You see, it was almost exactly one year ago today that I entered into an agreement with them, where I would become an “embedded reporter” for Sinespace, and write sponsored blogposts about the people, news and events on that platform.
There are a couple of reasons for that lapse (the coronavirus pandemic, and the demands of my full-time paying job with the University of Manitoba Libraries), but part of the problem is that I have not been paying sufficient attention to the company or its products, so this is an apology, and a promise to do a better job!
I just find it ironic that I am writing much more about Second Life (when they aren’t paying me) and next to nothing about Sinespace and Breakroom (when they are!). It’s time to pull up my socks, pull my head out of SL, and focus. What started out as a tiny little hobby blog devoted to Sansar has grown and evolved over the past three years, and is turning into a business.
And if I really do intend to to follow through on my dream to become a full-time blogger and vlogger covering “News and Views on Social VR, Virtual Worlds, and the Metaverse” after I retire from the University of Manitoba Libraries, then I need to become a little more business-minded about what I do here.
My plan is to earn a side-income from my blog containing “news and views on social VR, virtual worlds, and the metaverse” (which is the tagline of my blog) when I finally do decide (hopefully, at some age before 65) to take my retirement. I already have a small but devoted following, and I want to grow that audience.
And yes, another thing I need to do is completely rethink the benefits that I do offer my Patreon supporters (another group of people to whom I owe an apology). And I want to once again, express my gratitude and appreciation for my existing patrons.
Between all of these ventures, I make a small amount of money (but you aren’t going to see me on the cover of Forbes anytime soon!). And I may tinker a bit with other ways to monetize what I do here, more often. For example, did you know that you can express your support by something as simple as buying me a coffee?
This week, I have been attending various presentations and events at the Immersive Learning Research Network’s 2020 virtual conference. Most of the sessions are taking place in a white-label* version of the virtual world VirBELA, and it would appear that this world will remain in place after the iLRN 2020 conference ends, as a meeting place for various groups of researchers.
The iLRN 2020 organizers are also using FRAME (a VirBELA project) for virtual poster sessions: smaller group gatherings around particular research topics. These poster sessions were accessible right from a browser on desktop, mobile, or even in virtual reality (more information on that can be found here).
The popular success of this conference in VirBELA (with well over 200 people in-world at any given time), plus the associated social events taking place in AltspaceVR, has got me thinking about another highly successful conference which I attended (and presented at) back in February 2020, the first-ever Educators in VR 2020 International Summit. In that case, most of the conference sessions were held in AltspaceVR, and the Educators in VR conference was really an opportunity for the platform to shine (there were also events taking place in ENGAGE, rumii, Mozilla Hubs, and Somnium Space, with livestreaming to other platforms).
What were the factors that led to such successful virtual conferences in AltspaceVR and in VirBELA?
Scalability of the Platform: In both cases, you could pack a large number of people into a shared virtual space. This was especially notable in the case of VirBELA, where the simple (but still highly customizable) avatars, coupled with many possible graphics quality settings in the client software, meant that you could have well north of a hundred avatars attending a single session without noticeable performance issues. And AltspaceVR’s cartoony avatars serve an important purpose: making the platform much easier to render on less powerful computers and devices.
Better Features: VirBELA is stuffed to the brim with useful features which make hosting a conference a breeze (e.g. the ability to quickly shift focus to one of three different presentation screens, or the podium/stage). AltspaceVR has also had a whole bunch of new features added to make holding events much easier (such as the ability to mute the audience, a raise your hand feature to ask questions, etc.).
Responsive Support: It’s very clear that, in the cases of both the Educators in VR and iLRN 2020 conferences, that the platforms were heavily involved in providing support and troubleshooting to the conference organizers. Such support, often offered in real time, is critical to the success of any virtual conference.
So, what lessons can other social VR platforms and virtual worlds learn from these successes, as they seek out new customers in the pandemic-fueled boom in virtual conferences?
First: You need to find ways to work around the technical limits in the number of people who can gather in a virtual space. For example, Sansar is absolutely gorgeous, and I could see it being used for conferences—if you could get more than 30 avatars into a single world! (However, Sansar does allow for multiple broadcast instances as a way to get around that limit.)
Second Life also has significant technical limitations on the number of avatars you can pack onto one sim before it heaves in protest (again, for major events such as the Live Stage at the SL 17th Birthday celebrations, a stage is located at the intersection of four sims to allow a larger audience).
To summarize this first point: the more users you can bring together, the better.
Second: The more devices and means of access you can support, the more likely your platform will appeal to a larger number of people. As the team developing Sansar and the old High Fidelity learned to their chagrin, betting the farm on high-powered, PC VR users was a tactical error. The majority of people attending these conferences do not have a VR headset, using desktop computers with flatscreen monitors and even in some cases mobile devices like tablets and cellphones. You need to meet the users wherever they are.
Finally: You need to provide real-time, responsive customer support. This is one area where many platforms simply fail to deliver the level of concierge support required to host conferences. For example, both of the recent Blockdown virtual crypto conferences (which were held in a special, white-label version of Sinespace) were well-staffed with Sinespace employees and volunteers to ensure that things ran smoothly. It’s a cost of doing business if you want to attract business.
If you were to hold a conference in Sansar (which you wouldn’t, because of the limitations outlined in points 1, 2, and 3 above), and if something were to go wrong, you would probably have some trouble getting the real-time support you needed from the team at Wookey (although I assume it will be an all-hands-on-deck situation for the upcoming Lost Horizon festival; Sansar simply cannot afford to fumble this opportunity to showcase their platform to the world).
In short, bare-bones customer support sends a message: you’re on your own. Corporate users such as conference organizers expect a higher standard of service, otherwise they will take their business elsewhere.
