Editorial: See You in September

It wasn’t until I was relaxing on my sofa this evening, reading through my Twitter feed, that I came across this tweet and I realized: my blog is three years old today.

On July 31st, 2017, I started what was then called the Sansar Newsblog, launched the same day that the doors of Sansar opened to the general public. Obviously, I have somewhat mixed feelings about Sansar at this point.

I wish the Sansar project well, but I no longer feel very attached to, or engaged by, the platform. Perhaps that’s a good and necessary thing: I learned that it’s not wise to get too emotionally attached to any platform, no matter how much initial promise it shows.

So it’s a very good time for me to take a break, pause, and reflect on my journey of the past three years. I know that I have said that I will be extending my self-imposed vacation from the RyanSchultz.com blog, but this time around, I am firm in my resolve to step away. I am feeling jaded, cynical, a bit overwhelmed, and weary.

And, as I have said before, I will be needing to work extra hours (including evenings and weekends) on various projects at my full-time paying job with my university library system, all of which require my time, attention, and energy. I regret that I will not have any time to devote to blogging over the next month.

So this will be my last blogpost until September 1st, 2020. I am taking the entire month of August completely off: absolutely ZERO blogging about virtual reality, or any virtual world or social VR platform. Nothing.

Of course, I still plan to visit and explore various virtual worlds and social VR platforms in my month off; I just won’t be writing about them.

I apologize if I sound bitter. I’m just tired. I hope that all of you reading this understand that I am dead tired. I desperately need to recharge my batteries. I have written 1,979 blogposts in three years, which is one hell of a lot by any standard, and the circumstances feel right to me to take the next month off—completely off, not sorta-kinda-off.

See you in September!


I Will Be Extending My Vacation from the RyanSchultz.com Blog Until the End of August

Photo by Mohamed Ajufaan on Unsplash

Two things have happened since I first announced that I was taking a vacation from this blog in mid-June:

  • I have discovered that I am bone tired, which is not too surprising, since I have kept up such a blistering pace, writing nearly 2,000 blogposts since I started this blog three years ago. I need a longer than expected break to recharge.
  • I have several heavier-than-usual demands being placed upon me by my full-time librarian job with the University of Manitoba Libraries, which necessitates me working overtime (evenings and weekends) to meet deadlines.

Between these two developments, I have decided to extend my self-imposed vacation from the RyanSchultz.com blog by another month, until the end of August, 2020. I will be back September 1st, 2020.

What that means is, I will only be posting sponsored blogposts for Sinespace and my other clients, plus the occasional exception (particularly if it is a breaking news story). If you are a company interesting in discussing sponsored blogposts for your product or platform, please contact me. My standard rate for sponsored blogposts is US$50 per post. You may also wish to consider purchasing advertising space on my blog, starting as low as US$10 per month for a one-year plan.

Enjoy your summer!

Photo by Simon Migaj on Unsplash

UPDATED: AltspaceVR (Finally) Has New Avatars!

Please note that I am taking the entire month of July off as a self-imposed vacation from the blog so I can focus on my other work, except for sponsored blogposts, plus occasional breaking news such as this. See you in August!

The ever-reliable members of the RyanSchultz.com Discord (my eyes and ears to the multiverse and its happenings!) informed me that, as of 9:00 a.m. Eastern time, AltspaceVR finally released their new, updated avatars, and they are definite improvement over the first-generation avatars. Michael Zhang shared a picture with us of his AltspaceVR avatar’s transformation from one year to the next:

Michael Zhang (upper left) and three pictures showing how his AltspaceVR avatar has changed from year to year (source: Michael Zhang)

So, I went into AltspaceVR today to check out the new avatars. But, before I talk about the avatar update, I wanted to share with you a few user interface problems I encountered.

One of the things that I do find rather irritating about AltspaceVR is that there seems to be no easy way to switch from VR mode to flatscreen mode. I have uninstalled and reinstalled the client software, and if you already have a VR headset set up (like my Oculus Rift), then the VR client is automatically loaded, and I cannot seem to find any switch that will allow me to switch back and forth between flatscreen and VR modes (the best example of this ability is Sansar, which seamlessly switches back and forth between VR and flatscreen mode when I put on and take off my Rift, including changing the audio and microphone locations).

Why is this so important? Well, it’s important to me because I find it far easier to take screenshots from a flatscreen display.

Even more irritating, you cannot use the built-in camera tool to take any pictures of the new avatar customization tools; the camera disappears completely when you load up the main menu where the customization features are found.

In the end, I was forced to take off my Rift, hold it aloft, very precisely, with one hand so that the internal sensor is blocked (so it thinks it’s still on my head), pivot it so that whatever image I want to take a screenshot of is centred on my desktop monitor (which mirrors what I see looking forward in the headset), and then hit the PrintScreen key with my other hand, to capture the screenshot using SnagIt.

