Conundrums: A Talk Show in Facebook Spaces

Andrew (my producer for our upcoming news show Metaverse Newscast) has alerted me to a talk show series filmed inside Facebook Spaces, created by Slate, called Conundrums:

In Conundrums, Slate’s live talk show in virtual reality, host Lindsey Weber takes celebrity guests on a surreal trip down memory lane. Using Facebook Spaces, the company’s new VR platform, Weber travels the world with guests from inside our studio, including trips to their home countries, their favorite beaches, and sometimes, even into space.

They seem to have stopped production after only 9 episodes, the last one dated December 2017. Even though I hate Facebook Spaces as a platform,  even I have to admit that Facebook Spaces works pretty well for this talk show format.

COnundrums 9 July 2018

You can check out all nine episodes at this link.

 

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My Predictions For The Next Two Years

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Photo by Wyron A on Unsplash

I’ve been hanging around virtual worlds of one kind or another for over a decade now. I’ve seen them come and go. Some were spectacular failures that provided lessons for other companies. Others just kind of meander along, not attracting very many users or ever becoming very big (like the multitude of OpenSim-based grids).

What usually happens in today’s hyper-competitive computer applications marketplace, is that one or two players in a particular market segment get big (e.g. Microsoft, MySpace, Facebook, and yes, in its own way, Second Life), and then continue to grow like a juggernaut, based on the network effect, while the smaller players in the marketplace fight each other over the leftovers. The ones who get big are usually, but not always, the early entrants into the field (Second Life is a prime example of that, although there were notable virtual worlds which were founded before it, like ActiveWorlds).

But social VR and virtual worlds are not a zero-sum game. Many consumers are frequent visitors to a number of different metaverse platforms, and many creators build and sell products in various virtual worlds. Right now, success in one VR-capable virtual world (e.g. VRChat) generates interest in other social VR spaces. As they say, “A rising tide lifts all boats”.

It’s still not clear where all this is going, but I’m willing to polish my crystal ball and make a few predictions of what will happen over the next two year period, from now until April 2020.

What I predict will happen, over the next two years, is that one of the Big Five computer companies:

  • Alphabet/Google
  • Amazon
  • Apple
  • Facebook/Oculus*
  • Microsoft

Is either going to launch their own social VR/virtual world/metaverse product, OR is going to buy one of the Big Four metaverse-building companies:

  • High Fidelity
  • Linden Lab (Second Life and Sansar)
  • Sine Wave Entertainment (Sinespace)
  • VRChat

(We’ve already seen this happen with Microsoft’s purchase of AltspaceVR.) We could also see a company buy out a virtual world, just to grab the programming talent, and then shut the world down completely (as Yahoo! did with the promising Cloud Party).

Now, there’s no guarantee that any of the Big Four companies WANT to be bought out by the Big Five. Perhaps instead of a buyout, a strategic partnership deal will be inked. But I bet you anything that it’s tempting for the bigger companies to buy their way into the evolving metaverse marketplace, rather than design something from scratch.

I also predict that a LOT of the new virtual world/social VR startups we see popping up are going to fail over the next two years. There’s a lot of virtual-reality-related (and especially blockchain-related) hype taking place, and some people are investing in startups that are risky. Some smaller companies have jumped into grand virtual-world-building projects without realizing the sheer magnitude of the work involved in creating a fully-featured, viable metaverse. I’m afraid that some investors are going to get burned.

I also predict that Sinespace and VRChat are going to pull ahead in terms of features, simply because they decided to build on top of the popular Unity game engine, and they can use all the cool Unity development tools that are popping up. By comparison, feature development on Sansar will be slower as they continue work in-house on their own engine.

And finally, I expect that Second Life’s 15th anniversary celebrations will entice some former users to dust off their old accounts and revisit the platform to see what’s new. It may well herald a renaissance for SL! At the very least, it will help stave off a slow decline in SL’s user concurrency figures.

*Sorry, but as I have said before, Facebook Spaces is not a palatable social VR/virtual world product. It can’t even come close to competing against what High Fidelity, Second Life, Sinespace and VRChat are currently doing. But I bet you anything that Facebook has other plans up their sleeve. They can still try to leverage off their 2-billion-plus Facebook network (not to mention 800 million Instagram users) to become a potential major disruptor in the evolving metaverse marketplace. I’m not counting them out yet!

Facebook Spaces: Look, New Avatars! Ryan: Yawn.

Apparently, Facebook Spaces is rolling out a new-and-improved update to their cartoony avatars. It’s disgusting to me how even the smallest Facebook Spaces announcement gets oceans of fawning press coverage, and this latest planned update is no exception.

