Editorial: Upon Reflection…

Taking a much-needed break from blogging has given me an opportunity to reflect a bit on my journey over the past three years, and ponder where I might go from here.

Photo by Joshua Earle on Unsplash

Frankly, I never expected to become a journalist covering the ever-evolving metaverse, with a growing audience; this blog started off as a tiny little niche blog, where I wrote about my (mis)adventures and explorations in Sansar. And everything that happened after that—writing about more and more social VR platforms, hosting the Metaverse Newscast show, focusing on freebies in my beloved Second Life—just kind of happened organically. I didn’t have any sort of plan; I just made choices along the way that led to this point.

But for me, the seeds for this journey were first planted in Second Life 14 years ago, which since its earliest days has been this strange and marvelous phoenix that keeps rising from the ashes, again and again, confounding and bewildering many casual observers who continue to predict (wrongly) its failure. Even a cursory glance at the official Second Life Community News feed (curated by the highly capable Strawberry Linden) reveals the absolute torrent of creativity that the platform has provided to so many people. Second Life is not going anywhere, honey.

Source: My Dark Fantasy

SL is a fully-evolved, vibrant, mature virtual world which has become the model which other metaverse companies have spent countless programming hours and (in some cases) millions of dollars to try and recreate, with varying degrees of success.

I think that the ones that have been the most successful (so far) are NeosVR, ENGAGE, AltspaceVR, VRChat, Rec Room and, somewhat to my surprise, three blockchain-based worlds: Cryptovoxels, Decentraland, and Somnium Space. And there are many other platforms slowly but surely building up their business, taking advantage of the unexpected opportunities presented by the coronavirus pandemic (one example is Sinespace, a company which is patiently and cannily playing the long game, and which is extremely well-poised to snatch Second Life’s mantle, if and when it is ever dropped).


And, during my break, I have been also thinking a lot about Facebook/Oculus and their impact on virtual reality in general, and social VR in particular. I have decided that, despite my new, personal boycott of Facebook products and services, I will continue to write about their upcoming social VR platform, Facebook Horizon, as it launches in public beta, probably before the end of this year.

I, like many other people, now absolutely refuse to have a Facebook account as a matter of moral principle. In August of 2019 I wrote (and yes, it bears repeating at length here):

In this evolving metaverse of social VR and virtual worlds, is too much power concentrated in the hands of a single, monolithic, profit-obsessed company? I would argue that Facebook is aiming for complete and utter domination of the VR universe, just as they already have in the social networking space, by creating a walled ecosystem…that will have a negative impact on other companies trying to create and market VR apps and experiences. The field is already tilted too much in Facebook’s favour, and the situation could get worse.

More concerning to me is that, at some point, I may be forced to get an account on the Facebook social network to use apps on my Oculus VR hardware. In fact, this has already happened with the events app Oculus Venues, which I recently discovered requires you to have an account on the Facebook social network to access.

Sorry, but after all the Facebook privacy scandals of the past couple of years, that’s a big, fat “Nope!” from me. I asked Facebook to delete its 13 years of user data on me, and I quit the social network in protest as my New Year’s resolution last December, and I am never coming back. And I am quite sure that many of Facebook’s original users feel exactly the same way, scaling back on their use of the platform or, like me, opting out completely. I regret I ever started using Facebook thirteen years ago, and that experience will inform my use (and avoidance) of other social networks in the future.

Yes, I do know that I have to have an Oculus account to be able to use my Oculus Rift and Oculus Quest VR headsets, and that Facebook is collecting data on that. I also know that the Facebook social network probably has a “shadow account” on me based on things such as images uploaded to the social network and tagged with my name by friends and family, etc., but I am going to assume that Facebook has indeed done what I have asked and removed my data from their social network. Frankly, there is no way for me to actually VERIFY this, as consumers in Canada and the U.S. have zero rights over the data companies like Facebook collects about them, as was vividly brought to life by Dr. David Carroll, whose dogged search for answers to how his personal data was misused in the Cambridge Analytica scandal played a focal role in the Netflix documentary The Great Hack (which I highly recommend you watch).