It is a futzy workaround and it is a MAJOR. PAIN. IN. THE. ASS. whenever I want to demonstrate something in the AltspaceVR interface. Why you making this blogger’s job harder, Altspace?!??

UPDATE July 16th, 2020: I have been informed by Michael Zhang that the easiest option to switch from VR to 2D is simply to unplug the VR headset’s USB-C or the HDMI cable from your computer, and it will by default switch to flatscreen mode. Thank you for this tip, Michael!

Also, despite my best efforts, the in-world camera automatically takes selfies, and I could not figure out how to turn the camera around to take pictures of what I was seeing! (I’m sure there exists a way, but I couldn’t figure it out, and a quick Google search didn’t help me, either. In this instance, I assume the problem is with me, and not with the client. But if the AltspaceVR in-world camera only takes selfie shots, then that’s yet another criticism I have about the platform.)

UPDATE July 16th, 2020: It would appear that AltspaceVR is aware of the new bugs in the in-world camera tool:

Hey everyone!

Thanks very much for all of the feedback about the changes to the camera. We understand that this is a useful tool and our team is currently investigating options and working on a fix. To shed some additional light on the change: the PC-only camera code stopped working when we introduced some changes to the way we draw your first-person avatar. The same bug is affecting the JimmyCam, as well, causing you to look headless when you look at yourself!

We’ll continue to investigate options, and are currently working on a hotfix that will enable you to take front-facing photos.

In the meantime, the selfie camera and the screenshot tool are still available for use. (Remember, in 2D mode on your PC you can hide the menu UI by typing Ctrl+Alt+P; and on Windows 10 you can take screenshots easily with the windows key+print screen.) To view, download, and share your photos log into your account at altvr.com and go to the “Photos” tab.

Thanks again for sharing your thoughts with our team!

Anyway, back to the main topic of this blogpost: the new AltspaceVR avatars.

Here is what my new, default avatar looked like before I started working on him, taken with the previously-mentioned selfie camera (I assume that this was a randomly-generated starter avatar look):

And here is what I came up with, after spending about ten minutes of fiddling with all the options. He looks a lot more like the real-life me (but he’s still too thin):

Yes, the new avatars are much more customizable than the old ones. No, they still do not have arms or legs, probably to avoid dealing with IK (inverse kinematics) issues.

I went through all the various avatar customization options and I must confess that I am a bit disappointed. The good news is that there are so many different kinds of eyes and hair styles and skin colours and hair colours/dyes to choose from! But only six types of noses, all of which are on the small side? Only three jaw shapes to choose from? Only two styles of mouths, one obviously male and one obviously female? While what’s there allows you to get pretty creative, and it’s a definite improvement over the old system, I still think that there are too many restrictions on what you can do. (If you want to be a furry, you are definitely out of luck, although a green space alien is possible, as long as she or he is humanoid.)

I know that one of the goals the AltspaceVR avatar redesign team was aiming for was for all the avatars to have a somewhat consistent look to them, while allowing for personal variations in looks, skin tones, hairstyles, and clothing (no need to worry about shoes, since there are no feet). Also, they obviously did not want to have higher-poly user avatars that would make the rendering of AltspaceVR more difficult on lower-powered devices such as the wireless Oculus Go and Oculus Quest. And in both of these goals, I feel that the Altspace team succeeded; this was a definite (and very welcome) upgrade.

A look at the new AltspaceVR avatars (source: Twitter)
A gathering of the new avatars in the #GetSocial world (source: Twitter)

In summary, I think most AltspaceVR users will be happy with this upgrade. And it addresses one of my pet peeves about the platform to date: the old, low-poly, dreadfully cartoony avatars are now banished. Hallelujah!

KiraListens: A Professional Active Listening Service in Second Life

While Second Life is best known as an open-ended virtual world where people can do and be whoever (or whatever) they wish, socialize, and play games, it also has a more serious side (an example of this is the Survivors of Suicide support group).

I have been honest and up-front about my lifelong battles with clinical depression on this blog (and how I believe virtual reality helped me recover from a serious bout of depression). And I’m doing my small part to help fight the negative societal stigma against mental health problems, by sharing my personal story. If doing so helps one other person who may be struggling (and believe me, during this coronavirus pandemic, a lot of people are struggling), then it’s worth it.

Sometimes it helps to have someone to talk to.
(Photo by Fernando @cferdo on Unsplash)

Over the past four months, on the recommendation of a friend I had made in the social VR/virtual worlds community whose judgement I trust, I have been having weekly hour-long sessions with Kira (her full avatar name is KiraListens Resident), who is a professional active listener and peer support specialist, and who also has past experience as a crisis hotline volunteer. We meet in my private Linden Home in Second Life, using voice chat (I have set my parcel so that nobody can listen in from outside, and restricted access to me, my various alts, and Kira, to ensure that we have privacy.)