As I have said before, I am not a fan of social VR apps that lock you into place:

But what Sansar, High Fidelity, and VRChat offer is an opportunity to let both VR and desktop (non-VR) users connect, in three-dimensional virtual worlds that you can actually move around in. And that’s what I consider true social VR. What’s the point of using a VR headset and being in an immersive, three-dimensional environment at all, if you’re just going to be locked into one place? 

So until Facebook Spaces fixes what I consider this fundamental flaw in its platform, I don’t especially care how much they try and tart up the avatars. As The Verge reports:

Of course, we’re a far ways off from the avatars of Ready Player One. Facebook Spaces still makes you look like a goofy cartoon, and that creates a somewhat off-putting effect when those avatars move in realistic fashion as the Rift headset tracks your head and hand motions. Facebook says it’s working to make the movements feel even more natural, so perhaps that will change for the better with this update. And the realism it seems will only get better over time.

Want to see the difference between before and after? Glad you asked. Here’s a picture from VentureBeat’s coverage:

Facebook Spaces Avatars Before and After 4 Apr 2018
Facebook Spaces Avatars: Before and After

Big whoop-dee-doo.

Even with the upgrade, the humanoid avatars in Sansar and Sinespace still look much, much better than Facebook Spaces. And of course, there are no limits to the many different kinds of avatars you can create in High Fidelity and VRChat if you have the know-how. (If Second Life has taught us nothing else over its fourteen-plus years of existence, it’s that people are heavily invested in the appearance of their avatars.)

And, more to the point, all four virtual world platforms I just mentioned—Sansar, High Fidelity, Sinespace and VRChat—allow you to move around freely in a three-dimensional environment, explore, break off into separate discussion groups, and interact not only with other VR headset users, but also non-VR (desktop) users. Facebook Spaces still can’t do that. (And no, I’m not counting the ability to video call friends without VR headsets via Facebook Messenger from within Facebook Spaces. That’s just plain stupid.)

Has Facebook learned nothing from the many other companies that are putting out more fully-featured social VR platforms, with much better-looking avatar options? Are they paying any attention at all? The continued lameness of Facebook Spaces, now a full year after its launch, continues to astound me. Sorry, but I’m seriously unimpressed.

UPDATED: Which Virtual World Boasts the Highest Avatar Capacity Per Region?

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Photo of Pamplona’s annual Running of the Bulls by Ethan Weil on Unsplash

Avatar capacity limits are the bane of all virtual worlds. They impact how many avatars can attend and participate in events, such as concerts and conferences. Everybody has experienced the frustration of trying to get into an overcrowded region, and how laggy an experience can be when it is packed to capacity.

Second Life sim limits are pretty straightforward:

  • Full regions:  100 avatars maximum
  • Homesteads: 20 avatars
  • Open spaces: 10 avatars

Of course, event planners in Second Life use such tricks as creating “in the round” stages at the intersection of four adjoining sims in order to increase potential crowd capacity.

Last year, Second Life rolled out a perk to Premium users which allows them to enter already-full sims which are at the posted limits, within reason (for example, up to 10 Premium avatars can theoretically get into a packed Full region sim). I have used this feature myself when trying to get into popular events like the annual Skin Fair!

So, I wondered, what are the avatar capacity limits of the newer virtual worlds? How many avatars can you pack onto a Sansar experience, a High Fidelity domain, or a Sinespace region? Are there limits in place for AltspaceVR and VRChat? So I went out to ask some questions of the various companies.

I posted my question on the official Sansar Discord channel, the official Sinespace Skype group, the High Fidelity user forums, and the official VRChat Discord server. (AltspaceVR has an unofficial Discord server I also posted to. I’m actually rather surprised that they don’t have any sort of official user forum.)

Galen tells me the limit for Sansar is 30+ avatars, but that they can always fit a few extra Lindens in. That would fit well with my own personal experience, where we’ve had almost 35 avatars in some experiences for Atlas Hopping.

Most VRChat worlds are limited to 30 avatars in a single instance. I’ve been told on the official VRChat Discord server that “the hard cap is twice the number they put”. A member of the VRChat Events Discord server named Gallium says:

I’ve been in instances with 40+ users. As for limits, theoretical max, not sure. I’m sure VRChat has a max possible users per instance but I don’t know what that is. When you make a world and upload it you set the max users, last I heard this is a soft cap. Say 32. Once it hits that nobody can join from the Worlds menu, but they can join friends who are in there via the social tab. Eventually the hard cap, which is double the soft cap, will hit and then I think it diverts people to the next instance.

