I am the founder of the virtual civilization Second Life, populated by one million active users, and am now CEO and co-founder of High Fidelity — which has just released a real-time spatial audio API for apps, games, and websites. If you want to check it out, I’d love to hear what you think: highfidelity.com/api
High Fidelity’s Spatial Audio was initially built for our VR platform — we have been obsessive about audio quality from day one, spending our resources lowering latency and nailing spatialization.
Ask me about immersive spatial audio, VR, virtual worlds and spaces, avatars, and … anything.
It’s 2:00 a.m. and I have an absolutely wicked case of insomnia, so I decided to write up most of this blopost in the wee small hours of the morning, and answer the questions I received in my Ask Me Anything (AMA) blogpost.
You might find it interesting to see my recent daily blog statistics from WordPress. As you can see, there has been a slow but significant increase in my blog views and visitors within the past two weeks:
In the old days, last year, if I got over 500 views per day, I was quite happy. Now I am regularly getting over 500 views by noon, and well over 1,000 views per day! In the past week, I have even hit 1,200 views per day several times. The overwhelming majority of that traffic is my Second Life content, particularly my coverage of Second Life steals, deals, and freebies.
Despite this level of activity, you are still a rather quiet bunch: I only received three questions!
Andrew Heath asks me:
What features do you think Facebook needs to add to Facebook Horizons, to make it stand out to its rivals?
Well, Facebook has lots of money to throw around at things like advertising and programming talent. Facebook has also been buying up popular VR companies like Beat Saber, and will no doubt find ways to provide exclusive access to Facebook Horizon users, shutting out competing platforms who don’t have such deep pockets.
Facebook will ruthlessly use every tool and tactic at its disposal to ensure that Facebook Horizon stands out and gets attention. Expect massive news media coverage when the social VR platform does open its doors to the general public. Until then, they will be keeping a very tight lid on the alpha testing process, with very little information released.
Another point I want to make is that Facebook is not aiming at the traditional virtual world user community (the classic example being, of course, almost 17-year-old Second Life). Facebook is aiming Horizon at their social media users, the Facebook, Messenger, Instagram, and WhatsApp crowd, an estimated audience of over six billion individual accounts, which gives the company massive leverage.
Whether they succeed at enticing these people to take the plunge into virtual reality remains to be seen, but sales of Oculus Quest in particular have been strong, despite supply chain problems due to the coronavirus pandemic. In fact, the coronavirus pandemic may give an advantage to Facebook, as millions of people around the world self-isolate at home and seek ways to interact and socialize in ways that feel more immersive than Discord, Zoom and Webex. The timing might be perfect.
However, your Facebook Horizon avatar will be clearly associated with your real-life profile, and you can bet that Facebook will advertise to you in a similar targeted fashion to what you now see in your Facebook social network feed. While this link to your real-life profile may well cut down on griefing, trolling, and harassment, it is also likely to be unappealing to many current metaverse platform users for exactly that same reason. I wrote more about it in an editorial here.
Has anybody had any commercial success with any of these ventures, other than Second Life?
Well, the only company that I know that’s generating a profit (and that’s because because I was extremely nosey, and I asked them) is ENGAGE, which seems to be doing quite well for itself in the educational social VR market. And, of course, Cryptovoxels is making enough money to enable its lead developer, Ben Nolan, to work on it full-time. The rest is a question mark. And that’s perfectly fine with me; metaverse-building companies are certainly under no obligation to tell me/us if they’re making money yet or not.
The key here seems to be: start small, grow organically and incrementally, and let things evolve and customers come to you. I do know that some social VR platforms and virtual worlds have seen an uptick in business because of the wholesale shift of things like conferences from the real world to the virtual world (in fact, one company I know is working lots of overtime dealing with all the extra business!).
From my vantage point, it seems pretty clear that the strategy of throwing years of software development work and millions of dollars of venture capital at platforms has not worked out well so far (e.g. High Fidelity, Sansar), mainly because the consumer market for virtual reality failed to ignite as predicted. However, the coronavirus pandemic is now a potential game-changer for a lot of metaverse-building companies. The longer the public health crisis lasts, and the more quarantines, lockdowns, and social distancing are imposed on restless populations, the more people will look at these platforms as a place to work, meet, rest, and play.
On the flip side, the mounting economic crisis will also cause some poorly-thought-out metaverse projects to fold due to lack of investment. I can see this happening for many of the start-ups in the blockchain-based virtual worlds, for example. Not the three front runners (Cryptovoxels, Decentraland, and Somnium Space), but the also-rans, many blockchain projects which seem to consist of nothing much more than: a white paper full of crypto-bafflegab; a .io website domain spouting senseless use cases; mystifying, vague promotional videos; and a tired Telegram group flogging a struggling ICO. Expect to see a lot of shutdowns in this market segment. Those who were lucky enough to get in at the right time might (might) make a tidy profit; the rest are doomed.
As for Sansar, I honestly fail to see how pursuing the exact same strategy that failed when they were owned by Linden Lab—a focus on live events to the exclusion of just about anything and everything else—will make the slightest bit of difference now that they are owned by Wookey, barring some miracle. I could very well be wrong; perhaps another year or two of runway, and Sansar will indeed take off in flight (my apologies for that rather mangled metaphor). But many of the world designers and builders who helped shape the early days of Sansar, and built many of their most popular worlds, now feel alienated by this pivot and have simply given up, migrating to benefit other platforms such as Sinespace. Many former Sansar users are now kicking the tires on Helios, a brand new social VR platform based on the Unreal game engine. Sansar’s loss is their gain.
Ironically, one or more of the three forks of the open-source High Fidelity code may yet take off in popularity, although there’s obviously still lots of work to do. However, there is an energy and enthusiasm I see taking place in these forks that is encouraging, and frankly infectious. I do wish these projects well, and I will follow them closely.
And finally, John has a longer comment and a question for me:
Not sure I have a question. But would very much like to say that the occasional glimpses into your ‘real self/world’ moments as opposed to the ‘virtual world’ moments/posts, are incredibly powerful and reassuring, reminding me that all of us are human, and these glimpses are what keep me coming back to your blog. They comfort me and reassure me. You are real. You are trying your best. And you help me (us) when you show us what is beyond the successful veneer of the top notch librarian/researcher. Just wanted to say thanks. Your blog is part of my morning ritual, along with the newspapers, and it is even more of a requirement now, in these difficult times. Oh yes, I might have a question. Can you keep this blog of yours going till the ol’ Internet fades?
Thank you for your kind words, John! I’m glad I can be a small part of your day.
And yes, I do plan to keep this blog going as long as I can, and I’ve even thought a bit about having it archived in some way after I pass on, to create a sort of time capsule of an interesting era in social VR and virtual worlds. I am currently in the process of creating a will and a healthcare power of attorney, still waiting to hear back from the lawyer that my financial planner recommended. (I also plan on leaving many of my Second Life avatars to other people via my will. My lawyer is going to have a field day drawing up my will!)
In the interim, especially in these precarious days of pandemic, I will be writing up a detailed document to share with my friends and family, with all my accounts and passwords, making my wishes clear in the event of my untimely death. I will not leave you hanging!
But I don’t plan on going anywhere! I am just starting to hit my stride here.