The success of platforms such as AltspaceVR and VirBELA leads to positive word of mouth among the conference attendees, who can see the potential applications, and which naturally leads to increased business opportunities; it’s a virtuous circle.
The question is: will Sansar and other social VR platforms and virtual worlds pay attention to the lessons being taught by the highly successful and popular virtual conferences held this year by a number of platforms?
*White labeling is when a product or service removes their brand and logo from the end product and instead uses the branding requested by the purchaser. Recent examples include the iLRN 2020 conference (held in a white-label version of VirBELA) and the Blockdown series of conferences (hosted in a white-label version of Sinespace). This is a feature that is attractive to corporate and conference customers, which is not offered by many social VR platforms and virtual worlds to date.
Stay-home orders and the shuttering of workplaces have given corporate employees some respite from getting dragged into time-wasting water-cooler conversations.
But some companies and their employees don’t want to leave everything about the office behind, it turns out, and are replicating their offices in “SimCity”-like simulations online.
And, among the companies that WSJ reporter Katie Deighton spoke to was Sine Wave Entertainment, the makers of Sinespace and Breakroom:
Sine Wave Entertainment Ltd. last month introduced Breakroom, a virtual-world product for remote workforces. It can accommodate all-hands meetings, secure one-on-ones and document sharing. Clients of the product include Virgin Group Ltd. and Torque Esports Corp.
Many customers initially assume they will recreate their offices, then realize they can make tweaks that would be impossible in the real world, said Sine Wave CEO Rohan Freeman.
“We spend our lives wishing we were working in open, sunny campuses with butterflies outside,” Mr. Freeman said. “Here you can realize that dream.”
Although clients can use Breakroom to create their office utopia, the platform also enables real-world elements such additional privileges for senior staff. In Sine Wave’s own virtual world, senior members can lock the boardroom, which is located on top of a hill overlooking the rest of the office.
The Wall Street Journal article is a signal that corporate America—and indeed, businesses in countries around the world—are increasingly interested in virtual worlds. As the saying goes, “A rising tide lifts all boats“. I predict that Breakroom and a host of competing YARTVRA* firms are going to see a continuing boom in interest and inquires as the coronavirus pandemic drags on.
*YARTVRA is an acronym I coined that stands for Yet Another Remote Teamwork Virtual Reality App, which I am still hoping will catch on!
This blogpost is sponsored by Sinespace, and was written in my role as an embedded reporter for this virtual world (more details here).
Sinespace has decided to branch out into an area that has seen a mini-boom in recent months: social VR platforms whose aim is to provide an immersive social hub to bring together work teams who may be scattered across different neighbourhoods, different cities, even different countries!
This is a particularly critical need, as so many employees are now working in self-isolation from their homes in an effort to stop the spread of the current coronavirus pandemic. Keeping your team connected and motivated, when pre-existing lines of communication have been shattered and shared physical spaces are no longer available, can negatively impact a company’s productivity and morale, and its bottom line. Sinespace is selling Breakroom as a way to overcome these hurdles.
The concept is to bring your work team together in your own safe, secure, branded virtual world, providing team members a private space where they can hang out, connect with peers, chat around the virtual water cooler, and feel part of the group. Some of the benefits are:
Use live events and social hangouts to create momentum and enthusiasm;
Go beyond work collaboration tools to offer a full social space where your team members can be themselves;
Help people maintain the friendships they rely on in their daily lives, even if they are physically apart;
Support employee mental health while they self-isolate with shared spaces and activities, and combat the threat of depression and other mental health issues that isolation, worry, and fear can lead to.
Among the many features offered by Breakroom are:
Open plan offices
Student common rooms
Cinema and screening rooms
Live music venues
Casual game regions and tables
Extensive avatar customization
10,000+ virtual goods for shopping and building your own worlds
Full suite of communication tools (VOIP, IM and inworld email)
Video conferencing, video sharing and conferencing tools
Media sharing and desktop sharing tools
Branded exhibition stands
Event management system
Mature APIs for integrating other enterprise applications
In-world building and scene editing
HIPAA compliant regions for one-to-one therapy sessions
Support for live events including music, cinema, pub quizzes, seminar sessions
Pricing for corporate users starts at US$500 per month for 50 seats, a fully-featured private custom branded space, with dedicated customer support. Additional seats can be purchased for only US$10 per month per seat. Bulk discounts are available; please contact the company for further details.
And Sinespace is offering Breakroom to state and public schools for free, with an unlimited number of seats! A product such as this can so easily bring students and teachers together, in an immersive, shared virtual space, in a way that Zoom and Webex simply cannot.
And, I note with interest, among the staff listing for Breakroom, Wagner is listed under the job title of Public Relations for this new venture. You gotta hand it to Wagner; he knows how to hustle for his coin! He’s one of the hardest working men in the metaverse (after, of course, the utterly inexhaustible Draxtor Despres), and no doubt offers Sinespace the wealth of his many years of experience in virtual worlds.
On Friday, May 1st, Sinespace hosted the first open house of Breakroom, to demonstrate the various features of the platform for visitors. Sinespace staff demoed Breakrooms features to support remote work and teaching, including webcam calls, a dynamic whiteboard, screensharing, and a group quiz system.
And, if you feel the need to let off some steam, why not take your work team to the racetrack?
If you missed the open house, you can catch the entire hour-and-a-half livestream here. There’s lots to see and do! Breakroom is the perfect virtual meeting spot for your work team to feel connected and energized.
To get started in Breakroom, just fill out the form at the bottom of their official website, and a representative from the company will get in touch with you. There are also downloadable demo versions of Breakroom for both Windows and MacOS users, if you want to kick the tires, test out the features, and see how Breakroom can work for your company.