In AltspaceVR, they have boasted about getting a crowd of more than 1,200 people at a Reggie Watts show, but this involved broadcasting across multiple instances. It’s not clear how many avatars you can pack into a single AltspaceVR area, but given the relative simplicity of the avatars, I would expect it to be a fairly high number. I’ve been told by someone on the unofficial AltspaceVR Discord server that the limit at the central Campfire is 40, which corresponds to my own experience. But someone else added the caveat, “except that those limits can be pushed by joining through friends or getting invited”.

The limits of Facebook Spaces and vTime are hard-coded: a maximum of four avatars can be in one space together. But then they’re meant more for intimate chat than hosting events.

But the clear winners here seem to be High Fidelity and Sinespace. High Fidelity blogged about getting 90 avatars together in one domain way back in February 2017. And XaosPrincess, a user on their forums, states, “In last year’s stress tests, up to 160 avatars (all in HMD) were hosted in Zaru”. That’s pretty impressive.

But Sinespace seems to have topped even 160. Digvijay from the Sinespace Skype group told me, “Theoretically about 200 [in Sinespace]; but 100 should be a safe number without any lag, etc.”. Adam Frisby himself says:

Officially 100; tests indicate we can do 200 safely. We have regions like Struktura with 700+ avatars using our NPC system that perform well. We’re thinking of doing another load test done to try [and] hit 200.

Over 700?!?? I’m not sure how Sinespace NPCs differ from real avatars in terms of server load, so I’ll accept the 200 figure. So Sinespace seems to be the current winner in this particular “Space Race”, with High Fidelity not too far behind! It will be interesting to watch how the various social VR spaces and virtual worlds will handle increased avatar capacity, especially as they may experience the kind of surge in popularity that VRChat recently experienced.

UPDATE 8:54 a.m.: Naticus from VRChat tells me in a comment, “The current soft cap max at VRChat is 40 and the hard cap is twice that at 80.” Thanks Naticus!

UPDATE July 10th: On July 6th, 2018, High Fidelity conducted a stress test which had over 200 avatars in a single domain! They will be conducting these stress tests on the first Friday of every month for the next six months.

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UPDATE Aug. 7th: High Fidelity’s latest monthly stress test of their platform saw over 250 avatars in one domain!

Social VR: What’s Wrong with Facebook Spaces and vTime

So, what do I consider to be true social VR?

If you do a Google search for the phrase “social VR”, you get websites for the following four products within the very first page of search results:

I have blogged about AltspaceVR and VRChat before on this blog (click on the links to see my blogposts), but I haven’t really talked about Facebook Spaces and vTime before. It’s time to address that, and I’ll explain what I consider to be “true” social VR.

Facebook Spaces 23 Feb 2018

Frankly, I am still rather mystified as to why Facebook released Facebook Spaces. I can only assume that they felt some pressure to release something to market.

What the product currently offers is not terribly impressive. Your avatar is basically locked in place at a round table in a parklike setting, where you can invite other Facebook Spaces users to join you at the table to chat, share photos and videos, draw in midair, go ice-fishing, etc. But there’s not really a lot to do. Now, you could argue that there’s not a lot to do in Sansar, High Fidelity, and Sinespace either, but at least you can move around in a three-dimensional space! You can easily break off into side conversations, for instance. You can explore.

I also have a problem with the cartoony avatars in Facebook Spaces. This was actually a deliberate design decision:

Facebook’s head of social VR, Rachel Franklin, told Business Insider that the decision was down to a phenomenon called the “uncanny valley”.

This is where a robot or avatar looks very like a real human, but not quite. And the effect is so unsettling that it makes you feel ill, or even scared.

“If we go too realistic at this stage, there’s the risk of uncanny valley,” she said. “When it’s almost realistic and just off enough that, instead of paying attention to you and having an experience where I’m talking to you, I’m thinking how [your avatar] doesn’t look like you, and how it’s not quite your mouth.”

Uhh, sorry, Rachel, but I think it’s more distracting that your avatar looks like a bad cartoon. And I’ve never yet met anyone who has felt ill or scared just by how an avatar looks. I’m not buying it. You just decided to go with something quick and dirty to rush a product out the door. Facebook Spaces avatars remind me of the ones in AltspaceVR.

Facebook/Oculus has the potential to become the 900-lb. gorilla or social VR/virtual worlds, leveraging off their already-two-billion-plus installed user base in products like Facebook and Instagram. But with all the money that Facebook has, and with Oculus VR hardware a key part of their company, Facebook Spaces is the best that they could do? Really?!?? Facebook must have something else up their sleeve. I refuse to believe that Facebook Spaces is the only social VR product they have planned.