We’ve already seen how social networks such as Facebook have contributed negatively to society by contributing to the polarization and radicalization of people’s political opinions, and giving a platform to groups such as white supremacists and anti-vaxersThe Great Hack details how Cambridge Analytica used Facebook data without user knowledge or consent to swing the most recent U.S. election in Donald Trump’s favour, and look at the f***ing mess the world is in now just because of that one single, pivotal event.

We can’t trust that Facebook is going to act in any interests other than its own profit. Facebook has way too much power, and governments around the world need to act in the best interests of their citizens in demanding that the company be regulated, even broken up if necessary.

Of course, Facebook is well within its corporate rights to insist that, henceforth, Oculus Go, Quest, and Rift users have to use Facebook accounts. Just as I am well within my rights to avoid providing another smidgen of personal data for Facebook to strip-mine for profit. It will be very interesting to see how more the consumer-privacy-oriented First World countries (such as Canada, and those countries within the European Union) will respond to the Facebook juggernaut.

I also have absolutely zero doubt that Facebook will continue to use every single lawyer, lobbyist, tool and tactic at its disposal to fight to maintain its market dominance, even as the Facebook social network continues to foster divisiveness, bleed users and lose advertisers. Believe me, Facebook would not have taken the unprecedented step of forcing Oculus device users to set up Facebook accounts if they weren’t afraid of losing the younger generations of users who have, thus far, resisted joining the social network their parents and grandparents belong to. (Of course, most of them are already on Instagram, which is owned by Facebook.)

It is relatively easy to bypass the tethered Oculus Rift VR headset and its associated Oculus Store ecosystem with competing PCVR products and services (such as the Vive headsets, the Valve Index and Steam). However, it is difficult—frankly impossible at present—to find a non-Facebook alternative to the standalone Oculus Quest VR headset. I have no doubt that the market will throw up a few capable competitors to the Quest over time, but Facebook has built up a huge lead, and it will be very difficult to unseat from its dominance in that particular market segment.


So, as you can see, I have been doing quite a bit of thinking while I have hit the pause button on this blog. I will continue to spend the rest of my summer on my self-imposed vacation from this blog, and no doubt I will have other thoughts, insights and opinions to share with you when I return, hopefully feeling more refreshed.

I feel that with this blog, after a few stumbles and setbacks, I have finally found my voice, and you will continue to hear it over the next three years, and probably far beyond that! Enjoy the rest of your summer! I will be back in September.

Photo by Jason Rosewell on Unsplash

Editorial: Why Conferences Held in AltspaceVR and VirBELA Have Been So Successful—And What Lessons Other Social VR Platforms and Virtual Worlds Can Learn from Their Success

Please note that I am taking a vacation from the blog for the next two to three weeks, except for sponsored blogposts (and the occasional editorial such as this).


The coronavirus pandemic has led to the cancellation of hundreds of real-life conferences, and led to a surge in business for platforms catering to virtual conferences, such as VirBELA and AltspaceVR (Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash).

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?

  1. 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.
  2. Broader Device Support: VirBELA offers both Windows and Mac clients, and their Intercom Apps are compatible with iPhone, iPad, and even iPod touch! And AltspaceVR boasts support for a wide array of devices: when I last compiled my comparison chart of 16 social VR platforms last November, the list included Oculus Rift, Oculus Quest, Oculus Go, HTC Vive, Valve Index, Windows MR, Gear VR, and Google Daydream (please see the image below, taken from their website).
  3. 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.).
  4. 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).

In March 2018, I wrote an earlier blogpost about simultaneous avatar capacity per region in various virtual worlds here (this information is now probably out of date, though). VirBELA’s and AltspaceVR’s low-poly avatars make it much easier to gather a larger crowd at events in a single region than the beautiful but high-poly, poorly-optimized mesh avatars of Second Life. Sinespace’s Breakroom offers users the choice of dressable, higher-poly avatars or one-piece, non-customizable lower-poly avatars, which I presume will render better.

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.

Third: If you expect to attract the conferences, you will need to offer the features that conference organizers are looking for. Breakroom is an example of a product which offers a wide variety of features targeted to business, education, and conference customers. There is nothing worse than to try a jerry-rig workarounds for the limitations of a platform, trust me.

