration covering the use of social media with virtual reality, education in religion and virtual worlds, world building, VR/AR app development, social and educational VR platforms, and open discussions with some of the world’s foremost experts in education and integrating extended reality.

The Educators in VR group that is putting on this event is an open, international, cross-platform community of educators, researchers, and trainers exploring and collaborating with and in virtual and augmented reality. They host weekly meetups in AltspaceVR on Tuesdays. They also have an active Discord server (here’s the invite link to join if you are interested). They’re also on Facebook and Twitter.

Even if I am not accepted as a speaker or panelist at the summit, I do plan to attend as much as I can of this event! The best part is, I don’t have to spend any money on conference fees, or buy a plane ticket to fly anywhere! (Trying to fit my tired, old, fat ass into economy airline seating for several hours at a stretch is no longer my idea of a fun time.)

If you wish to submit a proposal yourself to present at the conference, here is the link (the deadline is December 30th, 2019). The summit is also looking for volunteers; here is the link to apply if you want to help out.

A List of Christmas Events in the Various Social VR/Virtual Worlds

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

This is a list of the various Christmas events which are taking place this holiday season on the various social VR platforms and virtual worlds I cover on this blog. If you have an event that I have missed, please let me know and I will update this listing, thanks!

Sinespace

Sinespace has a Winter Festival with events running every day from Dec. 21st, straight through until New Year’s Eve! Here’s the complete schedule. (And don’t forget to take advantage of one month of free Premium membership!)

Second Life

As usual, there is so much happening in Second Life around Christmastime that it is impossible to compile a full list!

  • Your best bet is to check the Events listing under Search; you can do a keyword search, or select events using the drop-down category menu in the upper right-hand corner of the Events window in Firestorm (for example, “Live Music” to catch a live performer’s show).
  • The official Second Life Destination Guide lists eight pages worth of winter attractions to visit.
  • The Seraphim website has a list of fairs and events that you might want to check out.
  • Among many other club events happening throughout Second Life over the holidays, Bryce Sun is DJing on Christmas Day at the FMD Club, which bills itself “the premiere destination for Second Life’s sexiest and most fashionable residents”.

Sansar

On Dec. 21st, Solas and Drax will host a special holiday edition of Harvest Hopping (the long-running Sansar worlds exploration event formerly known as Atlas Hopping). All are welcome!

And on Dec. 27th, there will be a Christmas Community Campfire at Witchy’s Winter, hosted by Beverly Zauberflote:

Please check the Sansar Events page for more details on these and other events during this holiday season.

AltspaceVR

Check the AltspaceVR Events Listing for all the news on what’s going on, including four separate VR Church Christmas services on Dec. 22nd: one at a time zone for Australians, a second at a time zone for Europeans, and two back-to-back services for North Americans.

VRChat

The best place to find out what Christmas events are happening in the busy world of VRChat is the VRChat Events website, with an online calendar of events, and a link to join the VRChat Events Discord server.

Also, there is a brand new Winter category in the Worlds menu in VRChat, with places for you to explore!

VRChat is also home to the annual New Years Times Square, where you could run into just about anybody! It is described as a developer-made world with hundreds of posters from the VRChat community.

My source, Fionna, also tells me:

I will be hosting an event for the world builder community on New Year’s Eve as well, featuring a world made by Sentinel, which is a gorgeous Art Deco lounge.

NeosVR

Medra, an organizer of the NeosVR Creator Jam series of events in NeosVR, posted:

The holidays are almost upon us and the 30th Creator Jam…so it’s time for:

Creator Jam 30: 3rd Megajam & Winter Holiday Party

Sunday December 22nd
Starts at 2 p.m. EST(11 a.m. PST/19:00 UTC).

As an anniversary and Holiday celebration come hang out exchanging gifts, dressing up, and voting on Christmas trees. This will be a party and Swap Meet. NeosVR is wonderful for people unloading their inventories. What a better way to be in the spirit of giving than for people to share what they have or made. If you have a cool avatar, share it! If you have a cool gadget, please share. Pack neat Logix snippets in adult beverages or prezzies. We will be be exploring all the previous nine Creator Jam worlds in a livestream with Nexulan.

Secret Santa gift exchange will be held during this party at 2:30 p.m. EST (11:30 a.m. PST/19:30 UTC) Even if you aren’t a part of the Secret Santa gift exchange feel free to give gifts to specific people or everyone.

Everyone is welcome. I look forward to seeing all!

Somnium Space

Somnium Space is simultaneously saying goodbye both to 2019 and to the first version of their Steam client, with a Farewell Party on Dec. 30th with special guests Vivian Chazen (the host of The Hive VR) and musical artist Luke Reynolds: