Editorial: Will Facebook Horizon Succeed If You Can’t Be Anybody But Yourself? (What Fourteen Years of Second Life Has Taught Me)

If anybody had told me, at the start of my 14-year Second Life journey, that my main avatar (the one I use the most) would be a woman, I would have laughed my damn head off. It would have never even occurred to me that I could be a woman. When I started off, I created an avatar that, more or less, looked like me, dressed like me…was me. The first two alts I created were also male (here’s an old picture of the three of them, way back in 2007, gathered around a cozy pixel campfire):

My first three SL avatars: Heath Homewood, Morden Winkler, and Notecard Writer

And yet, almost fourteen years later, here I am, Vanity Fair, wearing a slinky new ombre dress I picked up at ViSion with the free L$300 gift card available from their booth at the seasonal Shop and Hop (which ends tomorrow, by the way, so hurry down to pick up the fabulous freebies!), elegantly sipping coffee from my limited-edition Lab Gab mug (thanks, Xiola and Strawberry!) and sedately listening to the tunes at the new, upstart Frank’s Jazz Club…and dressed to kill, honey! 😉

Which got me to thinking.

Second Life has been an unparalleled opportunity for literally hundreds of thousands—even millions—of people over the past 16 years, to step outside their own skins and become somebody else for a day, a week, a month, a year…or forever.

At various times in the past, I have been (and sometimes still am):

  • a medieval lute and harp player, serenading fantasy roleplayers in drafty stone castles and at jousting tournaments
  • an urban angel with a neon halo, dressed in black from head to toe, patroling the mean streets
  • a six-year-old girl with a teddy bear, who skips everywhere she goes
  • a very prim and proper 1950s housewife (complete with pearls!)
  • a Chinese emperor—and a Chinese empress!
  • Britney Spears (“It’s Britney, bitch”)
  • Cher, surrounded by an army of animated cockroaches, belting out “If I could turn back tiiime…If I could find a waaay…” on an endless loop, as she wanders various post-apocalyptic worlds in Second Life! (Uhhhm, that would be Cher singing, not the cockroaches—although that would be pretty funny, too!)
  • a satyr
  • a stripper for cash tips (link is safe for work)
  • a fat cop who likes to hang out at donut stops
  • a plus-size female model
  • Queen Elizabeth I in full regalia
  • Elvis Presley (complete with white sequin jumpsuit, microphone and wearable spotlights!)
  • a male moon fairy—and a female fairy godmother!
  • a flaming phoenix
  • a gypsy fortune teller (complete with crystal ball)
  • a very old man in a Hugh-Hefneresque smoking jacket, puffing away contentedly on his pipe
  • a 1960s hippie chick
  • Ennis Del Mar (and Jack Twist!) from Brokeback Mountain
  • a male Na’vi warrior from Avatar
  • a Victorian parlourmaid (whom I like to stick in rather unexpected places like clubs and stores, where she busily dusts and vacuums)
  • a Johnny-Depp-lookalike pirate with a parrot on his shoulder
  • a Japanese geisha
  • Marilyn Monroe
  • a vampire
  • Mary Poppins (complete with levitating umbrella and carpetbag, she once memorably dive-bombed an S&M orgy in Second Life while staying completely in character!)
  • a Bollywood movie star
  • Michael Jackson
  • a goth girl who only wears three colours: black, white, and red
  • a mermaid
  • Paris Hilton (“the Paris Hilton of Second Life” from that long-ago CSI:NY episode)
  • an Afro-Canadian woman
  • an Indigenous/First Nations Canadian woman
  • a white-haired old woman for Caledon/steampunk/Victorian roleplay
  • Santa Claus
  • a Bavarian German man in lederhosen with a beer stein
  • a Lord of the Rings/Harry Potter wizard
  • a drag queen
  • a circus clown
  • a timberwolf
  • a large, fire-breathing dragon
  • a court jester
  • a ball-joined china doll
  • a stern Roman Catholic sister armed with a ruler to inflict God’s punishment on sinners! And sometimes, just to get a laugh, I have her being followed around by a flock of penguins…
  • and the list goes on, and on, and on…

And it makes me wonder: just how successful will the new Facebook Horizon be, if they insist that you be, essentially, your own rather boring self, linked to your personal Facebook account, and unable to throw on the guise of somebody else?

The very thought would horrify most Second Life users, who are so used to being somebody else, and hiding behind an avatar name, and often roleplaying somebody (or something) completely different from their real lives. And the same would apply to many of the newer social VR platforms, like VRChat, where everybody you meet seems to want to be an anime girl or a Disney character on the lam from their corporate lawyers.

Fourteen years of Second Life has taught me that the ability to be somebody else—walk around in someone else’s skin—can be an insightful, instructive, transformative, and even delightful experience. And I rather doubt that Facebook Horizon is going to be able to replace that, at least to start. (I mean, there’s no lower half of your body on the Horizon avatars! Think of the loss of shoe-shopping opportunities alone… 😉 )

If Facebook Horizon won’t let you be somebody else, will it still have the same appeal? Will it attract a different audience? These are good questions to ponder as we watch Facebook roll out Horizon this year.

Facebook Horizon: Friendly, yes…but what if you can’t be a fire-breathing dragon?
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Two Virtual Reality Designers Discuss Techniques and Strategies for Implementing Safer Social VR (Including an Example from the Forthcoming Facebook Horizon Platform)

Photo by Mihai Surdu on Unsplash

Back at the start of November, two VR designers, Michelle Cortese and Andrea Zeller, wrote an article for Immerse on aspects of designing safer social VR spaces. That article was recently reprinted on The Next Web news site, titled How to protect users from harassment in social VR spaces, and it’s an excellent read on the subject, which I highly recommend.

In particular, female-identifying users of social VR platforms are often the victims of sexual harassment, research conducted by Jessica Outlaw and others has shown. Michelle Cortese writes:

As female designers working in VR, my co-worker Andrea Zeller and I decided to join forces on our own time and write a comprehensive paper. We wrote about the potential threat of virtual harassment, instructing readers on how to use body sovereignty and consent ideology to design safer virtual spaces from the ground up. The text will soon become a chapter in the upcoming book: Ethics in Design and Communication: New Critical Perspectives (Bloomsbury Visual Arts: London).

After years of flagging potentially-triggering social VR interactions to male co-workers in critiques, it seemed prime time to solidify this design practice into documented research. This article is the product of our journey.

The well-known immersive aspect of virtual reality—the VR hardware and software tricking your brain into believing what it is seeing is “real”—means that when someone threatens or violates your personal space, or your virtual body, it feels real.

This is particularly worrisome as harassment on the internet is a long-running issue; from trolling in chat rooms in the ’90s to cyber-bullying on various social media platforms today. When there’s no accountability on new platforms, abuse has often followed — and the innate physicality of VR gives harassers troubling new ways to attack. The visceral quality of VR abuse can be especially triggering for survivors of violent physical assault.

Cortese and Zeller stress that safety needs to be built into our social VR environments: “Safety and inclusion need to be virtual status quo.”

The article goes into a discussion of proxemics, which I will not attempt to summarize here; I would instead strongly urge you to go to the source and read it all for yourself, as it is very clearly laid out. A lot of research has already been done in this area, which can now be applied as we build new platforms.

And one of those new social VR platforms just happens to be Facebook Horizon, a project on which both Michelle Cortese and Andrea Zeller have been working!

What I did find interesting in this report was an example the authors provided, of how this user safety research is being put to use in the Facebook Horizon social VR platform, which will be launching in closed beta early this year. Apparently, there will be a button you can press to immediately remove yourself from a situation where you do not feel comfortable:

We designed the upcoming Facebook Horizon with easy-to-access shortcuts for moments when people would need quick-action remediation in tough situations. A one-touch button can quickly remove you from a situation. You simply touch the button and you land in a space where you can take a break and access your controls to adjust your experience.

Once safely away from the harasser, you can optionally choose to mute, block, or report them to the admins while in your “safe space”:

Handy features such as these, plus Facebook’s insistence on linking your personally-identifying account on the Facebook social network to your Facebook Horizon account (thus making it very difficult to be anonymous), will probably go a long way towards making women (and other minorities such as LGBTQ folks) feel safer in Facebook Horizon.

Of course, griefers, harassers and trolls will always try to find ways around the safeguards put in place, such as setting up dummy alternative accounts (Second Life and other virtual worlds have had to deal with such problems for years). We can also expect “swatting”-type attacks, where innocent people are falsely painted as troublemakers using the legitimate reporting tools provided (something we’ve unfortunately already seen happen in a few instances in Sansar).

Some rather bitter lessons on what does and doesn’t work have been learned in the “wild, wild west” of earlier-generation virtual worlds and social VR platforms, such as the never-ending free-for-all of Second Life (and of course, the cheerful anarchy of VRChat, especially in the days before they were forced to implement their nuanced Trust and Safety System due to a tidal wave of harassment, trolling and griefing).