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).

For example, the Lost World Global Music Festivals two-day event (which has the great misfortune to be scheduled the exact same weekend as the Lost Horizon event), is having some trouble getting the word out, and frankly, Wookey-owned Sansar should be providing assistance in both promotion and technical support of events held on their platform, instead of relying on unpaid and overworked volunteers (I would hope that at least someone at Wookey is tasked with tech support if something goes wrong that weekend, but I suspect that the company’s entire focus will be on the Lost Horison festival, instead of the competing Lost World event).

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.

For example, ENGAGE has landed lucrative business with HTC (including a partnership as part of the Vive XR Suite) as a direct result of the successful HTC Vive Ecosystem virtual conference held on that platform in March this year. Sinespace also seems to be well-attuned to the needs of the business and conference market with their new Breakroom product (and, of course, their support for white-label corporate and conference use of their flagship Sinespace product).

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.

Meditation and Mindfulness in Social VR and Virtual Worlds

Photo by Simon Rae on Unsplash

We live in a crazy world—which the coronavirus pandemic has made even crazier. People who are struggling with self-isolation, lockdowns and quarantines are seeking some peace, and some are turning to social VR platforms and virtual worlds as places to practice meditation and mindfulness, and to connect with like-minded souls, at a time when social distancing makes group practices in the real world difficult.

Please note that I will not be covering solo, standalone VR meditation apps like Guided Meditation VR and Nature Treks VR, since that is a separate category from the more open-ended social VR platforms and virtual worlds I write about on this blog. (By the way, I use and recommend both programs highly for meditation.)

AltspaceVR and EvolVR

EvolVR was founded by Rev. Jeremy Nickel, an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister, and calls itself “the world’s first VR Spiritual Community”. According to the FAQ on their website:

Why Meditate in Virtual Reality?

Meditation can be beneficial alone or with others.  VR is a convenient way to meditate with others. Social Meditation has a long history and is part of the foundation of the monastic experience.  Meditation can be practiced by individuals at any time.  In fact, we are ultimately meant to be living each moment mindfully, which means meditatively.  Meditating with other people can act as an amplifier that can help strengthen our own practice.

How Can I Meditate with a Brick on My Head?

We often use the breath as an object of meditation.  The VR headset is just another distraction.There is always something that’s not supposed to be going on when we meditate, like a bad back or a bad day or a bad relationship. The practice of meditation teaches us to manage our attention, to help us put it where we want it to be.  So a VR headset is just another itch to be noticed.

It is a program which I believe had its start in Sansar, based on the following short promotional video, but it has since moved over to AltspaceVR:

EvolVR hosts one or two guided meditations every day, as well as daily group discussion circles on various topics (here is their calendar of upcoming events). They also have a Discord server you can join, with a little over a hundred members.

ENGAGE and MindWise VR

The ENGAGE educational social VR platform has been home to mindfulness workshops hosted by Caitlin Krause, which I have heard good reports about:

This has evolved into MindWise VR, which appears to be hosting regularly scheduled workshops, including an event on May 16th, 2020 (more info from her website):

Sansar

There is certainly no shortage of worlds in which to practice meditation and mindfulness in Sansar, just do a search on “meditation” in the Sansar Atlas (you can also try searching the Sansar Atlas using the term “mindfulness”, for even more suggestions of places):

Meditation Spaces in Sansar

In this case, especially if you prefer solo to group meditation, the fact that Sansar is not as popular as other social VR platforms, such as VRChat and AltspaceVR, means you can probably snag a semiprivate space to practice meditation and mindfulness on your own without too much trouble. Also, Sansar’s frankly gorgeous graphics and advanced lighting model mean that some truly beautiful, evocative, and mood-enhancing virtual environments are available for you to use for your practice.

Sansar Studios’ Zen Garden

Of particular note is the Meditation Station, created by DisneyHuntress, which offers links to five different meditation spaces, including a yoga studio, a forest, a labyrinth, a group meditation room, and even an ecstatic dance space to give your full-body tracking a workout!