PLEASE NOTE: KiraListens offers a professional active listening service. THIS IS *NOT* A ROLE-PLAY SERVICE, AND IT IS MOST CERTAINLY *NOT* A SEXUAL ROLE-PLAY SERVICE. It is intended for people who may need someone to talk to about their real-life issues in a confidential, uninterrupted, judgement-free setting.

I look at these weekly sessions as an additional tool in my fight against against my chronic clinical depression (in addition to biweekly talk therapy with the psychiatrist who prescribes my antidepressant medication). Kira is a empathetic, active listener and sounding board, to whom I can talk about anything that happened that week in real life, and bring up any problems, issues, or feelings I am currently dealing with.

Kira and I during one of our sessions (I am in my Vanity Fair avatar, on the right)
Kira’s profile picture

On her website, KiraListens.com, Kira provides information on her background and experience:

I grew up being the friend people called when they needed to talk.

While in college, I volunteered at a crisis hotline for youth. It was such an amazing experience and set the stage for what I wanted to do with my life. I’ve also needed support from friends, counselors, and other listeners and can vouch for its effectiveness.

In 2018, I became a Certified Peer Support Specialist. While I’m not currently acting as a PSS, my certification is up to date. As a PSS, I provided trauma informed care, active/reflective listening, emotional processing, and practice with coping skills. Working with individuals on a personal level brings me happiness. It feels right, even on the rough days.

She also explains what her professional listening service offers to you:

In a listening session, you will receive judgment-free emotional support and positive regard. This is an hour dedicated to you in which you can talk about anything you need to. Everything you share is confidential.

Sessions with Kira Listens provide you with a choice. Because sessions are virtual, you don’t have to leave your home or office. You can also choose the mode of communication that works best for you. I offer sessions through IM, voice calls, and video chat.

Her SL profile states:

I’m here to get to know people and offer a listening service. A listening service is like therapy and should feel like talking to a good friend. It provides confidential, judgment-free, active listening and emotional support. IM me for more info.

To get a discount for yourself or a gift for your friends, check out my gift certificates here: http://kiralistens.com/gc/

Not looking for romantic or sexual relationships, but always open to friendship and conversation.

According to her website:

Active listening means giving your full attention and listening with all your senses.

Active listening is:
■ A consicous act
■ Purposeful
■ Compassionate
■ Patient
■ Without judgment
■ Something we all need
■ Supportive
■ Accepting
■ Something you will find here

Why talk to me?

No fear of judgments or repercussions
You’re in control.
You decide how you want to communicate.
It’s your time, uninterrupted.

Kira also spells out the terms and conditions of her professional listening service. This is not, by any means, a role-play experience, and it is most certainly not sexual role-play!

This service is not a substitute for licensed practitioners. It does not replace care from a clinical mental health professional or therapist. It is not a crisis intervention service. Under some circumstances, callers will be advised to end a session and call their local police or emergency number. Circumstances include:

Threats towards another person or yourself
Mental health crises

Lastly, if a caller is rude or threatening, the call will be ended. Refunds are not available in these cases. However, if I am unable to make it to a scheduled session, you will receive notice ASAP and a full refund. If you need to cancel your session, please let me know as soon as you can. Sessions canceled short notice (less than 24 hours in advance) are not eligible for refunds.

Kira has now decided to hang up her shingle and offer her services in Second Life, to test the waters. Having been Kira’s client for several months, I can vouch for her. She’s the real deal.

I have found this service to be helpful to me as I endeavour to work from home for my university library system, in self-isolation in my apartment during the coronavirus pandemic, scrupulously practicing social distancing in order to stay healthy. My underlying health conditions (obesity, hypertension, asthma, and type II diabetes, which, of course, are all interrelated) put me at much higher risk for a severe, possibly even fatal, case of COVID-19 if I should become infected with this novel coronavirus. This makes Second Life the perfect venue for Kira’s service, as I do not have to leave my apartment to talk with her. All I have to do is log into SL.

And, as a bonus, I can also talk with Kira about my (mis)adventures in social VR and virtual worlds as part of my real life experience, without having to spend half an hour providing background and context! I talk about things that have happened as a result of a blogpost I have written, for example, or a conflict I might have with someone on my own (or somebody else’s) Discord server. Kira gets it, because she has some experience with virtual worlds herself, as well as her background and experience as an active listener, a crisis hotline volunteer, and a certified peer support specialist.

In our weekly discussions, Kira and I have also talked a bit about the rich and vibrant culture of Second Life, informed by my fourteen years of experiences on the platform (what I jokingly call “my Ph.D. in Virtual Worlds from the University of Second Life”). And, of course, we have talked about real life versus Second Life, what it means to have an avatar, and how some people choose to hide behind that avatar representation, and use SL exclusively as a fantasy, role-play experience (hence my red-box warning above). I repeat, THIS IS NOT A ROLE-PLAY SERVICE.

For more information about this new service, you can contact KiraListens Resident in-world, or send her an email at KiraListens [at] gmail [dot] com, or visit her website, KiraListens.com. You can also join Kira’s new Discord community.