But I am extremely glad to see that Facebook has hired VR designers like Michelle Cortese and Andrea Zeller, and that the company is treating user safety in social VR as a non-negotiable tenet from the earliest design stages of the Horizon project, instead of scrambling to address it as an after-thought as VRChat did. More social VR platforms need to do this.

I’m quite looking forward to seeing how this all plays out in 2020! I and many other observers will be watching Facebook Horizon carefully to see how well all these new security and safety features roll out and are embraced by users.

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

Editorial: Why It’s Time to Change How I Cover Social VR and Virtual Worlds On This Blog

My blogposts about Second Life are far more popular than those about Sansar

I am only a couple of blogposts away from my next milestone on this blog: 1,500 blogposts. And it’s probably as good a time as any to calculate some quick statistics on what topics have proven to be the most popular in the two and a half years I have been blogging about (as I state in my blog’s tagline) “news and views on social VR, virtual worlds and the metaverse”.

My coverage of the various social VR platforms and virtual worlds has been quite uneven, with most of my blogging focused on three metaverse platforms to date:

  • Sansar (the reason I started this blog in the first place)
  • High Fidelity
  • Second Life (with a focus on freebies)

Of my Top 100 most viewed blogposts since I started this blog on July 31, 2017, you might be interested to learn:

  • 36 were about Second Life
  • 10 were about virtual reality in general
  • 9 were about Sansar
  • 7 were about VRChat
  • 5 were about High Fidelity
  • 4 were about Decentraland

What I find interesting is that there is absolutely no correlation between how often I cover a social VR/virtual world on my blog, and how popular those blogposts are. For example, I write about VRChat much less often than I do about Sansar, yet the VRChat posts are more popular overall. I have written less frequently about Decentraland than High Fidelity over the years, yet more people tend to visit my blogposts about Decentraland.

All this has led me to do some thinking about making changes to what I write about on this blog. In particular, I want to put more effort into covering those platforms which:

  • show consistently higher levels of usage according to publicly published statistics such as Steam, or
  • show higher levels of reader interest based on my own WordPress statistics, or
  • show reader interest based on how often they are discussed on the RyanSchultz.com Discord server.

What this means is, going forward, I will be starting to pull back on my formerly heavy coverage of both High Fidelity and Sansar. Both the concurrent usage statistics from places like Steam, and my WordPress stats, tell me that people don’t seem to be as interested in those platforms, so why am I continually writing about them? I do not kid myself that I am going to be able to convince people into visiting platforms like Sansar and High Fidelity via my blog, and frankly, it’s not my job to do their promotion for them. I should be writing more about the state of the metaverse as it currently exists, and spend less time trying to encourage people onto less popular platforms. Therefore, I think it’s time to reign in my coverage of Sansar and High Fidelity.

(As a side note, one of the first changes I see in Sansar, since last week’s announcement of a new focus on live events, is that the number of Product Meetups has been cut in half, to biweekly from weekly. Of course, if you don’t expect to have as many new features coming out in future client updates, it makes perfect sense to have fewer Product Meetups, where those features tend to be discussed. Daily Community Meetups have also been cut to Mondays and Wednesdays.)


Also, I will start paying more attention to those platforms which meet at least one of the three criteria I have mentioned earlier:

  • Second Life (which is clearly still the most popular part of my blog)
  • VRChat
  • Rec Room
  • AltspaceVR
  • Decentraland

My coverage of Second Life will now expand a little bit from the initial focus on Second Life Steals, Deals, and Freebies, in that I will be commenting more on a variety of topics relating to SL, particularly more announcements of changes to the platform by Linden Lab, and more editorials.

I will also start to write more often about other platforms which I have visited too infrequently, in an effort to even out my coverage of social VR/virtual worlds and provide a better overall picture of the evolving metaverse to my readers:

  • Sinespace
  • Somnium Space
  • Cryptovoxels
  • NeosVR
  • Mozilla Hubs

And, whether or not I am invited to participate in the closed beta early next year, I will of course be writing extensively about Facebook Horizon!

I realize that this decision might be a disappointment to both Linden Lab and High Fidelity (or, perhaps, a relief, given how I have criticized both Sansar and HiFi in the past). But I think it’s time to adjust my blog to the current market realities, much the same as the companies themselves have seen fit to make significant changes this year.