Second Life

We end with the venerable, long-running virtual world of Second Life, which is home to so many virtual spaces devoted to meditation and mindfulness, some of which have been in operation for many years. So I trotted out my shaman avatar (because, OF COURSE, I have a role-playing alt who is a shaman!), and I set out to visit a few of them on a field trip.

My shaman avatar at Commune Utopia
(shaman robe from Spyralle)

Divine Mother has been around just about forever (since 2007), and the four-sim region features a healing pyramid, chakra meditation pillows, belly dancing, a pagoda for tai chi, an inspiration garden (with guided light meditation in English, French, Italian, Dutch and German), a dance floor featuring Bollywood music, a multi-story shopping mall with Indian fashions, a glass labyrinth, a marina, and even an international airport (?!). Handy teleporter panels whisk you away to dozens of meditation spots scattered all around the landscape.

The Buddhist Centre at Divine Mother

Free Spirit Farms is the hippie/bohemian commune you never knew you needed! If you join their free group, the owners even let you set your home location to this sim (which comes in handy sometimes). On the grounds is a campground, cottages to rent, a large rustic lodge, and game tables, all located in a beautifully landscaped, park-like environment and set to a groovy Sixties soundtrack. Free Spirit Farms offers a couple of live performers every Monday evening at 7:00 and 8:00 p.m. SLT.

Gather ’round the campfire at Free Spirit Farms

You are spoiled for choice at Shambhala Sanctuary! Teleporters at the spawn point take you to (among many other places):

  • a chakra pavilion
  • an underwater sanctuary
  • a healing pool
  • a poetry barge
  • a spot where you can play the game Go
  • DreamLand, where you travel down the wishing well to a charming seaside community and boardwalk
DreamLand at Shambhala Sanctuary

The sanctuary building itself helpfully offers a wall with information (and SLURLs) about many other meditation and mindfulness sims and communities in Second Life:

Among these places are:

So, as you can see, there is lots to see, do, explore, and experience in SL! Peace out, man. Om shanti shanti shanti…

Photo by Zoltan Tasi on Unsplash

I Will Be Giving a Presentation on Social VR at the Virtual Germany Meetup in ENGAGE on April 28th, 2020

Mark your calendars! I have been invited to give a presentation to a Germany-wide VR Meetup in ENGAGE on Tuesday, April 28th, 20:00 CET (11:00 a.m. PST). The event is called Virtual Germany, and it is described as:

In cooperation with the VR communities from Berlin, Bremen, Cologne, Erfurt, Frankfurt, Hamburg, Hannover, Leipzig and Munich, we are planning the first virtual VR and AR Meetup in Germany.

Look forward to exciting lectures on the topic of social VR and various guests from all over Germany and around the world.

One of the many people involved with Virtual Germany is the illustrious XaosPrincess, who is well-known for her work in High Fidelity, and whom I have written about before here, here, and here. She tells me:

“Virtual Germany” is organized as democratic collaboration of many German real-life Meetup groups (most of Germany’s states are represented). Our host in ENGAGE is Rolf Kruse, while the whole organization is a combined effort.

The topic of my 20-minute presentation is “Overview of the Most Important Social VR Platforms”. The talk will be in English. (I do speak German, but I do not consider myself fluent in the language.)

This will be a semi-public, RSVP event in ENGAGE, which will be advertised in each separate German VR Meetup group. Xaos tells me:

The attendees will be asked to register with the ENGAGE event to be admitted (and to give us an overview on the numbers we can expect – probably/hopefully 100+ visitors minimum). We’re still preparing the final ENGAGE event link and will post it as soon as possible 🙂

We’re going to have four rooms:
– One main room with live talks and presentations (Moon)
– Two backup rooms for additional visitors with live YouTube-Streams of the talks in the main room (Mars & Earth)
– One chill and networking room without any streams (a high rise apartment)

The talks will also be streamed live on YouTube.

If you do not have the ENGAGE software yet, you can download and install it for free here. ENGAGE works on desktop or laptop computers running Windows 10 and a wide variety of VR headsets (here’s a list of supported devices). When there is an event listing on the ENGAGE events calendar, I will update this blogpost with a link to that.

See you on April 28th! I am quite looking forward to this.