But the biggest problem I have with Facebook Spaces is that most people using it don’t have anyone else to connect with! For example, I am (with one exception) the only person in my entire social circle who owns a VR headset. So what’s the point of using it at all? You do have the option to video call friends without VR headsets via Facebook Messenger from within Facebook Spaces. But really, who is actually going to do that over using Messenger on your phone? I’m going to go put on my VR headset to call someone on Messenger? I don’t think so.

Like Facebook Spaces, vTime is a social VR app which also locks your avatar in place. You can’t move around at all, you are glued to your seat. However, it does have an advantage over Facebook Spaces in that you can at least select an environment in which you and up to three other avatars can chat, everything from a romantic tropical beach to a rainy Chinatown rooftop.

vTime 23 Feb 2018.png

If you are using vTime, both you and the people you want to chat with have to have the vTime software installed, and you need to have a VR headset (they just announced support for the Windows Mixed Reality headsets). And there’s still not very many people who have the hardware to do this, yet. So they have the same problem as Facebook Spaces. Who do you talk with? Usually, it’s strangers who happen to be logged into vTime at the same time you are.

Now, you might say that all social VR spaces have this problem. But what Sansar, High Fidelity, and VRChat offer is an opportunity to let both VR and desktop (non-VR) users connect, in three-dimensional virtual worlds that you can actually move around in. And that’s what I consider true social VR. What’s the point of using a VR headset and being in an immersive, three-dimensional environment at all, if you’re just going to be locked into one place? 

UPDATE Feb. 24th: Vicky Roberts left a comment and said:

Hi Ryan, vTime is currently available for Gear VR, Rift, Windows Mixed Reality, Google Cardboard, Google Daydream, and for Android and iOS phones in a 2D Magic Window mode – so you don’t need a VR headset at all.

Why Women Don’t Like Social VR: Interview with Jessica Outlaw

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Photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash

Enrico Speranza in my RyanSchultz.com Facebook group alerted me to a very interesting podcast put out by ResearchVR, who describe themselves as follows:

We are three Cognitive Scientists discussing Virtual Reality and Cognitive Research, Industry News, and Design Implications! We actively research different aspects of the field, and are involved in various companies related to the topic of VR. With this podcast, we hope to use our commentary to bridge the gap between news and established science. We break down complex topics, discuss the current trends and their economical impacts, and broadcast our views on VR.

The podcast episode in question was an in-depth, 1 hour 15 minute interview with Jessica Outlaw:

Behavioral Scientist Jessica Outlaw is an outspoken Social Scientist in the field of VR User Experience Design. She recently published an Inductive Qualitative study with Beth Duckles, PhD about the experiences of “Millennial, tech-savvy women” in Social VR applications (Altspace, High Fidelity, Facebook Spaces, etc).

In this episode, we talk embodied cognition, implicit biases, gender differences in social behavior and navigation in an unfamiliar environment, as well as the questions the paper raises up about inclusivity and approachability in design.

This is a long, wide-ranging interview touching on a lot of topics. Of particular note is what Jessica has to say about her research on women’s experiences in social VR applications. She wanted to know what tech-savvy younger women, new to social VR, had to say about their experiences.

Most of them found the social dynamics to be very disconcerting. The women had no idea what the social norms and expectations were in the social VR experiences they visited over a thirty-minute period (Rec Room, AltspaceVR, Facebook Spaces). Many women felt unsafe; some women felt that their personal spaces were invaded by other avatars. Talking to another person in social VR wasn’t seen as an attractive alternative to other forms of communication.

One of the four recommendations Jessica makes in her research report is that privacy must be the default in social VR applications, for women to feel safe. Another recommendation was to make social VR enticing and fun to do, and let the community form around their interests, as this leads to better behaviour overall.

Near the end of the podcast, Jessica and the ResearchVR co-hosts discuss a recent news story where a woman was harassed in a VR application called QuiVR.

I was also interested to hear that Jessica also did some work on a project for High Fidelity last year, around the question of what makes people feel welcome in an online community, and what’s appealing to people.

Here’s a link to the ResearchVR podcast. And here’s a link to a card series on Medium that outlines Jessica’s research findings, with quotes from the women interviewed. You can also request that Jessica’s full research report be emailed to you at her website.

Jessica also talked about her follow-up study, a user survey where she got over 600 responses. I’ll be very interested to read what she learns from her ongoing social VR research.